Where the Donaueschingen Musiktage guides its curatorial eye towards the new and experimental, Stuttgart’s own ECLAT festival boasts a more conservative aesthetic grounded in the work of established German composers and musical philosophies developed during the 1970’s. Although roughly 75% of programmed works were premieres, a wide range of aesthetics was presented, from painfully conservative, to fresh takes on modernism, to spectralism and new conceptualism. The artistic directors of the festival are Christine Fischer, also manager of the Stuttgart Neue Vocalsoloisten and artistic director of the Musik der Jahrhunderte institute in Stuttgart, and Björn Gottstein, musicologist and new music editor of the SWR Stuttgart.
A continuing theme of inquiry at the festival was the relationship of new music to institutions and the musical tradition. A discussion between Helmut Lachenmann (b. 1935) and several younger composers, including Brigitta Muntendorf (b. 1982, Ensemble Garage) and Hannes Seidl (b. 1977, stock11) revealed an opposition of philosophy regarding political content and commentary in music between this generation and the previous one. Lachenmann, who studied with Nono, related that he and his contemporaries such as Nicolaus Huber (b. 1939) experience music as a historically laden semiology; every sound, gesture, or instrumentation evoking a certain history of political entanglement as defined by classical music’s relation to politics in a variety of historical eras. This philosophy was evident in the Huber work, L’inframince – Extended performed by Ensemble Modern. The piece for large ensemble contained many silences, isolated single-instrument sounds, and a direction for the conductor to pick up a book by holding a single page between both hands and slowly turn to face each side of the audience.
It seemed to me, to generalize, that the younger generation regarded the “absolute”quality (though perhaps the composers of this music would not describe it as absolute) of such music as old-fashioned and therefore impotent, equally as institutionalized as a Beethoven string quartet. Ms. Muntendorf and Mr. Seidl belong to a generation of German composers whose interests involve elaborate electronic setups, sound samples from a broad range of material, and sound art and installation. Many of these works are conceptual; others use electronics and samples to connect classical music to more prevalent mediums of today’s culture. Both cases are alike in that an extra-musical purpose is established, which the music must either contend with or serve. What is it that so distinguishes this music from the political and electronic music of the past forty years? It turns out, it is the philosophy behind its very creation. As Lachenmann put it, sounding briefly like Mahler, it is the job of the composer to reflect his or her singular experience as a witness of the era, not to comment upon it.
As an American musician new to the new conceptualist movement sweeping the European scene, it was to my surprise that the most successful pieces of the weekend were the conceptual ones. The music theater work Buenos Aires, by Simon Steen-Anderson was a Borgesian sci-fi comedy turned dystopian think piece. The various mise en scènes included a jingle recording session and an alternate reality whose inhabitants were forced to use crude electronic gadgets to speak, before the action was revealed to be taking place as a rehearsal for a production at the ECLAT festival. The musicians were faced with increased levels of resistance throughout the work; the singers were challenged to perform an obscure operatic trio through pitchless electronic instruments, and the instrumentalists directed to inhibit their playing with such things as giant rubber bands, weights, and gloves, as the supposed director of the production maintained, “I want it to be real!” The Stuttgart Neue Vocalsoloisten proved their acting chops while the Norwegian ensemble asamisimasa showed impressive musical adaptability, one member even playing two clarinets at once. In addition to problems of dramatic interpretation during the digital age, another theme of the work was the role of censorship and institutionalism in artistic production, humorously highlighted when a member of the cast telephoned Christine Fischer, the director of ECLAT, during the performance. A reprise by the Ensemble Modern of the oft-performed Black Box Music by the same composer was also well received.
German composer Johannes Kreidler’s latest premiere questions the motivation behind our enjoyment and perception of classical music in the digital age. -Bolero is a literal presentation of Ravel’s Bolero, only without any melodic elements. Other implications are that of musical interest – how is it cultivated, what dynamics are at play to create the sense of a musical foreground and background – and the provocation of institutionalism inherent in conceptualism since its conception. Most of Kreidler’s oeuvre, for example Fremdarbeit or the music pieces for video, though conceptual, imply considerable craftsmanship and personal stylistic choices. In a manner reminiscent of Duchamp’s work, -Bolero defies our assumptions of labor and singularity in the creative act.
Also worthy of mention is Stefan Prins’s work for Trio Accanto, for which mirror box therapy, a treatment for phantom limb pain in amputation patients, acts as a metaphor for the interaction of acoustic and electronic means in music. Unfortunately, in Mirror Box (Flesh + Prosthesis #3), a clever and provocative concept, as well as expansive and virtuosic electronic writing, came at the expense of interest for the players. Brigitta Muntendorf’s work, The Key of Presence, for piano duo, featured contact mics on the chests of both players and a panoply of electronic jitters and delays reminiscent of horror film soundtracks. Again, development of the electronic material replaced any development of pianistic sound or technique in the piece, leaving this pianist to wonder if virtuosity and conceptualism are really so irreconcilable.
Funambule, a new trio by Georges Aperghis, pleased through familiar means: quickly repeating chords, similar pitch material mapped trickily over a closely related rhythmic spectrum, and whimsical percussion instrumentation, including a solo for the musical saw. The piece was a delightful contrast to the dour choral premiere Geistliche Dämmerung by equally established composer Philippe Manoury. Stand-out performances of the weekend included those by Trio Accanto (Nicolas Hodges, piano; Christian Dierstein, percussion; Marcus Weiss, saxophone), the Stuttgart Neue Vocalsoloisten (despite a few disappointingly conservative programming choices), and Florian Hölscher in his premiere of Alberto Posadas’s piano solo.