Neko3 in front of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra at Pulsar Festival 2020. © Britt Lindemann
kritik

The system needs to change

Pulsar Festival 2020 took place under the shadow of Marcela Lucatelli’s ‘RGBW’. Tellingly, the most interesting pieces that were actually performed failed to fit into the system – and the larger institutions should take note of this before they find they are being left behind.

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Normally when I cover a festival, I have to at least try and maintain a certain degree of professional critical distance. In this case, it is simply not realistic. It is probably not possible to be closer to the Pulsar festival than I currently am without being directly in it myself. I am a recent graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where I studied for four years, which meant four years of having my works played at Pulsar. I know all the teachers and the majority of the students personally. I know how this festival works behind the scenes. I am even working for the festival’s education outreach project – going into gymnasiums with the student composers, and moderating presentations of their works – which means I have some insider knowledge of the pieces beforehand.

All of this is to say that ‘professional critical distance’ is off the cards. I am doing precisely the opposite of going into it blind. Luckily, ‘professionalism’ (with all the positive and negative implications of the word) is also off the cards at this festival. Pulsar consists entirely of student works, with the exception of the selected guest composers – this year, Americans Julia Wolfe and Pamela Madsen. In practice, this results in a series of overstuffed concerts with pieces by composers who are still finding their voice, and are still in the process of learning how to structure their pieces effectively. It often threatens to become a test of endurance.

However, this is not a criticism of the festival or the young composers. Heaven knows I am personally responsible for several terrible pieces being performed at previous years’ Pulsar festivals, and heaven knows I have been to enough ‘professional’ concerts that have been even more boring despite the added layer of polish.  This is exactly how this particular festival should be. Personally, I found having my pieces played at Pulsar to be invaluable – providing both a guaranteed performance of anything I had written (within reason), and a remarkable opportunity for experimentation and leaving my comfort zone.

When the edges are blurred, when the material is surprising, when things happen that aren’t expected, there is magic

The pieces this year, and every year, could be divided along these lines: on the one hand, ‘learning’ pieces by composers taking the opportunity to have their new sinfonietta piece (or string quartet, etc.) nicely performed and recorded. On the other hand, there were pieces where the students took great chances, exploiting the safe-space of the Pulsar festival to push themselves in strange and exciting directions. There is nothing wrong with the first group – again, it is what the festival is for – but it is not hard to guess which one of these categories contained more artistic interest. I am also confident in claiming this is not a matter of my own subjective opinion. It happened several times this year that you could noticeably feel the energy in the room change for the better after a particularly interesting, challenging, or provocative piece.

Pulsar, then, is unique in that it does not actually have any responsibility to be a professional festival where everything is of a high standard. At its worst, it was merely tedious. At its best, however, it was an absolute joy.

Time and time again I am seeing the same old story: the traditional genres are not where the most interesting things are happening. This is not to say that fine string quartets, choir works, mixed ensemble pieces, sinfonietta pieces, and so on, are no longer being written. There were several works this year that fit nicely into the category of ‘well-written professional pieces’. Polished, pleasant, enjoyable, but offering nothing we haven’t heard before. Again, I do not view this as necessarily a bad thing; a good experience is a good experience. But they can join the pile of well-written professional pieces that already exist. If there’s one takeaway from this year’s Pulsar festival, it is this: when the edges are blurred, when the material is surprising, when things happen that aren’t expected, there is magic. On the other hand, when boxes are checked, when expectations are met, and when polish takes precedence over substance, the best that can be hoped for is a ‘nice piece’. This also applies to every ‘professional’ festival I have ever attended.

More on Lucatelli

The larger institutions should be taking note of this, because without newly written pieces, they are nothing more than museums (and without interesting newly written pieces, they are nothing more than museums filled with hotel art). Unfortunately, possibly the largest of these institutions – the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (DR Symfoniorkestret) – is clearly not paying attention, and it is to everyone’s detriment. There has been enough argument and counterargument about the Orchestra’s cancellation/delay of Marcela Lucatelli’s now legendary Pulsar piece RGBW that I can say with some confidence that I have nothing new to add to the debate.

