New Music 2017 A Critical Voice that Gives Us Food for Thought

<i>Codec Error</i> by Alexander Schubert
Codec Error by Alexander Schubert | Photo (detail): © Ralf Brunner

All over the world democratic systems are losing out to authoritarian despots. Good news and moderate voices founder quickly these days - they are swamped by waves of fake news, conspiracy theories and sensationalist headlines. Jarring tones seem to be de rigueur. So what about contemporary music? Can it act as a kind of counterbalance? It could. And it should. Where has it managed this and where is it still bogged down in repetition? Find out in this review of the year 2017.

2017 – a year of political upheavals: The right-wing populist AfD (Alternative for Germany party) moved into the 19th German Bundestag with 12.6 percent. The year came to an end with the parties having failed to form a new viable government. Insecure times with great potential for the arts, it would seem. In fact, in 2017, more creative artists than ever before started voicing their opinions loudly and vehemently - in October Sasha Marianna Salzmann, the writer nominated for the German Book Prize 2017, pleaded on Deutschlandfunk radio for more dialogue and demanded, “We cannot go on as before, as if nothing has happened. (...) We have to make our rejection of nationalism much clearer.” Just one example of many, which shows that artists are daring to express their concern more and more these days – verbally, too. Just think of Juli Zeh, Daniel Knorr, Iris Berben and Igor Levit. But what is going on in the realm of contemporary music?

“More of the same” versus “all change”

The year 2017 saw a lot of the same old thing droning across the stages of concert halls, opera houses and off-locations. Still ever so popular – abstract concepts. Still so lively – the discourse on aesthetic paradigms. This may well be exciting and legitimate – but it is also terribly inward looking. The Munich composer, Moritz Eggert, for example, speaks of “academic exclusion” – a kind of safe cocoon one creates for oneself, which cannot be penetrated by anything that might disturb the balance and, of course, this also fends off any intrusion by anything political.
 
Of course, the days are gone when composers were able to herald in a march or sound sirens onomatopoeically. Nevertheless, avoiding these old-fashioned, hackneyed forms of musical expression is no excuse for the blinkered “more of the same” approach of many artists and the almost allergic defensive reaction that the scorners of political music had always manifested when it came to the works of Beethoven or, later, the works of Hanns Eisler, Mauricio Kagel or Stefan Wolpe – namely, that a strong political overtone would jeopardise a work’s claim to be a work of art. Anyone who tries to get his message across too openly, whether verbally or musically, also made him or herself suspicious in the year 2017, running the risk, in terms of common sense, of slipping into trite banalities. Something, however, is happening, especially among the younger generation of under-40s. Whether it be Brigitta Muntendorf (born in 1982), whose multidisciplinary and cross-media works proclaim an attitude towards the world in a really natural way. Or Johannes Kreidler (born in 1980), who embraces political stances not only in his works, but also by posting politically revealing, satirical statements in the social media, for example, in a Facebook post from August 2017, in which Kreidler writes, “It would also be nice if we didn’t just make a cross on the election ballot paper, but also entered a cancelling  ‘natural’ sign.” Then there is Sarah Nemtsov (born in 1980), who in her opera, Sacrifice, examines how two girls end up joining ISIS. It premiered in March 2017 at the Opera House in Halle, which, according to the Die Zeit weekly newspaper is at the moment “one of the most exciting music theatres in Germany”. They all grappled intensively this year with events going on outside the world of music.
 
The aversion to decidedly political music seems to be fading and Adorno's demand that any reaction to what is going on in society should not be manifested via in-your-face messages or direct involvement, but indirectly, as a sort of “message in a bottle”, has now begun to appear outdated.

On the way to more diversity? Gender justice in contemporary music

Outdated is what also springs to mind, if you take a closer look at the number of women on the contemporary music scene. What you would, in fact, really need is a magnifying glass – 92.44 per cent, that is the proportion of works composed by men that were performed at the Donaueschinger Musiktage festival from 1921 to 2017. Over the last few months the highly active Gender Research in New Music Collective, based in Darmstadt, has arrived at not only this figure, but many others, concerning the proportion of women represented at festivals and made the results public via flyers or on the spot at information events. In 2017, too, it was estimated that only 3 to 5 per cent of the generation of composers performing was female - in contrast to the visual and performing arts, where women account for 30 per cent of all artists. In 2017 the lion’s share of all the contemporary music performed, recorded, distributed and discussed in the media was also produced by men. It might well be the case that more and more works by female composers are being performed, or even premiered, but the big – and thus usually better paid – commissions for composing operas and orchestral works are still mostly going to men. Of course, there are also a few positive trailblazing examples; for example, the Frau Musica (nova) e.V. conference, which campaigns for more female composers on the scene. Brigitta Muntendorf has been its artistic director since 2013 and this year it will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Then there is the Klangspuren Schwaz festival, which, according to their own information, this year, 2017, under the management of Matthias Osterwold, did “something as a matter of course that was not a matter of course” – it made more room for the works of female composers (with Sofia Gubaidulina as composer in residence). Meanwhile, how embarrassing is this? The CLASSIX festival in Kempten had what seemed like a good idea - to present a program consisting exclusively of pieces by women entitled in German Starke Stücke vom ,schwachen Geschlecht’ (i.e., Strong Pieces by the Weaker Sex).

