Writing after Ultraschall

Added on by Douglas Farrand.

I was fortunate enough to spend the last two weeks of January 2013 in Berlin, attending a majority of concerts at the Ultraschall festival, and then some. The trip has resulted in, I think, some rather radical changes in my listening and has suggested a few fairly major questions to my composing and general thinking of music as a result.

The trip, organised through Oberlin Conservatory and lead by Josh Levine, had a website for updates and such that I have contributed a series of reflections to. The writing was primarily intended for a fairly general audience (interested parents, prospective students and the like) but covers some thoughts and ideas about much of the music we heard and the strangeness of attending, for the first time, such a state-funded new music festival (at first quite a motivating experience before the questions, doubts and problems of such a venture register). 

Friday January 18th: Late start for most. We were fortunate enough to sit in on the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin rehearsing Chaya Czernowin's The Quiet, a short and- as we discussed with Chaya after the rehearsal, strikingly direct work consisting of various panels of soft sounds, overlapping in various ways and at various points, gradually becoming increasingly dense and more insistent as harsher noises and pitched sonorities were introduced, working itself into a sequence of forceful gestures before abruptly ending. A browsable copy of the score for The Quiet is available from the publisher's website.

First concert of the trip that evening took place in the beautiful if freezing cold St Elisabeth-Kirche. Responses to the programme were mixed- particular highlights for myself included the daringly proportioned piano solo in the middle of Pascal Dusapin's Trio Rombach for violin, cello and piano and a striking piano quartet by Christophe Bertrand, a recently deceased composer (only 29 years old at the time of his death) whose music was well represented throughout this years festival, which spun delicate textures out of simply deployed descending scales. While I found the other pieces on the concert distinctly less interesting, the ensemble- Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin- were thrilling to watch and listen to.

Saturday January 19th and Sunday January 20th: Still very much jet lagged, Jessie and I both slept in past our 10am discussion time on Saturday so can't report much on conversations surrounding the previous night's concert. On Sunday there were two string quartet + electronics concerts, the first featuring the diotima quartet, the second the arditti quartet. On the Saturday we were fortunate enough to attend a full afternoon of rehearsals with the arditti quartet working on the two pieces with electronics on their programme- a world premiere of a new piece by Joshua Fineberg and Georg Freidrich Haas' 7th string quartet. While much of the detail of the rehearsing was lost on us (these were final rehearsal stages, fixing/finessing details of electronics in the space more than rehearsing the music- a lot of quiet muttering in German, head scratching, etc.) it was very fruitful to hear these two pieces several times before the concerts on Sunday.

Its worth mentioning some of the specifics of Joshua Fineberg's piece, as it marks a first time collaboration between IRCAM and the Experimentalstudio des SWR, previously rival electroacoustic studios in France and Germany respectively. We also were able to talk with the composer in some detail about the piece over dinner before the orchestra concert. It is a distinctly strange work, in which the string quartet are sat towards the back of the stage, far from the audience, in rehearsal formation (forming a square facing each other rather than in the arc pictured below) and playing with heavy lead practice mutes such that the acoustic quartet cannot actually be heard during the piece. Instead what we hear is a series of virtual quartet sounds generated by the electronics via a process called (if memory serves me correctly) spectral envelope filtering or processing- which takes the stripped-down, basic sound of the muted string quartet and builds a huge variety of textures out of it. The trajectory of the piece is one of moving from relatively 'realistic' string quartet sounds towards far more alien sonic environments, corresponding to Fineberg's strong interest in nested fictions (an interest that is most clear in his opera Lolita). 

Saturday evening was the orchestra concert, featuring the Chaya Czernowin orchestra piece mentioned here. This also included pieces by Johannes Maria Staud (a very strange sequence of musics), Michael Jarrell (a largely uninspiring, flat work- although thinking back to it now perhaps something attractive about its slick- almost oily- surface), and an early piece by Georg Freidrich Haas, ...sodaß ich's hernach mit einem Blick gleichsam wei ein schönes Bild... im Geist übersehe for string orchestra from 1990/91. This latter piece was, aside from the Czernowin, the most interesting. A sequence of panels, some specifically directed and gestural, others creating fields of sound from an aleatoric implementation of a specific playing technique (a la Penderecki or Lutosławski), and one in particular quoting or in the style of Mozart (to whom the quote that makes up the title is attributed), becoming gradually blurred by sustained tones, creating a sort of veil of dissonance behind which the Mozart seems to continue.

