Festival Review

The Wittenertage fur Neuer Kammermusik (JW)


The Witten Days for New Chamber Music continues to evolve under Harry Vogt's direction, but it is also attracting a new and younger audience. This year, the number of concerts was reduced to five, but these were supplemented by several sound poetry events in Haus Witten, together with installations at various locations.

The restored Haus Witten has rapidly become the cultural hub of a relatively small town, whose economy is in transition as its traditional industrial base disappears. It has become a centre for continuing education, and from the courses on offer, it is clear that Witten can boast an accordion orchestra, a chamber orchestra, a light music orchestra, a wind ensemble, jazz ensemble and choir; there is also score-reading for adults. Such community projects are almost certainly stimulating the new audience, which is gradually replacing the typical contemporary music establishment. This year's exhibitors included fewer publishers and record labels specialising in new music.

The principal theme of Witten 2000 was the emphasis on the voice, in various mdnifestations, as well as the use of 'live' electronics, but hardly less striking was the fact that the five concerts included contributions from seven women composers. Two were represented in the opening event, which featured various ensembles, and for which electronics were provided by WDR and IRCAM. Un-Suk Chin's Spectres-Speculaires, for solo violin and electronics, with George Van Dam as soloist, was altogether more inventive, and far more successful than her Miroir du Temp, for voices and orchestra, recently broadcast by the BBC. Spectres-Speculaires was particularly notable for its complex polyphonic textures, involving remarkable transformations of very small sounds generated by the violin.

In contrast, Silvia Fomina's Endspiel: Ouvertuere, for speaker, vocal ensemble, string quartet and electronics, drawn from her opera, Schahmat, was rather laborious. This was hardly the fault of the performers: Neue Vocalsolisten, Stuttgart, and the Arditti Quartet. The spoken commentary was delivered with a strong sense of theatre, but in other respects, the piece relied on the repertoire of gestures previously explored in Auguri Aquae, performed at Donaueschingen in 1997.

The remaining items were a set of improvisations, entitled The Poetry of Solitude, by the four-piece ensemble, Polwechsel, and Broken Consort, for ensemble and live electronics, by Kilian Schwoon, a young German pupil of Nicolaus Huber, who also studied at Tempo Reale, in florence. This has increased his awareness that the unique character of 'live' music can be undermined by the use of amplification, but in Broken Consort, it is offset by the ability of electronics to clarify border regions between chord and sound-mixture, as well as rhythm and pitch. Schwoon is careful to preserve the identity and vitality of the ensemble - the Ictus Ensemble - and though the piece loses some momentum towards the end, a satisfactory balance with the electronic dimension is achieved.

The second programme featured the Neue Vocalsolisten, Stuttgart and the Arditti String Quartet. The former gave the premieres of Lucia Ronchetti's Anatra Also Sal, for six voices, and Karola Bauckholt's highly amusing Nein Allein, for five voices; but the substance of the progrcmme was contained in the new string quartets. Six Covered Settings exemplified Johannes Kalitzke's continuing commitment to the mainstream of modernism: avoiding radical experimentation, but at the same time obscuring some aspects of the compositional procedure so that the work's organic structure is only revealed as the six movements unfold. The composer suggests the titles of the six moements all reflect the notion of fragility; there are also echoes of a preoccupation with decadence - one of the legacies of 'romanticism'. Yet the network of relationships ultimately establishes an impressive cohesion.

Guenter Steinke's Vereinzelt, Gebannt-eine Wegbeschreibung, for string quartet, was more experimental, in the sense that its impetus came from the interplay between four distinct types of sonic material, and it relied to a greater extent on advanced instrumental techniques. However, while it undoubtedly presented a fascinating sound-world, its kaleidoscopic character meant that it lacked the structural coherence of the Kalitzke.

The third programme was devoted to Georges Aperghis' Machinations, for voices, 'live' electronics and video projections to a text by Francois Regnauld. Aperghis' latest work is typical in that it explores the fundamentals of language in a theatrical context, but the use of electronics, devised at IRCAM means the strictly musical content is more extensive than in many of his creations. He has also taken the opportunity to contrast the latest computer technology, symbolising the male world, with various objects from the natural environment which are manipulated by the four female actors-singers, and projected on screens. They represent the female world, which is constantly subjected to modification and transformation by the computer. The phonetic material, spoken by the women, can be regarded as a distillation of his earlier cycle, Recitations, for female voice, performed as one of the sound-poetry events, but the introduction of electronics in Machinations adds a new dimension to Aperghis' work. Indeed, by controlling the audio and visual aspects with the computer, Aperghis is postulating a new kind of music-theatre.

The remaining concerts, on 7 May, were more conventional. The first involved Ensemble Recherche, who presented four items. Cecilie Ore's Nun Quam, for string trio, was too concise to establish a clear personality, but the related Sextet, entitled Nun Quam Non, was sufficiently extended to register a definite impact. Keiko Harada's Passacaglia combined cello and biwa, but the piece did not fully exploit the possible contrast. Nikolaus Brass' Kenosis, for wind trio, promised a good deal, combining unusual sonorities with interesting ideas, but neither were developed to their full potential.

Ensemble Ictus, conducted by Georges-Elie Octors, who had participated in the first concert, and Neue Vocalsolisten, Stuttgart, shared responsibility for the final event. Salvatore Sciarrino's Tre Canti senza Pietffe, for seven voices, derived from Cantare con Silenzio, and Heinz Holliger's Voi-it-es Metallique-so, for vocalising percussionist, were both disappointing, but Thierry De Mey's Kinok, for ensemble, was one of the highlights of the weekend. One of its major accomplishments - rarely encountered in recent music - was an ability to write genuinely quick music over a sustained time-span. Misato Mochizuki's Chimera was also good, though possibly not as striking as Si Bleu, Si Calme, which was heard at the 1998 Wittenertage. Still, it underlined the consistency of Mochizuki's output.

The sound poetry recitals given jointly by Jaap Blonk and Valeri Sherstjanoy proved more entertaining and interesting than expected. Besides presenting some of their own recent work, they included examples from some of the earliest exponents of sound poetry, who were associated with the Dadaists and Futurists of the 1910s and 1920s. Thus, there were contributions from Welimir Khlebnikov and Hugo Ball, among others, and on the basis of their work, it would seem that the underlying principles of sound poetry have not changed significantly during the past 80 years, notwithstanding the advent of modern technology.

Khlebnikov experimented with the borderline between sound and language, whereas Aperghis has sought to enrich the possibilities of language by emphasising the importance of intonation. His cycle, Recitations, written in 1977 - 1978, established the pattern which he has developed during the past 20 years. It was performed with conviction by Donatienne Michel-Dansac, and was certainly worth hearing in conjunction with Aperghis' most recent largescale work.

Installations are becoming an increasingly conspicuous facet of contemporary music events, at least in Central Europe, and have been a feature at Witten for several years. Christina Kubisch and Peter Ablinger were among the contributors this year, but their works made less impact than last year's installations, which forged strong links with Witten's industrial past.

John Warnaby


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