Survivor from Darmstadt

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One of the most marvelous descriptions of the scandalous reception which greeted the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps was that of the critic van Vechten who, completely caught up in the excitement of the moment, neglected to notice that the young man standing behind him was beating rhythmically with his fists on the critic's head. As van Vechten wrote: "My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time." After the Darmstadt 1984 International Summer Course for New Music, I understood exactly how that critic must have felt; Darmstadt was like an explosion of ideas, approaching pluralistic detonation. It was, in every sense, intertribal warfare. At the end, surveying the musical landscape, strewn with the remains of those who survived and those who did not—all of us numbed by the experience—I was reminded of the opening text to Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw: "I cannot remember ev'rything, I must have been unconscious most of the time."

Faced with reviewing Darmstadt 1984 as I did for the previous course in 1982—despite my participation as faculty oboist—I must state that a traditional review of the 1984 festival would not only be irrelevant, but would obscure the historical significance of this near holocaust. I will, therefore, describe the holocaust, and many performances mentioned will be included only on the basis of their relevance to this cataclysmic event called Darmstadt. Consequently, what follows is not a review, but a commentary, the story of my own experience at Darmstadt this year. But before beginning, I should backtrack for just one moment.

Beginning with his first Darmstadt course in 1982 (the two and a half week festival is held every second year), the new director, Friedrich Hommel, began to create a new Darmstadt, a truly international contemporary music festival. To the amazement of all, especially the "old guard"—some of whom travelled to Darmstadt in 1982 to see for themselves what had happened—a sweeping transformation occurred and, somewhere along the line, the famed post-war German serialist stronghold known as the Darmstadt School rolled over and quietly died. Of neglect, I suspect.

With 1982 behind him, we could only wonder what Hommel had in mind for 1984. An unprecedented enrollment of three hundred students (representing thirty-nine countries) arrived to find out. Hommel also invited about forty composers of every conceivable stylistic persuasion. He had, in effect, orchestrated the possibility of aesthetic warfare, given our current era of widely divergent pluralism. Imagine, for just a moment, having Phil Glass, Charles Wuorinen, David Del Tredici, Henry Mancini, George Crumb, Laurie Anderson, Milton Babbitt, and Nam June Paik (with their best students) thrown together twenty-four hours a day, listening to each other's lectures and music. The European equivalent was the starting point of Darmstadt 1984.

The two most influential groups at Darmstadt were the post-post serialists (with Englishman Brian Ferneyhough at the helm), and those roughly classified as minimalists (curiously, many Europeans placed almost all Americans in this later category). More peripherally, we had the German neo-tonalists/Explosive Romantics, which included the prominent young German composer Wolfgang Rihm. Several true independents were also present, the most fascinating of whom was the North German composer Hans-Joachim Hespos, whose music I will describe in detail later.

Hardening of the categories was an inevitable—albeit lamentable—fact of life. The Ferneyhough group was accused of being so complex and abstract as to add up to an uninteresting zero for the listener. The minimalists (nearly anyone not related in some way to serialism) were written off by European intellectuals as "too simple." The neo-tonalists were pretentious and self-indulgent. Hespos was barbaric. As one composer put it, "Pick your poison."

The worst aspect of this stylistic polarization was the sense that instead of learning from other styles, some composers and performers took on the role of aesthetic exterminators, organizing factional groups, preparing their boos, bravos and paper airplanes before the first note of a piece was played. One young English serialist was booed so severely by the minimalists after the premiere of his string quartet that he broke down publicly and cried.

Another controversial event was the performance of Brian Ferneyhough's Études transcendentales/Intermedio II (1984)—a wildly difficult piece, primarily because the notation is hopelessly unrelated to where the beats and their subdivisions actually occur (Example 1).


Example 1. Brian Ferneyhough, Études transcendantales/Intermedio II (excerpt from first section, scored for oboe and voice).



