The SPOR of the future lies 10 years back
– This interview is made available by SPOR Festival and is part of an anniversary publication celebrating the festivals first decade. –
Agnete Seerup (AS): You have both been artistic directors and festival directors since 2007. But hasn’t SPOR existed since 2005?
Anne Marqvardsen (AM): Yes, the first SPOR was held in 2005. In 2003 the idea for SPOR was conceived, along with the idea of a new curator each year. The executive committee of SPOR, with Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen as its chairman, set up a curator competition to which all programme proposals could be sent. It was an exceptional and visionary idea, for at the time this was not really something that anyone did in Denmark or the rest of Europe.
Anna Berit Asp-Christensen (AB): And Aarhus has of course a remarkably long tradition for new music, something that the committee was inspired by. From 1978 to 2002, the city had had Karl Aage Rasmussen and the Numus festival, which presented new music from Denmark and the international music scene in a highly original way.
The traditional curator is sovereign
AS: In what way was it particularly visionary of the SPOR executive committee to hold a curator competition?
AM: Traditionally, one has an artistic director who has sovereign right to determine the programme year after year, and often decides what is to be included on the basis of such parameters as: This year this particular composer will be 70 years old, so we will base our programme on him, or, it’s a long time now since we heard any music from Poland! By always involving a new curator the committee ensured renewal in the programme each year.
AB: You could say that the curator competition was the first step towards the conceptual curating that Anne and I added to SPOR, where the art pieces of the programme reflect each other and problematise or investigate a particular phenomenon. In the early years of SPOR, an actual concept for the festival was not an explicit requirement.
AS: In 2007, you both won the competition and became guest curators yourself – how did that come about?
AB: Anne and I got to know each other back in ’99 at the University of Copenhagen, and it didn’t take long before we started to collaborate and travel to venues where musical works were being performed that could not be heard in Denmark. By chance, I came across the SPOR curator competition and suggested to Anne that we should send in a proposal. As part of our research, we also visited the festival in 2005 and 2006.
We wanted contemporary art music to develop away from being the younger brother of classical music
AM: We spent a long time on our programme proposal, which was fuelled by having just seen so many fine international productions that made us think: Something like this really ought to be done in Denmark! It had, though, also drawn our attention to just how uniform many of the European festival programmes were. When we sent in our proposed programme to SPOR, we had no expectations that the committee behind the festival would be at all interested. We ourselves had the idea that it was a problem that we were not composers ourselves, that we were academics, women and lived in Copenhagen.
AB: Yes, and we didn’t know if the festival was at all geared to such a voluminous and experimental programme. We had outlined in great detail a programme that, among other things, included a vast symphonic work by Benedict Mason and a number of concerts with Christian Marclay – a huge name who it was far from certain could be persuaded to come to Aarhus.
AS: What did your proposal look like?
AM: We called our proposal Composing What? The festival was to have its main focus on the role of the composer. We based ourselves on the dogma that all composers should personally be present on the stage and take part in the performance of their own works.
AM: We wanted contemporary art music to develop away from being the younger brother of classical music to viewing itself as just as epoch-making a player on the contemporary art scene as other forms of art. We wanted to question all established habits: Why must a sound-borne work of art always be presented in a concert hall where the audience sits in a particular way, and the musicians are up on a stage and wearing special clothes?
AB: Yes, Composing What? tore down all the old codices and hierarchies. We did not have any raised stage, no backstage area, the audience was placed in various zones on the floor along with the artists. The riding hall (Ridehuset) in Aarhus came itself to function as a work, with 700 chairs positioned in fine grids, so that everything flowed together – for better or worse.
AS: For better or worse?
AB: Yes, mostly for better, a little for worse. Particularly the first year, when we did not have any practical festival experience. We had planned an enormously dense and technically complex programme, and all the concerts were of course to take place at the same venue – Ridehuset. No single door could be shut when, for example, a sound check needed to be made, people change clothes, warm up or eat. It was fantastic and it worked, but it was also a great challenge. All of our festivals have been highly experimental as regards the form of presentation, and each year means new challenges. The concert hall is easy of course; it is designed to offer the music, the musicians and the audience optimum conditions – the maximum of concentration, perhaps also the maximum enjoyment. It has these fine qualities – as long as one pays attention to when such conditions can have a hampering effect. I think we have explored this in depth over the past 10 years.
We’ve no interest in a concert hall where we can’t use a bathtub full or water or sand on the floor as an instrument!
AS: When does the concert hall become that sort of a hindrance? What is the most important thing you have discovered?
