CONTEMPORARY MUSIC 2014 Music and Reality

Darmstadt or Donaueschingen, Witten or Weingarten, Bochum or Berlin – the hotspots for New Music in 2014 were as various as the projects last year: whether music theatre or ensemble work, concept pieces or multimedia performances.... The institutions behind them not only made important concerts possible last year, but also in-depth discussions. 

Scene from the multi-media event DEAD SERIOUS in Darmstadt Dead Serious, a multi-media event by the Belgian Nadar Ensemble and Iraqi/US artist Wafaa Bilal, was premiered at the International Summer Course in Darmstadt | © IMD, Foto: Daniel Pufe

Debate

Is music music – or first and foremost a reflection of experienced reality?
Not only does the contemporary music scene play, compose, install, stage, interpret and put music across, in 2014 it discussed music too – and with added vehemence. Starting with the question of a “new conceptualism” in music, to which the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik devoted a separate issue in early 2014, such basic standpoints were debated at various symposia and festivals. “Conceptual music” may appear as experimental setup in those debates (merely demonstrated or imagined in some circumstances, but shedding light on our mechanisms of perception and our experiences of the world) – but the opposite standpoint locates music and its expressive qualities in the sounds it ultimately produces.
The spring conference of the Institute for New Music and Musical Education in Darmstadt juxtaposed works by Martin Schüttler, Hannes Seidl and Britta Muntendorf with music by Helmut Lachenmann in terms of “world references in New Music”.
The multimedia project Mediterranean Voices, presented by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart at the Eclat Festival in Stuttgart, took the shared politically-charged lebensraum along the Mediterranean as its criterion for the selection of composers and documentation.
The Darmstädter Ferienkurse (Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music), the scene’s traditional (young) forum for discussion, was marked by questions about references to the world and self-referentiality – which took palpable form in the media-reflexive seven-hour performance piece Audioguide by Johannes Kreidler, for example.

Events, farewells and continuities 

But the highlight of Darmstädter Ferienkurse was, for many, Michael Maierhof’s Exit F, a concerto for hot air balloons and ensemble, performed by the Ensemble Nadar and integrated into a multi-part multimedia open air project that began after nightfall.

EXIT F for 4 hot-air balloons in Darmstadt Michael Maierhof's Exit F at the open air event Dead Serious in Darmstadt | © IMD, Foto: Daniel Pufe So 2014 featured some special and memorable events, most of which were deliberately integrated into Germany’s lively and unabatedly flourishing festival culture. Its institutional continuity is maintained in large part by Germany’s public broadcasters as well as the Länder and local governments. Programme planners are responsible for the content, and not infrequently over long periods of time; some of them put together their farewell festivals in 2014.
Heiner Goebbels, in his last year as director of the Ruhrtriennale, insisted on staging Louis Andriessen’s Dutch national piece De Materie himself at the Duisburg Kraftzentrale; the performance by the ChorWerk Ruhr and the Ensemble Modern Orchestra conducted by Peter Rundel was as spectacular as Morton Feldman’s non-opera Neither at the Bochum Jahrhunderthalle, directed by Romeo Castellucci and conducted by Emilio Pomárico.
In his final edition of MaerzMusik in Berlin, featuring music theatre productions by Enno Poppe and Mela Meierhans inter alia, Matthias Osterwold also invited the experimental Splitter Orchestra and the Berlin Ensemblekollektiv for its stage debut: the latter is a pooling of force to enable four established Berlin ensembles (Ensemble Adapter, Sonar Quartet, Ensemble Apparat and ensemble mosaik) to demonstrate their presence and flexibility in the face of prevailing conditions that simply aren’t getting any easier for New Music these days.
 
On the whole, independent ensembles are becoming a large and ever-expanding scene. They certainly can’t replace the orchestra culture, which was placed under UNESCO World Cultural Heritage protection in 2014 (too late?). But the ensembles in Germany in particular, with their distinct profiles and inexhaustible powers of innovation, have become indispensable partners to composers and promoters of New Music, including music theatre productions. Peter Ruzicka’s final Munich Biennale for New Music Theatre was themed Außer Kontrolle (“Out of Control”), featuring a memorable world premiere of Hèctor Parra’s Das geopferte Leben (“The Sacrificed Life”) performed by the ensemble recherche and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.

