Review: Stimmung

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by Peter Kalal

Trudging through the forest to a 6am performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung, I could see scattered remnants of an all-night woods rave in amongst the stumps and dried leaves. Upon arrival at the Waldkunstpfad – a raised, circular stage overlooked by a massive wood-and-iron sculpture encasing a high section of adjacent tree-trunk – there were human remnants of the rave, too, plopped down on blankets and pillows. One resourceful raver had thought to bring a tent.

Bookending the final day of the 2018 Darmstadt Summer Course, ChorWerk Ruhr’s two spirited performances of Stimmung nimbly skirted cliché while offering a chance for repose and rumination on an intense preceding fortnight. At dawn in the forest, at dusk in St. Ludwig’s Church, the performances emphasised the spiritual and sensual texts that accompany the resounding overtone chords of the piece’s foundation.

The crunching footsteps of latecomers offered a counterpoint, but nothing could distract from ChorWerk’s six singers – their depth of tone, crystal-clear declamation, and impeccable tuning. The odd misaligned entrance might have gone unforgiven in a different situation, but the warmth and humour each singer brought to their part lent the performance an intimacy that made such quotidian critiques irrelevant. The performance became especially magical when the forest birds decided to add their morning songs to the mix.

The nighttime church performance offered a strikingly different listen. Songbirds singing from the forest canopy gave way to pigeons peering down from St. Ludwig’s vast cupola. Intimacy turned to inescapable immersion. The six voices careened off the walls before swelling together with booming resonance. In the forest, the text could be heard clearly, the meaning of the words considered. In the evening only a few words could be deciphered – you had to just surrender to the sound.

Stepping out into the night after the concert, I found myself wondering how the music and ideas of the past two weeks would change when they too were relocated – and in what form they might return to Darmstadt in two years’ time.

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Ethnomusicology in the Uncanny Valley: Jennifer Walshe and the age of AI

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by Andrew Chung

Jennifer Walshe, vocal extended technique extraordinaire, has been performing and speaking at Darmstadt on and off for nearly 20 years starting in the year 2000. “When I was ten,” she said with a wink during this year’s lecture. Walshe is an artist whose practice can seem ageless: constantly getting ahead of the curve and deeply tuned in to the present – whichever present happens to present itself. Her recent work mines Twitter as a poetic anthology, for instance, or projects into song a popular internet meme of a cheeky and grammatically insouciant shiba inu in a performance that is somehow more “doge”-like than the doge meme itself. Wow! So linguistic trends! Very syntax! O-M-G!

In her lectures, Walshe tends to collect a handful of themes and send them hurtling towards the whirring, whimsy machine of her aesthetic thinking, like a discursive particle collider experiment generating undiscovered forms of radiation. Her Darmstadt presentations – last time it was her New Discipline manifesto, the time before that her ideas on music, flarf poetry, and cell phone videos in an “extended field” – peek under all sorts of rocks and pause to smell patches of moss even as they travel particular topical paths.

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Yours, Mine, Ours: Embracing the Enormity of New Music

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by Hannah Rosa Schiller

When I was ten, I wanted to become a professional dolphin trainer. No joke. I loved going to the zoo to watch the dolphins do tricks, seeing how the trainers bonded and communicated with the animals. When I turned 11, I found out that my quest to become a dolphin trainer would involve learning all about marine biology; about other fish and sea creatures, bodies of water as ecosystems, and a whole lot of other things that didn’t feel like they had much to do with dolphins. 11-year-old me was not excited by the idea, and, sadly, I never pursued dolphin training as a profession.

This is a recurring theme I’ve noticed in myself. I become invested in my passions, but once I realise all the things I have yet to learn, I get overwhelmed. Being told what to expect after I was accepted into a workshop at the Darmstadt Summer Course 2018 was no exception. Needless to say, all my friends and professors were very supportive of my impending European new music adventure. But one of my professors also explained that the new music I would find at Darmstadt, and in Europe as a whole, would be quite different from the kind I knew in Chicago. I was worried. It felt like dolphins-meet-marine-biology all over again, but this time I was dealing with the prospect of a whole new swathe of music.

Let me explain. My introduction to the world of new music was through a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth. Before I went to university to study music theory, before I knew what “new music” even was, a friend of mine showed me a video of the group performing William Brittelle’s High Done No Why To.