The most important festivals of 2017 – from Donaueschingen to ECLAT

Taking a look at the festival landscape of 2017, the one thing that becomes clear is that diversity – and the potential for even more of it - is there. Just how much potential could be seen at the 2017 Donaueschinger Musiktage festival alone: 20 world premieres, 12 venues, 13 ensembles. Pieces by composers from 18 countries. In addition, lectures, performances and sound installations. Donaueschingen has always been famous for its exuberant program. Nevertheless, this year it was more wide-ranging than was seldom the case before. And for the first time, it completely bore the hallmarks of Björn Gottstein, who has been its artistic director since 2016. He had the courage to give space to more radical positions and to allow friction. The same was true of other leading festivals. Whether it was ECLAT, PODIUM Esslingen, Darmstadt Summer Courses, Ultraschall Berlin or Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik. Everywhere it became apparent that the focus was not just on music anymore, but the fact that the networked, technological, digitised, globalised world could not be kept at bay outside. This was reflected not only in the pieces performed, but also in the choice of venues and in forms of concert presentation that did not adhere to usual concert rituals - in the spirit of Jagoda Szmytka. The female composer, born in Poland in 1982, wants to actively reach out to people with her “social composing”, instead of waiting for them to come to her. Her eclectic approach to performing was last seen at the 2017 Eclat festival in the vaudeville piece, DIY or DIE, which portrays the Millennial generation. In addition to this penchant for the performative and a new openness, a few other tendencies were observed on the contemporary music scene of 2017.

Firstly, at all the big festivals there was almost no piece premiered that managed to do without technology - whether it was simple amplification via loops and samples to solid synthie sounds. The music took a back seat to machines, at times only partially, at others even visually, as in the polarising Codec Error für Schlagzeug, Kontrabass, Lichtregie und Elektronik (i.e., Codec Error for Drums, Double Bass, Lighting Direction and Electronics) by Alexander Schubert at the 2017 Donaueschinger Musiktage Festival. For some it is “First-Person Shooter music” and “macho attitude” – nevertheless it is still undisputedly state-of-the-art in terms of sound and concert experience.

Then there is the way the boundaries between body, instrument and technology merge to become cyborgs –  a merging of software and cello, as was the case in Andi Otto's creation, Fello.
Secondly, group processes are becoming increasingly important - also as an anchor for aesthetic, conceptual and formal considerations. Be it at the anniversary concert of the Ms. Musica (nova) series in Cologne, at which the classical division of stage and audience was abolished and the audience inevitably became part of the overall action. Or at the Donaueschinger Musiktage Festival, where the listeners themselves got involved in the performance – in the action performance L'école de la claque, by composer Bill Dietz, they interfered in the concert’s goings-on as claqueurs – a kind of rent-a-mob.

And thirdly, the aforementioned grievances about gender equality were discussed everywhere and at all festivals, at least peripherally – yet another symptom of the ever increasing trend towards worldliness. In 2017, the focus that the MaerzMusik festival placed on the topic of marginal groups was even more extensive. Under the motto “Decolonisation”, the artistic director, Berno Odo Polzer, curated a program about forgotten figures of the contemporary, eurocentric music scene – composers such as Julius Eastman or Catherine Christer Hennix, whose names do not appear in our cultural annals of musical remembrance.

Prizes und Anniversaries

The scene’s most important award, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, endowed with 250,000 euros, went to Pierre-Laurent Aimard this year. Undoubtedly a master of his craft, for György Ligeti even “the best pianist”, or as the jury’s decision stated, “A luminary figure and an international key figure in the music scene of our times”. Newcomer prizes were awarded to Lisa Streich, Simon Steen-Andersen and Michael Pelzel. The Busoni Composition Prize focusing on the new generation of young composers went to Benjamin Scheuer; the Claudio Abbado Composition Prize to Vito Žuraj; the Hindemith Prize to Samy Moussa; the Christoph and Stephan Kaske Foundation Prize to Anna Korsun and the Happy New Ears Prize to Dieter Mersch and Mark Andre. Yes, that is right – almost all of them men.

The scene also celebrated quite a few birthdays this year: Rolf Riehm (80th birthday), Peter Michael Hamel (70th birthday), Isang Yun (100th birthday), Wolfgang Rihm (65th birthday) and Wilhelm Killmayer, who died one day before his 90th birthday.

Openness, tolerance, acceptance

The good news is – the German contemporary music scene is characterised by an enormous diversity, which, despite all the criticism, remains unrivalled by any other country in the world. In these times of socio-political realities becoming visibly more radical, German contemporary music, which actually has radicalism in its DNA, is attempting more than ever to move in new and different directions, to create connections between what happens at classical venues and what is going on outside this music sphere. The conditions have become more complex. Artists who once saw themselves as a members of a rousing avant-garde are presenting and performing their art today in a world in which disruption and transgression of limits have become part of the overall populist background noise. Things that, until recently, New Music had actually claimed for itself.

Instead of vociferating accusingly – be it verbally or musically, the scene is trying to finally solve its own problems (lack of gender equality, lack of visibility, etc.) and has already started doing constructive things, revamping concert formats and tonal languages. In doing so, it is of secondary importance, whether composers are striving to adapt themselves to the world, like Kreidler, Muntendorf, Steen-Andersen and Co., or are, on the contrary, driven by the idea of an alternative sound project to the background noise of our society. For example, Michael Pelzel (born in 1978) or Lisa Streich (born in 1985) - like Isabel Mundry, Wolfgang Rihm and Márton Illés - prefer to focus on sound. Sound in all its possible tones, layers and unheard combinations, sound that has with all its rustling, rattling and hubble-bubbling. Sound that is microtonally tinted, complexly intertwined, that drifts off into noise effects, with the aim, void of any socio-political implications, of simply moving the audience and sharpening our senses. In short, the scene is more heterogeneous than ever and every aesthetic direction is accepted. Thus, in every respect it has quite a lot to offer in reply to all the political blustering: openness, tolerance, acceptance.

These are good times for contemporary music. It can serve as a counterbalance to what is going on around us, a critical voice that gives us food for thought. A daunting task that already has many courageous protagonists, as the year 2017 once again showed.