Mikkel Schou. © Zuhal Kocan

‘We don’t have the same aspirations at all’

The safe choice would be to study the old masters and the canonised works, but guitarist Mikkel Schou finds more meaning in the brand-new music composed today. His upcoming Debut Concert from the Royal Danish Academy of Music is a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to institutional forces of habit.
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In August 2018, guitarist Mikkel Schou returned to his native Zealand, enrolling in the Royal Danish Academy of Music’s Soloist’s Class after a stretch studying in Aarhus. ‘I made a conscious decision to completely change what I was doing,’ says Schou of his move to Copenhagen. Anyone who has seen him in action over the last couple of years will have an idea what that means. Anyone who hasn’t can get a taste of it from his Debut Concert, live-streamed in two parts on the evening of 15 March.

Schou isn’t even sticking to the guitar. He will set out his stall as a creative musician and improviser, producer and facilitator. Two thirds of the material has been specially written for the concert and the one ‘old’ piece on the programme dates from 2012. The online audience is likely to be more composers from the Academy than its guitar students. ‘I am friends with some of them,’ Schou says of the latter. ‘Of about 20, there’s only one who plays new music fairly often.’ And the others? ‘Let’s just say, we don’t have the same aspirations at all.’

‘When I became better at playing, I became quite critical of the guitar repertoire, and the repertoire in general’

Schou is sharp: a single-minded, articulate individual who has identified faults with an ossifying new music apparatus and has a few fundamental ideas about how he – and others – might go about fixing them. ‘As a musician, what is your creative role, your creative possibility?’ he asks. ‘Any concert begins with an idea, with collaboration, talking and deciding how it’s all going to come together.’

He set up his own ensemble, K!ART, to explore that process and the sort of music it might incubate. ‘Institutions commission music to fulfil a certain role: for a certain concert, to be a certain length, for specific instruments. I feel this is the wrong way to think about it. I would like to think of myself as a facilitator of collaborations where anything is possible from the get-go.’

Who’s afraid of the brand-new work?

Schou’s shrewd ability to identify systemic weakness can be traced to his days as a student guitarist in Aarhus. ‘I was quite good at analysing what I couldn’t do, which became kind of a sport, with myself as adversary, to accomplish something new. When I became better at playing, I became quite critical of the guitar repertoire, and the repertoire in general. That led me to new music, first twentieth-century music that I became a little dissatisfied with, and then beyond, to the twenty-first century. I was going to lots of experimental electronic music concerts which also led me to reconsider what I was doing myself.’

Infrastructures appear to frustrate Schou, especially in Copenhagen. He effectively turned his Soloist’s Class course into a prototype for the Royal Danish Academy of Music’s new Artistic Research Programme and was soon invited to composing seminars by Niels Rosing-Schow. ‘The composition department at the Academy is very isolated,’ Schou says. ‘There are maybe 15 instrumentalists in the building who work seriously with new music and I think a lot of those who participate in Pulsar Festival only do it because they have to. It’s kind of a wonder the classical music studies and new music studies are in the same facility. In terms of ideas of what music is and what it can be, it’s a different world.’

K!ART with the 2019 world premiere of Joss Smith’s ‘Click the Future!’ in Koncertkirken, Copenhagen. © K!ART

The world he occupies – where you’d also find the likes of Marcela Lucatelli, James Black, NEKO3 and many of the names appearing in Schou’s Debut Concert – has been formed by our age of information democracy. ‘If Marcela had been active at around the same time as Boulez, it’s not certain that she would have been able to penetrate the societal barriers to being recognized as a musician,’ Schou says. His generation has not waited for the big institutions to change. Aided by the technology that has made things ‘so much more democratic’, they have simply done as they pleased.

Often, they have gone it alone. Schou points to the ‘DIY aesthetic’ that is now prevalent at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus where he began his studies in 2011. ‘With groups like Current Resonance Ensemble [a composer/performer ensemble formed by students at the Academy], a lot of this sort of New Conceptualism going on, there is an understanding that the music is too radical for someone to come along and perform it, so the composers have to perform it themselves. It’s one of the things I am trying to work with encouraging from composers.’

Isn’t it, increasingly, about the individual anyway? ‘A lot of it is. But in the case of someone like Marcela, it’s not only about her individuality as a performer/composer, it’s about her individual way of working. We [K!ART] worked a lot with her on a big project last year [Skrrt, Skrrt, recently released on Bandcamp], and a large part of her role was performance coaching – working with us to unleash our own individuality as improvisers. That’s a very interesting way to work, because compositionally I think it’s much closer to what they’re doing in free jazz. But at the same time, in Marcela’s case she’s not dependent on anyone and is a powerhouse, doing so many things and proving so good at creating awareness of them. There is no way she would be drowned in some kind of mainstream institution, and I think that creates a much bigger diversity: fewer things will become canonic, because they are much more individual.’