From the performer's point of view, Ferneyhough's notation just can't get more abstract and still remain within the realm of accurate instrumental performance. Scored for voice, flute, oboe, cello, and harpsichord—and rather miraculously navigated by conductor Robert HP Platz—final rehearsals and the performance of Études transcendentales/Intermedio II took on the character of a contest. The audience packed the hall to see/hear if we could do it, to watch the performers "lose themselves" in the ferocious difficulty of the piece. Ferneyhough's music being an extreme symbol of one style, the performance became a call-to-arms for the other groups, who hurled their boos and paper planes through the air with real relish. (Real relish, that is, unless you happen to be the composer.) Reflecting, after the course, on these aesthetic confrontations, Hommel observed:

For the future, I think we must define more clearly the borderlines of pluralism. I expect everyone to stick to his position as if nothing else existed, but to be open and tolerant toward others. For example, even though I have been friends with Karlheinz Stockhausen for many years, this is the point of separation between us. The mission to convince everyone that they are wrong and you are right is, for me, wrong. For that reason, I appreciate Hespos' comment that in order to stimulate thought, we do not have to convince everyone.

Pluralism was certainly a great issue at Darmstadt. Yet it would be an oversimplification to say that this was the ONLY issue. Consider, for a moment, the logistics of the situation. There were about three hundred students (the vast majority of whom were composers), forty invited composers, and less than ten full-time faculty performers. This was roughly twice the number of student composers than in 1982, with a significant—though modest—increase in the number of student instrumentalists. At the close of the festival, an award called the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis is given to some combination of student composer(s) and/or performer(s). To be eligible for the prize (which totals 10,000 D.M. or about $3,500.00), composers must have a piece played, and performers must have the opportunity to perform. The pressure to play or be played became almost unbearable. Composers demanded performances via verbal assaults on the faculty; physical assault (especially of the string players) was not unknown. The Kranichstein Prize had become, at least in my mind, the bête noire of Darmstadt, helping immeasurably to create an atmosphere wherein the end justified the means. South African composer/former Stockhausen student Kevin Volans gave a provocative talk which dealt directly—and rather amusingly—with all of this. Volans described the black tribal dancing and singing competitions regularly held in South Africa. These events take place very late at night, and the judges are picked up by black limousines at about 3:00 a.m. Accompanied by guards, the judges may neither speak nor look at anyone, lest they accept a bribe. Most importantly, all judges must be white, to ensure that they have no friends or relatives among the contestants. Is this the answer?

Meanwhile, as things were heating up, my own response could be best described in one word: survival. It was nearly impossible to get any teaching or rehearsing done, given the continuous barrage of student composers at the door. By the second week, I took to locking myself inside the oboe studio in an effort to get some work accomplished, and I had established specific hours to see this deluge of composers with their questions. I was reminded of Norman Cousins who, in his Anatomy of an Illness, informed the hospital staff that they would have to coordinate their efforts and draw blood just once a day. However, there were two things which I didn't realize at the time—first, that the Kranichstein Prize Ceremony would dramatically affect my own situation and, second, that drawing blood is preferable to murder. Here is what happened.

The Kranichstein Prize Ceremony includes a short concert as well as the ceremony itself. The printed program book for the course announced that the concert would consist of the premiere of Robert Moran's Survivor From Darmstadt, for nine amplified bass oboes. The title referred to the hoped-for survival of this author—the only woman and the only American on the Darmstadt faculty—and the people to whom I mentioned the title before I left for Europe found it marvelously humorous. Not so in Germany, where the word "survivor" has a very negative association with World War II, and where the title was immediately connected with the text of Schoenberg's Survivor from Warsaw. (Ironically enough, I learned, the premiere of the Schoenberg work occurred at Darmstadt and, worse still, had caused a riot.)

Protest signs against the Moran piece appeared in the halls, signatures amassed, meetings were held with the protestors, the worst of whom were roughly equivalent to the lunatic fringe anywhere. The demands varied: the piece should be withdrawn, the title should be changed, it should be played without a title, a list of demands should be cabled to the composer, the protestors must read a prepared statement before the piece could be played. It goes without saying that they deemed the piece utterly tasteless and the administration of the course was demanded to respond to all of this. Bear in mind that not one person had asked either to see the score or hear the piece. Moran's Survivor happens to be a bubbly, effervescent pattern piece in G major, but never mind. The title had hit a nerve, and the name of the nerve was historical guilt.

