New Music is Dead  Long Live New Music

  • PDF:

Every second year the city of Darmstadt, Germany, hosts a two-and-a-half week festival of contemporary music known as the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt. Consisting of an internationally known group of faculty composers and performers, plus student composers and performers, the Darmstadt festival in recent years has been relegated to the back burner in the minds of most Americans oriented to new music. As the mouthpiece for all that was urgently important in post-war music, Darmstadt was dead. Yet the 1982 combination of new artistic direction coupled with the participants' desires to explore all forms of contemporary music was as exciting an experience as this oboist and new music devotee has ever encountered. An explosion of contemporary music ideas and activities? How can this be, when in our heart of hearts many of us suspect that new music died peacefully some time ago? What is happening at Darmstadt?

First I must confess the obvious; I am no critic. I am in all truth the antithesis of an objective listener. As the only American faculty member at Darmstadt in the summer of 1982—and the only woman on its staff in its 36-year history—I proceed flush with all the opinions and biases which identify my perspective as a performer.

The single most important force at Darmstadt was the new director, Friedrich Hommel, former music director of Southwest German Radio in Baden-Baden. His aim was nothing less than to reconstruct Darmstadt or—as one composer rather dramatically put it—to bury the past. But how does one man revitalize a festival like Darmstadt? According to Hommel,

It is time for the younger generation to begin, to have the opportunities the older performers and composers had. Henze, Nono, Maderna—there was no generation before them. They were free; and we have more students now in the classes of the young performers than we ever had in the classes of the older generation. This does not prove that the younger players are necessarily better or greater, but it shows how right it is to give young people the same opportunities their teachers had.

And the success formula? Détente. Peaceful coexistence. By bringing in musicians with such radically different ideas, the stage was set. We had, in fact, all the ingredients for a musical detonation. To cite Hommel once again:

Having the French group l'Itinéraire here during the first week, well, it was, excuse me, as if World War II ended yesterday, as if we haven't lived peacefully for thirty years, divided only by a little river like the Rhine. There are real problems, but I think we can succeed. For instance there has never been such a great group of English composers and performers on the faculty. I started with France and England, then Spain, Romania, Italy, etc. My starting point is that because we are so different, we should work together. Many historical perspectives exist right now. For the French, it's probably clear that from Rameau's time to Debussy to Messiaen there is no alternative! Whereas the Germans find that all history culminates with their school of Darmstadt. It was for my own fun that I brought the two perspectives together as closely as one can imagine. To tell you the truth, I loved all the tension. I am really bored with Sackgasse, with a dead end. So I chose one composer, Brian Ferneyhough, to be the head of composition for our new beginning. And surely he comes originally from serialism. But for him, as for any really good composer, a Sackgasse doesn't exist. This is the type of person I want for Darmstadt.

And you know, I think I was right. At the beginning of the festival few people knew each other. We had not been friends. But how do we leave Darmstadt? Well, we are nearly family to each other. My greatest problem for the future will not be to find enough people and ideas, but how to bring together so many people and ideas.

The excitement in the atmosphere at Darmstadt was certainly reflected by the level of activity. Instrumental classes/lessons were held from two to four hours a day, open to participants as well as interested composers and other members of the courses. Composition studios, under the direction of the faculty composers, were scheduled simultaneously for at least four hours each day. Faculty members presented a series of morning and afternoon public lectures, and each evening there was a concert—sometimes two and occasionally even three. There was also a series known as studio concerts, presenting various instrumental classes (faculty and students) performing twentieth-century repertoire as well as compositions by the student composers at Darmstadt. The level of instrumental performance was very high, though I found the quality of the student composers' works to be lower than I had hoped (the average age of the students, incidentally, was 28). Impromptu events occurred daily. There were the officially scheduled activities of each day plus numerous extra presentations by both students and faculty—topics ranged from the music of Harry Partch to young Italian composers to women in the arts. For those who needed less sleep than I, there was a mushroom hunt which began one Sunday morning at 5:30 to commemorate John Cage's seventieth birthday. Rehearsals went on simultaneously with all the scheduled events. This frenetic pace was only accelerated by the competition for the Darmstadt Prize, the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, of D.M. 10,000 or about $4,000. Awarded to one or more composers and/or performers, all students were eligible; the jury was comprised of the combined composition and performance faculties. The pressure for the student composers to be performed was at times nearly overwhelming. Meals became a contest. Could we eat lunch—and possibly even have a beer—without another yet another score being thrust on us?