Monday January 21st: Started the day off with a great conversation over breakfast, discussing our varying responses to virtuosity, cliche, 8-channel spatialisation, and other prominent and not so prominent aspects of the previous days string quartet and electronics concerts. Making our way to the Hans Eisler Hochschüle after a quick lunch we had the first of four sessions of discussions and masterclasses with Berlin-based composers. This first one was with Wolfgang Heiniger, a composer of electronic, computer, and chamber works with a distinct interest in theatricality, machines and the social situations surrounding the creation and presentation of music. The first two hours or so of our meeting with him consisted of group discussions of questions such as "what is music" and "what does a musician do" which lead into/overlapped with a fairly informal introduction of his music and interests. To list a few particularly characteristic points raised and discussed:

  • music as social act
  • the history of music as the history of technology
  • the history of electroacoustic music as the history of technology in the 20th century
  • correlations between the master-slave relationship and our contemporary relationship with machines - the topic of the liberation of machines
  • the musician as one who presents or reveals (zeigen auf Deutsch) - the object of their presenting/revealing being sound. 

The masterclasses were similarly fascinating, including a discussion of the nature of theatricality in Tony's voice + viola piece I don't know what I would do without you, resistance in notation in Jessie's I did not see it to the end, and notational paradigms in Elise's string quartet.

After vast quantities of sushi for dinner we attended a concert in the Volksbühne at Rosa-Luxemburg Platz featuring music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Fabien Levy, and Christoph Ogiermann performed by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Having previously noticed the peculiarities of a state-funded new music festival (a concept totally alien to many of us, coming from the US) this concert, which fell on an important anniverary of the Élysée Treaty, really emphasised this aspect of Ultraschall, as the Fabien Levy piece, a lengthy work for 6 vocalists and 6 instrumentalists dealing with issues of guilt and forgiveness in the relationships between French and German intellectuals during and following world war II, was preceded by speeches by various German and French government officials, including the French minister of culture. Following the distinctly utopian late-period Stockhausen vocal work Menschen, Hört and Levy's piece, Ogiermann's aggressive, hyperactive piece for amplified voices and electronics was a daring programming choice- with the 6 vocalists surrounding the audience, shouting and occassionally screaming fragments of german texts - often disrupted and distorted by glitchy electronics, distorting any clear understanding of what was being said- the only clear statement occurring towards the end of the piece as the phrase "ich bin der Chef" ("I am the boss") was yelled aggressively for what felt like a short eternity. Viscerally disturbing music that prompted a lot of conversation over drinks that evening.

Thursday January 24th: bad currywurst for lunch in a dingy chain restaurant, followed by a lot of walking around Hackescher Markt. Jessie and I had a wonderful dinner at the historically significant and wonderfully hidden Tajikistani Tearoom.... calm, cheap, delicious, low tables, no shoes, usw.

Thursday's concert was definitely a highlight musically speaking. Expectations were low going in, as the Ensemble Modern are well known for their ensemble playing this concert of small chamber and solo pieces seemed somewhat amiss. It ended up being one of the strongest sets of performances as well as the most consistently interesting compositionally. Vito Žuraj's WARM UP for french horn and two percussionists was a thrillingly formless piece, turning slowly through an utterly unique soundscape of quiet, hyperactive material, finding its way to a beautiful coalescence at the end of the piece in the form of a short melodic unison between the horn and bowed vibraphones- the potential banality of the idea transcended in that this final tune only really registered once it had already passed and the piece was finished. Emmanuel Nunes's Aura for solo flute was a similarly exhausting piece, its rapid and varied twisting and turning contrasted with a few lengthy plateaus of flute and voice multiphonics.

Friday January 25th: A few of us up and out for a morning walk by about 9:30am. S-Bahn up to Brandenburger Tor and then a walk back down to the hostel through Tiergarten- a park situated in the middle of Berlin featuring some imposing monuments and statues, lots of trees, canals and small ponds, and supposedly a wild boar population. Coming out of the bottom of Tiergarten we walked past the back of the Philharmonie, home of the Berlin Philharmonic, and stumbled across a Richard Serra sculpture close to the site of a planned Aktion T4 memorial (Aktion T4 was a Nazi euthanasia programme focused primarily on those with physical and mental disabilities).

Full afternoon of Richard Barrett. First a two hour presentation on his recent work CONSTRUCTION (score pdf here, essay about the piece here), a mammoth evening long cycle of 20 pieces for voices, instruments and electronics. The presentation, lasting roughly as long as the piece itself, was a sort of guided tour of the trajectories arching over the entire piece, in terms of material transformations, following the evolution of the main themes of the piece- those of utopian visions on one hand and their confrontation with the realities of social and political organisation and change on the other- and the changing balance between composed music, improvised music and the various notation strategies used to access places imbetween. Following a break for coffee we returned to the Hans Eisler hochschüle for masterclasses, in which Kevin, Elise and I presented our pieces again.