I was stunned, completely unprepared for the fury the title of the work unleashed. My first step was a pragmatic one—since most of the more disruptive audience activity at the earlier concerts had been centered in the balcony, I decided to close the balcony and flank it with all the speakers, electronics, and engineers we needed for the piece. Meanwhile, since the composer wasn't present I was, logically enough, held accountable for all. I did comment that I had written neither the piece nor the title, but that didn't stop the verbal assaults—some of them so savage as to be absolutely unbelievable unless one had actually been present. Because the program had been printed and the composer could not be reached, I did not consider changing the title. I did, however, consider withdrawing the piece. I was, after all, a guest in the country. I wasn't there to exacerbate the German national guilt complex; I was there to play the oboe. This possible solution was going through my mind when something else happened.

The technical staff at Darmstadt consists of a group of audio engineers who are considered among the finest in Germany. John Whiting, the sound engineer for the English group Electric Phoenix, was also there. One of the most successful performances of the festival was Robert Erickson's Nine + A Half for Henry (and Wilbur and Orville). At my request, and with the director's agreement, Whiting did the engineering for the Erickson composition—a quad tape of California freeway and airplane noises whirling and circling through the air while amplified low wind and other instruments improvised according to a score of traffic cues. The German staff felt left out of what they considered to be one of the most interesting pieces from the technical point of view and, for this as well as other reasons, they resigned. After twenty-two years at Darmstadt they were leaving—unless, of course, they could do the technical work for the prestigious prize ceremony.

I had already arranged to have Whiting do Survivor From Darmstadt with me but, weighing one performance against twenty-two years, there was no alternative. I went to see the German engineers, and asked them if they had thought through the possible consequences of producing this cause célèbre. Yes, they had, and they wanted to do it! So, in the spirit of detente, with Whiting also present, we produced the piece. Happily, Survivor was premiered without incident, due in large part to the support of Hommel as well as Walter Maas, the founder of the Gaudeamus Foundation in Amsterdam. Himself a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, this small, seventy-five year old man came in and met with the protestors, announcing that if anyone did anything to disrupt the performance, he would go right after them himself!

Given the general level of activity at Darmstadt, plus the pressure of the prize, the concerts—especially near the end of the course—surely rivalled the longest Lucas Foss marathon. Lectures, demonstrations, informal concerts, rehearsals, and instrumental masterclasses went on all day, seven days a week. In addition, unofficial talks, concerts, and listening sessions occurred simultaneously, with up to a dozen of these daily towards the close of the courses. The evening concerts sometimes began with pre-concerts, there was almost always a "night concert" starting after the 8:00 p.m. concert ended, and there were often more than one of these. The latest concert finished after 3:00 a.m., and there were days on which concerts ran virtually without interruption for twelve hours. The members of the jury—charged with hearing all this—were understandably cadaverous at the end. Clearly, this was a schedule for the hearty.

In general, the level of performance was much higher than the level of works played. This was due in part to the commitment by all the performers present to play as many works by student composers as possible. Another curious discrepancy between the levels of playing and of the pieces played—though in this case for another reason—occurred at the concert called The New Wind. Probably the most enjoyable event of the course—bordering at times on a musical circus—this concert presented new works for large woodwind instruments. Pierre-Yves Artaud, the Parisien flute virtuoso, played the contrabass flute; he also premiered his octo-bass flute. I played the bass oboe, Englishman Roger Heaton played the bass clarinet, and the extraordinary French saxophonist, Daniel Kientzy, (Figure 1), played the bass and contrabass saxophone.


Figure 1. French saxophonist Daniel Kientzy with soprano, alto and bass saxophones.



The contrabass saxophone arrived in Darmstadt on a huge dolly, inside what looked like a huge triangularly shaped coffin. This enormous monster cannot be held—it rests on a stand of some sort. Needless to say, it was wonderful to watch a small Frenchman tame an instrument nearly twice his size.

These large woodwinds present an interesting challenge in that this is one of the few moments in history when the instrument makers and players are ahead of the composers. These instruments generated enormous interest at Darmstadt; one can only hope that composers will bridge the gap necessary to create a strong repertoire for them. Like Henry Purcell, who was once described as an opera composer in search of an opera house, these are marvelous new instruments in search of a repertoire.

