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New Music 2019
A Topology of Neue Musik

Musicians of the SWR Vokalensemble at the rehearsal of Simon Stehen-Andersens TRIO
Musicians of the SWR Vokalensemble at the rehearsal of Simon Stehen-Andersens TRIO | Photo (detail): © Donaueschinger Musiktage 2019 / SWR.de

One striking feature of Neue Musik is how difficult it is to grasp. Thousands of actors are constantly reinventing Neue Musik in hundreds of places in Germany. This is an attempt at an overview.

By Frank Hilberg

Festivals – Islands of "Neue Musik"

Oh, if there were only a map! A map would make things simpler...perhaps. It would be helpful because the territory of Neue Musik is notoriously confusing, a complaint heard since its invention, but the situation is becoming increasingly complex because there is increasingly more and other “new music.” More on that in a moment.
A map would really be ideal, as there actually is a geography or topology of Neue Musik in Germany if we look at the festivals. They take place in clearly defined locations, each have their own tradition (however recent), they have reliable audiences and reliable recurrence. Above all, however, they usually circumscribe an independent aesthetic position.
A map of the festivals would probably be more like a nautical chart. Between large areas, where there is nothing but the depths, blank spots, there are islands of various sizes – the largest is probably the Donaueschinger Musiktage – but also, scattered broadly, a myriad of smaller and miniscule islands, some of which quickly sink, while others emerge unexpectedly. The so-called “scene” of Neue Musik is actually an archipelago. A few examples show just how different the islands are.
There’s the Neue Musik festival in Rümlingen (strictly speaking in Switzerland, but the interest in Neue Musik is usually cross-border), which has always sought to combine music, action and nature. Mention “Rümlingen” and connoisseurs immediately understand. Newly emerging, only in its second year, BAM! Berliner Festival für aktuelles Musiktheater has already crystallised its brand: all forms of text, performance, collages, multimedia and spaces; but definitely not classical stage events and music in the narrower sense.

Local music

The NOW! festival in Essen is another example of an island that it has been on the map for ten years, with strong local ties to Folkwang University and the museums and other institutions there. The number of premieres is rather small; its popularity, especially among the locals, stems more from the fact that the ensembles and orchestras invited bring valuable programmes with them. This is often accompanied by surprises. This year “Transit” was the theme and one of the concerts – by Ensemble Modern under the direction of Enno Poppe – showed that even an old war horse like passage/paysage (1990) by Mathias Spahlinger, a 45-minute piece, can cause a sensation. Thanks to its form, still new, the instrumental passages used and its unforgettable pizzicato landscape, it easily upstaged all other contemporary pieces. If only pieces from the (recent) past in this weight class were performed again...
© Ensemble Modern
Several festivals pursue the “best of” formula, such as the January event Ultraschall in Berlin, which invites us to look back at the highlights of recent years, although its increasingly limited resources focus the programmes on small ensembles.
Each of these islands is inhabited or visited by certain species. There are, of course, the migratory birds that move from Donaueschingen to the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik – and professional actors and reporters anyway – but there are also many connoisseurs and enthusiasts who travel to or attend the events according to their preferences, simply because they live there.

