Side entrance to the New Music Scene
The drummer and the keyboardist walk in resolutely, dressed in black. They stand, turning their backs to each other. After this brief duo introduction, other performers enter the scene. They move awkwardly, like animated figures. Looking from side to side, bodies twisted in strange positions, gestures repeated in loops or scratched out, like the vinyls on turntables at the back of the scene.
This is a snapshot from the performance, at the 2023 Darmstadt Summer Courses, of Growing Sideways, composed by Jorge Sánchez-Chiong and choreographed by Brigitte Wilfing. In their program note, the artists write: »To step onto the side and feel forward, to grow sideways between the traces of the past and to look back with foresight at a sideways proliferating advance. Suddenly we have the future breathing down our necks. How many steps can we step back?« The two musicians at the beginning are Alfredo Ovalles (keyboards) and David Panzl (percussion), who are later accompanied by Mirjam Klebel (horn). The setting seems to have more to do with dance than music. And yet it was presented here, at a contemporary music festival.
The presence of a work like Growing Sideways at this festival, to me, is evidence of a significant change in the new music scene (henceforth referred to as NMS), which the festival has long held a role in shaping. In the past, modernist musical language – characterized at different points by serial permutations, minimal repetitions, or spectral timbre – seemed to be a given at Darmstadt. This attitude could be described as part of a Foucaltian dispositif of new music: a system with its own rules and regulations, determined in this case by institutions, festivals, and ensembles, labels and prizes. The Korean composer Younghi Pagh-Paan used to warn her students not to go to Darmstadt, for the sake of not »running after musicians like puppies with scores under their arms, to be dissed if they didn’t conform to the new music norm,« as Brigitta Muntendorf recently wrote on Facebook.
»You see, there’s no one like me!«
In the same post, Muntendorf noted that the present director of the Summer Course, Thomas Schäfer, had transformed a »museum« into a »lively, diverse, tolerant, open space.« The scene itself seems to be »growing sideways.« Take Ensemble Modern, one of the core ensembles of the NMS, which invited three composers to its multifaceted concert Resonances I in Darmstadt: Anahita Abbasi from Iran, Wukir Suryadi from Indonesia and Yiran Zhao from China (Abbasi is based in San Diego, and Zhao in Berlin). The first one, still based in Jakarta included his own self-designed instruments as well as Walter Smetak’s sound devices. Smetak, a Czech-Jewish cellist and a true outsider of music history of the 20th century, in many ways reversed the logic of centers and peripheries. Escaping European antisemitism, Smetak settled down in the Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia, where he created a kind of commune focused on spiritualism and improvisation.
Ricardo Eizirik was also born in Brazil, although he moved to Switzerland and then Germany many years ago. The artist brought his collaborative piece adoloscência to Darmstadt for his first major appearance at Summer Course. How did all these artists – Eizirik, Sanchez, Abbasi – enter the new music scene, and with what kind of step? What were the expectations and obstacles they faced? And how important are their roots for their artistic output right now?
The safe bubble of classical music
When I enter a room in the Akademie für Tonkunst to meet Jorge Sánchez Chiong, I am faced with a wall full of portraits of famous composers. All are white men, and almost all have wigs. Jorge points at it with a laugh: »You see, there’s no one like me!« I joke that at least his hairstyle looks similar to a Baroque one. The composer came to Europe from Venezuela when he was eighteen and chose Vienna because his teacher, Daniel Bernard, was from there. Before that, Sánchez-Chiong played double bass and piano and listened extensively to music in his family’s record store. He wasn't thinking of turntables as an instrument back then – that turned out to be a Viennese discovery. During and after his composition studies, he delved into improvisation, noise music, and visual art. Jorge was one of the few conservatory students attending these experimental events; most of his fellows stayed in the safe bubble of traditional classical music. He began working as a freelance composer, receiving some commissions and writing for traditional ensembles. However, Sánchez-Chiong had already realized that a composer’s job could be a very lonely one, a kind of »solitude with a score.« For him, connection and collaboration with other musicians, as he experienced within the improv scene, felt more important.
