Author: Kurt Gottschalk

Ostrava 2013

If I might be permitted to adulterate a bit of Emily Dickinson, the 2013 edition of the Ostrava Days festival opened twice before its opening. (In addition to hosting a weeklong institute for student composers and two other evenings of composition and improvisation, all before the official Philharmonic Hall opening night.) The intense biennial in the Eastern end of the Czech Republic has long been known for stretching into long nights across August. But this year seemed especially expansive with an unofficial opening night featuring a four-hour Philip Glass performance on August 16 and a presentation, one week later, of Petr Kotik’s nearly six-hour Many Many Women.

Glass 12 Parts

The Philip Glass Ensemble in mid performance of Glass’s Music in 12 Parts. Photo courtesy Ostrava Days.

Glass and his Ensemble performed his Music in 12 Parts (composed 1971-1974) in the Gong, a massive sphere that was an underground gas tank before being raised last year and renovated into an impressive auditorium, nicely finished without trying to hide its former life. Kotik booked Glass and company after seeing them play at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in February 2012, and it was far and away the most popular concert of the festival, with a good 80% of the theater’s 1,500 seats filled. The spiraling repetitions of the music—presented with three intermissions—were remarkable inside the big globe, the changes fluid, always present yet often imperceptible (with the exception of some surprise dissonance at the beginning of the seventh part).

A full week later, Kotik (the festival founder, artistic director, and leader of the resident chamber ensemble Ostravská Banda, as well as New York City’s S.E.M. Ensemble) presented Many, Many Women, his setting of a Gertrude Stein text which (like the Glass) calls to question the use of the phrase “evening length” to denote a work of a mere two hours. But where Glass for the most part had all his musicians going all the time, Kotik worked in strict rotation and augmentation amongst the paired singers, flutes, trumpets, and trombones; instrumental combinations changed every three to five minutes. It’s an active piece, creating a sensation of ever-shifting and interlocking elements, as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that morphed as they were fitted together—duos, quartets, up to a tentet at times, and finally a full dozen at 75 minutes in, although not for long before the basses dropped out. But it didn’t mark the culmination of a cycle; it’s not as easy as that. The score is linear and it’s scripted from beginning to end, but the pairs of players are free to enter each of their sections when they choose. It is also quite arguably the most effective musical setting of Stein to have been attempted, and that includes Virgil Thomson! To read her texts on the page is (as with any great writer) a rich and deeply private experience. To hear it read aloud is exhilarating, as the hypnotized mind can wander without leading the text astray. But music courses many channels, and Kotik better than anyone has realized the poetics of her repetitions in a layered, auditory setting.

Kotik’s Nine + 1 (composed this year and presented later in the week) was a piano and drum kit boxing match with pizzicato strings finding their way into the gaps and brass and winds yelling from the sidelines until the strings demanded some romance. Eventually they too were pulled into the fray. A lush piano interlude played by the stunning Daan Vaandewalle pulled the factions together and then a second, unaccompanied piano section ended the piece mid-stream. Kotik’s string quartet Torso (2011-12), played by the OBSQ (Ostrava Banda String Quartet), opened in lovely unison then pushed into quick density then pulled back the fast lines and crossfaded into another elegiac passage, with brisk arpeggios occasionally returning ever so quietly in the violin. Krulik also played institute resident Kristina Wolfe’s Planctus that same night, a dense and lovely six minutes of incongruous lines and scratchy cello that at some points felt quite formal and at others left the impression of turntable mixing.

Kotik was represented once again during the festival in Bernhard Lang’s 2011 work Monadologie XVII [SheWasOne – For Petr Kotik] played by the resident chamber ensemble Ostravská Banda conducted by the dedicatee. Kotik introduced it by repeating a segment from his Many Many Women, which was the basis of Lang’s piece. Monadologie echoed the Kotik-by-way-of-Stein overlaid phrases with 13 musicians, including Kubera on piano and synthesizer, but perhaps this time with a stammer: muted piano strings struggled against the violin, viola, cello, and bass, locked in a loop while insistent rhythms were set by percussion and reeds. Lang’s Monadologie XX … For Franz was played the following night by the German ensemble elole-Klaviertrio. It was a mechanistic re-envisioning of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E Flat Major, op. 100. Despite the conceit, and even with the use of extended technique to create a sort of fractal echoing, powerful feelings of urgency and, later, lament came through.

The stellar elole also played Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s ghostly Trio No. 2 (1987), with whispering strings bowed on the bridge, the piano sounding only several minutes. While it was hushed, it wasn’t all so quiet; and for hushed music, it was quite fast and full. Sciarrino clearly loves and fully inhabits his sound world, but a lot of things happen there even if he tends to stay within his own boundaries. Such is the case with his 1984 Lohengrin Azione invisible for soloist, instruments, and voices—an hour-long “short story” (based on the Wagner opera, though Sciarrino himself avoids the word “opera”) which, for me, was far and away the highpoint of the festival. Scripted from the point of view of Elsa, Lohengrin’s bride, who is accused of losing her virginity before the wedding, the operetta was performed by the Ostravská Banda under Roland Klutting and sung with an elusive pathos by Marianne Pousseur (who was anchored to a sort of tombstone podium). Pousseur played the part as a child in a wedding gown, a large balloon above her head. The ensemble, which included three male singers who accompanied her vocal lines—which combined singing, guttural whispers, gnashing, crying, exaggerated exhalations, and chomping of teeth—was never more than incidental and yet supremely dramatic.

Although not present at the festival, Sciarrino tied Kotik for most-played composer after the last-minute addition of his brief Capriccio No. 4 (1975-6) by the staggering violinist Hana Kotková. Sciarrino may also be the Ostrava patron saint of hushed tones: light bowing and blowing was pervasive, especially among student pieces, so much so that it almost came to feel like it was a given. That said, when Daniel Lo Ting-cheung’s nine-minute Rude Awakening for an 80-piece orchestra built to an onslaught of five percussionists hitting hard with the full contingent punctuating, it was truly exciting. The Iranian composer Idin Samimi Mofakham’s Mirage nicely melded the near silent strings with Chris Nappi playing percussion on the surface of a container of water (even if it seemed less cunning during the second half of its 25 minutes, making it one of the longer student pieces played).
Also before the titular “Opening Night” was a concert of improvisations and small ensemble compositions at an old coal mine which featured works by Alvin Lucier, Christian Wolff, and Jon Gibson, whose Down the Road (played by Joseph Kubera on piano and Chris Nappi on percussion) was the standout, with Gibson’s spirited soprano saxophone injecting an energy into the tightly constructed yet lightly swinging piece. The evening also included a spirited improvisation by Gibson and Wolff with past and present institute students.

The final events before the proper opening on August 25 were an homage to Luigi Russolo (author of The Art of Noise and arguably the first person to build something with no function other than to make “nonmusical” noise) followed by a concert by the New York violin duo String Noise, both held in an institutional building converted into an art gallery. Highlights of the afternoon noise fest included a set by vocalist Amelia Cuni (whose interpretation of Cage’s ragas, the Solo for Voice No. 58 from his Songbooks released on CD by Other Minds is well worth seeking out) and instrumentalist Werner Durand. Acoustic sound samples emanating from (and being molded by) the electronics were pitted against some unusual vocal techniques such as singing into a pie tin (which resembles the sound of radio interference) and more often using a megaphone than a microphone. While employing reeds and a variety of tubes, Durand also pushed electronics waves of tambura into the wash. Also of interest was Pavel Z. and the Opening Performance Orchestra, who collaged train sounds and video with four laptops, three of Russolo’s intonarumori, and narrator. String Noise played a bold set of duets composed for them and, in the case of Robert Constable’s Vicious Cycles, the pair with backing tape. The set culminated in a matrimonial humoresque by Eric Lyon entitled The Book of Strange Positions, and they encored with Lyon’s arrangement of L.A. punk band the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil.” It was not just a nicely irreverent program during a fairly formal festival; it proved to be a formidable display of virtuosity.

