Future on repeat

For a festival that prides itself on its all-premieres programming, the curatorial approach of the 2019 Donaueschinger Musiktage felt more than a little stale. This left a mark on even its greatest works.
  • Annonce

    Glemte kvindelige komponister
  • Annonce

    Annoncér hos Seismograf

Donaueschinger Musiktage is one of the world’s oldest and most historied contemporary music festivals, and has been taking over the tiny town of Donaueschingen – population: 22,000 – in Southwest Germany every October since 1921. It is a massive cultural event, selling out months in advance. No venue is smaller than colossal, even the smallest chamber concerts selling out packed auditoriums in a way Danish festivals such as Klang, Spor, Gong Tomorrow, etc. could only dream of – even competing with the largest audiences for a DR orchestra concert.

Where it seems in Denmark contemporary classical music is often met by the wider public with polite bemusement at best and contempt from politicians at worst (goddag, Alex Ahrendtsen), this festival of the newest of new music – every single piece is a premiere – is widely known and even celebrated. Whereas in Copenhagen and the UK, my homeland, I have many times had to explain to people that, yes, writing new classical music is still a thing that people actually do, it is unquestionably accepted at the Donaueschinger Musiktage. It is a part of the cultural firmament. Contemporary music in this part of the world is not a luxury, or something orchestras begrudgingly play as part of their public funding commitments. It is not an assortment of curiosities written by eccentrics. It is a necessary part of a living, breathing, unfinished tradition.

Contemporary music in this part of the world is not a luxury. It is a necessary part of a living, breathing, unfinished tradition

Of course, this is, or should be, the view of composers and is probably the view of most readers of this publication. The difference lies in how widely held this view is in Donaueschingen. The massive audiences were diverse in age (if not in ethnicity), and fully engaged with what was going on in front of them. No polite applause here – there was hooting, hollering, even booing. There was a sense of music ‘belonging’ to everyone. No one felt unentitled to an opinion – in contrast to Copenhagen and the UK, where I have many times heard opinions on vastly different styles of music prefaced with ‘it’s not really my thing’, ‘I didn’t understand’, or ‘I don’t think this was for me’.

The elephant in the room

Attending this festival was a refreshing, revitalising experience, and it was extraordinary to see the reach contemporary music can (and, here, does) have. But it was not without downsides. The festival was, in a word, heavy. The atmosphere was thick, the pieces were generally thick and overloaded, the expectations high, the concerts long. As I wrote last year about the Warsaw Autumn festival: “Becoming a successful part of the establishment comes at a price, and the price here is a loss of edge due to the pressures of ‘the tradition’.” The same holds true for the Donaueschinger Musiktage. There was very little on display that was form-busting, mind-blowing, edgy, provocative, questioning, or even just different from the other things on the programme.

I found this surprising for a festival consisting of 100% premieres and nothing else. One of the received wisdoms floating around was that due to this approach, not everything was going to be a sure-fire hit, because every piece was an unknown quantity – a risk. From a programming point of view, or from an audience appreciation perspective, perhaps this is the case. Artistically? Quite the opposite.

Almost (note: almost) exclusively, composers stayed within the safe zone. It is very tempting and more than a little dramatic to read this as a symptom of a broader cultural malaise – fitting nicely into the narrative that classical music has had its day, that contemporary composition is a pointless exercise. If this festival, which is simultaneously showcasing the best of the modern scene and acting as a creative platform for the most brilliant compositional talents in Europe to flex their muscles with new works, is sounding more than a little stale, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Steen-Andersen: »Trio«. © Ralf Brunner/SWR
Simon Steen-Andersen’s ambitious »Trio« was premiered at the festival. © Ralf Brunner/SWR

This is a mistake for two main reasons. Firstly, it is a mistake of vertical thinking. Contemporary classical music is not a hierarchy with Germany at the top and everywhere else further down. Attend enough smaller festivals and concerts and it will rapidly become clear that bigger audience sizes and bigger resources have nothing to do with artistic interest. It is true that it helps to better realise the potential of material – but if the start is rotten, it does not matter how many musicians, sound technicians, producers, speakers, microphones, Max patches, etc. you throw at it.

