Texte zur aktuellen Musik
November 14, 2017
Ostrava Days 2017: Contemplations
by Jim Igor Kallenberg
For anyone who is used to the unified mélange of New Music that is presented in Donaueschingen, Darmstadt, and Berlin, it is a revelation to find oneself at a festival outside of these German concerts. This is what happened at the ten-day festival "Ostrava Days" from August 24 – September 2, held in a forbidding former coal and steel town, in the far-removed eastern corner of the Czech Republic.
The big difference in aesthetics can already be seen historically. The concert entitled "The Radical Past" was not dedicated to Schönberg, Stockhausen, and Lachenmann, but to Ives, Cage, Feldman, and: Petr Kotik. The Prague-born and New York-based composer and artistic director of the festival is himself a striking example of our disjointed understanding of musical history. His String Quartet No. 2 “Torso” from 2013 sounds as if he undertook the task of combining Bach movement configuration with Wagnerian gestures all the while sounding close to Satie. On the other hand, his Overture from 2014 for two violins can be easily understood as an unending, continuous melody interwoven with different harmonic patterns and the overall drama of a composition for two instruments. His Etude 7 for oboe, composed in 1962, is an example of perfectly crafted dodecaphony. All this raises a question – how can someone like Kotik, who so freely produces his compositions, be passed over by music history as if he was only doing something technical and tasteful – whether from the perspective of the 19th century or the 1950s? There is no question; the train of time passed and did not notice Kotik, standing on the sideline. He composed Music for 3 in 1964, a piece for three strings that play almost exclusively on the endpin, tailpiece, scroll, instrument body, etc., six years before Lachenmann three solo studies Guero, Pression, and Dal Niente that are known to us for introducing noises into the realm of instrumental composition. Hearing Music for 3 was not only a discovery in itself, but also shed light on Kotik compositional development: his looking-to-tradition works like Torso, Overture, and Etude 7 do not really focus exclusively on tonality, melody, or harmony, but are radical abstractions in which sound creates a canvas of lines and patterns. It seems that, as Ferneyhough theory goes, we are reminded that tonality may not be over yet.
We are now returning to the approach of making music based on spatial distribution, instead of being-inside-the-music itself. Impressive examples were given in works by Phill Niblock, played by the newly formed Ostrava New Orchestra (ONO). The pitches of his drone composition #9.7 gradually descend throughout the entire orchestra and can hardly be described as a process. Weiße Farben by Klaus Lang scored a great success with the Ostrava Days audiences. Weiße Farben is a piece that is inspired by two intermittent questions: the mystery of the footsteps of a cow, which give us no idea of its direction of travel, and the mystery of animals eating only greens but producing white milk. Accordingly, the piece does not have a sound-spatial structure. On the contrary, there is a suspension of time-order that opens a tonal space with its autonomous, versatile, and highly sensitive sonority. It is built on finely honed snapshots: a sound landscape that, when viewed up close, opens up to a far distance. Another example is a piece by Rita Ueda, The Sound of a Clock, in which the choir, spread throughout the St. Wenceslas church, sounds as if from inside a clock, imitating bells and the ticking mechanism of the clockwork. Another one is Dave Riedstra untitled ] [ in which three singers sing a single tone in unison so that we only perceive the rhythm of the sound and its clashing timbres.
The spatial approach to music with one ear in North America and the other in Russia is completely different from the typical German form progressions à la Enno Poppe. Unfortunately, the discourse addressing these differences has been all too brief. Namely, giving up these [German] progressions in music is not the result of some simple, lighthearted change of mind. It is not a one-sided conviction that evolution in the old sense [as we look at it in Germany] is no longer possible. It does not give up the utopian hope for innovation, pushing music frivolously into the dark, as if the 20th century did not exist. On the contrary, it presents a vibrant soundscape of spatially distributed music, opening up possibilities for something very important.
In the music by Galina Ustvolskaja, one can sense the expression of abandonment and loss. Her Composition No. 1. Dona nobis pacem (1971) projects a complex structural control and physical force. The piccolo and tuba form an upper and lower pitch boundary, while the piano provides a sound constellation in the remaining sonorities. The pitch relations are brought to the extreme in sound and volume, occasionally resulting in noise. The music wants to crush itself, go beyond itself; and yet it is powerless. The final movement stands as pure destruction, turning the composition into a radical masterpiece: the music looks exhausted on its own pile of shards, touching on what was once easy to hear as a melody with hints of smooth harmony, as if it recognizes its own destruction. Only the words remain: “Dona nobis pacem!” ([God] Give us peace)
These are the pieces that make the utopia of new music so much more apparent - as well as showing its powerlessness. The same feeling happened at performances such as that of Daan Vandewalle and his exploratory, sensitive, and staggeringly virtuosic interpretation of Frederic Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated (1975). Stepping outside the hall after the concert, one could not believe that the world was still the same.