He entered this scene without a plan, hoping to find a way out of the techniques and attitudes he had developed during his academic years. For a while, he led two parallel lives as a composer within the academic tradition and as an experimental musician, though he sometimes combined his inputs, using turntables within his compositions. At the end of the 20th century, such crossover pieces were popular, in particular as a source of social cachet for concert programmers. After a while, however, Jorge became tired of being »cool.« When I ask him what to what scene does he belong now, he replied without doubts, that – after playing a lot of noise and improv – he feels like a part of NMS. He perceives that a lot has changed in recent years, and this change could be felt here in Darmstadt. In 2010, Sánchez Chiong was invited as tutor, and he found that his collaborative work with musicians and ensembles (Nadar, at that time) was already something he didn’t have to explain or excuse. He could address questions of what it means to play an instrument, to build an ensemble, and so on. Nowadays he still works in a collaborative and process-drive way, like in a theatre group. That’s how Growing Sideways was born. The ensemble, which includes his life partner Brigitte Wilfing, experimented substantially in rehearsals, searching for the right movement and sound.
What also interests me is if anyone programming or commissioning ever asked Jorge to perform his ethnicity. He said firmly that not, maybe only once, in a negative way. At the same moment, working with turntables »was like coming home« to his early experiences in his family’s shop. »A guy who used to listen to rock bands, now discusses Bernhard Lang’s music with me!« the composer says, laughing, of his brother, a manager in the pop industry. In the first decade after emigrating to Europe, Sánchez-Chiong returned to Caracas regularly to give talks, workshops, and concerts. But, since Hugo Chavez and radical political changes in 2002, he has only been there twice in almost twenty years. A system without freedom of speech is a catastrophe for Venezuelan culture, as he stated in another interview for Zett magazine.
»You are a composer. What are you doing here?«
Things were not easy for an aspiring composer in Anahita Abbasi's Iran, either. As a child in Shiraz, she started to play piano at an early age and won a national competition three times in a row. At that time, the only one music conservatory was in Tehran. Like many others, she studied music at private music institutes in Shiraz. Although her family didn’t have a musical background, her father played several instruments and had cassettes with Mozart, Beethoven, and, somehow, Xenakis. »I remember when I heard Persepolis for the first time and was astonished that the composer was here in Iran and composed something like that!« she said. At 19, she decided to move to Graz to pursue composition (Austria or Germany was the obvious choice for Iranians in those days). The night before an exam, she attended a concert of world premieres that left her deeply confused. »My initial reaction what the hell is this?!« The following day, she discussed with professors and decided to study music theory first. She still has vivid memories of her first months in Graz, listening to certain Western instruments for the first time and going to the opera house. Some years later, Georg Friedrich Haas said to her, after one of her theory? classes, »You are a composer. What are you doing here?«
I speak with Anahita Abbasi on Zoom just a few days after she presented Situation XII – in our dwelling, we reside in Darmstadt, another one in the cycle inspired by human interactions and relationships. The piece is skillfully composed for Ensemble Modern, with a powerful percussion set and a lot of resonance. In the second part, high-pitched instruments take the scene. Abbasi’s catalogue offers several pieces for Persian instruments as well. Sketches no. 1 and 2 (2012 and 2016) juxtapose setar and kamancheh with live electronics – tradition with modernity. Abbasi seems also to be inspired by Sufism and the great Persian poet and philosopher Rumi, as in her Seven impressions for cello and percussion or No, I am not roaming aimlessly for flute (2017).
»My soul and my music belongs more to Europe«
She outlines her time working with the Atlas Academy in Netherlands, where she experimented with redefining the string quartet, including non-Western instruments such as setar. Paradoxically, Anahita felt at the time that »she knew nothing about traditional Iranian music.« She hadn't studied its scales or ornaments, as she was trained in the Western style. She is guided, she said, by a sense that »everything is about the sound itself and its color, [and] the many different layers and energies that each sound carries within.« Occasionally, she has been asked to produce music that includes traditional elements or otherwise represents her ethnic background so as to be tokenizing. She has even refused commissions when she felt the festival was inviting her to fill an exotic category. In her Austrian scene, she noted a certain conservatism, and the same names performed time and again. Abbasi and other students gathered to launch the new music ensemble Schallfeld in order to bring composers from other parts of the world to Austria and vice versa, though she has lately focused more on her work as a composer.
She went on to pursue a PhD at UC San Diego, where she found a key mentor, Rand Steiger, as well as a versatile and nourishing community of artists. A few years later, Anahita Abbasi co-established the Iranian Female Composer Association to create an open platform for other Iranian composers around the world. Despite travel complications resulting from the Trump administration’s »Muslim Ban,« she also started to feel very local, though in recent years she has also begun to feel that »my soul and my music belongs more to Europe.« Abbasi currently commutes between New York and Paris and feels happy with her decision to return to the European new music scene.