The best of the lectures given at Darmstadt were certainly as interesting, if not more interesting, than many of the evening concerts. Among numerous outstanding talks was the English percussionist James Wood's demonstration of his quarter-tone percussion instruments, Carl Dahlhaus' discussion of tonality, the lectures of composers Brian Ferneyhough and Ton de Leeuw, the Bucharest composer Anatol Vieru's talk on third world modality in the tonal/anti-tonal confrontation (this occurred during a two-day Tonality Congress), Walter Zimmermann's analysis of Morton Feldman's Second String Quartet, and an accordion seminar by the young Polish virtuoso and composer, Andrzej Krzanowski.

Before leaving the subject of concerts and lectures, I would like to mention what was perhaps the greatest surprise of all—a late night concert by a group of Hungarian students who played percussion instruments which they had made themselves. With a precision which would have been the envy of all the Phil Glass Band—not to mention every orchestral percussionist—this group performed entirely from memory, with a level of accuracy and energy which literally dazzled the audience from the first note to the last, and which astounded the percussionists present. This is international exchange at its best; this is the purpose of Darmstadt today.

Unfortunately, however, this wasn't always the case. Begun after World War II in an effort to reconstruct 20th century musical life in Germany, Darmstadt was an anachronism at best, since half the century was already over. Thus, in many ways, much of the real rebuilding has occurred only under Hommel, who has sought out and achieved new international contacts. As he describes it:

The international press has been wonderful. They have cabled congratulations for breaking through the traditional walls of Darmstadt. The domestic press is my problem; after attending two concerts, for example, a major German paper condemned the entire course. This shows me that I was right when you and I spoke two years ago, saying it was as if the war had just ended. It's still like being near point zero.

And I'm so amazed by the enormous backing we have gotten from other countries. For twenty years, for instance, no one came to Darmstadt from England. This year four of them were among the prizewinners! This was also the first time in many years that Dutch composers were present, and it was the first time in twenty years that we have had East Germans here. I am happy and proud that we could do all this.

Hommel also took a number of risks by strengthening the American contribution to Darmstadt. He explained:

And the American connection! The German press asks, 'Are they dilettantes, or is this music?' Cage's first appearance at Darmstadt in 1958 was his last appearance because nearly everyone agreed this was the work of a dilettante trying to make music! This year it was you who opened and closed the festival with American music; in between, we had Cage and Feldman adventures! In my eyes, American music of the twenties was the starting point of new music in this century—much more than Schoenberg who, for me, belongs to the previous century. The beginning, for me, was Varèse in New York, and he was among the very first to encourage us; Varèse was the first international figure to come to this destroyed land after the war. For that, HE is the spirit of Darmstadt.

One hardly need mention that there are still wide cultural and musical differences between Europe and North America. Discussing Morton Feldman as a case in point, Hommel told this story:

Since you mentioned Morton Feldman, I'd like to tell you a wonderful remark he made, which really shows the difference between America and Europe. During one discussion, Walter Zimmermann, who is a great promotor and connoisseur of American music here in Germany, and a friend of Feldman, made a comment. One assumed that he and Feldman would be in full agreement when Zimmermann spoke to Feldman, apologizing for the schedule and structure of the Darmstadt courses, saying, 'What I would really like would be to behave like a nomad, to roam freely.' He was sure he would have Morton Feldman's full agreement. Instead, Feldman said, 'My dear Walter Zimmermann, what you have just stated is pure German Romanticism. Let me remind you that nomads don't roam. They just move their positions in order to seek better food for their sheep.'

THIS was American realism, and this was the greatest symbolic encounter between friends of two different countries.

One more piece remains to be singled out, a theatrical, ritualistic work which is, in my mind, a symbol of the hope of both its composer and the New Darmstadt. This is Hans-Joachim Hespos' Seiltanz (1982), which received its first German performance at Darmstadt, performed by the ensemble 13, under the admirable direction of Manfred Reichert. Hespos (Figure 2), whose music is strong, aggressive, and even violent, was never a part of the old Darmstadt School, being written off as a dilettante composer.


Figure 2. Hans-Joachim Hespos with the author.