AM: The concert hall becomes a challenge when it scares off the audience and restricts the composers with all its rules and regulations as to how things ought to be done. One of the most important things we have found out is that we and the artists at the festival need a great deal of freedom and elbow room – also when it comes to being able to think in terms of such unconventional venues as a cofferdam, an attic or urban space as the setting for art music. We’ve no interest in a concert hall where we can’t use a bathtub full or water or sand on the floor as an instrument! Because then it is suddenly the concert hall that determines what is possible purely artistically and musically – and that’s just not on!
AS: Did you manage to get Christian Marclay to agree?
AB: Yes, but it took about eighteen months to get him to sign an agreement. Finally, we simply went to NYC and hoped for the best. We were helped by the performance biennale PERFORMA, run by Roselee Goldberg, who we also ended up collaborating with. When we finally met him, he turned out to be the nicest person imaginable, and it was easy to agree that he was to be presented with Screenplay and djTRIO at SPOR 2007. He ended up staying in Aarhus throughout our entire festival. When the festival was over, Anne and I took off our fine clothes and started to clean up Ridehuset – but that he found was a bit too much of a good thing. He had seen us lugging platforms, cables, beer crates, chairs and music stands all week long – now it was time to celebrate, so he took us to a bar and bought beers for us.
A solid basis with the first concept
AS: It all went so well in 2007 that the executive committee then invited you to take over the festival?
AM: Yes, as early as 2006, the chairman of SPOR, Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen, had come to the conclusion that he would retire after the festival in 2007. On the Monday after the festival we were both euphorically happy and dog-tired and were standing in a circle in Ridehuset along with the executive committee, who insinuated that they would like to see us continue our cooperation with SPOR. We were only willing to do so if we were allowed to share the roles of artistic directors and festival directors equally. Fortunately, they agreed to this, and we took up our positions in June 2007.
AS: Composing What? in 2007 sounds like the SPOR of today, where the works are grouped around an extremely clear theme – back then it was the role of the composer, in 2013 it was, for example, silence and in 2015 the staging of the music. In addition, today you still strive to maintain the equal balance between sound art and scored works that you insisted on in the 2007 programme and that still makes SPOR something special. Did you create a solid foundation with the first concept?
AB: Yes, there are few festivals that try to present sound art on a par with scored works – and there were none at all when SPOR started. I am highly satisfied that we were able to create a festival in 2007 that was so characteristic of what Anne and I have done since then. We formulate each year’s festival as one work, but it is also a piece of basic research into what sound and listening consist of. We spend an enormous amount of time on weaving all the works together, partly via their locations, and finally a kind of meta-layer emerges in which all the works stand conversing with each other.
We formulate each year’s festival as one work, but it is also a piece of basic research into what sound and listening consist of
We formulate each year’s festival as one work, but it is also a piece of basic research into what sound and listening consist of
AS: So the SPOR festival for contemporary music and sound art can perhaps rather be called an annual investigation of all kinds of sound-borne art than a music festival?
AM: Yes. We see the festival as a prism that reflects various trends and tendencies. In that way, there is not a hierarchical relation between whether something takes place in a kunsthalle, a concert hall, outdoors or some other place. The field and the way artists work today are also highly diverse, so it feels extremely natural and exactly right to reflect and support.
AB: When we placed sound art and composed music on a par, it also became natural to include other neighbouring genres such as performance, modern dance and concept art. For us, contemporary art music is just as reflective and vociferous as all other contemporary art – it is not necessarily only about sound in itself, and it does not only address those with a knowledge of music, quite the opposite. Music art has the same potential for debative curating as all other art forms, and each year we focus precisely on bringing this out. For that reason, we always have such titles as: TOUCH ME; SPEAK UP; DO IT ANYWAY.
AS: A couple of years after you took over the leadership of SPOR, you did away with the curator competition – why was that?
AM: Bent Sørensen won the competition in 2008 and Joanna Baillie in 2010, but in the course of those two years it became increasingly important for us to ensure a line of continuity that strengthened SPOR’s identity, even though we featured a new guest curator and a new theme each year.
AB: For the festival to be able to maintain its own style whilst also renewing itself year after year, the order of the guest curators was important – that became a kind of curating in itself. So we dropped the competition in 2011 and started to select and invite guest curators. Each of the 10 years has individually been its own, with its own theme, its own title and its own identity – and yet no one is in any doubt that it was a SPOR festival.
AS: So, in a way you started to curate the guest curators across the years?
AM: Yes, when we dropped the competition, an extra layer of curating was added, a meta-track where the imprint of the individual festival and the guest curator is part of a larger whole. So, as our point of departure, we are always 2-3 festivals out in the future when it comes to curator and theme.