Amelia Cuni

Amelia Cuni (left) working the megaphone. Photo courtesy Ostrava Days.

It should, of course, go without saying that a part of such a festival is (or had better be) musicianship at an absolutely stellar level, and yet letting it go at “it goes without saying” would seem a shame. An evening under the banner “Into the Night” included a remarkable succession of string solos, which began with Hana Kotková’s aforementioned delivery of the Sciarrino capriccio. Niolaus Schlierf then deftly played Berio’s 1967 solo viola workout Sequenza VI followed by Conrad Harris effortlessly tackling the first four of Cage’s infamously difficult Freeman Etudes. Harris also gave a staggering reading of Iannis Xenakis’s 1991 Dox-Orkh for orchestra and soloist. Opening with a strangely dissonant fanfare of reeds and horn and an off-kilter violin, the full regimen then came in in profoundly out-of-time unison figures, all doing a wonderful job—ironically perhaps—at sounding as though the whole thing were poorly performed except for the violin soloist who was put in the best possible light. It was in that sense almost funny but it was also breathtaking, its dissonance coming to feel, over 20 minutes’ time, like the way of the world. The full outfit of strings sounded like a very old organ that was panting for breath. Harris, on the other hand, was lithe and on task, coming off as more precise against the orchestrated quagmire. It was, in short, fascinating, and ultimately resolved with the orchestra fully in time and on cue.

Later in the evening of solo string pieces, Pauline Kim Harris approached John Zorn’s 2011 solo Passagen (a work which she premiered and recorded) with supreme confidence. Joseph Kubera, a fixture of the festival, beautifully played Julius Eastman’s 1986 Piano 2, an unusually lovely and nebulous solo. And Kotková boldly shone again in Kaija Saariaho’s 1994 Graal théâtre on the opening night with the Janáčkova filharmonie Ostrava. Its eerie themes and amazing soloing darted about underneath the orchestral blanket which at the same time worked a stereo field between the piano and the bass viols at the opposite end of the assembly.

The opening night proper, then, at Philharmonic Hall, featured an orchestra of more than 50 players, including five contrabasses and a harp. Carola Bauckholt’s Helicopter, written in 2001-02 for the amazing vocal interpreter Jaap Blonk was built from, very literally, the sounds of a helicopter. But unlike a helicopter, it was fairly quiet and traveled over the course of its 20 minutes from something fairly soft to begin with into a pronounced whisper from Blonk as well as the strings: It never took off, but doing so didn’t seem the point. Christian Wolff’s half-hour individuals, collective received its European premiere on the opening night, following its world premiere at Kotik’s Beyond Cage festival in New York last year. It was an amalgam of starts and fits in small groupings across the orchestra with complimentary sections seemingly placed end-to-end and interspersed with occasional fragmented fanfares. As the piece built, the voices found congruity with each other, a mysterious commonality as the groupings—and what they voiced—never seemed to repeat. It was at once akin to and very different from Bauckholt’s Helicopter, which was more unified but also refused to build to a conclusion. It was full of anticipation, a dynamic in which Wolff excels. The following night featured Wolff’s 2012 work Trust (played by the Ostravská Banda). Immediately before conducting the piece, Kotik remarked that it was “very similar” to individuals, collective. It was much smaller, employing only nine instruments and lasting just ten minutes, but it too dealt in parsed phrases and toyed with resolution. Sandwiched between the Bauckholt and the Wolff was an enticing work by institute resident Ravi Kittappa titled exordium, four minutes of pulse and counterpoint moving extremely quickly like flies on a pond surface, one ripple starting as the last died off.

Charlemagne

Charlemagne Palestine (left) with Lucie Vitková (middle), James Ilgenfritz (right) and teddy bears (beneath the piano).
Photo by Kurt Gottschalk.

Charlemagne Palestine was not unannounced but was still a surprise guest at the festival, his long, improvised meditations being a bit out of step with the composed orchestral works that usually dominate the programs here. But he played a wonderful piece to which he gave the title Schlingen Schängen for Ostrava. It opened, as per his usual, with the placement of teddy bears around the piano and organ and the ringing of a brandy snifter. He then took a seat at the piano and began a repeated figure over a drone provided by James Ilgenfritz’s bass and Lucie Vitková’s accordion. They were soon joined by Renāte Stivriņa at Philharmonic Hall’s massive pipe organ. Stivriņa put weights on keys and primarily played the stops, avoiding the bass pedals until 20 minutes in. One huge, snowballing chord drenched the room. After closing the long arc of the piece, Palestine said to institute resident Rita Ueda, “Come play the bells – hard.”

kotik at church

Kotik leading the S.E.M. Ensemble at St. Wenceslas Church. Photo by Kurt Gottschalk.

A concert at the 13th-century St. Wenceslas Church included a gorgeous performance of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel featuring vocalists Kamala Sankaram and Silvie Jensen which filled the sunlit chapel. Belgian pianist Daan Vanderwalle, another Ostrava Days virtuoso cornerstone, performed Galina Ustvolskaya’s Composition No. 2 “Dies Irae” (1972-73) with S.E.M. Ensemble. It is a pounding lament, quite literally, with the heavy piano lines abetted by an octet of basses and a wooden box being hammered away at by Chris Nappi. Those two works, plus a number of student pieces, somehow made a perfect frame for Ligeti’s 1982 Trio played by Vanderwalle, Conrad Harris, and Daniel Costello on French horn. There is probably no context where Ligeti isn’t refreshing—amidst minimalists, after a car chase, during a break in the evening news. His music is fresh, thoughtful, and digestible, and his compelling trio made for an enjoyable respite during the intensity of the church concert; it seemed like a reward after hard work until it grew fragmented. Short lyrical lines began to discontinue, shared statements fell apart, the equanimity among the three began to unravel and each guarded his own corner, only to go positively baroque, then thoughtful, then profound. It ultimately made for an unerring joy ride.

A new choreography by Daniel Squire for Cage’s Concert for Orchestra (e.g. a piano-less performance of his Concert for Piano and Orchestra), Aria, and Fontana Mix (played concurrently, naturally) was presented at the large Jiří Myron Theater. It was impossible not to think of Merce Cunningham during all of this, especially since Squire’s approach was not entirely dissimilar: dancers existed in their own cells but occasionally moved with a common physical language. Eventually the company of close to 20 took the stage en masse and spun their way off again. Sankaram gave the vocal solo an animated read. She was jazzy at times but more often slid between operatic vibrato and childlike, gleeful yells. The electronics of Fontana Mix were slow to come, but eventually overtook the room.

The final day included a matinee of resident compositions followed by an evening that proved a perfect finale for a headspinning couple of weeks. Highlights from the afternoon concert included New Yorker James Ilgenfritz’s Burnham’s Folly, a piece inspired by the famous Flatiron Building in Midtown Manhattan. It started with a jazzy chaos then found a peace, then bits of quiet noise, and ended in an unexpected congruity—perhaps like traffic patterns on 23rd Street. Michal Indrák’s Standing Wave was a hypnotic piece of counterpoint between wind and mixed ensemble. While it wore its structure on its sleeve (the two sections grew slower and increasingly out of sync with each other), it was great to hear the process work its way through and to contemplate just how slow it might get, which by the end was nearly a snail’s BPM. Nissim Schaul’s Hell Study for two percussionists, blocky prepared piano, bowed violin, cello, flute, and trombone came off as cinematic, but there were several movies playing at the same time. The work was actually rooted in Schaul’s impressions of Bosch and in the sound of the hurdy gurdy, although there wasn’t one present. Instead, cello and bass clarinet swapped off providing drones and the impression of keyed strings. Lörinc Muntag’s 18,8, scored for piano, cello, and two percussionists, began with several minutes of beautiful stillness, nothing but sustained muted cello notes, before the other instruments entered making the cello seem like a clothesline onto which sounds were very occasionally hung. The music’s approach to space would have made Feldman proud.

