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Seen and Heard Festival Report

Wittener Tage fuer Neue Kammermusik 22 – 24 April 2005 reviewed by John Warnaby

The 2005 Wittener Tage fuer Neue Kammermusik achieved a consistently high standard, considering that many of the scores were receiving their premieres or first German performances. Some of the pieces were longer than necessary, but only two could be described as thoroughly bad. These will be disposed of immediately.

In keeping with his previous Witten offering, Bernhard Lang’s DW 16: Songbook I, sung by Jenny Renate Wicke with Trio Accanto suffered from too little differenz and far too much wiederholung. It was simply boring. It is surely time composers realise that minimalism of form and content should logically give rise to minimal duration. Otherwise they are in serious danger of demeaning the intelligence of their audience. If DW 16 had been restricted to the last of its five songs, each based on texts from the pop world, it might have passed muster.

Emmanuel Nunes is usually an interesting composer. Unfortunately, despite an intriguingly detailed programme note, Nachtmusik I, performed by the soloists of Ensemble Intercontemporain, proved very dull and over-long. Indeed, it resulted in the entire concert receiving adverse criticism. This was somewhat unfair, as Michael Jarrell’s ... more leaves … for viola, five instruments and electronics, Pedro Amaral’s Densités, for small ensemble, and Jonathan Harvey’s Death of Light / Light of Death, for ensemble, were well worthwhile.

Jarrell’s piece was a pendant to his earlier Viola Concerto, continuing the exploration of the instrument’s darker timbres, especially in its lower register. Amaral’s Densités used the Fibonacci series as the organising principle underpinning his transformation of five carefully chosen sound complexes. The fingerprints of his principal teacher, Emmanuel Nunes, are still competing with his own personality, but Amaral could well emerge as a composer with a distinctive voice. Jonathan Harvey’s Death of Light / Light of Death was more familiar: a transformation into ‘absolute’ music of Gruenewald’s famous altarpiece. Each of its five sections was devoted to one of the personage in the painting.

Jonathan Harvey was also represented by the first performance of his String Trio, played by members of Ensemble Recherche, who shared the fifth concert with Trio Accanto: a programme in which Harvey’s work should prove a valuable addition to the String Quartets, combining elements of folk music with elements of meditation, derived from his Passion and Resurrection. It began humorously in folk style, complete with percussive effects; but subsequently explored a wide variety of string textures in the composer’s characteristically subtle manner.

The religious component of Marc André’s durch, for saxophone, percussion and piano was even more specific, in that it was written in response to an extract from St. Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, verses 23-24. André’s sombre personality was most memorably conveyed in …22,13 ..., his music-theatre passion premiered at the 9th Muenchener Biennale, and durch continued in the same vein. The composer specified a variety of unconventional, or advanced playing techniques for all three instruments, exploring, on the one hand, the borderline between sound and noise, and, on the other, the possibility of creating what he called a ‘meta-instrument’.

Younghi Pagh-Paan’s Wundgetraeumt, for six players, was at least partly influenced by the poetry of the Korean Byung-Chul Han. Hence the work’s spiritual content emphasised the poetic, rather than the metaphysical element and was essentially Oriental, rather than Western. Younghi Pagh-Paan used a European compositional model, but Wundgetraeumt was infused with the sounds of traditional Korean music.

Salvatore Sciarrino’s recent song-cycle, Quaderno di strada, for baritone and ensemble, was allocated its own programme. It was sung by Otto Katzameier with Klangforum Wien, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke, and the thirteen items, involving a variety of texts, including Rilke, Brecht, and even graffiti, lasted about 45 minutes. There are those who suggest that Sciarrino has his tricks. This is true of all accomplished composers, and is generally called technique; but Sciarrino usually avoids transgressing the border between personal gesture and cliché.

Quaderno di strada was notable for the variety of interplay between voice and instruments. Perhaps it was not quite as convincing as Aspern Serenade, for soprano and ensemble, heard at the 2004 Huddersfield Festival, largely because the soprano voice belongs to the same register as the instruments Sciarrino tends to favour. On the other hand, it was more ambitious, and was accompanied by a programme note outlining the extent to which the organisation of the texts by Brecht, Rilke, Giovanni Testori, etc., and the actual composition are complementary.


