The most essential requirement for businesses to engage and retain millennial employees, according to a recent listicle in Forbes magazine, is an adaptable office plan with portable furniture. As the millennial generation enters the realms of careerism and consumerism, countless facets of society are rushing to adapt to our revolutionary needs. One of said facets is, of course, the contemporary music industry. The opening concert for Berlin’s MärzMusik festival, entitled “Liquid Room,” created a concert space within the Haus der Berliner Festspiele which was a new music translation of the quintessential tech startup office: Listeners were led through side entrances into a cavernous black space housing four separate stages; aside from bleachers set up behind one stage, the only seats available were portable cardboard stools. A tech tower that commanded the middle of the space was manned by three sound and light engineers and enough state of the art technology to make any millennial feel elegant and cool.
“Liquid Room” is a conceptual concert format designed by Ictus Ensemble, who performed on Friday alongside ensemble mosaik. Audience members were encouraged to walk through the space appreciating a variety of soundscapes, and were also free to travel between the concert space and lobby bar. This increased mobility resulted in a sharpening of interest. Conversation within the performance space was at a minimum and the sold-out audience hardly waned during the four-hour concert. The great meta-gesture came a third of the way through the program, as the proverbial “fourth wall” of the space was raised to reveal that the event was taking place on a traditional concert stage. The crowd of listeners looking out on an empty, darkened auditorium, as well as a video interpretation of Berio’s 1976 Sequenza VII for Violin projected on a screen above the seats, nicely dramatized the changing role of the concert attendee in contemporary music.
The listening experience was just as fluid as the physical, as the multiple stages insured no downtime between pieces and the end of once piece was occasionally elided with the beginning of the next. Huge projecting screens sleekly announced the beginning of each new work. The length and narrative thrust of the program, however, caused some pieces to assume positions of less importance than others, becoming programmatic lulls between more exciting numbers. While two thirds of the program was composed in the past ten years, older works that were doubtless conceived with a more traditional presentation in mind sometimes suffered. Alvin Lucier’s 1988 amplified triangle solo, Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra, came across as an afterthought, as did James Tenney’s 1971 work, Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, which followed Enno Poppe’s exhilarating Rad 2003 for two keyboards, a clear highpoint of the concert. Conversely, Jürg Frey’s half-hour long acoustic Streichquartett II (1998-2000) was an effective point of quiet reflection in the sometimes sensationalist program.
While contemporary music and techno are certainly aesthetic neighbors, Bruce McClure’s Modified Projector Performance was an unnecessary and disruptive nod to the latter style, proving the contemporary music world’s ongoing struggle to showcase this affinity tastefully and provocatively. A hint: Don’t program one representative “loud piece.” Any electronic music fan knows many better venues for cutting-edge techno in Berlin.
Other musical standouts were Eva Reiter’s fierce gamba performance in Bernhard Gander’s 2Bad for gamba and electric guitar, as well as her similarly fearless ensemble piece, Stalkers Resolution. Gander’s virtuosic 2007 piano quartet, schöne worte, was a death metal love child of Ligeti and Xenakis. In another welcome move to involve the audience and bring more visual influence into music performance, Clara Iannotta’s Limun for violin and viola, the score was projected for performers and audience to read together.
MärzMusik is directed for the first time this year by the fascinating modern-day impresario Berno Odo Polzer, who previously directed the Wien Modern festival and has been a tutor at Darmstadt. Polzer is reshaping the festival into one of radical intellectual inquiry, having changed its subheading from “festival for contemporary music” to, literally, “festival for time issues.” Polzer’s influence is clear in the impressively lengthy events that challenge the boundary between concert and installation, as well as in the cooperation with many hip, genre-defying venues around Berlin. On Monday, John Cage’s eight-hour long sound projection, Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), was shown in the Liquidrom, a spa and dynamic event space whose typical performances include “romantic harp” and “liquid water sounds.” Polzer’s closing oeuvre, “The Long Now,” will involve over twenty-four hours of live performances, film projections, and sound installations in the fashionable converted warehouse, Kraftwerk. Also planned is an exciting retrospective of recent multimedia works of Aperghis, and a daily discussion forum entitled “Thinking Together.” Polzer’s audacious week-long program investigates the perception of time as well as the timeliness that defines contemporary music as an art form. It transforms the formalism of the listening experience, and the presentation of lengthy programs shows a respect for the interest and scope of the audience on a grand scale which, I think, would be difficult to find in the States. As we approach the zenith of the millennial era, Germany’s reputation as a flagship of the avant-garde proves constant.