The final concert featured orchestral works by two more institute residents (both from New York) and one esteemed recent graduate, as well as two remarkable works by composers outside the institute. The first half was quite daring, with three similar pieces—or at least three similar concepts—executed rather differently. Jack Callahan’s If You Cannot Ignore the Response – Delay It was one of the more successful of several exercises in sustained tone over the course of the festival, moving pulses held for 5 to 15 seconds across the orchestra, each one varied by shape and attack. Other events were gradually introduced, at the forefront a very quiet bass drum in uneven time and eventually breaking down into individual tones guided by the oboe.


Lucie Vitková, a 2009 institute graduate, presented her master’s degree project, bearing the not falsely modest title MAsterpiece. Vitková sat in the reed section playing harmonica alongside accordion and melodica, with an orchestra further complemented by Diale Mabitsela on electric guitar and Callahan on a less-than-subtle snare drum. Vitková also found her way through the problem of static music. Percussion popped around the perimeter of the room and while many of the sounded notes lasted between one and three seconds, the overall effect was of a serpentine drone. Ben Richter’s Farther Reaches was perhaps the most “listenable” of the three. A low tone pervaded with bows rolled on the backs of violins, sounding something like the crackling of a fire until gong rolls and muted piano strings broke the stasis. Still, it was barely an arc.


The second half tore it up with two Czech premieres composed 90 years apart. Helmet Oehring’s Die vier Jahreszeiten (e.g. “The Four Seasons”) with 15 strings (the sole bassist doubling on harmonica) quoting and vivisecting Vivaldi with, again, sustained tones and intermittent pulses. But vertigo-inducing unison lines in arco and pizzicato dominated the piece as soloist Pauline Kim Harris slowly became apparent, before dropping back into the ensemble and then rising even more boldly a few minutes later. It often seemed like a solo blown up to the size of a string orchestra, or a violin duo between one player and fifteen players. But their numbers were made apparent when the ensemble was led to make staccato vocal utterances introduced by Harris, percussiveooh ooh uh soh oh suh toh kinds of things. Later passages of paper tearing or bow whispering were quickly, almost immediately, interrupted by more unison strings. One would be forgiven for counting at least six or seven seasons, but in any event it ended with a surprisingly sweet melody, a solstice snowfall, complete with softly ringing bells.

The final piece made for a rather perfect ten-minute festival finale. Is it possible that in 1921 Edgard Varèse touched on everything heard over two weeks in 2013 with his Offrandes? Well, no, but with the expansiveness of the orchestra and given enormous voice by soprano Sandra Rosales, it still seemed to presage in reverse everything heard in Ostrava Days 2013—if not in stasis, at least in velocity.

The Second Performance and Beyond

Music Stands

“Take a stand!” by Bill Selak on Flickr.

On June 13 in Brooklyn, a triumvirate of concerts occurred that might have been unthinkable 40 years ago. Frederic Rzewski’s musically and politically radical 1971/72 suite Coming Together/Attica was presented at two venues by three ensembles, each of the groups having planned their concerts independently, without knowledge of the other productions in the works.

If such confluence can be taken as evidence that Coming Together/Attica is a part of the contemporary repertoire today, that might come as a surprise to people who were present for the piece’s premiere—or, at the very least, to a couple of critics. Covering what he termed the “local premiere” at the State University of New York-Buffalo for The New York Times on April 12, 1974, the critic Harold C. Schonberg complained about Coming Together—which sets a paragraph written by a prisoner during the Attica prison riots to an insistently repeating five-note motif—that “the narrator operates almost like a tape loop, constantly repeating sentences. A few minutes of this, all right. But 20 minutes, and it ends up music to sleep by.”
Curiously, the Times ran a review just over a year later—on June 4, 1975—of a concert also presenting Coming Together as a premiere. (Perhaps this was the New York City premiere, although the article doesn’t specify.) The piece fared only slightly better this time around. Peter G. Davis wrote of the concert at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, “Mr. Rzewski played his music brilliantly, but diluted the dramatic effect by declaiming the text in a barely audible and unbelievably monotone drone.” That’s all the consideration the piece got in the review of the concert, which included five other works labeled as “premieres.”

It would seem a hard road to travel from dismissive remarks in the Times to performances by Ictus Percussion, ThingNY, and Newspeak all coinciding on the same night. (The first two performances were part of Conrad Tao’s Unplay Festival at powerHouse Arena in Dumbo; the third occurred during the first night of a three-night run by Newspeak with new choreography by Rebecca Lazier at the Invisible Dog Center in Brooklyn Heights.) Of course, how a piece goes from a perhaps uneventful premiere to even somewhat standard repertoire is the new music million dollar question. But one thing seems certain: There has to be a second performance.

Rzewski Opus One LP

The original Opus One recording of Coming Together/Attica is now a rare collector’s item, but there have been at least four other recordings of these works since then.

Coming Together and its companion piece Attica (which are sometimes given the subtitles Attica I and Attica II) did grow in reputation in the years following its premiere performances. Writing about its LP release for The Village Voice in 1978, the critic and composer Tom Johnson said it epitomized a move away from chord progressions among such composers as Steve Reich and Brian Eno. “Of the many recordings of new music that are almost totally unknown, Frederic Rzewski’s Opus One album (Opus One-20) is about the finest one that I happen to know about. […] I’ve listened to it many times, been touched by its political messages, felt its rhythmic power, and strained by concentration to the hilt trying to follow its melodies as they gradually grow longer and longer.” High praise for a piece that, seven years after its composition, was still “almost totally unknown.”

Rzewski’s politically charged diptych has been performed consistently over the years. It has appeared on at least four other albums since the Opus One LP, and with Rzewski’s imprimatur, the score has been available online as a freely downloadable PDF making it readily available for performance anywhere. It’s also been in ThingNY’s repertoire for about five years and they had performed it a half dozen times, including on election night 2012 at Spectrum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, prior to the Unplay Festival.

For the ensemble’s vocalist Gelsey Bell, the piece is still politically and musically relevant some 40 years after its conception. It was Bell who suggested they include the piece (which, not incidentally, was written more than a decade before she was born) on their Unplay program.

“Structurally it feels like a piece from the ‘70s,” she said, echoing Johnson’s assessment. “What’s nice about it is it does leave a lot open to interpretation. It feels like us doing it right now so it does still feel politically relevant. That and the fact that prisons are still a very relevant topic–it’s going to be relevant for a long time.”

The bold repetitions might not be as shocking today, she noted, but that doesn’t take away from the music.
“I think it’s a beautiful piece,” she said. “Now it might not be very surprising. Contemporary new music audiences aren’t so surprised by it, but its beauty is really obvious.”

Younger ensembles playing a piece—as with ThingNY taking on Rzewski—isn’t just a strong indicator of a piece’s chances at longevity; it’s arguably a necessary condition. Without what conductor and percussionist Steven Schick refers to as a “beta generation” of performers, a work can quickly be lost to history.

Schick

Steven Schick.
Photo by Bill Dean, courtesy Aleba & Co.

“There’s this alpha generation of performers who have contact with the composer and will inject the composition into the repertoire,” Schick said. “And then there’s what I think of as the beta generation of performers who maybe don’t have contact with the composer and make it into what we think of it as. The beta generation coming up is the sign of a piece’s success.”
Schick is big on repeat performances and said he’s performed Bone Alphabet—which he commissioned from Brian Ferneyhough in 1992—some 300 times.

“Most commissioned pieces I perform, if they aren’t picked up two or three years after I premiere it, I think something went wrong. Maybe this is more typical in percussion because we don’t have a large repertoire. If there’s a new piece by David Lang and it hasn’t been performed 40 times the day after exclusivity has expired, then I don’t know what’s going on.”

