Thursday, March 31, 2011

maerzmusik, part two

This is part 2 of 3 of my MaerzMuzik review; part 1 is here; I’ll post part 3 later this week.

The Intonarumori ensemble (© Kai Bienert)

Perhaps the oddest MaerzMusik event (and that’s saying something) took place on a Sunday afternoon at Radialsystem: a performance by Luciano Chessa’s Intoarumori ensemble, a noise orchestra based on the designs of the Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo. Chessa, a scholar of Futurism, reconstructed Russolo’s devices, large acoustic boxes with cranks and speakers, and commissioned an intriguing variety of composers to write for them. The MaerzMusik concert presented these commissions as well as Chessa’s realizations of Futurist works by Russolo and his contemporary Paolo Buzzi.

Alas, despite a smart concept and excellent execution, the concert fell somewhat short of expectations—in practice, the noise machines cannot do much more than create a small range of whirrs and roars. The scrapes of Buzzi’s music didn’t sound particularly different from the moaning swagger of a Paolo Ortiz commission or the creaks of Pauline Olivero’s brief Waking the Intonarumori. Luckily, many works featured extra musicians to contribute to the spectacle. In Amelia Cun and Werner Durand’s Gramophone Saraswati, the composers joined the ensemble singing gibberish through bullhorns and creating Dada nonsense with unusual woodwind inventions; a work by Margareth Kammerer featured her wistfully jazzy voice; and Chessa’s own piece included the low bellows of baritone Nicholas Isherwood. What stole the show, though, was a new work by Blixa Bargeld of the legendary German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten. Bargeld, accompanied by the loud grinds and crackles of the Intonarumori, recited inane recipes (“Feel shrimp”), gradually gaining in intensity and lunacy, eventually becoming a violent rant (“Cut the shrimp paper into heroic shapes!”).

The next day, Alarm Will Sound made their Berlin debut at the Kammermusiksaal, an event I almost wish weren’t sandwiched in with the rest of MaerzMusik. Though AWS presented a lively set of representative music—jittery pieces by Birtwistle and Rihm, audacious remixes of Dowland and Aphex Twin, and John Adams’ Son of Chamber Symphony—it would have been nice to hear one of their more ambitious events rather than a retrospective. The combination of Stockhausen and The Beatles in the ballsy theater piece 1969, which premiered recently in New York, could have been a perfect fit for the festival. Still, they gave an intuitive, raucous performance and presented my first opportunity to hear Adams’ relatively-new work. Significantly better than its father, Son of Chamber Symphony bounces through the composer’s stiff ostinato grooves achieves a surprising, almost Grieg-esque arabesque in the middle movement, with lithe woodwind solos floating over plucked strings—an oasis in the midst of the experimental madness of the festival.

The festival took a bit of a tumble on Tuesday with TablesAreTurned, an unsuccessful collaboration between composer Bernhard Lang and multimedia artist Philip Jeck. Lang’s tight, hyperactive instrumental writing (given a delicate, precise reading by chamber ensemble Alter Ego) could have made an entertaining ten-minute work, but with Jeck’s live remixes the piece dragged on for over an hour. Often the work simply alternated between large instrumental sections and Jeck’s hazy playback of that same music, a self-indulgence which seemed better as an idea than in actual practice.

Christoph Gallio/Beat Streuli, ROAD MOVIES (© Kai Bienert)

Two events at Berghain, Berlin’s hottest club, also disappointed. In Yutaka Makino’s “performative installation” Conflux, the artist pumped a vast amount of smoke into one of club’s rooms while blaring grinding electronic sounds (I was given earplugs and a half-page of health warnings at the door). Though for a few minutes, the room and audience disappeared into an otherworldly cloud, the work did not offer much more than this magic effect. The following night, Berghain presented ROAD WORKS, combining music by saxophonist/composer Christoph Gallio and video by photographer Beat Streuli. Gallio’s quintet, which blended a traditional jazz combo with electronics and an amplified set of piano strings, performed a constantly cycling score of sharply juxtaposed styles, from loose, minimal swing to glassy piano repetitions to hardcore electronic freakouts. Streuli’s two screens played non-narrative footage of street life in New York City, perhaps the most clichéd possible choice for any video art. The pluralistic music made a glaring disparity with the monostylistic images. Fortunately, when Conflux and ROAD WORKS weren’t in motion, one could take in the guttural shine of two newly-commissioned Phil Niblock sound installations, vibrating the walls of the entire building. Niblock’s abrasive awesomeness, always a delight, was a highlight of the festival.