I was hooked immediately. This music was complex and constantly shifting between distinct timbres and techniques. To engage with it required an intense focus, yet often I found myself grooving to it. The tunes were catchy, which made the music feel approachable to me at 17.

As I began my formal education in music, I sought any and all opportunities to find more. I discovered Ted Hearne. I got into the Bang on a Can set: David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon. I felt inspired by Roomful of Teeth’s many composers, including Missy Mazzoli and Sarah Kirkland Snider. I sang in a new music vocal ensemble, through which I worked with scores by composers like Anna Thorvalsdottir – an absolute badass who manages to make harmonically ambiguous choral pieces sound both completely new and as familiar as a pop ballad at once. Slowly but surely, I developed an understanding of what “new music” meant in my small corner of the world. It meant music that blended genres together seamlessly, that didn’t care which conventions it was breaking as long as it created something you hadn’t heard before, that could trick you into thinking you knew what to expect before throwing you for a loop. I felt excited to be a part of the innovation that was happening all around me, and to engage in the bigger sociopolitical conversations surrounding the music.

I knew this wasn’t the only type of new music that existed. I knew composers had been messing with tonality, instrumentation, and the limits of “classical” music since the start of the 20th century. But in my mind, all of this evolution had led to the type of music that my university called “new music”. Little did I know that when I was accepted to spend two weeks in Darmstadt, I was opening myself up to brand new definitions of what “new music” could be.

My two weeks at the summer course have been challenging, eye-opening, and filled with big conversations about the future trajectory of the global musical community. And with each concert I attended, my confusion grew. My professor’s forewarning certainly rang true: this music felt nothing like the type I worked with back in Chicago. Performances ranged from a cellist sitting alone on a stage with no music in front of her, playing a through-composed piece that felt completely improvised and free of tonality, to fully-staged avant-garde theatre with a cast of 12 actors and a giant clownfish balloon.

And yet. Here we were calling all of this “new music,” just like we did back home. It occurred to me that there are multiple “new musics,” each with its own identity and set of aims. I have spent many of my 14 days at Darmstadt – each of which has been jam-packed with concerts, lectures, and workshops – wondering how these vastly different iterations of “new music” can co-exist.

The cons of the enormous nature of the umbrella term were immediately evident to me. How were we supposed to communicate clearly if “new music” could mean so many different things? How were we supposed to promote our art and market ourselves as “new musician practitioners” if we weren’t even sure what that term meant? I cycled through a number of solutions. Maybe we could give new music a topographical makeover by designating a few distinct sub-genres which, in turn, would allow us to define more specifically the different sound-worlds and historical lineages in which we exist.

The pros of new music’s enormity were less obvious to me. But as the festival continued, I did begin to notice what our different communities had in common. For one, many of us stem from a shared “classical” history, even if the resulting sounds are completely different. And, for better or worse, because of these shared roots, we inhabit many of the same institutions: universities, museums, concert halls, and the trademark “music of today” slots in orchestral seasons. Perhaps because of our shared spaces, we also have many of the same important conversations. How do we become more inclusive in our programming? How do we use music to address the big politics of the day?

Between seminars and lectures, I found myself beginning to think: maybe the idea of “new music” doesn’t have to have any stylistic or aesthetic implications. Maybe it doesn’t have to matter that new music sounds vastly different depending on where you go or whom you listen to. Sure, my new music might care more about groove than yours, and your new music might have more clownfish balloons than mine. But what if this plurality is new music’s greatest strength?

Until Darmstadt, my performance experience had centred around the more “pop” composers: Lang, Wolfe. Friends I met at the summer course had exclusively studied works by more “intellectual” and “abstract” composers: Lachenmann, Ferneyhough. All of us were interested in discussing similar sociopolitical topics and exploring the cultural implications of our music, but we realised we hadn’t been given many opportunities to collaborate with those in the other camp.

Now I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in various new music communities, I’ve also come to realise there can be a tension between them. And yet there is enormous potential for shared space. Since 2006, Louth Contemporary Music Society in small-town Ireland has been ignoring aesthetic cliques in its programming. The festival brought in Terry Riley, whose works often feel like smooth and endless unfoldings of patterns, but it has also programmed Sofia Gubaidulina, whose whirlwind pieces often have no clear form but hold you in suspense for their entire duration. In this setting, the sounds give each other new contexts and allow audiences to discover a broader scope of new music.

