New Music 2015 LARGELY LOW-KEY

 “Minusbolero”
“Minusbolero” | Photo (detail): © Johannes Kreidler / “Minusbolero”

For the realm of New Music the year 2015 was not one of great controversies, but on the German scene there were in fact a lot of changes on the personnel level.

Even now it is already clear that the year 2015 will go down in the history books as an exceptional year. It was a year full of crises, upheavals and tragedies, a year, in the wake of which, things we had taken for granted will have to be renegotiated, rethought and perceived anew – particularly from the political, social and economic point of view. In the realm of New Music, on the other hand, an anti-cyclical trend could be felt. Although there were in fact quite a lot of changes on the personnel level in 2015, the content level remained somewhat more sedate – all the more surprising when we think of the “discourse morale” of the previous few years in which aesthetic norms, positions and ideas were aggressively scrutinised and put to the test.

As a result of this there was talk in the specialist press of a “new lightness in the being of New Music”. A critic from the Neue Musikzeitung (nmz) believed that he was able to detect this new feeling at the ECLAT festival. The festival, which takes place at the beginning of February at the Stuttgarter Theaterhaus, was in fact more or less free of any compositions that might have shrouded the audience in existential profundity on every quaver rest. Instead the majority of the pieces did not require listeners to fall into a spellbound trance for them to be “suitably” received. For example, Simon Steen-Andersen’s minimally scenic Black Box Music, Brigitta Muntendorf’s technically frisky piano duo The Key of Presence or the lecture-performances of Erik Bünger from Sweden, in which the conditions and conditionings in the way music is perceived were observed in a particularly original way. Johannes Kreidler’s Minusbolero, on the other hand, did in fact cause a minor stir. Kreidler did nothing more than remove anything that was melodic from Ravel’s score – the SWR Symphony Orchestra (South-West German Radio Orchestra) was forced to focus completely on the accompaniment. Even if there were a few who felt compelled to complain dutifully about the absence of any personal artistic contribution – in the end no screams of “scandalous” were to be heard.

Music as a time issue

The next stop on the festival circuit was anticipated with great interest – it was the MaerzMusik festival in Berlin that in 2015 was organised for the first time by its new artistic director, Berno Odo Polzer. Polzer’s concept for the MaerzMusik festival envisaged a “space in which life, art and theory, experience and reflection are all able to converge”. As visible confirmation of his concept he added a somewhat cumbersome claim to the title of the event – the MaerzMusik festival became known for the first time as a “Festival for Time Issues”. This new positioning of the festival also embraced a symposium entitled Thinking Together, which enabled Polzer to make aesthetic discourse an integral element of the festival. It gave researchers like egyptologist Aleida Assmann, philosopher Pascal Michon or sociologist Maurizio Lazzarato a forum to discuss all the diverse perspectives of the phenomenon of time. From a musical point of view time issues were of course also analysed and, in some cases, examples of temporality were also presented: in the form of permanent transformation in Liquid Room by the Belgian ensemble Ictus or the 30-hour-long “Zeitblase” (time bubble) which is part of the monumental project The Long Now. Alongside formats like these the rest of the festival’s concert program, however, seemed mostly to be rather conventional. (The common theme being the accessible music of Georges Aperghis.)

Be embraced

There were also some changes on the personnel level at the Ruhrtriennale, whereby the scheduled change in the festival management gave the impression that lean times were about to befall the realm of New Music. Heiner Goebbels, above all with his programming of outstanding opera productions, might well have made the music of the 20th century an indispensable part of the festival between the years 2012 and 2014, but now his successor, Johan Simons, was moving in the opposite direction. Simons adopted a quote by Schiller as the motto of his directorship – “Seid umschlungen” (Be embraced). Just what particular audience the Dutchman was intending to “embrace” was made patently clear in his first program. Apart from Luigi Nono’s ever-popular late work Prometeo, Simons relied on various milestones of musical history: Orfeo (Monteverdi), a few pieces by Bach, Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Requiem, Rheingold. In contrast, in order to connect with the musical present he made use of diverse DJ sets and the Indie consensus music of The Notwist.

There was also a change in the artistic directorship at the Donaueschinger Musiktagen festival. In November 2014 Armin Köhler, who had been festival director since 1992, died after a serious illness. His successor is Björn Gottstein, editor of the New Music section at SWR in Stuttgart. The program for the 2015 Donaueschinger Musiktagen festival had , however, been compiled entirely by Köhler and once again reflected the very essence of his approach to the music of the present – the confrontation of aesthetic opposites and the courage to embrace unusual formats. It was one of these daring ventures that became the festival’s most controversial piece – the four-hour-long performance Freiheit – die eutopische Gesellschaft by the Swiss artist, Patrick Frank. The piece is a mixture of happening, concert and scientific symposium that was set in several different venues. Frank described this synthesis of the arts as a “theoretical opera”. There were also a few other pieces that divided audiences in Donaueschingen: Is it a captivating audio version of a film or pretentious kitsch – this was the question posed when it came to Olga Neuwirth’s extravagant homage to Venice Le Encantadas. The clarinet concert über, on the other hand, was almost unanimously positively received, enabling Mark André to provide a grand finale to last year’s festival. As is usually the case with André, for this piece he also worked with decidedly concentrated tools – with an orchestra that was deployed in an ultra-precise way and an extremely intensive solo part.

Perspectives and tendencies

Without a doubt the birthday boy of the year 2015 was Helmut Lachenmann – the composer’s 80th birthday was celebrated with numerous events. For example, the Frankfurt Opera took part in the celebrations with Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern (The Little Match Girl), staged by Benedikt von Peter. The musical brilliance of this production succeeded in diverting audiences from the question why the actor, Michael Mendl, and a guinea pig, of all things, were the main protagonists on the stage. In and around Frankfurt Helmut Lachenmann was once more in the limelight, for example, at the cresc…Biennale für Moderne Musik festival. Within the framework of this festival he celebrated his big birthday on 27th November at the Kurhaus in Wiesbaden, where the Ensemble Modern and the HR (Hessian Radio) Symphony Orchestra gave him an elaborate birthday serenade. In his hometown of Stuttgart Lachenmann’s 80th birthday was celebrated with the Lachenmann-Perspektiven festival – a four-week event organised by Musik der Jahrhunderte, the Stuttgart Opera, the Stuttgart Conservatory and the SWR (South-West German Radio); the program featured music by Lachenmann and that of his teachers, pupils and companions and it was performed at almost 20 concerts.

A new lightness of being? A festive mood? No matter how you view the year 2015 in the realm of New Music – a year of great controversies was it not and will not be remembered as such. In the hallowed circles of academic excellence – at the music department of Harvard University, the state of German music of the present was critically scrutinised. In 2013 a conference entitled “New Perspectives for New Music from Germany” was held there in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut in Boston. At the beginning of March in 2015 another conference took place – this time the title was “New Tendencies of Contemporary Music in Germany”. Whatever tendencies were established at this conference by such luminaries as the composers Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and Kai Johannes Polzhofer or by the philosopher Gunnar Hindrichs have so far unfortunately not been revealed and remain known only to that small circle of participants. It might well be the case that a conference transcript that is to be published in 2016 will bring a little constructive turbulence to the cosy sphere of New Music.