NEW MUSIC IN 2016 Stability and Upheaval

Pierre-André Valade, the Arditti Quartet and the SWR Symphony Orchestra are rehearsing "The Gates für Streichquartett und Orchester" by James Dillon
Pierre-André Valade, the Arditti Quartet and the SWR Symphony Orchestra are rehearsing "The Gates für Streichquartett und Orchester" by James Dillon | Photo (detail): © SWR, Ralf Brunner

A critical engagement with its own traditions, new festival formats, a stretching of materials, and new structural opportunities meant that in 2016 new music strove to do more than just  make sounds in concert halls. It engaged in social analysis, questioned habits, and took the floor to express its opinions. 

365, or rather – how lovely! – 366 days of new music in Germany are only a set timeframe period on our calendars. Without accounting for the esthetic developments and organizational plans of the past few years, it becomes difficult to understand everything that has happened in the last 12 months. A year-end review is thus always also a question of updating and transcribing previous moments of hindsight. Thus, the well-established festivals like Ultraschall and MärzMusik in Berlin, Eclat in Stuttgart, the Witten Festival of Contemporary Chamber Music, and the Donaueschingen Music Festival remained significant constants in the realm of contemporary music. They saw heavy attendance by new music aficionados, and they continued to grow within the framework they create for themselves almost each year, further forward and at times even looking back.  For example, since 2015, Donaueschingen has – under Björn Gottstein, the festival’s new artistic director – given increasing emphasis to the word alongside the music it presents. Along with various, brief lectures by composers, this year featured a presentation over the traditional three-day format by British philosopher Roger Scruton, who discussed a number of well-established (pre)judgments about art music since Schönberg. Prominently billed as the first “Donaueschingen Lecture,” we can expect many more such presentations in coming editions of the world’s oldest new music festival, even if lectures around performances are not a new concept for music festivals. For example, people like Heinrich Strobel and Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt were giving lectures in Donaueschingen already in the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, the notion that thinking about music as a performative festival act is as important as the thinking embodied in performing the music is very compelling and has already proven successful elsewhere.

Reading and hearing stories

The Darmstadt Summer Music Sessions (founded in 1946 and since 1970 taking place every other year) have intertwined the esthetic and informational components of sound, sensuous experience, and reflective cognition in countless ways. For example, in the “Historage” Project, for which the IMD, the Darmstadt International Music Institute (which oversees the Summer Music Sessions), in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, invited several international artist-composers to interact with the now seventy-year old digitized archive of the Sessions’ entire history. This archive will prove to be a significant resource for the new music scene and it constitutes a first in this cultural landscape. And it’s entirely, absolutely free. The informational and esthetic research resulted in several video and audio installations results worthy of Institutional Critique: too little engagement with non-Western cultures (even though in this respect Darmstadt is more diverse than elsewhere in the world of contemporary music), too little music from female composers, and very infrequent women guest lecturers. In matters of gender, the Summer Sessions proved themselves to be as ignorant as any other early music festival, if not more so. American composer Ashley Fure, who provided many with food for thought with the premiere of her magical piece The Force of Things in Darmstadt, used her piece GRID to reflect on the social discrepancies between men and women, even within the world of new music, which likes to perceive itself in the most politically correct light possible.

Rethinking music(formats)

The slogan “Attack the future!” was splashed across all kinds of (printed) materials for this year’s edition of the Darmstadt Summer Music Sessions. Even the curators (who are mostly men, for that matter) were invited to reflect self-critically on this call to arms. This is a source of great opportunities, as the world of festivals has otherwise come to be somewhat repetitive in its mild variations of the same thing, year in and year out. At the same time, we should embrace and not object to risky concert programs, especially when they are well performed, which is now the case more than ever. The music carries us through. But does it (still) carry a several daylong festival, all by itself? Apparently not. Consider Donaueschingen, the Munich Musical Theater with Daniel Ott and Manos Tsangaris as its new artistic directors (which also expanded the discussion quotient before and during the program), the now very discourse-heavy MärzMusik, which since 2015, under the direction of Berno Odo Polzer, no longer bills itself as a festival for contemporary music, rather as one for contemporary issues, or the Realities Convention at the Stuttgart Music Academy (which holds concerts and performances in public spaces). And apparently, also the growing number of festivals in recent times – for example in Berlin, in Hamburg, Cologne, Hannover, Dresden, or the Ruhr – where organizers place a resounding emphasis on contemporary music, without any additional verbal fanfare besides the playbills or the relatively educational cultural activities conducted around the performances.