‘I hope you don’t puke’

Lucatelli will form a sizeable chunk of Schou’s Debut Concert. Its second half was originally intended as a version of the late-night chill-out sessions that ended a recent edition of Pulsar Festival, but audience restrictions blew that idea out. Still, it will end with Lucatelli joining Schou and guitarist Henrik Olsson for a half-hour free improvisation. Before that, Schou will play a 40-minute noise piece for electric guitar and 45 speakers developed by composer Esben Nordborg Møller. The final version of Drones is the result of ‘four days in the 3D system at the Academy, 10 hours each day, with a lot of playing and a lot of talking. The piece completely transformed in those four days, compared to what Esben sent me at the beginning’. Where did the power lie? ‘Well, the composer’s always right, right?!’

The first half will open with the Ekki Minna Duo taking part in the Danish premiere of Stefan Prins’s Generation Kill – Offspring 1 for cello, percussion and two performers with Playstation controllers, a work from 2012 whose resonance for the screen generation, raised in a Europe hell-bent on wreaking havoc on the Middle East, remains undimmed. K!ART will participate in the pieces by Sarah Nemtsov, Evagoras Apokidis, Athanasia Kotronia and Rob Durnin that follow [also programmed: a solo piece by Emil Vijgen]. ‘I can’t express how grateful I am for the composers who wrote pieces for this concert,’ Schou says. In between, he will perform Johannes Kreidler’s Guitar Piece on video. In his Lergravsparken living room, he shows me the three-minute film. ‘It’s kind of gross. I hope you don’t puke.’

‘It’s kind of a wonder the classical music studies and new music studies are in the same facility. In terms of ideas of what music is and what it can be, it’s a different world’

I don’t puke, probably because the unpalatable main course is served with a sly side dish that makes you laugh. ‘I wanted to do this piece as a joke, maybe a little to provoke the other guitar players although that’s not a good enough reason, but also because something in it really resonated with me. The acoustic guitar is an instrument that has been well explored by composers over the last fifty years. There have been radical voices that discovered almost all the instrument’s possibilities, so I think a very fitting way to use the instrument is to […].’ Best see for yourselves.

Schou’s teachers are yet to hear him play a single piece of the recital. One wonders what they’ll make of it. ‘The guitar teachers have been extremely supportive,’ he says. ‘But I haven’t worked with them on any of that. We have been working on composers like Henze, Murail and a little bit on Simon Steen-Andersen. And some of that has also been a bit out of their comfort zone, even though most of it is 40 years old.’

Limited room for experiments

It’s tough, he says, being an instrumentalist with no access to Danish Arts Foundation grants while concurrently not being hired to play by anyone. ‘You’re stuck between two things,’ he says. Where a Debut Concert normally reflects a single graduate’s worldview, playing style or compositional imagination, perhaps this one, most of all, will set out Schou’s stall as an impresario. ‘I would like to gradually be more involved in production,’ he says, and has recently taken over the chair of the Ung Nordisk Musik Festival in preparation for its meeting in Aarhus in August. ‘I would love to work for Klang Festival or Spor Festival. But I tell you, I have no idea how to build a career. Really.’

He has foundations of a sort, in the form of teaching. I wonder how playing Beatles songs with kids during the day informs his own creativity – the simple urge, of the inexperienced youngster, to express something in music and the joy that results. ‘Do you really think that doesn’t exist in new music?’ he counters. ‘I think there’s a lot of playfulness in the things I’m involved in, and a lot of curiosity from my side. I don’t ever approach a piece or project with the feeling that it is work. It’s really a labour of love and it’s very giving, more so than teaching. The thing about teaching is that you’re working with people, so it’s always a matter of considering how you can best help this person. But as a performer or improviser or composer or creating musician or whatever, for me it’s more about my own relationship to what I’m doing. For me that’s more giving, though I appreciate teaching and I like the kids.’

In 2019 Mikkel Schou premiered his own work ‘žaRbmaərđnaīli_2þwo’ in Koncertkirken. © K!ART

The problem of career building may be more philosophical than real, a product of Schou’s insistence that he does what he does for enjoyment, not gain. He mentions in passing the idea of getting a professional fundraiser to help realize the ambition he has for K!ART and alternative methods of the creation of experimental music in general – ‘a group of musicians who are willing to do anything as long as it has a meaning and doesn’t violate their personal beliefs’. This is this manifesto. And surely, it’s the take-out from his Debut Concert too:

‘Think: what are the big new music institutions in Denmark? I’m really impressed by most things Scenatet does, but they seem to have a mainly international outlook. And big ensembles like Athelas and Århus Sinfonietta seem to focus, for a large part, on the new music of the recent past and the last few decades. I’m just wondering, why would any of them ask a young composer who is not super-proven, maybe in their early 20s, but with an interesting idea, to make a big project where the composer could do whatever he or she would want to? They have to be concerned with tickets and audience and presenting things on an international level. I have more freedom so I’m trying to address that and work with young people, seriously. And there is no reason why I wouldn’t be more successful if I could get more funding. I think it’s something we have to encourage.’

Mikkel Schou’s Debut Concert – part 1 and part 2 – will be live-streamed on Monday, 15 March.