Having realized that those branded as dilettantes-who-can't-compose were turning out to be the most fascinating of all, I was almost sure I would find Hespos of interest, and was curious to know how Hommel came to know Hespos' work. Hommel explained that:

When I was director of the music department of South West German Radio in Baden-Baden, one of my colleagues was Manfred Reichert, who had just founded the now famous ensemble 13. I remember so well the day he came to ask me if I could imagine a weekend of music only by Hespos, asking 'Do you think he's really a composer, and do you think we can stand the public protest?' I hesitated a few moments before I answered him. We looked at each other and said, 'Well, why not?' This was in 1979, and was the beginning of the now acclaimed concert series called Winter Music. For Reichert and I, this title described the musical landscape of Germany; it was a land upon which more and more snow had fallen, and the contours had disappeared one after the other. So we picked Hespos as a symbol, almost as a prophet, to show there WAS something under all that snow.

For Darmstadt 1984, Seiltanz was that something under the snow. Hespos' piece presented the diametrical opposition of extremes—civilization and barbarism, apocalypse and resolution—staggering at the end towards new hopes. Hespos calls it "ritual against the wrong rituals of society, against the blind and busy progress which suffocates all."

The work itself lasts about seventy minutes. A group of eight musicians play primarily wind, brass, and percussion instruments of every conceivable size and shape, including archaic tribal instruments like the Australian didjeridoo. An actor portrays what might be described as the psychology of the confined—in this case, the isolation of a psychotic. A modern day Wozzeck in the extreme, the psychotic is a symbol of inner worlds and conflicts—gesturing, appearing from nowhere, desperately trying to make contact, crying, howling, disappearing into thin air only to crawl down from the balcony seconds later. The music intensifies throughout all of this; its moments of near-brutality are meant to unsettle us, symbolically to shatter false beliefs and systems, to set the stage for a profound departure into attitudinal change.

On one side of the room is a huge rectangularly shaped iron tank which could easily hold three or four people. A second person is imprisoned inside, and is trying to free himself—banging, banging, trying to create an escape with a blowtorch. Slowly and methodically he torches a square in the shape of a small door. The actor returns with a giant slab from the side of a tree, dropping it with enormous force onto the floor. Finally, he smashes his tree through the nearly completed door of the man inside the box, who is then freed. The psychotic leaves, never to return, and the saxophonist throws his instrument onto the floor. A long moment of silence follows. Yet, when the instruments do begin to play again, the score is more precisely notated than at any earlier time in the piece. Is freeing oneself from dead traditions and concerns less frightening than we might think? Perhaps. Surely the apocalyptic nature of Hespos' voyage toward freedom reminds one of George Braque's comment: "Freedom is not given—it must be claimed by us."

While at Darmstadt, Hespos gave a talk called Sistrum. A sistrum is an old Egyptian rattle instrument, sacred to the cult of Isis. According to Hespos, "Its shaking action symbolizes the constant motion of all that exists. In its ritualistic effect, it is meant to show this world, menaced by extinction, must constantly be shaken . . .our creativity must be like a sistrum, must put the chords of thinking and feeling into vibration."

Darmstadt WAS a sistrum; sistrum is, in every sense, the symbol of the New Darmstadt. I suspect none of us were left unshaken, including the director:

I intentionally created certain inevitable tensions. But there were moments when I thought maybe I was wrong, crashing through the traditions of Darmstadt. There were times when I thought maybe all of those tensions could not be resolved.

On the other hand, I know what was the best moment of the course for me. When it was all over, and you played the last note of Survivor From Darmstadt at the final concert, symbolizing in many ways the survival of all of us, I suddenly realized that nothing remained unsolved. There were no enemies—only friends. There was a promise by all to go on.

Partly because of the difficulties and problems we encountered, I felt that Darmstadt 1984 took on the character of a rite de passage. Yes, it was tribal warfare, and yes, it was only for the strong. As Harry Truman once so aptly put it: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Darmstadt heated up like nothing I've ever experienced. However, there is no question but that new music is vibrantly alive, sizzling, even exploding with activity at Darmstadt. And lest I seem overly positive about the place, weigh my optimism against some of the dreadful experiences I encountered personally. Perhaps sistrum has to include being shaken up badly, too—perhaps this is somehow necessary and inevitable. Again, freedom is not given, but must be claimed.

Darmstadt is not finished. The New Darmstadt has hardly begun. For the artistic vision and courage which were in such abundant supply at Darmstadt 1984, the international new music community can only respond with admiration and amazement. History will surely do the same.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 24/10/2018

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