As a conductor, Schick has faced some challenging premieres, notably presenting James Dillon’s Nine Rivers at Miller Theater on the Columbia University campus in 2011. The massive undertaking calls for three stage settings and is intended to be performed on a single night with the audience moving between venues. Five scheduled premieres in Europe were canceled before Miller Theater took it on, spreading it over three nights instead of different venues. But the conductor quit three days before the opening night. Schick was called in to save the day and presented the expansive work again at the Holland Festival in June.
“The idea of maintaining some kind of coherence was very difficult,” he said of the Nine Rivers premiere. “Exactly where you are in the piece becomes a lot clearer on the third, fourth, fifth performance. The first time it was literally a case of ‘let’s get through this without anything terrible happening.’”

Schick will return to Miller this winter for two nights of concerts celebrating his 60th birthday. One night will consist of what he calls “foundational works,” including pieces by Xenakis and Stockhausen, while the second night will feature works he’s commissioned, including two premieres.

Miller Theater will also be celebrating a birthday this fall, marking 25 years since renovating and changing its name from McMillin Theater to its current moniker. Melissa Smey, who has worked with the theater for 12 years and has been executive director since 2009, is well aware of the prestige in presenting premieres, even if it doesn’t affect ticket sales.

Melissa Smey

Melissa Smey.
Photo by Eileen Barroso, courtesy Aleba & Co.

“There’s a received wisdom that they’re newsworthy; you’re adding to the field of music,” she said. “There’s an idea that there’s a glamour in a world premiere, it’s exciting, it’s new. And as a presenter, you’re getting some input as to what the piece will be.”
Smey invited British vocal troupe The Tallis Scholars to perform at the theater this fall (the concert marking yet another birthday, the ensemble’s 40th anniversary) and has commissioned composer Michael Nyman to write a new piece for them. As the commissioner, she said, she is working with Nyman to decide such details as what the accompanying instrumentation of the piece will be.

But when that piece might get a second performance is an open question. It could remain in the Tallis songbook, or of course be picked up by other ensembles. And Miller does make efforts to re-present works that they commissioned on anniversaries of their premieres. But for the most part, she said, the presenter and commissioner’s work is done once the piece is premiered.
“You have dozens of ensembles that are commissioning pieces and then they become a part of their work. It’s different for presenters. You’re serving an audience and you can’t do the same piece 18 times.

“But who decided that it must have a second performance for it to be successful?” she added. “If you were to ask a composer to write a piece and it will get played once or it will never get played, I bet they’d pick that it get played once.”

Certainly that much is true for pianist and composer Anthony Coleman. “Do I actually seek second performances?” he said with a laugh. “I guess as much as I actively seek anything.”

With at least as much history in the world of downtown improvisation as he has in formal composition, Coleman may be more accustomed than some to the sometimes ephemeral nature of musical performance. But of course he’s not inclined to turn up his nose at return engagements.

“You don’t know if a group loves you if they give a premiere,” he said. “You just know they love giving premieres. If they play it the second time, you start to think maybe they like you. It’s like a second date. A first date is so fraught–you come with your shit and you try to think of something to say. When I work with people like Tilt or Either/Or, I get the sense that we’re building a relationship. It’s very rare that the first performance doesn’t have that edge of nervousness around it.”
According to Coleman, a piece needs time—and performances—to really be discovered:

Anthony Coleman

Anthony Coleman

The good performance doesn’t usually come until a few more down the line. I wasn’t at the first performance of the Carter Double Concerto, but for sure people were like, “How is this piece supposed to unfold?” It’s like D-Day with the guns blazing and then after a few performances you can start to see what’s going on.

The first time I saw the Ligeti Études it was by a pianist named Volker Banfield, and it’s no disrespect to Volker Banfield to say he was like an explorer. He was the first person to discover the Zambezi Falls. Now it’s been discovered. It’s been proven that it can be played; it’s encouraged other pianists. And now there’s a lot more quality, there’s a lot more ease, there’s almost a philosophical formula you could say. Once somebody does it, you know that it can be done. And then a piece starts to get its own history, its own culture.

One way of ensuring repeat performances, of course, is to have a standing group—as is the case with the Bang on a Can All-Stars or Steve Reich and Musicians, for example—so that pieces can be programmed more or less at will.

“Premieres are exciting, but I think that when you’re talking about as deep an experience as hearing music, it doesn’t have anything to do with that,” said composer and Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe. “A lot of times people are like, ‘It’s already been done in New York.’ What? It’s a great piece! Why not do it again? There’s always somebody putting together an In C. Something like that, it becomes a cult piece.”

The Bang on a Can organization launched its People’s Commissioning Fund in 1998—well before such crowd-funding models as Kickstarter and Indiegogo—as a way to generate new pieces, and it has averaged three new works a year for its performance ensemble, the Bang on a Can All Stars.

“There are keepers, shall we say,” Wolfe explained. “When you commission a piece, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes everybody is struck by a piece and we say, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to tour this piece.’”
There are many factors other than intrinsic worthiness which determine if a piece will get repeat performances after the annual PCF concert, she added.

“It really varies,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a complicated piece or it involves the composer having to be there. It’s interesting being a composer; you have to make the art and service the art. There is this part of the profession where you are making it possible for people to hear your piece. Some of the most important pieces I’ve written–like, ‘Do I really want to write for nine bagpipes?’–I’ve been amazed they’ve been done again. You just never know.”
Another thing that can guarantee repeat performances, of course, is if the funding for a commission comes with that as a requirement. Chamber Music America routinely makes multiple performances a requirement, according to CMA Chief Executive Officer Margaret Lioi.

“We are making the investment in the commission on behalf of the funder, so just to have one performance seems a little slight,” Lioi said. “We are very committed to living composers and new work, and they need to be heard by as many people as possible. Not every group commissions new work. CMA has many different kinds of members and some members are really very devoted to the traditional, western canon of music.”

Like Schick, Lioi stressed that a piece is unlikely to survive if it isn’t played: “Hearing new music and supporting composers is very much a part of the ecology of chamber music and is what will keep it vital not just for the contemporary audience but in 25 or 100 years.”

Likewise New Music USA–the parent organization of NewMusicBox–funds composers with an eye toward the longevity of their work.

“We rarely fund composers directly but we’ll probably start doing more of that,” according to Director of Grantmaking Programs Scott Winship. “However it would be unlikely that we would fund a composer without some ensemble or presenter backing it up so we see a premiere.”

Under the Commissioning Music USA program, New Music USA has traditionally required four performances of a funded piece and has encouraged that there be more, Winship said.

“It’s important in helping the piece move on,” he explained. “The ‘one-and-done’ idea wasn’t something we wanted to do. Having multiple performances gives the work a chance to shine. It’s really polished after the four performances and getting it out there gives a work a greater chance at being included in an ensemble’s repertoire. Having a piece toured and put before a lot of audiences is great for the composer.”

Eric Lyon may not have the benefit of a standing ensemble of All Stars, but he has developed a close relationship with violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, writing works with them in mind and even giving the duo its stage name, String Noise. Second performances, he said, come “only in my dreams—or nightmares. Most violinists you show my work to, they’d run the other way screaming.

“I used to write for violin or oboe but now I write for Pauline or Conrad,” Lyon explained. “There are pieces I wrote for [flutist] Margaret Lancaster. She has such a strong personality that infuses it. I took the piece and had another flutist play it who was very much a delicate flower, and it became a very different piece. It was kind of shocking.”
Lyon wrote Noise Tryptych and Book of Strange Positions for the String Noise duo and has arranged punk and new wave songs specifically for them, making quick, pounding string minuets out of Black Flag’s “Gimme Gimme” and the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil,” and giving a Reichian phase treatment to Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun.” He also scored the Psycho Killer Variations, based on the Talking Heads’ song, for Kim Harris.
String Noise has built up a book of pieces written for them, not just by Lyon but a number of composers, including Petr Kotik, Todd Reynolds, Elizabeth Hoffman, Matthew Welch, and others. And they not only give the pieces repeat performances, they sometimes repeat entire programs based on what Conrad Harris referred to as “cohesive units of composers.”