Nicholas Isherwood in Perttu Happanen, Nothing to Declare (© Kai Bienert)

A pair of new Finnish monodramas provided a jolt of theatricality to the festival, combining directorial ingenuity with sharply-etched and engaging music. Perttu Haapanen’s Nothing to Declare (directed by librettist Tomi Paasonen) paints a portrait of routine-induced madness: baritone Nicholas Isherwood muttered, frothed, and stuttered through nonsense patter text while performing monotonous office duties, clad in a bizarre yellow suit covered in musical notes. A trio of accompanying cello, accordion, and clarinet acted like psychological demons, pestering him with bubbly little licks. Happanen’s music runs through all the possible alternate instrumental techniques, but has a certain flighty glint to it—experimental but never harsh. Isherwood had an obsessive glow to his stentorian bass, as he mulled over an egg timer, rubbed sheet music rhythmically together, and scatted the names of the keys on a typewriter; the trio not only played their music with vigor but threw themselves around the stage, at one point playing while lying on the ground, at another lurching around with boxes on their heads. The result was a heaving, ecstatic insanity of theatrics, a chamber-like musical tantrum illustrating how endless bureaucracy can snap the mind.

Lelele, Lotta Wennäkoski’s short opera directed by Anna-Mari Karvonen, produces similarly-powerful drama by replacing psychosis with rage. Soprano Pia Freund gasped the stories of anonymous women forced into sex slavery with an almost Straussian piercing anger. Instrumental scurries and sneers (played by the same accompanying trio) as well as Elina Brotherus’s video of doleful Eastern European women generated a growing sense of frosty vengeance. Near the end, the four musicians unrolled mats which have accordions inside, and each squealed the instrument desperately while shouting the names of victimized women. Wennäkoski’s libretto, composed of true stories by unwilling prostitutes, is at once testament and lament, and her music cries out for those who cannot.

Monday, March 28, 2011

maerzmusik, part one

Rebecca Saunders, Chroma XV (© Kai Bienert)

MaerzMusik may be the most ambitious new music festival in the world. Where even the most forward-thinking festivals ground their premieres in repertoire standards and modern classics, MaerzMusik looks boldly ahead. The ten-day celebration captures a broad and diverse audience of all ages which packed the venues for most concerts. This year’s theme, Klang Bild Bewegung (Sound Image Movement) allowed for a diverse array of music and visuals in different formats and genres, from new scores for old silent films to avant-garde sound installations to techno dance parties. With the Berlin Festival House under construction, MaerzMusik sprawled across the city, from conventional venues like the Kammermusiksaal to former warehouses, museums, and clubs. Playing the numbers game yields impressive results: Of the fifty-plus musical works performed over twenty-five events (I attended sixteen of them), only ten were written before 2000 (and only five before 1990); MaerzMusik included eleven world premieres, ten German premieres, and eight festival commissions.

The festival opened in grand style with the world premiere of British composer Rebecca Saunders’ Chroma XV, a spatial work splayed out through the recently renovated former Soviet hangout Café Moskau. I started in the largest room, containing batteries of percussion, a piano, and a group of small music boxes scattered on the ground. The groans of two double-basses began the work, as if awakening a giant machine, with trumpet calls heard from the distance. Walking through the second floor of Moskau, I took in muted trumpet snarls, clarinet flutters, and a jazzily distorted mini-ensemble of cello, clarinet, and electric guitar. A manic violin duet was echoed by a trumpet in another room, transforming into a trio; I re-discovered the basses in a side hall, playing thick glissandos and vehement drones. I stumbled upon a silent record player stashed away in an elevator, a lonesome organ playing quiet, fuzzy static, and another phonograph mournfully spinning a Norwegian folk song. The music boxes twinkled uncannily while a pianist hammered out Stockhausen-like repetitions next door.

It seemed every time I left a room, new possibilities opened up, creating a constant feeling of adventure, but also of disappointment—the frustration that some magical moment eluded you by just a second, too many musical combinations to explore in the work’s thirty-five minutes. At one point, silence overwhelmed the entire building, with only a glassy piano sounding against the audience’s footsteps; at another, a single percussionist walked into the building’s courtyard and ominously intoned a pair of large bells. The effect was of interacting musical personalities, an organic memory space. Notions of time didn’t feel particularly relevant. A sense of nostalgia, reinforced by the music boxes and the creakily recorded folk song, crept through the halls.

Enno Poppe/Wolfgang Heiniger, Tiere sitzen nicht (© Kai Bienert)

The natural counterpart to Chroma came the following day, with Tiere sitzen nicht. In this work for two hundred instruments (but only fifteen players), composers Enno Poppe and Wolfgang Heiniger have concocted a theater of the absurd, with the stage of Radialsystem covered in just about every possibly device with which one could make music. The musicians and instruments are characters in a sort of sound play, running across the stage to take quick solos under a spotlight, standing in odd formations to elicit climaxes of noise.