AB: Even though we have a guest curator, we still decide at any rate 50% of the programme. When we did our first festival, we saw a great need to present an international programme in Denmark. We still place considerable emphasis on an international programme, and it makes good sense to do so in collaboration with the guest curator. Naturally, we help with the selection of Danish works and thereby introduce the whole Danish field to the curator. We also ensure that we exploit the full potential of the city. Although the festival is an international one, we must anchor it in the local.
AS: Every year it is your job to make the festival cohere and ensure that the curating takes place in accordance with the identity of the festival. At the same time, you have many first performances that are often on the drawing board until the final second. How do you deal with this uncertainty?
AB: That is where our own artistic practice comes into play. We cannot test anything in advance. In the same way as when the composer sits down and writes a scored work. It is a matter of experience and intuition. You don’t know if it works until the ensemble plays it.
AM: We’re wild about the live element. It is so ‘alive’ and ungovernable, just as the audience is, by the way. You can never have 100% control of a festival. For us, artistic courage is the most important thing, so it may well be that a single first performance falls flat.
AS: SPOR is part of a great international network. Is this because your guest curators nearly all come from outside Denmark?
AM: Yes, the guest curators are good ambassadors and they create amazing networks out in the world. In 2014, Jennifer Walshe was guest curator, and this stemmed from a cooperation we began in 2007, where Ensemble 2000 did a portrait concert of her at SPOR – for the first time in Denmark. Many of the curator collaborations grow out of that type of constellation. It is like a family that follows the festival and grows when good new collaborators enter SPOR.
An open call is an open chance
AS: In 2010, you launched an open call for proposals at SPOR festivals. Why did you choose to do so?
AB: Each year we had to turn down many queries because they didn’t fit the theme of the festival. Then our guest curator Joanna Baillie came up with the idea of a Call in 2010 where one was to relate to a particular theme. Suddenly, everyone had an honest chance to send in works. It felt right to have that openness alongside a rigorous concept for the festival, where everything is carefully selected.
AM: We receive between 80 and 150 proposals each year. It’s incredible how the Call gives rise to fascinating new works by both young and established artists year after year!
For us, artistic courage is the most important thing, so it may well be that a single first performance falls flat
AS: You always schedule your annual Call Concert on Friday or Saturday evening during prime time – why is that?
AM: Yes, it mustn’t be on a Saturday morning because we’re afraid it’s not good enough. It is a risky concert – we’ve no idea what we’re going to get. But it’s important that it is performed in prime time, because it is often the slightly younger artists who really invest a great deal in these works. It’s tremendously exciting to work with!
AS: Do you get an inkling of the works and trends of the future via the Call that you can make use of in your work on future festivals?
AB: The Call confirms our idea that the art form is developing, and that there is plenty of good stuff in the composers of tomorrow. I like very much the fact that the Call is an open platform. We don’t have the ulterior motive that we are to get something concrete in return. We are happy to place our festival at the disposal of some younger artists and thereby nurture and stimulate the new trends and layers of growth that exist.
AS: So it is just as important that the SPOR festival is a platform for young composers as it is to present major international works by Jennifer Walshe and Christian Marclay?
AM: Yes, definitely! It is an extremely important part of SPOR’s identity to present on equal terms both the major international and the young up-and-coming Danish and foreign talents.
Composition on the school curriculum to ensure the quality of SPOR in the future
AS: SPOR New Music School is a new composition school for young music-school students between 11 and 15 years old that you launched just before your 10th anniversary. In April and May, children from Aarhus and the Central Jutland Region will write new music along with professional composers. Will this be a part of SPOR in the future?
AB: Yes, and we have always scheduled their concert as part of the festival programme. We are eager to plant our enthusiasm in this art form in all the young people attending music school in order to learn to play an instrument. Teach them what it means to create musical works themselves, that one doesn’t have to play things composed by others the whole time.
AS: Is SNMS a form of future guarantee plan?
AM: We believe it is enormously important for children and young people to gain experience of new music and art if we want to ensure that we will be able to enjoy new, experimental music and sound art of high quality in the future. Both at SPOR and elsewhere. It is tremendously important to equip the artists of tomorrow by developing new formats for children’s encounters with creative processes.
A happy curatory combination
AS: Where will you and SPOR be in 10 years’ time?
AM: Fortunately, we can’t answer that one. The foundation is still very much alive and we will continue for as long as we feel we are making the best new festival every year! If that is how it feels after so many years, I don’t think it will be any different in another five or ten years.
AB: I actually think we have a very happy curatory combination: a new playmate each year, but the house is always the same.