I believe this should be an aim for festivals and concert series worldwide. Imagine the incredible interaction that could happen between our many communities if we were to release the tensions between our camps. We live in era of political polarisation, in which individual views are increasingly entrenched. We have seen what can happen when this close-mindedness goes unchallenged. As a musical community, we should lead by example by inviting each other in and opening ourselves up. Each new music community could use the perspectives of others to challenge itself. Every dolphin needs a full ocean ecosystem.

Introducing: Synthetic Skin

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by Eva Van Daele

10pm in Darmstadt equals electronics. Tonight is no exception – although the performance does have a slightly different premises than previous nights. With its combination of acoustic performance and tape music, Synthetic Skin might just be the highlight of the late night concert series in this second week of the festival.

A similar programme was presented at the end of April at the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik in Witten, Germany. It was a combination of tape pieces by Jérôme Noetinger and Yves de Mey with improvisation and composition. In Darmstadt we will still hear Noetinger’s music, but the quartet of musicians – Uli Fussenegger, Yaron Deutsch, Gerald Preinfalk and Andreas Lindenbaum – have chosen to replace de Mey’s work with a new tape composition by Electric Indigo aka Susanne Kirchmayr. Even in these final days of the festival, new work is still being presented. Kirchmayr curated the Electronics Atelier and the resulting series of electronics concerts; the fourth and last happens tomorrow night. Kirchmayr has strong feelings about the context in which her music is played, so these performances promise to be engaging and well-conceived holistic experiences.

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All The Things I Haven’t Learnt About New Music

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by Megan Steller

I don’t believe in making New Year’s resolutions, for the most part because I’m lazy and have no follow-through. Also because formulating two or three major commitments at the beginning of the year gives me too easy a get-out to avoid self-reinvention once April rolls around. It’s too late by then; the boat has sailed, and I have yet again allowed myself to not go to the gym, not learn to cook an adult meal, not purchase a computer that stays awake for more than 45-minutes at a time. It’s too much effort, too disappointing. It makes me too aware of my failings. And yet, this year I broke my rule, allowing myself one conceptual resolution to get me through to December. The grand intention? Learn to be okay asking the stupid questions.

When I made it, this resolution felt broad enough to steer my year-long ship to safe-harbour, whilst giving me room to grow and adapt and fail. Of course, since leaving the comfortable womb of study and entering the unchartered territory that is arts practice I had already failed in plenty of colourful ways, but actively chasing failure? I hadn’t yet been bold enough to try that. Now, armed with naive courage and an open (read: empty) mind, I set off into the year ready to acknowledge my lack of knowledge.

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Introducing: Natacha Diels

by Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen

A giant butterfly is slowly rising between the seven mountains of Bergen, Norway. Lit by huge floodlights below and the starry night sky above, three green construction cranes are coming to the end of their debut ballet performance. Carefully, consciously, they lift the enormous colourful butterfly higher and higher, while slow, dark, crackling electronic music by Natacha Diels gradually transforms, builds and reveals the manipulated voice of Toni Braxton singing Unbreak My Heart.

Commissioned by Borealis – a festival for experimental music that takes place in early March – and premiered as the final event of this year’s festival, Papillon and the Dancing Cranes was Natacha Diels’s biggest artistic project to date. In a large square in the centre of Bergen, these three cranes danced a meticulously synchronised dance, accompanied by a mix of recorded and live music performed by eight musicians from Diels’s own Ensemble Pamplemousse, and from the Norwegian percussion trio Pinquins (of which I myself am a member).

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Introducing: Dance & Music

by Brandon Lincoln Snyder

I ran into Scott, a participant of the Dance & Music workshop, late one night after a concert. His degree is in composition, but he is also a dancer, as well as a violist. Stepping into the workshop’s rehearsal yesterday, I discovered that such hybridity was common practice for this group.

The edges of rehearsal space were strewn with shoes, bags, and instruments. Similarly, the participants themselves were scattered around the sides of the room, commenting on the presenting group from (literally) a range of perspectives. Each group was a different ‘instrumentation,’ involving creative staging and intricate electronic set ups. I walked in on a group of five – four with instruments, one without – as they were dancing and creating sound simultaneously. The next group was completely different. A trio, two dancers and a violist, all moving around the space to an underscore of electronic sound. Even the performance space itself was not taken for granted. The rehearsal concluded with tutors Stefan Prins and Daniel Linehan asking for each group’s preferred performance location.

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