New Music 2018

The rehearsals for <i>Principal boy</i> – an installation for music theatre, Eclat Festival Neue Musik Stuttgart
The rehearsals for Principal boy – an installation for music theatre, Eclat Festival Neue Musik Stuttgart | Photo (detail): © Frank Kleinbach

Whether it took the form of a riotously funny TV show, or a dystopian macho performance or an over-religious prayer ceremony – in 2018, New Music showed that it was no stranger to the art of entertainment.

If you are loud enough, you will get your own way – a simple principle that is so often still relied upon; not only in politics, but in all walks of life. Sometimes the volume of sound recklessly overrides all else, obstructing one's view of crucial details, simplifying and shortening them. Sometimes, however, it is also necessary – either to wake up the listeners, to create clarity, or simply to instill a desire for silence. In the year 2018 New Music also recognised the need for this. It was often loud, emphatic and exuberant. Sometimes the results were impressive, sometimes sobering.

Immerse yourself in the experience

Whether at the big festivals or at small local events, music was again and again just one of the many pieces of the mosaic that formed a bigger picture – that of the show. Entertainment-based concepts seemed to be the order of the day this year. For example, in her music theatre production, Nice Guys Win Twice, which was premiered at the International Darmstadt Summer Courses, Jessie Marino  had members of the Danish ensemble Scenatet performing as actors, mimes, presenters, jazz and rock musicians. The stage set consisted of a collection of moving screens – each showing a different film – and it all came across as a panorama of sensory overload. Was it a critical statement by the artist about our fast-moving society? Or an unimaginative conglomeration of all types of contemporary art currently in fashion? It met with different receptions.
The Frankfurt Ensemble Modern was even more shrill: as part of the Connect event series, a piece by Philip Venables was performed in April. In it the institution of the concert was simply transformed into a riotous TV quiz show. The ensemble performed more as a mood-boosting accompaniment band and jingle supplier than as a body of sound in a concert. Something similar happened with the format Music for Hotel Bars, which was launched in the summer. The aim was to integrate New Music perfectly into the atmosphere of various luxury hotels in Berlin. Whether people were disturbed by the background noise of the hotel bar while trying to listen, or whether the erratic musical performance prevented people from enjoying their cocktails, lay certainly in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. But one thing is certain – the motto was event culture instead of contemplation.

Get out of your comfort zone

The Eclat festival in Stuttgart also became the setting for an unusual large-scale format. In this case, however, the concept of exaggeration and one-upmanship had a strangely convincing effect – in Principal Boy, Raphael Sbrzesny created an obstacle course of metal sculptures, videos and sound installations in the sports hall of the theatre, as well as an intensely irritating choreography that made use of gallons of shower gel and deodorant; a dystopian setting between adolescent machismo and coded symbolism. Visitors were confronted with a series of mini-performances that were abounding in masculine stereotypes and narcissistic aggression – aspects that were then exposed as an expression of suppressed hopelessness. In this way, Sbrzesny succeeded in stylizing a personality profile, which he himself describes as “a nihilistic subject increasingly in the focus of medial attention” – the figure of the terrorist.
If this work directed our view in every respect to the disturbing sides of our present culture, the Musikfest Berlin presented a "show", which eluded any clear temporal classification – Karlheinz Stockhausen's Inori that was first performed in 1974. The piece shows two dancers interpreting the ritual of worship and they are accompanied by an orchestral apparatus of late Romantic dimensions. The dancers perform prayer gestures on a 2.5-metre-high pedestal, turning the Philharmonic into an overly religious place of worship. However, this major ceremonial event was only part of a larger Stockhausen focus at this year's Musikfest. For example, some of the composer's more cumbersome pieces were performed, such as Kontakte, Zyklus or his earlier Klavierstücke.
No less cumbersome (and hard to beat when it comes to intellectual depth and sophistication) is Mathias Spahlinger's rarely performed passage / paysage, which was also heard at the Musikfest Berlin. With these quite sophisticated programs, the artistic management showed it was moving forward. Risks were taken that were quite definitely not a matter of course for a repertoire festival that does not feature an explicit focus on New Music. In one point, however, the forward-looking perspective was not evident at all – the gender issue. In 2018, not a single female composer was represented in the program of the Musikfest. The fact that this imbalance went unnoticed is ultimately an indicator of how much there is still to do in this area.