What is Neue Musik? – The Donaueschinger Musiktage

After years of eruptions, one of the two main islands of Neue Musik – the Donaueschinger Musiktagen – has become somewhat quieter under its current artistic director Björn Gottstein. After years of sprawling concept pieces (also for orchestra), the rediscovered centre is exemplified by Alberto Posadas’s Poética del espacio. It is an almost 90-minute piece that was premiered by the Klangforum Wien under Sylvain Cambreling. Nothing about it is groundbreakingly new, but everything about it is unique. It has its own, process-like form, which combines constant transformation with captivating timing and is extensive in that two ensembles, which initially begin playing on opposite stages in the hall, then join together on the main stage at the end through multiple treks. Thus, the room is played from various perspectives. The musicians brought a wealth of rarely heard instruments (glass harmonica) and unusual recombinations (e.g. trombones played with clarinet mouthpieces). The overwhelming response from those present demonstrated that listening effort – if the object is suitable – is appreciated rather than rejected.
With his piece rwh 1, Marc Andre also chose a space-taking setup and distributed the musicians on multiple islands in the Donauhalle. His idea of recreating the “echography” of a church using musical means became vividly perceptible and drew the listeners into the varied trajectories.
Marc André - rwh 1
As for “sound installations” (a term that is hardly used anymore), however, the field is largely left to the visual actors, whether in the case of artificial intelligence that paints to record player music (including its demands in the form of “technical faults”) in Sound Activated Drawing Machines by Angela Bulloch or in Marko Ciciliani’s Anna & Marie – a virtual museum with multimedia projections where the sound design meets all the criteria Eric Satie had hoped for from a musique d’ameublement (1920). Although it didn’t drown out the annoying noises of using knives and forks at table, it did mask the live noises of the visitors walking about. In both, music played a booming secondary role.
It was Simon Steen-Anderson who showed in his multimedia composition Trio that sound and image can achieve resounding effects if they relate to one another without simply imitating each other. Anderson had taken image and sound material from the archives of Südwestrundfunk (SWR) and brilliantly created a collage of them with live orchestral passages.
However, unlike in previous years, the question of what Neue Musik is today is not dealt with through texts and statements, but through pieces, for each of which a decision had to be made on whether it should still be included in the sphere of music or whether it aspired for other forms of perception. This question is currently contagious at all the festivals and is further aggravated by the multitude of answers given by the works.
Simon Steen-Anderson - TRIO

New names – Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik

Every internationally known festival for Neue Musik is forced to engage a balanced ratio of well-known names and newcomers. This year, the “New Names” dominated the Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik (Witten days for new chamber music), which on the one hand brought a lot of previously unknown players to the stage, but also a lot of aesthetic awkwardness to the ears. But that’s the risk for festivals that want to offer both proven quality and new approaches. The interpretative level of all performances was, as in all years before, illustrious beyond doubt.
Among the newcomers, Francesca Verunelli excelled with Flowers #3 (Dripping) for string quartet, prescribing a distinctive microtonal “detuning” of the quartet’s strings, which defined the sound of the work. And in Mikel Urquiza’s Alfabet for soprano, trumpet, clarinet and percussion to a lyric by Inger Christensen, not only the compositional ideas shone, but also the fabulous soprano Sarah Maria Sun. It was one of the moments when the impression was created that the piece was actually written specifically for a musician.

Neue Musik and the media

So far I’ve talked a great deal about festivals because they are also the engine of development. But they are far from the only institutions that play a major role in Neue Musik. The big radio stations continue to broadcast programmes about and with Neue Musik on a regular basis, their orchestras premiere works, they commission compositions and record local and international events. All of them have websites with live streams, various listening services and media libraries.
The print sector is much worse off. Some well-known magazines have ceased publication: the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift (ÖMZ) just last year; the Swiss magazine Dissonance /Dissonanzen gave up this year; the small magazine Seiltanz disappeared along with its website.
Positionen – Texte zur aktuellen Musik is now repositioning itself with a new editorial team after thirty years, four issues have been published and it remains to be seen where the journey will go. Neue Musik is generally no longer or only sporadically covered in the newspapers, both national and local.
Although the heyday is over, CDs with Neue Musik are regularly released by a handful of specialised labels, which, especially for larger-scale works, are mostly radio productions. Since large parts of the recording and music trade have moved from the cities to the Internet and the labels market their products directly, the range of official downloads is also growing.
The proportion of Neue Musik in the streaming services is only growing very gradually. While the most popular services are practically unusable because they provide not even the most rudimentary discographies, there are increasingly classical music providers with corresponding data sets. But even with an ambitious service like idagio.com, the offer is still quite small at present: At least Helmut Lachenmann is represented with 35 works from 29 albums, but Carola Bauckholt with only four works from three albums.
There are still only a few labels with backup catalogues and only newer recordings are taken into account – whether they will retro-digitise remains to be seen – but those who want to get an overview of recent music history will find plenty of listening material.