Secondly, it misses the point of this festival in particular. The general consensus seemed to be that Donaueschinger Musiktage, in spite of its ‘exclusively premieres’ approach, is not and never really has been the venue for the most uncompromising experimental music. Personally, this seems to me to be something of a missed opportunity. But a festival with this immense a reach, and that has lasted for nearly 100 years, is clearly doing something right. Viewed in this way, and taken on its own terms, this year’s festival was a huge success, and will likely continue to be a huge success for the foreseeable future.

Boys’ club

What was it, then, about the music displayed that could be characterised as stale? The issue was twofold: firstly, the individual pieces themselves, and secondly, the combination of these pieces. The first issue is down to the composers (the music they chose to write), the second issue is about the curators (which composers were asked to write).

Let’s start with the curation of the festival. First things first – the balance between female and male composers was poor. From the programme book I counted 76 minutes of music by female composers, and 363 minutes of music from male composers. The old and tired argument of there being not enough music of quality or music that fit the programme by female composers does not apply here – every piece is a premiere. It is not the usual case of ensembles proposing their own repertoire, which is for whatever reason mostly male composers. The all-premieres approach is a unique opportunity to make bold curatorial choices, and the opportunity was not taken.

This festival that, with its emphasis on premieres, purports itself to be on the forefront of contemporary music, is actually anything but

We had instead a parade of big-hitter names – your Simon Steen-Andersens, your Beat Furrers, your Mark Andrés, your Jürg Freys. Perhaps I am missing the point – Donaueschinger Musiktage is probably not the right venue for ‘bold curatorial choices’. But the message of the programme was clear: this is unmistakeably a boys’ club. There are enough female composers working at the moment that the idea of mixing up the gender balance a little bit would not have necessitated making any kind of bold choice, while sending a better message about what kind of world contemporary music is. With a festival of this magnitude and importance, a better gender balance would probably have a large effect on making the contemporary music world a more inclusive environment. Festivals of this size are not reflective of the society – they are shaping the society.

As for the individual pieces, there was unmistakeably a remarkable uniformity of style across concerts. If you did not know that every piece was a premiere, you could be forgiven for thinking that every piece had been heard before by someone with a very specific and consistent taste, who then selected these pieces for their festival. I will briefly outline the common threads between most of these pieces.

The lightness of being

Firstly: collage. This seemed to be the order of the day. There were a lot of pieces consisting of collages of archive material or field recordings made by the composers themselves, combined to a greater or lesser extent with live-performed contemporary-style music. To name a few: Simon Steen-Andersen’s Trio, Nicole Lizée’s Sepulchre, Gordon Kampe’s Remember Me, and Pierre-Yves Macé’s Rumorarium – all of these works had some element of collage of pre-recorded material. Mostly, the approach was surface level, with the pre-recorded material seemingly laid on top of some live music. The one exception from the list was Steen-Andersen’s Trio (more on which below), which consisted of only pre-existing material, played live and on video.

Secondly: a certain lightness of attitude. This is more difficult to characterise, but I will try. The overarching approach was a light-hearted, at best almost manic, approach – nothing taken too seriously, no material that was too dark or too heavy on the menu. Ironically, this often meant that the pieces themselves became very dark and heavy, as the pieces often combined this attitude with the aforementioned collage approach – and as a result contained a surfeit of material, none of which was fully explored, creating a feeling of heaviness as there was just so much to listen to.

The most emblematic – and, in my mind, the most successful – example of the light-hearted approach would be Matthew Shlomowitz’s Glücklich, Glücklich, Freude, Freude, a concerto for keyboardist and orchestra performed by Plus-Minus Ensemble’s Mark Knoop and the SWR Symphony Orchestra. The piece was manic to a fault, an unrelenting barrage of relentless patterns and figurations, that took its cartoonish language and logic to extremes. It was unfortunate that it seemed to collapse under the weight of its own architecture a little – I wished it had stuck with its unceasing mania instead of changing course with an unnecessary and obligatory-feeling slow section with cadenza. But it left an impression, and drew strong reactions from the crowd with both loud boos and solid applause.