Given this burst of activity, it would be a great injustice to evaluate Darmstadt solely on the basis of the evening concerts. Sometimes I felt they were the less interesting of the day's activities. Least interesting of all were the concerts of European minimalism. If Europeans still do not understand how to play the music of John Cage—and to judge from the Darmstadt performances, they certainly do not—one can only shudder at their idea of minimalism. I have always found poor minimalism particularly offensive, and I found the Darmstadt version to be academic, wandering in search of direction inside an aesthetic concept whose purpose is to defy direction or at the very least to redefine it. What made many of the concerts (including some of the poorer ones) interesting for me was the audience participation. In true European style, which I have seen and experienced many times in the past, the audience was quite vocal in making its opinions known. The fights between the respective booing and clapping sections of the audience necessitated, after several performances, the diplomatic presence and hand-shaking savoir faire of the director in order for the composer to be able to take a bow. Darmstadt had become, at least temporarily, the paper airplane capital of the world. Audience members fought with one another, airplanes flew, composers and performers tried to survive. A case in point was the performance of Wolfgang Rihm's Tutuguri VI (kreuze) (1980-81), scored for a battery of six percussionists. The piece was nothing less than interminable, always ffff or more, a long series of enormous climaxes, each of which (the listener desperately hoped) would be the last. Arriving for the performance I was steered to a seat in the rear of the auditorium by my thoughtful colleagues. When one's ears—not to mention central nervous system—could bear no more, the end did seem in sight. There was a momentary silence as the six players picked up large cymbals; we all breathed a sigh of relief. A student several rows ahead of us was so pleased that the end was approaching, he literally jumped out of his seat at the cymbal crash and heroically flung his arms open spread-eagled. Of course, the cymbal crash was only the first in a series, so the student went right on with his theatrical display at every subsequent crash. Meanwhile behind him, someone else took off his jacket and dramatically shrouded himself in it, shrinking down into the chair in complete despair. Simultaneously a Frenchman began, during a very slow accelerando, to pretend that he was a train conductor, giving a virtuosic display of whistle pulling and other choreographic aspects of the profession. Would this, could this ever happen in the U.S.?

Of the sociologically less spectacular, though musically more substantial performances, several merit special praise. Of the concerts offered by l'Itinéraire, the meticulous and charismatic conducting of Peter Eötvös, particularly in l'Itinéraire member Michael Levinas's Appels (1974), was perhaps the most distinguished aspect of the group's presentation. Parisian flutist/l'Itinéraire participant Pierre-Yves Artaud's reading of Ferneyhough's fiercely difficult, though architecturally lucid—in fact, crystalline—Unity Capsule (1975-76) for solo flute was technically brilliant, musically well-conceived, and totally virtuosic. Artaud's technical control and power were in abundant supply during his execution of Paul Mefano's Traits suspendus (1980) for contrabass flute with microphones, as the sounds literally bellowed, howled, and cried out from the loud-speakers. Mefano's grasp of the technical problems involved certainly encourages further exploration of this largely uncharted area of amplified wind instrument sounds, including vocal articulations, percussive effects, etc.

Finally, there was the Arditti String Quartet of London. Dedicated to contemporary music, the quartet's programming and performances were consistently of the first rank. Among the demanding works presented were Boulez's Livre pour quatuor (1948/49-61/ . . .). Xenakis's Ikhor (1978) for string trio, and Ferneyhough's Sonatas for String Quartet (1967), as well as his String Quartet No. 2 (1980). The musical and conceptual insight of concertmaster Irvine Arditti was, in every sense, admirable. Taking it all in stride, he commented, "I think really difficult works don't exist. There are just a number of pieces for which you need more time."

Looking ahead to Darmstadt 1984, preliminary plans include expansion in three areas. First, computer techniques and computer theory. Extra-European tonality will be the second focus, centered around a new studio for microtonality. Third, extended vocal techniques will be added to the instrumental activities. Maintaining that voice could certainly help strengthen the understanding between the performer and the public, Darmstadt's Hommel adds:

We are complex beings, with complex tools to perceive and listen to music. Yet we are surrounded by the trivial and banal. Must we be fed by the banal? I think people want something more complex, more human, more significant. We must try to convince people that they can listen and understand, even if it isn't an intellectual understanding.

Darmstadt, a small provincial city, goes on, whatever the economic situation. We do it today, we will do it tomorrow. When I was offered this position I was told "We give you complete freedom and our full confidence." At the final concert the Lord Mayor of Darmstadt said, "Whenever you need our help, you shall have it." That's what new music needs—confidence. Nothing else. With complete confidence, everything else will follow.

Read 1158 times

Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

Go to top