Punk, Stravinsky and the Latin American immigrant scene
The Darmstadt Summer Course was established in 1945 to promote entirely new music (Neue Musik) at hour zero (Stunde Null) after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The aim of the course was to break with the tradition of Strauss and Wagner and turn towards Schönberg, then Webern. However, this new canon was not canon for everyone. As Ricardo Eizirik pointed out in an interview in Darmstadt Course 2023 Reader, while reading music history books, he noticed that »everyone was called Johann, Ludwig, Pierre and Karlheinz. There were no Ricardos, no Joãos.« Although he appreciated Schubert’s Die Winterreise upon first time hearing it, he felt couldn’t connect to the work's language, references, or culture. Eizirik, who is from Brazil, grew up with an unconscious belief, drawn from dominant narratives, that Brazil is »a third world country, and somewhere there is the first world; we are worse, they are better.« When he started to play the guitar, his teacher, who was also a composition student, showed him some punk or metal bands as well as Stravinsky or Ligeti. As a teenager he didn't draw lines between any of this music. But the lack of Brazilian names seemed strange to him, as if they didn’t deserve a place in the official history of experimental music, even if they did in the art or film scene. Eizirik came to love the NMS tradition and began to listen to and analyze avant-garde music. Traveling to Europe at 25 was like »going to the history book« for him. His first reaction at Zurich University of Arts was to try to fit in. He behaved as »a good Latin American and said yes to everything«: set up chairs for concerts, applied for all scholarships, and visited every festival.
As a young composer, Ricardo received a lot of hints from tutors or teachers as to what direction he should move in and what his values should be. However he still felt »out of place,« as though he were »holding something back, like an undercover agent.« When playing the guitar or electronic music, he did so away from the university, camouflaging his true musical interests. He was afraid someone would stand in the middle of the concert and shout, »Aha, I see you! Reveal yourself!« A revelation came to Ricardo, however, in a masterclass with Helmut Lachenmann, whom he had long adored. One of the students, with long hair and all in black, presented a piece for drum set, electric guitar and amplified string quartet. Eizirik recognised some references to death and black metal bands, but Lachenmnann only commented on the work using phrases like »ancient African rhythms«… It became clear that this kind of music was not acknowledged as experimental. That term at universities and institutions was used in a narrow sense, and everything beyond was heard as a »spice only, in an orientalist way.«
Only after coming to Europe, Ricardo realised that he had been doing experimental music since the beginning – but a different one, not canonical, unwritten. After the COVID shutdowns, he felt relieved, like he could do anything he wanted. Then came adolescência for five musicians, composed in a collaborative way over almost a year, but without any score. Carola Schaal (clarinet), Roberto Maqueda (electronics), Francesco Palmieri (electric guitar), and Jennifer Torrence and Håkon Stene (drum sets & percussions) sit in the circle, facing each other. After a long wait comes pulsation of mighty rhythms and energy, a kind of corporeal sound sculpture that has more to do with metal than contemporary music. I share my surprise at why they worked for such a long time on music that didn’t seem so complex to me, but that’s the point. »It took a lot of compositional work, but it’s different compositional work,« the author patiently answers. Others who have followed Ricardo for a while noticed that post pandemic change in his style; a friend told him after adolescência’s premiere that »only in the last two years she could finally find me in my music.«
»Slowly the idea of universality is dissolving – the most colonial and patriarchal notion that exists«
Change is coming
When I ask Eizirik about his connection to NMS or his Brazilian roots, he replies that he feels more attached to the Latin American immigrant scene, especially in Berlin where he lives. The scene offers a lot of party music, but it also means experimental, and sometimes the two combine. Ricardo also performs with his partner, the Bolivian multidisciplinary artist Maque Pereyra, under the alias Choka – »so I do exist in other scenes than European contemporary music,« he says. At the end, we discuss changes within the NMS, which the composer compares with the snowball effect: »When one problem is exposed, it encourages other people to deal with their own problems and to integrate them in the end, as you do with trauma in psychoanalysis.« One such issue remains global representation and distribution of new music, which has arisen in various conversations at Darmstadt, and, more broadly, in numerous initiatives such as Global Donaueschingen, Pro Helvetia, and Goethe Institute programs over the last few years.
According to Ricardo, the balance is still anchored to the Global North rather than South, but change is coming, and with it a wider appreciation of different experimental traditions. »Slowly the idea of universality is dissolving – the most colonial and patriarchal notion that exists,« Eizirik says. Coming from peripheral cultures to the NMS center, these composers, and many others, prove these notions to be nothing more than prejudices. Experimental music exists everywhere and in every genre; growing sideways in the end is just growing.
Darmstadt Summer Course took place 15–19 August in Darmstadt, Germany.
Proofreading: Jennifer Gersten and Lisa Newill-Smith