This unserious approach was so widespread that whenever pieces became darker in tone or style they immediately stood out. Mark André’s RWH 1 for string ensemble was one of my highlights of the festival – remarkably orchestrated, bold in structure, unrelentingly serious in tone to the point that it became almost a high camp experience. Similarly, the extract of Beat Furrer’s Konzert für Klarinette und Ensemble that was presented stood apart because of its dryness and professionality – in and out, seven minutes of contemporary music in the style of Beat Furrer, job done. But these pieces were so contrasted with what else was going on on the programme that the experience of listening to them became something else entirely. I’m not sure if they would stand out in the same way if presented at a different festival. I’m also not sure it matters at all.

Steen-Andersen: talk of the town

The piece that combined collage and light-heartedness to the greatest effect was this year’s winner of the SWR Orchestra Prize for best new orchestra piece [officially ‘the piece that most deserves to be presented to the wider public’] – Simon Steen-Andersen’s Trio. Cards on the table – this piece was the reason I was at the festival at all, as I was working as Steen-Andersen’s assistant for the two weeks of rehearsal before the performance, as well as having been one of six assistants compiling the score from archive material in Copenhagen over the summer. I cannot and will not pretend to have any kind of objectivity about this piece. What I can say is that it had by far the biggest impact on the audience at the festival, and seemed to be the main feature (winning the aforementioned prize). So even though my perspective is horribly, unquestionably skewed, I think it is still somewhat justified to place an emphasis on it as one of the main discussion points of this year’s Donaueschinger Musiktage.

It was a monumental work – a 50-minute odyssey for choir, orchestra, and big band through the SWR archives. The rapid-fire cuts between live and pre-recorded material, with samples pinging back and forth between the ensembles and the video at breakneck speed. It was an alarmingly immersive experience, constantly with new tricks up its sleeve, a new way of playing with the archive material around the corner. It also had some kind of story, as we followed ultra old-school conductor Sergiu Celibidache across his career, spending more or less time with him at certain moments.

This is all to say that from my (biased) perspective, the piece was, taken by itself, a remarkable experience and a great success, told in Simon Steen-Andersen’s signature, oft-imitated, style. But in the context of the Donaueschinger Musiktage festival, it took on some problematic qualities. If, as I outlined above, the missed opportunities of both the programming of pieces and individual pieces themselves contributed to the somewhat stale and unfresh atmosphere of the festival, Trio celebrated all of the qualities that lead to this circumstance in the first place. The piece, co-commissioned by SWR [and DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation] and celebrating SWR, and more broadly the entire institution of Western classical music, took on a somewhat self-congratulatory and even onanistic edge in context. It is no surprise that it won the SWR Orchestra Prize, because it reflected the audience back on itself in a way that was very flattering. It contained such lines as ‘a piece that can only be realised with an institution with the power of a German radio station’, or, even more self-congratulatory, ‘here we find an audience who approach their set of problems with an open mind – Donaueschinger Musiktage’.

I do not think the intention of the piece was to be this pandering to the audience – I think Steen-Andersen is innately attracted to the ‘meta’, and he was using material that leant itself to this tone. But it is not hard to see why it was such a success. It props up a lovely, comforting narrative: German radio stations are doing important work at the top of their field, and you, the audience, are appreciating it in exactly the right way. But the lack of freshness in the air at the festival suggested that, actually, perhaps things need re-evaluating. To be frank (and more than a little theatrical), we are at the moment finding ourselves in a place in history where a lot of our most precious institutions are no longer fit for purpose – music festivals and radio stations included.

So, like everything else about this festival – a great success and a remarkable achievement that set out what it was aiming to achieve. But, like everything else about this festival, there lingered a sense of a missed opportunity. This festival that, with its emphasis on premieres, purports itself to be on the forefront of contemporary music, is actually anything but. It is deep, deep establishment. And that is fine – or at least, it used to be fine. Donaueschinger Musiktage could be so much more than what it is – instead it has this year mostly commissioned composers that, for whatever reason, are not leaving their comfort zones, and it has celebrated a piece that reaffirms what it already thinks about itself. Regardless of the high quality of what was on display, it left a somewhat sour taste.

The Donaueschinger Musiktage took place on 18-20 October in Donaueschingen, Germany. A Danish premiere of Simon Steen-Andersen’s »Trio« has yet to be confirmed (it was set to be premiered in Copenhagen in 2017, but was postponed).