Music plus…

“Everything has grown in music in the last few years; it’s fun to watch. But you have have to see it; otherwise you won’t understand the music anymore,” said Dieter Schnebel in 1966 at a conference at the Darmstadt Summer Music Sessions. Fifty years later, his observations still hold true. What used to be called “extras” – as Italian composer Silvano Bussotti described the expansion of the known set of instruments to include a plethora of everyday objects – has more recently become known as “Music Plus”: concert music with various media (sounds, moving pictures), concert music plus (at times very large) objects, staged performance spaces or installations with temporary live instrumentalists, among many other permutations. Sound projections through loudspeakers, either from CDs or generated live electronically, as well as experiences in sculptural sound art have all left their very creative and meaningful mark in the quest to think music anew and differently, and to give shape to previously unexplored spheres of human experience. This is also represented by – in however experimental a form for now – the active participation of the audience. Consider, for example, the international project “Connect” at the Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt am Main, which saw the German premieres of the “Audience Participation” pieces by Huang Ruo (USA) and the responses by Christian Mason (UK). This represents highly sophisticated enterprise in terms of its organization and realization (preliminary selection of the audiences, preparatory rehearsals, etc.), one which dissolves the frontal relationship between musicians over here and audience over there, and which always raises interesting and new issues, such as: what is the relationship of music’s already complex and complicated ingredients to its public performance?
These esthetic and social issues are generally relevant for musical experience, even outside the increasingly colorful new music scene, which has yielded several renowned composers (some of whom have died recently), a few of whom have succeeded in recent years in getting their pieces performed at large repertory festivals like Musikfest Berlin or Beethoven-Fest Bonn.

Dots instead of lines

Outside the many festival ecosystems today that present the Now as outside time and space as possible, there are a few reliable concert halls that remain committed to contemporary music and “basic esthetics.”   Consider, for example, Musica Viva in Munich, Musik der Zeit [“Music of the Times”] in Cologne, or Forum N in Frankfurt (all of which are broadcast on government radio, which remains a powerful engine for contemporary music and festivals). The sense of a musical Now has a permanent place in the programming of a number of important concert halls, such as the Cologne Philharmonic, the Berlin Konzerthaus, the Frankfurt Alte Oper, and as of the end of 2016, the recently finished Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg as well. A large number of new music ensembles perform regularly, such as the Ensemble Recherche in Freiburg, the Sonar-Quartett in Berlin, and the Neue Ensemble in Hannover. This commitment to new music, also on the part of some music and art schools, continues to grow, as does the number of ensembles. Unfortunately, all these activities and ambitions, which should no way be limited to the festival circuit, often hardly make it to larger festivals past the regional level.

City – Money – Flow

Polyphonic varieties of new music live mostly in big cities and metropolitan areas. Donaueschingen is an exception to the rule, much cherished and nurtured, but who today would found a festival for advanced experimental music in the middle of the Black Forest? No one, probably, and that’s a shame. Most German cities with less than 100,000 inhabitants, still a considerable number of people, are chronically under-served in terms of new music or, more generally, anything pertaining to art music. It is almost impossible to go to concerts in such places to hear contemporary music.
For this reason, the Musikfonds e.V., founded by the federal government and endowed with an annual budget of approximately one million euros to promote contemporary music, comes at the perfect time. The Berlin-based organization grants of a maximum 50,000 euros to promote short-term projects involving all kinds of contemporary experimental music, from emphatically new music to subculture pop, all the way to installation and radiophone sound art. This is a beautiful initiative that will become operational ideally in 2017, one that is also tied to the emphatic wish on the part of many regions and municipalities to strengthen their commitment to contemporary music. In fact, in Berlin und Baden-Württemberg, this occurred with local funding and no support from the federal government.
So, 2016 was a good year for new music in Germany. Many things have structurally stabilized and even improved, and esthetic trends and issues in the last three to four years – such as new conceptualism, this-worldliness, new realism, and new discipline – have become more refined. At the same time, new music is a fragile creature that requires individual and collective attention and devotion to create new forms of esthetic expression today and tomorrow.  Or as Edgard Varèse said more than seventy years ago: “In contrast to the dominant perception, artists are never outside their time; they are simply the only ones who are never late.”