But, he added, he still anticipates the excitement of the first performance.

“When we have six new pieces or eleven new pieces it is a little daunting,” Harris said. “Part of the excitement is actually trying to play it. You’re probably going to have the composer in attendance and you’re going to have the excitement of the people in the audience; it sort of transcends the experience. It gets better if there is a level of excitement; it has a different energy.”
“The point of the premiere is to be all that you can be in the time you have,” Kim Harris added. “People aren’t expecting perfection. Sometimes composers aren’t satisfied or performers aren’t satisfied, but that’s the way it is.”

Kim Harris premiered Variations on Psycho Killer on April 14, 2012, at the Dimenna Center for Classical Music on Manhattan’s West Side. Since then, she has performed the piece at Bowery Electric and BargeMusic and has shot a video for it (the video itself premiering now on NewMusicBox). While the premiere performance was exhilarating, she said, it was also far from perfect. She had received the score only days before the performance and then on the night of the concert she forgot to turn off her bridge pickup before playing the piece, which calls for some fairly aggressive technique.


“Every time I would bow or finger there would be excessive pick-up noise,” she explained. “But just getting through the piece, I think, is part of the whole phenomenon, and not knowing what the piece is going to sound like—there’s no recording you can listen to. The thrill of learning something quickly and playing it for the first time—I’m addicted to it! I keep wanting people to give me something new.”

Flutist Amelia Lukas has been presenting new music since she moved to New York in 2007 under the banner Ear Heart Music, first at the Tank and more recently at Roulette. And while her fledgling organization isn’t in a position to commission pieces yet, Lukas does work to pair composers with dancers, video artists, and people from other disciplines to create a new experience even if it’s not a premiere performance.

“A lot of what I’m doing instead of commissioning is matchmaking,” she said. “They’ll come to me and say, ‘We have this musical idea’ and I can make suggestions about like minded artists they can work with. There’s so much potential for this kind of music to be happening right now. Groups want to do it. Audiences want to hear it. Audiences are looking for that total immersion experience when they go to concerts and I’m just working to provide a space where that can happen, in all ways—space, funding, resources, and developing audiences that have an understanding of music as a social response.”

But while creating a rich concert experience is important to Lukas, presenting premieres may not be one of Ear Heart Music’s primary goals:

Amelia Lukas

Amelia Lukas

The second, third, fourth, fifth hearings are as important as the premiere. Premieres have this built-in promotion machine, but they’re very often just as quickly forgotten about. It’s only when you have these repeat performances that you can sort the catalog and understand where the piece falls in terms of context and longevity.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m very into premieres. If you’re committed to this work, you’re committed to giving premieres. But looking at the back catalogs of composers, you have a much easier time of fitting a work into a program. I really do try to look at the general shape of things and when you look at those back catalogs you can really pick some gems that people don’t know about.
Sometimes it’s fun to be surprised and hear something new and sometimes it’s fun to have certain expectations and have them met or not met and be surprised.

One reason for the prevalence of premiere performances is the simple fact that there is so much more composition being done. As with record production, filmmaking, music criticism, and smartphone development, there’s just more and more music being written and therefore more and more music to premiere.

“You have so many composers, you have so many performances, it’s not possible for anyone to consume all this music,” Lukas said. “That’s why it’s presenters’ and critics’ jobs to help make those discerning choices about what gets presented.”

As Melissa Smey asked, who decided that a work must have a second performance to be successful? But on the other hand, if we drown ourselves in premieres, are we falling short of helping to decide what’s important for future generations?

“We are establishing the 21st-century canon,” according to Anthony Coleman. “There are plenty of performances of pieces by David Lang and Lachenmann. And who is the composer that as soon as they drop dead everyone will start playing? In the middle of all this bullshit, there are some pieces getting played.”

Cage = 100: Cage and Zen, Perspectives from Two Recent Books

John Cage

John Cage in August 1992, the last month of his life. Photo by John Maggiotto, courtesy S.E.M. Ensemble.

There’s a tendency to acknowledge a certain area of John Cage’s aesthetic without overly considering it. The bright-eyed and necktied young man so eager to define art for the 20th century seems generally to have weathered better than the mushroom-collecting Zen enthusiast, bearded and dressed in denim, that Cage became in later years. There seems to be, in other words, an effort (collective-subconsciously, perhaps) to protect Cage from being seen as hokey, or (equally incriminatingly) proto New Age.

But much of what makes Cage Cage also makes New Age New Age. Consider by way of example a strip from the reliably wryly observant comic Doonesbury. The no-nonsense football and military hero BD comes home to find his former cheerleader wife Boopsie listening to a New Age record. She asks him if he likes it and he says he can’t hear anything. Isn’t it wonderful?, she replies, it’s called “Air Pudding.” Boopsie could just as easily have been listening to the work Cage will always be most famous for.

That discussion—framed around New Age sensibilities or not—is key to an honest portrait of John Cage. And the root of that particular conversation is Cage’s deep interest in Buddhism. It’s not ignored in most profiles of him, but often it is treated—like being gay or being from L.A.—as a biographical detail, an interesting aside. Kay Larson, in her Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, attempts to provide a fresh perspective on Cage by viewing him through a Zen lens.

Where The Heart Beats

Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists (The Penguin Press, 474 pp., cloth $29.95)

It’s a delicate task to take on. Cage loved knowledge and even sought outside input into the creation of his work to the extent of actively ceding decision-making power in his own compositions in order to make room for external influences. And certainly Buddhist thought was one of the principle external influences that guided his life and work. But a tight focus on a figure as complex as Cage is likely to lead to tunnel vision-induced errors. One could, for example, construct a biography of Cage based on his love for Thoreau and the natural world or say that the whole of his work was a reaction against Schoenberg. In neither case would the biographical details be wrong exactly, but both would fail in getting the whole picture. Defining a figure as complex as Cage in terms of his influences runs the risk of seeing the thinness of a dime without noticing that it’s also round.

This is the trap Larson falls into. Her writings about art have appeared in ARTnews, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, and she has been a practicing Buddhist since 1994, so she’s well equipped for the task she’s taken on. But in a sense, she fails to see the trees for the forest.

Larson takes a keen interest in Cage’s personal life, more than most biographers have in the past. Other writers have shied away from Cage’s homosexuality perhaps because he himself never spoke about it. While he and choreographer Merce Cunningham lived and worked together for most of their lives, their private life was kept private. The rules change, of course, after a public figure’s death, and consideration of the details of Cage’s sexuality and how repressing it during repressed times might have affected him is at this point fair game. But Larson romanticizes it. She describes their first meeting, when Cage was hired to accompany dance classes at Cornish College in Seattle, saying: “The two men met in that moment, even if neither of them quite realized it.” Later, in discussing Cage’s closeted homosexuality, she writes, “The heart-issues that Cage had never resolved were now beating like the undead on the locked doors of his awareness.”

It comes off as a bit prurient, and all the more so given the fact that she seems to have little to say about the actual music. She gives historical details but generally avoids any reactions to or analysis of the works. (She does call the mesmerizing cacophony of HPSCHD “excruciating,” however, and makes reference to Schoenberg’s “agonizing dissonance.”) It’s more than a little telling that the one piece she discusses at any length is 4’33”, the piece for which Cage famously wrote no music.

Larson’s interest in Zen, however, and her interest in Cage as a person, give her rather specialized biography some interesting angles. She provides a nice consideration to the philosopher and author D. T. Suzuki, a scholar respected in his time for bringing Buddhist thought to the West. He isn’t a major figure in the history of Buddhist practice, but he was one of the most profound influences in Cage’s understanding of Eastern thought. While Cage biographies tend not to give him much more than a passing mention, Larson gives him the page space to become a character in his own right. Likewise, her concern for knowing the passions of her subject lead her to give a more complete picture of Xenia Kashevaroff, Cage’s wife from 1935 to 1945, and of the circle of painters and composers he surrounded himself with in New York in the 1950s.

