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.