Three events at TRAFO, a cavernous two-story power plant which could go toe-to-toe with the Park Avenue Armory, strongly addressed the festival’s multimedia theme. Licht-Zeiten, a collaboration between composer Michael Wertmüller and video artist Lillevan, merged a dense industrial wail with flickering shafts of plasmatic light. The ensembles Steamboat Switzerland and courage teamed up to perform Wertmüller’s ballistic, pounding score, a mix of strident string counterpoint, extreme oboe shredding, sawing cello solos, and an absolutely killer dissonant organ sermon resembling a strung-out Bach prelude (courtesy of organist Dominik Blum). Lillevan projected his visuals directly on the actual performers, so that the entire stage shimmered with light, abstract geometric shapes shifting in tandem with the music. Though the piece lasted a little too long, the frantic top-speed mania was almost always engaging, a potent combination of image and sound.
It would seem impossible to kick it up a notch after Wertmüller’s sonic blast, but the following set by Carsten Nicolai, aka alva noto, did just that. With earplugs in (provided upon entry), the sheer volume of alta noto’s pumping, teeth-shaking beats still overwhelmed. Nicolai combined overlapping, heavy electronic bass crunches with flowing, pulsating multicolor rays thrown up on a gigantic monitor—a forty-five minute techno phantasmagoria, with hundreds of people bouncing along in TRAFO’s massive hall.
The next night, Ryoji’s Ikeda’s datamatics audio-visual show provided an even more staggeringly loud but somewhat stiller, roomier experience, with jackhammer pulses punctured by moments of pure, ringing tone and crackly subterranean noise. Though the huge screen provided an overflow of information, with rapidly moving vectors reminiscent of 1980s arcade games, the music dwelled, with beats that lay back instead of pointing ahead.
MaerzMusik’s most beautiful mystery came in the form of Justė Janulytė’s Sandglasses, a transcendent piece fusing music, light, video, and electronics. Janulytė surrounded four amplified cellists each with floor-to-ceiling translucent columns, onto which artist Luca Scarzella projected images which rippled between the pillars. Spiraling cyclones slowly swirled across the room, providing a visual manifestation for the whispery, twinkling drones of the cellos and electronics. Occasionally, the clouds of light crystallized into frozen sheets, turning the pillars opaque before gradually dripping with water and shattering apart. Over the course of the fifty-minute work, the music gradually crescendoed to a supersonic, organ-like roar and the murky purples and blues of the meek twisters transformed into blood-red storms and then explosive, fiery typhoons—mystical, benign forces of nature densified into apocalyptic portent.
Ken Ueno’s portrait event, presented by the American Academy in Berlin, exemplified the typical new music concert: a glacial piano piece (Disabitato, given an exacting performance by Heather O’Donnell); a world music piece (the tranquil, slowly unfurling Kizu for Japanese koto and Kyoto Kawamura’s dipping, intimate voice); a crazed, extended technique-laden woodwind piece (the tactile I screamed at the sea until nodes swelled up, then my voice became the resonant noise of the sea for clarinet, played grippingly by Greg Oakes); a radical improvisation (a duet of sustained, expanding growls sung by Ueno himself with Robin Hayword, a specialist in microtonal tuba); a timbral large ensemble work (the eerie, spectral Talus, a concerto for violist Wendy Richman and string ensemble).
The typical new music concert, though, acquires its variety from featuring works by a number of composers. Ueno, as he explained in an on-stage interview, sees his compositional process as a kind of channel surfing between styles, in which each piece embodies its own set of distinct rules. Rather than building towards perfecting a certain style, with individual pieces acting as stepping stones, Ueno captures a certain artistic spirit in each work and moves on. The result is eclectic but also unified, a multiplicity of rhetorics which somehow always feel like Ueno’s own. The best piece of the bunch was Two Hands, a placid work for violist Kim Kashkashian and percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky, a success as much for its compositional rigor as for its luminous performance—Kashkashian, the dean of American viola, gave each individual gesture a sense of inevitability, the kind of radiant deliberateness one hears in a great reading of Mozart or Bach.
MaerzMusik ended on a somewhat sour note, with Michael Nyman’s gleeful, saccharine score to Dziga Vertov’s 1926 Šestaja čast’ mira. The film, a sort of Soviet propaganda collage, tours the riches of the early USSR while indicting Western capitalism; the Nyman band’s bright, driving lyricism, though a lively accompaniment, didn’t distance itself particularly from Vertov’s problematic politics. A shaky ensemble end, in which a violinist seemed to miss the final cut-off, could have been in homage to the abrupt end of Einstein on the Beach but was more likely a result of insufficient rehearsal. The lusty booing which followed made an unfortunate conclusion to the otherwise well-received festival.
To generalize about an extraordinarily diverse festival unified by a broad theme would be trivial, so trivial I will be. The swath of works performed over the ten days exemplifies more of the Berlin sensibility about music than any overlapping commonalities of style. Composers wrote in a variety of genres and media, paying careful attention to blending acoustic with electronic, musical with visual, and classical with non-classical. MaerzMusik divided evenly between musicians trying to break out of classical traditions, musicians trying to break into classical traditions, and those who had nothing to do with classical traditions whatsoever. The variety of tastes and habits resembles less the current New York post-classical scene than an overall sense of different artists all working on the edges of each other’s genres. With the decades-long prominence of electronic music in the city’s experimental university studios and techno clubs and the overall prevalence of modern music on the concert stage, Berlin has had much less angst than New York about merging the old and the new, so the inattention to what was classical or non-classical at MaerzMusik did not feel particularly unusual or newsworthy. What was unusual and newsworthy was the sheer amount of focused, intensely-wrought new works, each of which forged organic and elegant bonds among multiple artistic media: a vision not of what could be possible in a future tomorrow but what is already present in a radical today.