Of course that is a lie. I will add three things.

Firstly, I think it is clear that the cancellation/delay of RGBW was a case of ‘won’t’, not ‘can’t’. We have all seen the score by now, and there is nothing in there that is technically out of the ordinary, or cannot be easily fixed. Perhaps if the orchestra included more new music – and I mean seriously new, challenging, rough music, not ‘well-written professional pieces’ of the type the DR orchestra seem to prefer – in their repertoire then they would be more prepared. True, we have not seen the parts. But again, there is nothing that cannot be fixed with enough hard work by dedicated individuals (like, for example, Marcela Lucatelli).

Marcela Lucatelli. © Marcela Lucatelli
The decision to cancel/delay Marcela Lucatelli’s orchestral piece ‘RGBW’ has stirred much debate. © Marcela Lucatelli

When I was working as an assistant for the premiere of Simon Steen-Andersen’s Trio for SWR Symphonieorchester at Donaueschinger Musiktage, in October, I was literally collecting an entire symphony orchestra’s worth of parts after every rehearsal and writing in them by hand. I spent a long weekend locked in a hotel room correcting dynamics, adding material, changing tempo marks, and so on. Were the orchestra happy? Not all of them, sure. But the piece was a resounding success, and the orchestra were so taken with it that they decided to award it a prize. Lucatelli, on the other hand, was simply discarded the moment things threatened to get even mildly hairy. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of friction – I would argue it is probably necessary.

Secondly, what has become increasingly apparent by watching the arguments unfold is that it is somehow taboo to talk about gender in this case. This is mystifying to me. No one is alleging the existence of a secret cabal of sexists in the DR orchestra management, feverishly whispering ‘women can’t write music’ to themselves, crossing Lucatelli’s name off of a rolled parchment with a feathered plume, before silently deleting all mentions of her from the official website without an official statement. Only the last part of that sentence is true.

But consider this: Western classical music is a cultural institution that has a long and storied history of denying access, power, and performance opportunities to female composers, dating back centuries. Lucatelli’s artistic voice is rough and raw and contains elemental power – and, yes, it is informed by her gender, in the same way that my artistic voice is informed by mine. The concept of ‘artistic voice’ is broad and nebulous and cannot be reduced to something as binary as traditional concepts of gender, but it seems strange to me that any viewpoint that includes gender as even a small part of a larger equation is met with scorn (for an example, see percussionist Gert Sørensen’s reference in this very publication to ‘stupid discussions where gender and ethnicity are included in a completely unserious manner’).

It is clear that the cancellation/delay of RGBW was a case of ‘won’t’, not ‘can’t’

Perhaps we might be allowed to take gender into account in some way, however small. Clearly the orchestra’s system was not equipped to deal with Lucatelli’s ‘artistic voice’, whatever that means. By blaming ‘technical problems’, the orchestra has niftily retreated into its own system, without pausing to consider that perhaps the system is no longer fit for purpose. Barring some soul searching on the orchestra’s behalf about their approach to new music – and due to the aforementioned historical denial of access, new music is one of the major spheres where we encounter female composers – the same story is doomed to be played out ad infinitum, and we will be subjected to the same sorts of orchestra pieces being written and performed again and again and again.

One final point. Official statements have been put out to the effect that the piece has not been cancelled, merely delayed. I have yet to see any public statement on this from the person whose opinion matters most – Marcela Lucatelli. At this point, the decision is hers and hers alone. So, for now, I will keep using the term cancellation/delay. Moreover, the damage has already been done, the articles have been published, the discussion has taken place on social media – in short, the genie is already out of the bottle. The strength of feeling about this situation from all sides seems to suggest that the issues at play here are much larger than one piece.