Where Chroma creates moving theater through fully-notated music in which the spectator chooses his own narrative, Tiere is half-improvisatory, essentially setting up an environment (what the creators call an “instrumental park”) in which the musicians interact. Poppe and Heiniger call on their musicians to play instruments with which they have no experience (ranging from pots to toy guitars to cardboard boxes), adding a sense of rawness and immediacy. The music itself is wild and frantic, with theatrical flourishes and cleverly shifting lighting: an electric organ drew the attention of the other musicians, who rushed to join it on their own keyboards, forming an enormous hum; a solo euphonium and Wagner tuba took center stage to perform dirge-like groans which transformed into a hot jazz-style standoff.

Towards the end, the players assembled at the center construct (a sort of tower jammed with keyboards) and a solo cellist began an amplified, ascendant glissando. Others joined into the sound mass, enhanced by a deafening electronic whirr, gazing out directly into the audience; they suddenly started singing loudly, forming a gigantic, vibrating wordless chord, with piercing overtones and almost blindingly bright lights pointed towards the audience. Right before the buzz of the chord settled into pure sound, the entire teeming structure shut down, in a colossal slurp of sound: cue darkness.

For both large, impossibly complicated works, the hard-working players of musikfabrik gave consummate performances, with fervent attention to the individual musical details and impassioned intensity in the bold theatrics; I can’t wait to hear them in the premiere of Stockhausen’s Sonntag in Cologne in a few weeks.

Michael Vorfeld, Gluhlampenmusik (© Berlin Festspiele)

On opening night, after Chroma concluded, the basement of Café Moskau became the site for riveting experimentation. Michael Vorfeld, a sort of minimalist mad scientist, crafted visceral but elegant structure in his Glühlampenmusik, an hour-long work for amplified light bulbs. Set up on a table as well as a small surrounding stage, a veritable gamut of bulbs pulsed with different colors, releasing waves of sound. Clicking grooves and interlocking rhythmic patterns resembled a techno version of Steve Reich’s Drumming and took Reich’s idea of audible process a step further—the arching form is not only audible but visual, as the colors and flashes correspond exactly to the sounds they produce. Although the work didn’t feel as structurally rigorous as the great works of minimalism, Vorfeld’s light show was formidable and highly entertaining, a pinging system of synaesthesia.

A similar electronic aura permeated Martin Matalon’s oozing new score for Metropolis, a radically different work from the original, sweeping Gottfried Huppertz soundtrack. I took in the Huppertz live a few months ago, and the epic Weimar-era score was still ringing in my head when the MaerzMuzik screening at the Volksbühne began. Matalon creates a Brechtian sense of defamiliarization with Fritz Lang’s film, painting in broad strokes rather than capturing each individual emotional moment—atmospheric rather than leitmotivic.

The bouncy electro which began the soundtrack (an amplified, heavily reverberant Ensemble Modern gave a vivid performance led by François-Xavier Roth) transformed the slouching march of the proletariat which opens the film into a strange dance. When the angelic Maria made her first appearance, Matalon’s music was airy dryness, with lightly brushed percussion and soft gongs building an almost Messiaen-like sense of the ethereal—hypnotic but not Romantic. The entire film took on the quality of an LSD trip, the sounds of the city resembling a druggy nightclub with ricocheting brass smears and fat bass slaps, a cross between Lachenmann and Bitches Brew. In the final moments, a coolly skeptical double-bass riff accompanied the symbolic unity of head and hand through heart, suggesting that in our age of union busting and frantic budget cuts, we might need more than mere good will to heal the gap between worker and elite.

Friday, March 25, 2011

For Japan (2)

Alfred Schnittke's 1957 Nagsaki Symphony -- not his best work, but worth a listen. The orchestras of Berlin have embraced the spirit of charity in the face of the Japanese devastation. Bernard Haitink paid tribute to the victims of the earthquake recently in a stirring performance of Lutoslawski's Funeral Music, and the Berlin Philharmonic and Staatskapelle Orchestras, under their directors, will be performing a can't-miss double-bill of Tchaikovsky's Sixth and Brahms' Fourth on Tuesday. Alas, I will be in Paris, but you can watch live on their Digital Concert Hall (all proceeds from the concert and webcast go to UNICEF). Already planned was the joint Staatskapelle/Philharmonic April 22nd concert commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, which will now also be dedicated to the sufferings in Japan; with the Pathetique again as well as Takemitsu's Requiem, Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony, and Ukrainian and Russian Choruses, it should prove to be just as powerful (and will also stream online).

Also, I would be remiss not to mention two upcoming Chicago-area earthquake relief events: a fundraiser at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 1 and a concert organized by students and faculty at the Northwestern School of Music on April 6. They're both Facebook-only, so hopefully you can view the pages.