While Larson’s interest in Cage as a practitioner—an applied philosopher perhaps—is clear, one can’t help but imagine her wishing Cage had stopped with the so-called silent piece so she wouldn’t have had to listen to anything more. And in fact, she pretty much skips over the last 30 years of his life. Ultimately, the assignment she’s given herself is a curious one. Buddhism was one of Cage’s lifelong interests, but he never called himself a “Buddhist,” so while her accounts of his life and of the tenets of Buddhism aren’t wrong, she can never quite be all the way right. The fit is a bit forced from the outset.

Haskins Cage

Rob Haskins, John Cage (Reaktion Books, 178 pp., paper, $16.95)

Cage’s relationship with Buddhist thought isn’t the driving force behind Rob Haskins’ concise biography, simply titled John Cage, but he gives a more balanced assessment in a ten-page section on the subject than Larson does in her whole book. Haskins, an assistant professor in the department of music at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, does a fine job of dealing with Cage’s many facets—his use of chance and thoughts about the ego and individualism, his flair for populism, his poetry and visual art—in much the same way he handles the Buddhist element: he deals with them intelligently and succinctly and then moves along. He also manages what Larson doesn’t quite find in herself, which is to deal with the music. In discussing Cartridge Music, one of Cage’s least “musical” works, he quite candidly writes, “At first, one hardly knows how to listen to such music: the electronics lend a certain harshness to the sounds that makes them seem overly mechanical. Soon enough, though, the complexity of the sounds becomes noticeable.” This is exactly how Cage listened to the forest, or traffic, and how we must listen to him.

Whether or not the world needs another John Cage biography is an open question. Haskins doesn’t best David Revill’s excellent 1993 bio The Roaring Silence: John Cage—a Life in any way except for brevity: at 180 pages, it’s about half the length and so might hold more appeal to the casual centenary celebrator. In that regard, Haskins does a laudably thorough job. It’s a quick, intelligent, and quite readable book.

In his epilogue, Haskins addresses quite nicely the problem of considering Cage as too much of any one thing:

Cage’s complexity resides not least in his own heterogeneity—his famous, cheerful restlessness—which in turn accounts for the great number of extraordinary misunderstandings his work has provoked and for the tendency to view askance or to minimize one or another of his creative activities. […] Cage cannot be, and will never be, explained completely: he will always retain the capacity to infuriate and confound, and even his most poetic achievements will perhaps amuse many more than they inspire.

Why should we study John Cage? Because we can never understand him. And there lies the Zen of Cage.

***

Kurt Gottschalk’s writing about jazz, rock and new music has appeared in All About Jazz, Time Out, The Village Voice, and The Wire as well as publications in France, Ireland, Portugal and Russia. He is the host of the weekly program Miniature Minotaurs on WFMU and recently published a collection of poetry, Sentences. His occasionally-updated blog can be found at spearmintmusic.blogspot.com.

A Week of Ostrava Days

A hot night in late August in Ostrava’s brightly lit Philharmonic Hall with an orchestra playing alongside an enormous register of organ pipes made for what was surely a cultural event of the season for the business-casual crowd in this industrial Czech city. In store for them was an evening of single-movement pieces, works by established 20th-century composers interspersed with scores by students attending the three-week “summer institute” of music study, underscoring what may be the most important aspect of the biennial Ostrava Days festival. Founded by the Czech-born composer and conductor Petr Kotik ten years prior, the biennial festival has built an international reputation over its five previous editions, and has made its mark on the sleepy city, which had suffered pollution problems before the coal mines closed in the early ’90s and economic depression since.

The official opening concert (although some two dozen performances had already happened by that point) began with a massive orchestra on the floor, a pair of percussionists on the stage, and disembodied voices intermittently echoing through the hall, a meditation interrupted by brash, ritualistic themes and romantic interludes combined with an unusual pathos, moderating between militance and stillness. Rolf Riehm’s Wer sind diese Kinder (Who are these children) from 2009 concerns fairly explicitly the child victims of war, intermingling a recording of a song sung in Arabic and news reports with the plaintive piano-led symphony in a single, 30-minute movement. It managed the sadness of its content with majestic music, ending with a remarkable, unexpected, sustained note, a moment of placidity while setting the tone for the coming week of bold, adventurous music. There was remarkable clarity in the voices of the 100-strong Janáčkova Filharmonie Ostrava, a product certainly of the composer’s craft but with great credit going to Kotik’s stewardship. The first half of the program concluded with his Fragment (1998), built from richly resonant phrases that used the orchestra to great effect with full ensemble sections, concurrent counterpoints, and a beautifully naked brass passage. The student work included in the opening night program was Accept by accordionist Lucie Vitková, seemingly one of the busier of the institute enrollees. It began with heavy strings and rock drums alongside the composer’s accordion and hiccup-and-growl vocals, and ramping way down to a nervous accordion concerto by the end. It made for an evocative showing of the promise the student works would hold during the week to come.

Cecilia Lopez in action

The festival actually began two nights before the opening concert, and the two days of “pre-festival” performances made for something of a sound conference, whether it be new music, contemporary classical, electro-acoustic improvisation, or sound art. The first night was staged in a retired coal mine outfitted with old miner’s uniforms suspended from the ceiling. The evening paired music by Kurt Schwitters and Karlheinz Stockhausen, works by a member of the resident Ostravská Banda, and a student at the summer institute, as well as an installation exposing a piano—and Chopin—to the elements. Música Mecánica para Chapas – resonadores #2, a sort of concerto for sheet metal by institute student Cecilia Lopez, was at once abstract and full of resolution with a trumpet soloist seemingly bent on providing satisfying harmonies over metallic percussion that over 30 minutes worked its way down to pulse and chorus. Banda member John Eckhardt performed a piece he wrote for solo electric bass that took such bass heavy musics as techno dub and Krautrock as inspiration but came closer to downtempo black metal.

Karel Donhal gives his all for Stockhausen

Stockhausen’s 1975 Harlekin for solo clarinet seemed a strange descendant of Berio’s Sequenza V from a decade earlier, a solo trombone piece customarily performed in a clown outfit. In full jester costume, Karel Donhal mugged his way through the demanding clarinet lines for close to an hour in a perfect parody of a performer yearning for attention while being taken to be “generous” with his talents. To that extent, however, it might have been more effective had he been less generous; the piece has been performed in a fifth the time, presumably to greater effect.

Soprano Salome Kammer gave a muscular and animated reading of Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate, delivering each line with deliberate consideration. Kammer was one of the vocalists featured most often throughout the festival. She also performed Carola Bauckholt’s Emil will nicht schlafen…, a seven-minute frivolity of baby sounds set to playful orchestration and Bauckholt’s rhythmic Triebstoff, based apparently on the sounds of running puppies, later in the festival.

Such sound sculpturing practices were present through much of the festival program, especially on the second pre-festival day. Dubbed a “Mini-Marathon of Electronic Music,” the 10-hour program didn’t demand the “mini” prefix. It was a full-on, 18-act presentation of the state of electro-acoustic arts. The day managed an impressive batting average for such a diversity of experimental works. Kotik set the marathon in context with a piece composed in the 1960s, a construction of discrete sound blocks and sudden shifts. Baritone Thomas Buckner (the other most often appearing singer) performing Robert Ashley’s setting of Wallace Stevens’ poetry. Track was originally composed for baritone and string quartet but rearranged by Ashley at Buckner’s request. With not just the strings but even the text removed, it became a piece for wordless vocals and electronic backing track, emerging as a lovely and barely moving tone poem. Larry Polansky‘s Psaltery was a processed meditation on Appalachian fiddle dedicated to composer Lou Harrison, elegantly holding the tone—wavering with the fluctuations of the bow—and then capitalizing on the unevenness of the sustained note and slowly crystallizing it into a round, electronic tone. Thomáš Vtípil played clusters of electronically generated tones like collisions of club music, loud blasts of noise alternating with base, primitivistic yells before switching to some ugly and misshapen unamplified violin. It was a bold move and one of the more memorable sets of the long day.

