Contemporary Music ensembles in Germany
An overview

No trace of a crisis, at least not at first glance: there are 200-odd independent contemporary music ensembles in Germany at present. In addition, there are a large number of radio broadcaster-affiliated ensembles and various municipal or state-funded orchestral formations with varying degrees of commitment to the performance of contemporary music – whether that involves putting on their own concert series (e.g. Bavarian Radio’s “musica viva”), programming or even commissioning individual pieces, or inviting composers in residence.

Indeed, 2005/2006 averaged 1.7 contemporary music premieres per day in Germany, thanks essentially to the vivacious and diverse contemporary music scene that has burgeoned since the 1980s, particularly in West Germany, as a counterpart to the Early Music scene that emerged around the same time. The many independent ensembles that specialize in a 20th/21st-century repertoire now play an indispensable and exemplary role in the concert world, performing rare pieces and premiering new ones, working closely together with living composers, professionalizing and imparting new playing techniques, and experimenting with unusual concert and performance formats in interaction with visual media or other art forms.

The beginnings: a brief retrospective

Special ensembles for contemporary music first emerged in Germany in the 1980s as fixtures of the performing arts scene, a veritable boom time for musical formations. But composers were already writing for ad hoc ensembles at the beginning of the 20th century (e.g. Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in 1912, Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat in 1918), and some of today’s leading special ensembles started up back in the 1970s, such as the Schönberg Ensemble (1974) and Ensemble Intercontemporain (1976).

As the first and, for a long time, only professional soloist ensemble in West Germany exclusively devoted to interpreting contemporary music, the Ensemble Modern, founded in 1980 and based in Frankfurt am Main since 1985, sets standards to this day ranging well beyond the borders of Germany. Over 400 world premieres, for the most part in close collaboration with the composers, over 30 CD productions, a hundred-odd concerts a year worldwide and various events organized under their own steam testify to the group’s enormous success. Besides the Ensemble Modern, three other professional German groups work “full-time” on contemporary music: ensemble recherche in the town of Freiburg im Breisgau (since 1985), musikFabrik in Cologne (since 1990), and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart (since 1984).

In East Germany a group called Neue Musik Hanns Eisler was formed back in 1970 and made up of members of the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra until 1993. Named after German/Austrian composer Hanns Eisler, the ensemble became an important vehicle for the middle-aged generation of East German composers. But it was also a window on the West, performing works by already established composers like Xenakis, Cage, Yun and Rihm. The Ensemble für Intuitive Musik, formed in 1980 in Weimar and still active today, specializes in interpreting Stockhausen's music.

Multi-faceted and flexible formations

The diversity of the contemporary music repertoire performed nowadays goes hand in hand with the current variety of ensemble formations, from the traditional string quartet (Minguet Quartett, Modern String Quartet), unusual duos (Duo Conradi/Gehlen, Duo Moving Sounds), a recorder trio or five electric guitars (Go Guitars) to ensembles with up to 15 or more permanent members (Ensemble Aventure, ascolta, ensemble courage, ensemble mosaik, die maulwerker). What’s more, most of the formations demonstrate an elasticity quite alien to traditional ensembles: even if they have a core line-up, it is bound to be variable and extensible, often according to the composer’s wishes. Over the past few years live electronic elements have repeatedly been integrated, with the occasional use of non-European instruments.

Concentration in southwest Germany

The internationally competitive ensembles for contemporary music are currently based in (south)western Germany. Not surprisingly, urban conurbations show a higher density of ensembles on the whole than rural areas. Though the biggest scene is going full tilt these days in Berlin, some supraregional “beacons” among the ensembles are beaming forth from other locations in the country. Cities like Kiel, Hamburg, Leipzig, Nuremburg and Munich boast some local initiatives, though nothing comparable to the Berlin boom. In Eastern Germany, there are hardly any groups of national prominence except for Dresden’s ensemble courage and Weimar’s Ensemble für Intuitive Musik, in stark contrast to the burgeoning of contemporary music in Western Germany, with its long-established festivals, committed radio broadcasters and special educational programmes.

The relatively high density of ensembles in a town of such modest population size as Freiburg im Breisgau is attributable to the impetus of personalities like Klaus Huber or Brian Ferneyhough, who used to teach at the music school there. A wide range of local activities are linked together by regional associations of the Gesellschaft für Neue Musik (GNM, Society for Contemporary Music) and shored up by the Federal Cultural Foundation’s Netzwerk Neue Musik (Contemporary Music Network), which will be funding 15 selected model projects to promote contemporary music from 2008 to 2011.

Independent/salaried ensembles – organization and finance

Most independent contemporary music ensembles are private initiatives, comparable to independent enterprises that make their own decisions and bear their financial risks under their own steam. Most of them handle their publicity and management themselves for want of the requisite resources to hire full-time specialists. Ensemble members often earn their living through other activities, so they’re not able to give as many concerts as full-time professional groups.

The democratically organized 18-member Ensemble Modern has been a private partnership since 1987, operating sans artistic director and always deciding by consensus on projects, guest musicians, coproductions and financial matters. The Federal Government does provide limited-term funding, however, to two major initiatives: the Ensemble Modern Orchestra and the Internationale Ensemble Modern Akademie (IEMA). Many other ensembles, in contrast, are sustained by nothing but their musical ideals – often eking out a living wage without any definite prospects or regular public subsidies to rely on. So outside funding is absolutely vital. For the sake of Germany’s lively contemporary music ensemble scene, it can only be hoped that in spite of the prevailing austerity trend in the arts, society will duly recognize the importance of contemporary music and show its appreciation by providing ample financial support.