A need for discussion

Elsewhere, the issue of gender equality was all the more present. At the Darmstadt Summer Courses, for example, seven out of eleven composition commissions had been given to women. In addition, for the first time in the history of the event the artistic management had opted for a quotation system in the registration process of the course participants – the aim was a women's share of fifty percent. Although this goal was narrowly missed at about forty-two percent, it was nevertheless a significant improvement compared to previous years.
The reason why this problem cannot be solved in an instant, but only gradually, is mainly due to the inertia that is to be found in the musical history of the canon, which has been dominated for centuries by male personalities. That is why women as autonomous creators or decision-makers in the music business are still quite a rarity even today. For quite some time this realisation has been fuelling a strong need on the scene to start talking and take action. Accordingly, the program of the 2018 Darmstadt Summer Courses included more conferences and discussions than there has been for a long time. Above all, a trend was observed in which the focus was less on questions on the aesthetics of music, but more on discourses that focused on the organisational structures and institutional hierarchies of the music business. For example, in a four-day conference that was part of the Defragmentation project – an initiative involving several festivals – whose goal is to embrace discourses on gender and diversity, as well as on decolonisation and technological change in curatorial practices.

Telling alternative stories

One of the festivals involved in the Defragmentation project is the MaerzMusik festival in Berlin. There, too, an attempt was made to revise, or at least critically re-think, the old hierarchies and values of Western art music (legitimate music). As in 2017, there was a special focus on the work of the composer Julius Eastman. Eastman, born in 1940 in New York, had led the life of an outsider. As an African-American, gay composer in the New York of the 1960s and 1970s, he found little opportunity for advancement in an art music scene dominated by white, heterosexual men. After his early death in 1990, the music world wanted to know nothing more about him. Scores were lost, recordings went unreleased. Only recently has Eastman been gradually rediscovered. In 2018 MaerzMusik also played a major role in this reappraisal of his work.
And yet another name appeared in the program of the festival, which had not been heard in the realm of New Music for quite a long time – Terre Thaemlitz. The American artist, born in 1968, was explicitly billed as a “transgender artist”, because it is precisely this denial of a defined gender identity that constitutes the core of his work.  In multimedia performances, he deliberately criticises heteronormative views of the world and stagnant values. Almost all of his projects are characterized by an extensive use of text material. The music, on the other hand, comes across as simpler and more differentiated. There is, however, a reason for this – in his own words, music serves Thaemlitz merely as a medium for his cultural and socio-critical statements.
It is, however, not easy to understand why a music festival like MaerzMusik feels obliged to allow artists with such an aloof attitude towards music to occupy a substantial part of the program, At the same time, however, it seems to be a typical symptom of the current prevailing trend – the fear that you can get nowhere with just music alone.

New harmlessness versus subversion potential

Fortunately, the inclination to doubt the power of music did not seem to be prevalent everywhere. For example, the Donaueschingen Musiktage festival was remarkably centred on sound this year. Quite a few pieces were performed without any “extras” and focussed totally on the sound experience. In some cases impressive, dramaturgically well thought-out and sonically sophisticated compositions were created, such as Malin Bång's orchestral piece splinters of ebullient rebellion, Enno Poppe's hour-long work Rundfunk for nine synthesizers or Mirela Ivičević´s Case white for ensemble. In part, however, the trend also seemed to be towards a “new harmlessness”, for example in compositions by Ivan Fedele, Marco Stroppa, Rolf Wallin or Francesco Filidei. Whether the orchestra was used as a vehicle for cinematic special effects, the solo instrument as the virtuoso icing on the cake or the chamber ensemble as decorative living room wallpaper – many composers seemed to be suffering from a need to return to a musical language that delivers good sound and comfortable entertainment. Any striving for friction, challenge or discomfort seemed to be a scarce commodity.
On the other hand, New Music did in fact manage to spark some political volatility elsewhere – but, as it happened, involuntarily. At the end of August, Berlin's local newspapers reported on a plan by Deutsche Bahn AG (German railways), to play loud “atonal music” at the Hermannstraße suburban railway station. The aim was to force the drinking and drug scene that hangs out there off the premises. They hit upon the idea of atonal music, because it is not exactly what people like listening to and is perceived by many as unpleasant. Apart from the fact that the Deutsche Bahn AG seemed to have at most a vague idea of what the term “atonality” actually means, such an initiative is an affront – not to mention the fact that hardly a century has passed, since atonality was discredited as  “degenerate music” by the National Socialists.
Within a very short time the articles triggered an online shitstorm. (In the meantime, the topic had even made it onto the pages of the New York Times.) Soon after, various performers of New Music began to launch creative counter-offensives: e-mails from radio editors and musicologists to the Deutsche Bahn AG asking, whether they could apply for the job of composing the music for the station, as well as fake video trailers for the “Deutsche Bahn Atonal” party event circulated on the Net. The railway management did not respond, whereupon the New Music Berlin eV initiative organised a public protest. Under the motto “Atonal Music for All”, a live concert was organised on the forecourt of the Hermannstraße station to demonstrate what atmosphere people would find there in the future. The huge crowd that turned up for the concert spoke for itself. Two days later, the Deutsche Bahn AG project was cancelled. It can only be speculated, whether the management had, in the meantime, realised that such a project would have conveyed a fatal political message or whether one just simply did not want to make any further enemies. It should be noted, however, that New Music has emphatically proved that its very existence alone has the power of controversy and subversion.