The Donaueschinger Musiktage in 2014 unexpectedly turned out to be its artistic director’s last stint there after 23 years; Armin Köhler died in November. For the first time, the Musiktage presented in October composers who are also active in other fields as painters, poets and/or (video) sculptors. Jennifer Walshe, Ondrej Adamek and Brian Ferneyhough surprised the public with their versatility. But the biggest attention-getter was Simon Steen-Andersen’s Piano Concerto, featuring a video of a grand piano falling down onto a warehouse floor. It was performed by the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg, which gave the composer its 2014 prize for “most remarkable orchestral work of the festival”. 

Pianist Simon Steen-Andersen Simon Steen-Andersen's Piano Concerto in Donaueschingen | Copyright: SWR Baden-Baden, photo: Hans Kumpf As artistic director of the New Music festival in Weingarten (which she herself founded back in 1986!), Rita Jans is a mainstay of continuity in the German festival scene. Last year’s edition was devoted to the composer Carola Bauckholt. And the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music, programmed by Harry Vogt for over two decades now), not only hosted a special concerto for double percussion and trumpet by Rebecca Saunders, but also provided a platform for a rare jubilee last year: the Arditti Quartet celebrating their 40th anniversary as far and away the most prolific string quartet in New Music.

The Ultraschall Berlin Festival underwent a partial change of artistic directors (in 2014 Andreas Göbel replaced Margarete Zander and is now codirecting with Rainer Pöllmann), as well as small-scale reform and change of name. Last year’s edition focused on Swedish composer Malin Bång and the Norwegian music scene.

New traditions and old masters 

The New Music Festival in Kiel also looked north to Scandinavia for some of its material last year – and not for the first time. The Chiffren Society, an outgrowth of the nationwide Netzwerk Neue Musik, is in the process of establishing a tradition of its own in the “musical provinces” of Germany. But is there really such a thing as “musical provinces”? 
For years, city and state theatres all over the country have been proving the opposite, adding new and brand new works to the repertoire. One high-profile case in point was the 2014 world premiere of Mark Andre’s Christian road-movie opera wunderzaichen at the Stuttgart State Opera.
The city of Bonn celebrated music last year. And bonn hören, for its fifth anniversary, put on a two-week festival and chose two new sound artists, Stefan Rummel and Max Eastley, for Beethoven’s birthplace.
The KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, likewise started up in 2010, is marked by changes of genre and period between performance art, opera, concert, film and installation: the 2014 edition featured, among other things, a songs of war-themed evening conceived by the Belgian Muziekheater Transparant. The theme of the Forum Neue Musik in Cologne at its concerts and symposium was the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, with the headline 1914-2014.

And yet 2014 was also a year that harked back to past masters of New Music. Giacinto Scelsi, who died in 1988, enjoyed a posthumous comeback in several festivals and series. The Giacinto Scelsi Festival in Basel created by pianist Marianne Schroeder, the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik and the Darmstädter Ferienkurse played and discussed Scelsi; various musicians and composers were inspired by his music to carry on in his wake.
György Ligeti (1923–2006) was the compositional golden thread running through the Acht Brücken (“Eight Bridges”) Festival in Cologne. Harrison Birtwistle fêted his 80th birthday at Musik21 in Hannover, Klaus Huber his 90th at conservatories in Basel and Freiburg. Luigi Nono (1924–1990) would have turned 90 last year too and was commemorated for several days at the Holland Festival by German and Dutch artists under the artistic direction of Ingo Metzmacher and André Richard, who brought particularly his major late works for authoritative renditions to the specially architectured Gashouder in Amsterdam. 

Music or reality? Certainly a question that couldn’t be resolved at the end of 2014 either, but it raised other basic questions instead. What do we mean by music nowadays? Or reality, for that matter? It would seem almost necessary to note in this regard that the Berlin Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts), with Manos Tsangaris as musical project head, devoted an interdisciplinary focus to the “fraudulence of reality” and set up an artistic “Repair Reality Office” for several months.