Ostrava Music Days
Ostrava, Czech Republic, various venues
The Music Days, which composer and conductor Petr Kotík has run since 2001, must be the most ambitious contemporary composition event in Eastern Europe. Against the contemporary composition grain, programmes are long, but Kotík knows how much great and worthwhile music is there to be got out.The festival core is musical modernism and its experimental development especially by American mavericks.But reflecting Ostravas historic industrial status, this year opened with multi-media events at Dul Michal (Michal Coal Mine), an extraordinary piece of Soviet-era industrial heritage.
In the outdoor sound installation “A Piano Listening To Itself” (2011), Canadian composer and soundartist Gordon Monahan suspended piano wires from a mine-tower to a piano at ground level.Recordings of Chopin pieces are transmitted into the long piano-strings, interacting with Aeolian tones when the wind blows perpendicular to the piano.Though its mechanics remained hard to fathom, the effects were totally captivating.
In the mines former shower-room we heard an overlong Harlekin by Stockhausen – leaving us to ponder again why his genius left him after the early 70s.Much more involving was Salome Kammers interpretation of Kurt Schwitters rarely-performed Ur-Sonate, where with perverse brilliance she gave his Dadaist nonsense the appearance of sense through tone and gesture – imploring, complaining, defying.
Performer nudity in Daniel Ploegers installation piece “Electrode” warranted a parental advisory sticker – an anal electrode registered the activity of his sphincter muscle, as he repetitively faked the orgasm of an anonymous subject in a Minnesota University research project from 1980.Even though the results were sonified using Xenakiss GenDy algorithm, it seemed like there were two assholes too many in this performance.
In the Gallery of Fine Arts next day, what Kotík described as a 10-hour “mini-marathon” of electronic music was more like a double marathon, the terminology reflecting his own amazing energy levels.Thomas Buckner performed Robert Ashleys composition “Track”, which began as a piece for baritone and string quartet based on a poem by Wallace Stevens, but became one for vocalise and electronics.Lukasz Szalankiewicz exploited interference patterns with camera, mobile and palm pilot, creating a meaningful performance concept for live electronics – contrasting with Tomás Vtípils feral exhibition of rage and sonic violence.
Though Ostrava is known as a struggling former industrial conurbation, its also a rich cultural crossroads of Central and East Europe.In the Gallery of Fine Arts, against the rumble of Noise and electronica downstairs, you could admire masterpieces by Kokoschka – who lived and painted here in the 1930s – and Klimt, and also a well-conceived Czech motor exhibition, reminding us that during the 1920 and 30s, before Nazi and Soviet devastation, Czechoslovakia was the worlds tenth industrial power.
In a fine series of concerts by the Ostravska Banda, Kotíks chamber ensemble, one stood out, featuring Ondrej Vrabec as soloist in one of Gyorgy Ligetis last works, the Hamburg Concerto for french horn.As Bernhard Lang commented, in any but the most skilful hands, Ligetis piece can sound “like elephants farting”, but here the Banda achieved a perfect contrast between tempered and natural turning. It is ironic that Ligeti was unceremoniously expelled from the avantgarde for daring to write music as “tonal” as this.The Banda, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke, also achieved miraculous results with Scelsis almost-violin-concerto “Anahit”, with Conrad Harris as soloist.
The other absolute orchestral highlight was the Janácek Philharmonic concert conducted by Petr Kotík, that presented the world premiere of Phill Niblocks Baobab (2011) with video. This was luminous drone territory, immediately accessible but with hidden depths. Niblock always builds in a length of silence at the end of the piece – here only five minutes, sometimes forty-five.And the video often shows ordinary people at work, using everyday skills, here fishing and mending nets.An antidote to high culture, perhaps – though according to one source, thats not what Niblock says.Affable and totally unpretentious as he is, however, he doesnt say too much about his work.
The concert continued with Bernhard Langs Monadology XIVa from 2011, which offers a “virtual remix” of turntablist and live electronic techniques in a score that lurched and looped obsessively.Equally obsessive but shatteringly different in impact was Ustvolskayas Symphony No. 2 for voice and orchestra – a stark performance of elemental power.Her words, like her musical motifs, appear simple, permutating on “Ay, ay! God! A true, a true and blissful Eternity” – contrasting with the Soviet present that the composer endured.Perhaps this punishing directness was not pianist Joe Kuberas forte – pardon the pun – and he had been totally in his element in an earlier concert; in Feldmans Piano And Orchestra he achieved an almost ego-less suppression of attack.In contrast, with two big bass drums up front, Ustvolskaya calls for almost nothing but attack.
A less austere monumentality was achieved in an earlier performance, of Rolf Riehms Wer sind diese Kinder for large orchestra divided into three groups, electronics, and piano (Daan Vandewalle) with Kotík directing the Janácek Philharmonic – the kind of portentous orchestra plus text piece still found in contemporary German music, by a member of the generation of 68. “As Cornelius [Cardew] said, its ugly, but not ugly enough”, one UK performer commented.Pianist Vandewalle responded that the piece “is what it is” – presumably meaning we must recognise it in its own terms, as an expression of German historical angst.Its the most forceful piano-playing hes been called on to perform, he added, and that includes Ustvolskaya.
Among small group performances that stood out, guitarist and composer Larry Polansky performed with electric guitar quartet ZWERM from Antwerp, including “Ensembles Of Note” and “For Jim, Ben And Lou”, from his recent New World Records disc.In the same concert, Charles Amess “Excursion” (1984) for solo electric guitar, based on artificial-intelligence generated “synthetic tonality”, swings very naturally – that made two world premieres in one week for a much self-effacing composer of quiet, beautifully-conceived pieces.
New Yorks JACK Quartet performed Xenakiss late Ergma, and “before the universe was born” by spectralist Horatiu Radulescu.Their less familiar approach to Xenakis – precise, clean and classicised – wouldnt please everyone, but in a workshop, they argued that the composer precisely notated his polyrhythms and glissandos.
There were works by students at Ostrava Days 2011, as well as former students such as James Saunders, a concert featuring harpist Rhodri Davies with musical haikus by Yasunao Tone, and John Eckhardts incredibly versatile acoustic and electric bass.Nea Vasile & Taraful de la Marsa from Southern Romania performed traditional gypsy music at Club Parník, hijacked in one of the festivals most memorable moments by a Romanian Elvis on guitar – but the concert performances, with too many fine and interesting performances even to mention, were the meat of the show.