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.


  1. Wonderfully evocative reviews particularly of Chroma XV with its vivid imagery of 'fluttering clarinets , groaning basses, manic violins and snarling trumpets' Bravo!

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