A delayed performance of RGBW will not and should not put a little bow on the situation and end this discussion, which has evolved into a conversation about power structures, culture systems, and who decides what we hear. It is vitally important that we have this conversation all the time, not just when something happens that we don’t like. It has to continue every single day. Eventually, the young composers will become the old composers, and the situation will of course need reassessing. Regardless of what ultimately happens with RGBW, we are all in Lucatelli’s debt for writing a piece that opens up this discussion.

One of the composers who left a mark on Pulsar Festival 2020 was Kristin Warfvinge. Listen to Esbjerg Ensemble perform her piece ‘Go Low’ earlier this year. © Kristin Warfvinge

What makes music interesting

Enough with pieces that didn’t happen. I am here to report from a festival of performed pieces, not imaginary sound. However, the opening concert of this year’s festival took place under Lucatelli’s long shadow. For the most part, none of the pieces performed were able to break free from it. By far the most interesting of the offerings was Xavier Bonfill’s Yes for No. It was a charming, yet ambitious work; Bonfill’s longtime collaborators Neko3 taking the central role, and flashing LED lights lending a pep-rally atmosphere to the proceedings, nicely offset against the garbled philosophical texts they were displaying. Bonfil’s total-immersion approach was welcome, and the piece went to some successful places. True, I was not able to find a convincing shape to the intriguing material, and as it faded into the distance with beautiful (if inconsequential) ambient material, I was left wanting more – but it is always better to be left wanting more than to be left wanting less (for example, Julia Wolfe’s Flower Power, which closed the concert).

The opening concert, then, was a somewhat depressing affair, and did not raise my expectations for the rest of the week [Pulsar took place 4-12 March, ed.]. Luckily, two hours later in the academy’s black-box style New Hall (‘Ny Sal’), I was feeling hope again. All four pieces performed here offered something different, showcasing the wide variety of stylistic and artistic voices the academy encourages. In particular, Kristin Warfvinge’s Space Junkyard was a revelation. An assortment of homemade instruments were scattered around the room, with the composer herself running between them, performing material that was looped and layered into a beautiful, bizarre mess.

Two things set this piece apart. Firstly, the casual yet intense performance style and stage presence of Warfvinge herself. Nothing was forced here, Warfvinge taking complete control and command of the room and managing to create an atmosphere of intensity and precision through what was no doubt an improvised performance. An impressive feat. Secondly, the smart use of the 3D sound system in the Ny Sal. All the instruments were miked up, with the sound (and subsequent looping of the sound) coming from the opposite end of the hall than where they were placed, giving each instrument a life of its own and elevating the sound world into something more eccentric and jarring. A good example of what can happen when composers inventively use the resources they have on hand rather than struggling to fit in with a system.

The whole thing was completely mad – humorous, gripping, nonsensical, sardonic, vital, pointless, moving, angry, and everything I didn’t know I was missing

Similarly revelatory and unexpected was Rob Durnin’s ’n thawt; better’ter see nuthin for three performers (and stagehand and composer), performed a few days later. At the time of writing it has been a little over a week since I saw this piece, and I am still in the process of digesting it.

Durnin is a composer whose works have always tended towards the inscrutable – incredibly dry puzzle-box style pieces that, although technically polished, have always had a slightly hollow ring to them. Here we had the same composer, elevated. ’n thawt; better’ter see nuthin was a tour de force of absurd theatre combined with a virtuoso laptop performance from the composer himself. Durnin sat onstage with his back to the audience, intoning ever more frantic sine tones from his laptop. The sine tones could have easily been automated or just simply played back, but the energy provided by Durnin’s presence was palpable and necessary.

Meanwhile, three actors (composers Connor McLean and Emil Vijgen Strøbæk, with guitarist Mikkel Schou) and a stagehand character (pianist Nikolaus von Bemberg) recited mangled, overly florid, pseudo-philosophical texts, like a funhouse mirror version of Pride and Prejudice receiving the worst possible performance from a village amateur dramatics troupe. The whole thing was completely mad – humorous, gripping, nonsensical, sardonic, vital, pointless, moving, angry, and everything I didn’t know I was missing. An astonishing work, by far the most memorable and interesting experience of the festival, and without a single note traditionally played by a classical musician on an instrument – give or take some chimes.