Gordon Monahan was responsible for the open-air piano installation at the coal mine. A Piano Listening to Itself – Chopin Chord beautifully transmitted segments from Chopin piano pieces down six lengths of wire, attached at one end to a 40-foot-high tower and at the other to a weathered piano, the soundboard of which acoustically (and with no excess fidelity) amplified the lonely chords. He performed live during the marathon, this time pulling sounds through the air via radio waves. Local Czech signals were put through Max/MSP software and processed using a theremin as a controller, creating another site-specific work. He shifted announcer voices, musical fragments, difference tones, and static into a single, modulating sine wave. Andrea Neumann also deconstructed a piano, playing only the inside “harp” of the instrument with contact mikes and a variety of preparations in duo with Ivan Palacký, who had a table of objects including a knitting machine. Their found-sound recital worked surprisingly well with the bluster of a beer garden just outside the window.

If it sounds questionable as a classical music festival (and there was some more proper Boulez, Ligeti, and Scelsi to be sure), it could also be postulated that these were the descendants of patron saints, parts of the fulcrum which connects back to Cage (back even to Schoenberg) and Feldman via Christian Wolff to Cornelius Cardew and John Tilbury and then via the AMM school of minimalist improvisation and back to such younger players as Neumann, Rhodri Davies, and Franz Hautzinger, interlaced with challenging contemporary works by the likes of Phill Niblock, Salvatore Sciarrino and Galina Ustvolskaja. It was, in other words, to the festival’s (read: Kotik’s) credit that such non-idiomatic music was given a seat at the classical table. If, in other words, the inclusion of electronics and improvisation seems to run counter to the classical canon, Ostrava Days is poised to challenge such paradigms.

And if indeed such a symbolic table was being set, it was Tilbury at the head. An accomplished classical pianist and member of the longstanding minimalist improv ensemble AMM, Tilbury was invited to perform at the festival but instead asked to lead a student workshop on improvisation and then to “coordinate” a performance with them. He led them in an inventive take on The Tiger’s Mind, composed in 1967 by Cardew, who preceded Tilbury in AMM. The piece is in two sections, but Tilbury had the students perform them simultaneously, one in light and the other in darkness (representing the “day” and “night” of the two movements). Slowly the players crossed the divide, making a cycle of passing time. It was a genuine happening, where even the Velcro on a player’s gym shoes could be an instrument.

Simultaneity was further explored in a performance of three pieces by John Cage, the champion of multiplicity. Kammer sang his Aria, performed in conjunction with Kotik’s live mix of the tape collage Fontana Mix while pianist Joseph Kubera and members of the Ostravská Banda gave a reading of Solos from Concert for Piano and Orchestra. The performance began with solo piano for several minutes, then the Aria began in a surprisingly guttural rendition. Several more minutes passed before the Fontana collage (created in real time by Kotik, who had switched from flute to mixing desk) came in just loudly enough to threaten to overpower the rest of the performers—if, that is, such a thing were possible in the world of Cagean soundscape. The orchestra slowly dropped out before the end with the Aria and Fontana ending as if on cue.

Bernhard Lang’s imaginative acoustic remix of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly carried a sense of simultaneous performance as well, even if it was the same piece being performed twice in conjunction, or perhaps his realization playing alongside the listener’s memories of the familiar themes. Entitled Monadology XIVa, Lang’s score applied the language of looping and sampling to the orchestra, gradually and subtly warping the themes, getting stuck in repetitions and nicely ending without resolve. In a sense, Lang (who was born in 1957) applied Cagean ideas to a piece from the turn of the 20th century using the inventions of the turn of the 21st.

It was Feldman, however, who was the best represented of the generation of composers responsible for the radical reinventions of the mid 20th century. His 1962 Structures was delivered by the Janáčkova Filharmonie in a mere eight minutes and given an overtness through a bold reading as if the emotions couldn’t be quelled. Feldman wrote the piece in an effort to duplicate in standard notation his experiments in notated scores without tempo or time signature, which perhaps explains the rigid feel it took on under the Janáčkova. The Filharmonie delivered the 1975 Piano and Orchestra, on the other hand, softly rolling its exquisite repetitions. But his 1980 Trio was one of the absolute highlights of the festival. Played by the ONCE Trio (Conrad Harris, Arne Deforce, and Daan Vandewalle), it was electrifying in its quietude. The two-hour recital began at midnight and was almost frightening in its soft and delicate assuredness, like listening to amber. It was an easy highlight of the festival, not just for the gorgeous performance but for the electricity in the room. About 75 people were still in attendance (and few had left) as the piece entered the final laps. Roughly half were asleep, many sprawled out on a long mat laid across the floor. As the strings carried on softly singing, the piano continuing its treble punctuation and the very occasional bass clef signal to a shift in modality, it became clear that the dozers among the audience had been exonerated of the capital crime of drifting off in the concert hall. And deep within this shared experience it was difficult to tell whether each of the few highly attenuated audience members redirecting their gaze toward the slightest non-scored sound was completely cued in to every audible occurrence in the room like a Buddha of All Ears or if they were fancying themselves the crossing guards in this aural equivalent of climbing a small mountain.

Former institute resident Carolyn Chen’s Wilder Shores of Love (composed this year and performed by the Ostravská banda) also worked in remarkably slow waves, bows barely touching strings, brass barely given air, pushed in starts by cello and percussion before a full orchestral swell took over, then another, then more, gaining a new momentum until a surprising new round of Spring-like flutters overtook and gave way to low dissonant strings in a massive sustained vibrato leading to a soft finale. All the motion, however, happened within a sort of stasis, as if it were all a single camera shot. Györgi Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto (played in the 2002 revision) worked a different sort of stillness and was a favorite among many audience members. A work from late in the composer’s life, the fascinating piece is scored for a small ensemble containing tempered and non-tempered instruments. The four natural horns moved gracefully throughout a framework created by French horns, strings, and winds under the baton of Johannes Kalitzke. They created an easy placidity which was broken in short order by clanging percussion and then a sequence of fanfares which led (without offering resolution) a series of loping, interlocking melodies.

If there was an antithesis of stillness to be found, it was Jiří Kadeřábek’s 2011 Technological Process, commissioned by the Ostrava Center for New Music and performed by the Banda. It was a wonderfully well organized 11 minutes of chaos, with electronic utterances, abrupt buzzings, ticking clocks, parade drums, and multiple themes cascading across the orchestra leading to a Wagner quotation. Petr Cigler’s 2011 Entropic Symphony was similarly dramatic, huge settings just short of themes that fell away and rose again, literally, as parts were delivered by a brass section installed on the balcony. The piece intensified halfway through by the lights suddenly being cut, leaving the Banda playing in darkness then under a severe spotlight with heroic refrains and then a return to normal lighting again. An unfortunate glitch led to a prerecorded section not playing, leading dirigent Johannes Kalitzke to stop and restart the performance. But within the bounds of entropy even that seemed to work. Roman Berger’s Korczak in memoriam also employed such dramatic staging. The second half of the hauntingly beautiful requiem was performed in the dark with a flutist and mezzo-soprano positioned in the back of the room. But in both cases the music was strong enough that the performances didn’t rely on staging.

While most of the concerts took place either in the Philharmonic Hall or the Janáček Conservatory, one concert, leaning heavily toward choral music, was held in the 13th century St. Wenceslaus Church. Within that space, Czech-born Peter Graham’s Cantiga del amor final (2001) combined a pounding orchestra and soaring English horn (played by Beatrice Gaudreault-Laplante) with a moaning choir, then proceeded with a tribal drum beat and the orchestra pushing complementary lines to surprising volume before a dramatic break and an unaccompanied aria from Marta Tománková. If there were a palme d’or for dramatic use of dynamics, Graham would have taken it.