Friday evening presented somewhat of a dilemma, on the one hand a 140 minute late Stockhausen solo piano cycle (itself from the larger cycle KLANG, a series of 24 chamber compositions that I think contains a lot of Stockhausen's most striking work) or a non-Ultraschall improvisation concert featuring Jonas Kocher, an accordion player who had played in Oberlin earlier during the Fall 2012 semester. We ultimately opted for the improv concert. The first and last sets, a solo cello realisation of a graphic score and a song, both performed by Nathan Bontrager (American musician recently relocated to Köln) and a cello and percussion duet by Noid and Michael Vorfeld were lively and engaging pieces of music. Nathan's playing covered an incredibly wide range of material, eventually coming together nicely as the quick shifts and changes of the cello improvisation functioned as a compellingly turbulent canvas for the more continuous song. Noid and Vorfeld played a good 30 minutes of hyperactive, scribbly improvisation, a beautifully balanced set with a subtle drive to it, that managed to hold this rattling, scratchy almost featureless landscape together. The real highlight, however, was Jonas Kocher's duet with electronics musician Gaudenz Badrutt- an intense and at times genuinely aggressive sound world was navigated with striking nuance and compositional subtlety- a real sense of construction to the piece that is rarely found (and perhaps rarely needed) in improvised music but that was pulled off superbly in this instance. Over a substantial duration (30 minutes? 40 minutes?) the piece was very much a series of swells between low-energy passages of sustained, grainy textures and high-energy plateaus of loud, complex, drones- but within this somewhat cliche'd schema the two musicians managed to maintain a series of complex, nested trajectories that meant there was always some sense of a forward momentum to hold onto- further more each plateau was situated in a slightly different space, each type of section moving along its own path as the piece progressed.

Its perhaps also worth pointing out that the Stockhausen and this improv concert were not the only things going on in Berlin this Friday. There were on the echzeit calendar alone 4 or 5 other gigs. This is another quite baffling fact about Berlin- that there can be so many composers, musicians, etc. and that, frequently, the various 'scenes' seem to be in many ways quite discrete. Even within concerts at Ultraschall, some evenings attract a certain crowd, certain faces that you remember, many of whom are themselves composers or musicians, and other evenings attract entirely different crowds, also mostly consisting of artists of various kinds- but an entirely different subset.

Saturday January 26th: Last full concert day today. Very long afternoon, three "piano+" concerts featuring trio catch- an impressive and very young piano cello clarinet ensemble, and one of several all or mostly female ensembles represented in the festival.

piano+ 1, 3pm: Only managed to catch the second half of the concert, featuring two works by Xenakis and one by Jörg Widmann. I have little to no memory of Widmann's piece, other than that I enjoyed it quite a bit. The two Xenakis pieces were thrilling to hear live. Paille in the wind from 1992 is a striking miniature, belongs to a certain category of Xenakis works that maintain the visceral intensity that he is so well known for despite being materially seemingly quite distant from his most well known works. Simple in both form and material, large block chords in the piano and a strained, plaintive line in the cello, simple enough that it doesn't quite come across as solo and accompaniment. Something quite brutal about its bareness. Charisma for clarinet and cello I remember as moving through a series of durations of various grains and consistencies.

piano+ 2, 5pm: A challenging marathon of listening, Arnold Schönberg's complete solo piano repertoire, each set of pieces interspersed with a selection from Lei Liang's My Windows. At points totally compelling, particularly the beginning of Fünf Klavierstücke op. 23, but inevitably draining and largely characterised by struggling to maintain the attention these pieces require, regardless of how compelling the performance was. This was followed by a very quiet clarinet cello piano piece by Beat Furrer and a strange set of two miniatures by Franco Donatoni.

piano+ 3, 7pm: By this point totally drained and very hungry. What I'm sure was quite a beautiful song by Aribert Reimann slipped by, at which point my hunger developed into a tangible hatred for the long, subtle and incredibly quiet trio ... als 1... by Mark Andre, before turning into a neutral apathy- waiting for food- during the final Aperghis piece. Alas.

Definitely a more stomachable presentation of so much music than had it been lumped into a single 6 hour concert. Very much enjoyed hearing trio catch play, and the Schönberg marathon was an interesting listening experience- but ultimately proved to be too much at the end of 10 days of almost constant live music listening.