Connor McLean also took to stage in a performance of his own Folk Songs, for guitarist and guqin player, performed at Pulsar’s pre-opening event and in the academy’s Study Hall (‘Studiescenen’) later in the week. Folk Songs was a deceptively simple piece. The composer and guqin player Ma Anran sat close to each other onstage, each one singing folk songs from their home country (the US and China, respectively), with instrumental interludes that swapped threadbare melodic material between the musicians. It was not a piece about cultural dialogue – it was cultural dialogue. McLean effectively structured the piece to highlight the similarities and differences between the two sources of material, and cleverly exploited his own capabilities and the strengths of the Chinese musician. The result was moving, precise yet still soulful, unpretentious without being banal. More than this, it struck me as a good example of the best music the Copenhagen academy’s pluralistic, non-dogmatic approach to composition teaching can produce: this piece could only have been written by McLean, but it still had a solid compositional framework. Deeply personal yet universal.

Following this year’s Pulsar, Xavier Bonfill released ‘Refshaleøen Tapes, Vol. I’, a collection of electronic sketches and improvisations. © Xavier Bonfill

New times ahead

The conclusion is this: I am highlighting these pieces because they were the most memorable and effective experiences of this year’s Pulsar, and none of them were written for traditional constellations. Of course, there is nothing wrong with writing for traditional instrumentations – but one thing we can all learn from the RGBW situation is that it seems the larger institutions have no qualms about discarding us at any point should we cross them.

Furthermore, it often seems that the people who hold the power and are ostensibly working within the same system as us are so far removed from the spheres we operate in that we are speaking completely different languages and have completely different standards and expectations. What appears normal to composers seems radical to the people who decide what gets played, what gets funded, and what gets promoted as successful examples of new music. From my work with the Pulsar outreach project, I can say with some authority that there is no shortage of interest in interesting new music from (especially) young people, even without any particular specialist musical education – as long as they have the opportunity to hear it.

The situation can appear bleak to a young composer. It seems we are doomed unless we invest vast amounts of energy in trying to adapt ourselves to, or work inside of, a system that seems to be broken – energy that could be better spent elsewhere (writing interesting music, for example). We should pay attention to what those who hold the power are saying – what we are seeing here suggests that they will not always be on our side.

What appears normal to composers seems radical to the people who decide what gets played

I am not suggesting that composers should be given free reign and unlimited power. We have to find a common ground with others while still maintaining a personal mode of expression; but finding this common ground is part of what our education prepares us for. You might call it ‘writing an effective piece’. The extraordinary pieces I highlighted above prove that it is possible, but increasingly only on our own terms. Not an ideal situation – wouldn’t it be much better to work together? If the bigger systems made more accommodation for, or at the bare minimum paid even a small amount of attention to, the more so-called ‘radical’ voices that are increasingly becoming the norm? It is not an outlandish request.

As for the Pulsar festival, it is continuing to do its job, and it is doing it well. There is no shortage of interesting, effective, personal, moving, extraordinary, etc. music coming out of Denmark’s academies (not just the one in Copenhagen), and this should be celebrated. Pulsar provides space for it. The broader cultural industries should wake up and pay attention, before they find they are being left behind. It is already happening – the first RGBW article that made it outside of the musical journalism sphere or social media (by Dagbladet Information’s Bodil Skovgaard Nielsen) was roundly on the side of Lucatelli. You can agree or disagree about the content of the Information article, but what is irrefutable is that it put the DR orchestra immediately on the defensive. Clearer communication at all levels and more transparent accountability would have avoided this situation.

This, of course, would require a change in the way that the system operates. From what we saw at Pulsar this year, the student composers at Denmark’s academies know (or, rather, sense) this and are writing music that is going about effecting change or dismantling the system completely. Fortunately, this also produces interesting, relevant, and immediate works of art at the same time. This is not a coincidence – this is a consequence.