Katalin Károlyi

But the highlight of the chapel concert—one of the far and away highlights of the festival, in fact—was a breathtaking performance of Salvatore Sciarrino’s 1998 Infinito Nero, a chilling half-hour operetta bearing the subtitle Etasi di un atto (One Act Ecstasy). The heroine (dramatically sung by Katalin Károlyi) is the sole character in the haunting scene based on the story of Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi, a turn-of-the-17th-century mystic who heard godly and demonic voices. In a long, black dress and on a small, black bed, Károlyi softly sang a nightmarish text which began, “The soul was transforming into blood by creating blood so that there was nothing else to intend but blood / nothing else than blood to see, to taste, to feel, to think / not able to think of anything else than blood.” The room had grown dark since the opening piece—a Ben Hanlon setting of a verse by Hildegard von Bingen, another woman of centuries past given to spiritual visions—and Károlyi was bathed in orange light alongside the small ensemble of piano, strings, clarinet, flute, and percussion. The instruments played slow, alternating rhythms, barely picking up tempo for the first five minutes as the vocal slowly grew stronger, jumping octaves, sounding as if she were speaking in tongues, eyes wide, hands open, jaw clenched, moving in small circles from her hips, she was possessed by the spirit of a woman possessed. Against the never-more-than-sparse music, her voice grew to permeate the room—and then, with no release, just stopped.

The hallmark of the festival is its two resident orchestras, but some wonderful spots for unaccompanied soloists were still reserved. Rolf Riehm’s 2007 Ton für Ton (weisse Strassen Babylons) for contrabass clarinet, was played by Theo Nabicht during the choral night. It opened with two blasts to show its metal before beginning a soft, slow, sinewy, octave-jumping progression, then a sudden increase in mid-register volume, keeping the same pace but suddenly echoing through the church. It was an effective piece and at the same time an amazing demonstration of technique.

Perhaps most notable among the soloists was harpist Rhodri Davies—as well known in the world of experimental improvisation as he is contemporary classical—who played a succession of short pieces that focused on silence and manipulation. Christian Wolff composed For Harp Player for Davies in 2009, taking full advantage of Davies’s improv background and leaving dynamics and tempi unspecified. The 12 brief movements (lasting in total only 10 minutes) ran in episodic clusters, building unevenly, beautifully, sometimes abruptly toward longer lines. Yasaone Tone’s 2006 Ten Haikus of Matsuo Basho was even more open-ended, working with a set of rules for reading the kanji characters of the poems. With contact mikes attached to the harp’s body, every buzz and overtone was made audible, often with amplified sustain. John Lely’s Cycling in … (2004) made subtle use of the instrument’s pedals, running through a sequence of chords in different registers and soft repetitions. James Saunders’s 2010 materials vary greatly and are simply materials was played with prepared strings and nearly silent bowing. On a different concert during that same long night the slippery dissonances of Iannis Xenakis’s brief violin solos, Mikka (1971) and Mikka-S (1976), were played with striking precision by the Banda’s Conrad Harris, while his 1977 Kottos for solo cello was given a muscular reading by Arne Deforce.

A program of electric guitar music included solo, quartet, and mixed ensemble pieces, but suffered from a persistent problem among composers approaching amplified guitar. Composers tend to write for electric guitar as if it’s an instrument that can’t be played well. The guitar and its many voices are so associated with rock music that, presumably, composers turn to guitar groups to “do” volume, feedback, distortion, or to evoke a rebellious spirit. The program by Belgian/Dutch group ZWERM followed largely along those lines, even eliciting a solitary “boo” by the third piece. Fortunately there was a quick turn before intermission with Polansky’s for jim, ben and lou (1995), a triad of pieces for the composers Tenney, Johnston, and Harrison (respectively). The first inventively used a retuned harp and a guitar being methodically detuned by a third party as it was being played.

The guitar quartet was followed by a string quartet, namely New York’s JACK. The clear and away highlight of their concert (which also included pieces by Iannis Xenakis, Elliott Sharp, and three institute students) was Horatiu Radulescu’s String Quartet No. 5 “before the universe was born” (1995). A masterwork of spectral composition—which takes into account all of the wavers and overtones of the sound produced by a vibrating string, and not just the pure or intended tone—it achieved enormous depth of field, sometimes sounding as if there were twice as many instruments on stage. The playing was spectacularly rich, with seamless switches between tonal and harmonic playing creating a kind of aural illusion, a quartet and a ghost quartet. It may have been based in mathematics, but it was borne of the mystic.

Festivals, of course, demand big finishes, and the combined Janáčkova and Banda orchestras along with Kubera and baritone Alexander Vovk made for a monumental showing. They opened (less the JACK) with one of the boldest of the student compositions. K. C. M. Walker’s Symphony was a compelling piece of orchestral percussion led by a trio of conductors with stacked and shifting counts, rarely was an instrument not played pizzicato in the epic first movement before the sparse tone poem of the second. If there were a prize for an Ostrava Days student to watch out for, the South Carolinan—currently studying under Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University—may be it.

New York drone master Phill Niblock got a rousing ovation for his Baobob, a drone piece utilizing both orchestras. Here the depth of field was real, actualized by the physical presence of the musicians and the wavering tones of Niblock’s score. The piece was played along with projections of two videos from his series of manual laborers: these being films made in Asia of people weaving nets, fishing, and cooking. The point was never quite spoken, but it seemed intended to tear down the differences between physical labor and performance. The 75-odd players were there, on the clocks, doing what they were trained to do, and in a certain sense even given menial tasks to perform—slowly going up a half step and then back down again over the course of half an hour.

Wolfgang Rihm’s Concerto (2000) added JACK to the double orchestra, but treated the string quartet as a single entity, a “beast with four mouths” in the composer’s own words, with the orchestra as a cage. As such, it was a concerto for string quartet with JACK as the soloist, a fast and huge thing and the polar opposite of the Niblock that preceded it.

Galina Ustvolskaja’s 1979 Symphony No. 2 – True and Eternal Bliss, performed by the two orchestras (less the strings) with Kubera and Vovk and a pair of bass drums stationed at the front of the ensemble made for a brilliant closing of a remarkable nine days of music. The piano, percussion, and the rest of the orchestra seemed to rotate positions in the soundfield against Vovk’s invocations (in Russian) of God’s name. The instrumentation varied, dropped out, and returned, but never wavered. It was religious fervor on the verge of being maniacal and at the same time maddeningly episodic, encompassing contemporary forms with a devotional theme that proved to be a rather surprising undercurrent of the festival—a festival of (as it bills itself) new and experimental music. Given the context of the classical tradition, it perhaps should be of little consequence that three of the four strongest performances—those of Sciarrino, Radulescu, and Ustvolskaja—were devotional.

Petr Kotik conducting

Petr Kotik

Standing on the Philharmonic Hall balcony at a closing reception, during which students were awarded certificates of completion, Kotik enjoyed a cigar while speaking candidly about the institution he’s built over the last decade. Asked by a British reporter about the freedom curating a festival allows, Kotik responded sternly but with barely the hint of a smile. “You don’t take risks, you do your work,” he said. “You take risks when you are in fear of what will happen.” In a dusty corner of the Czech Republic, just miles from the Polish border, Kotik has created a fearless festival.

All photos by Martin Polelář, courtesy Ostrava Days

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Kurt Gottschalk‘s writing about jazz, rock and new music has appeared in All About Jazz, Time Out, The Village Voice, and The Wire as well as publications in France, Ireland, Portugal and Russia. He is the host of the weekly program Miniature Minotaurs on WFMU and recently published Little Apples, his first book of fiction. His occasionally-updated blog can be found at spearmintmusic.blogspot.com.