The first two concerts were strongly contrasted in every respect. In the first, shared between Ensemble Recherche and members of Klangforum, the three works illustrated subtly different sound-worlds. Ivan Fedele is Italian, but his compositions have been influenced by his experience at IRCAM. Immagini da Escher, for six instruments, formed part of a trilogy of geometrically-inspired scores and was designed as a ‘commentary’ on Arcipelago Moebius. There was no obvious connection between Fedele’s oral imagination and Maurits C. Escher’s pictorial world, except that neither had a definite beginning or end. More significantly, the experiment of recreating geometric principles in aesthetic terms yielded satisfying results.

Notwithstanding Hugues Dufourt’s French background, especially his association with Ensemble L’Itineraire, the influence of spectral harmony was not particularly evident in L’Afrique d’après Tiepolo, for eight instruments. It began in a somewhat clangerous manner, and the prominence of the vibraphone recalled Dufourt’s The Watery Star, heard at Witten several years ago. Nevertheless, the shimmering character of the music, together with a subtle blend of instrumental colours, re-created the sombre atmosphere which the composer recognised in Tiepolo’s fresco. Dufourt aimed at a combination of veiled luminosity, plus a suggestion of movement within an essentially static composition, and his paradoxical concept was at least partly realised.

Surprisingly, it was Reinhard Fuchs’ descrittivi di stati d’animo di Didone, for ensemble, which made use of spectral harmony, though inspired by Sciarrino’s example, rather than the French tradition. However, like Dufourt, Fuchs concentrated on the possibility of generating a sense of movement within a static framework, and was -probably more successful in this respect. Arguably, his piece was too short, so that the potential of its material was not fully explored.

In the second concert, Bernhard Lang’s pallid improvisation, entitled Black Mirror / White Frame, in which he collaborated with saxophonist, Marcus Weiss, was hardly more memorable than DW 16. Moreover, despite its provocative title, I will not kiss your fucking flag, Marco Stroppa’s anti-war poem was little more than an experimental curiosity, for enlarged trombone and chamber electronics. Some of the sonic effects were undoubtedly arresting, but despite the elaborate electro acoustic setup, allied to the trombone, the piece failed to match E. E. Cummings’ original I sing of Olaf glad and big from 1913, as a political protest.

The final concert was given by Klangforum Wien, conducted by Kalitzke, and comprised three works. Georg Friedrich Haas’ Haiku, for baritone and a mixed ensemble of ten instruments was composed to the particular voice of the soloist, Georg Nigl. It was comparatively brief, but as a setting of a single haiku, lasting more than ten minutes, it proved surprisingly substantial. On the one hand, the text is often declaimed with maximum expressive intensity, and differences of expression are partly achieved through changes of instrumental colour. Haas’ approach reflects his decision to interpret the haiku as a European text, thereby emphasising the element of subjectivity. On the other hand, there were indications that Haas’ recent compositional style, based primarily on the overtone series, is undergoing further refinement.

Ouroboros-Zyklus I, for soprano – Rita Balta - and ensemble, by Vykintas Baltakas, lasted nearly half-an-hour. The elliptical programme note seemed to suggest that it was an off-shoot of Cantio, Baltaka’s music-theatre work for the 2004 Muenchener Biennale. But Ouroboros showed little sign of the splendid anarchy of the earlier stagework. Despite some animated episodes, the music lacked genuine variety.

Ultimately, Pierluigi Billone’s TA.un Lied di meno, for ten soloists, offered the greatest challenge, but equally the greatest reward. Following his teacher, Helmut Lachenmann, and possibly influenced by Sciarrino, Billone has developed an individual brand of music concrete instrumentale, or even instrumental theatre. TA.un Lied di meno did not rely unduly on unconventional instrumental techniques, though it included some unusual metal percussion. Instead, as in earlier scores, it presented a sound-world which Billone has forged out of a close study of individual instruments; the interaction between instrument and player, as well as the way the sound of a particular instrument can be modified by that of another. This was not one of Billone’s most ambitious structures, but it compelled attention for its 20-minute time-span.

All the installations of this year were associated with Manos Tsangaris’ large-scale project, entitled Labor, which dominated Haus Witten throughout the weekend. Tsangaris studied with Kagel and Globokar, and Labor was an experiment in music-theatre, in which he fused his various artistic activities as composer, poet, designer, actor and percussionist.

To some extent, the starting-point was Winzig, which Tsangaris had devised for the 1993 Wittener Tage, and which involved performances in various spaces throughout Haus Witten. On this occasion, the three main parts of Labor were confined to the main performance space within the building. A few subsidiary events, called Labor-Stationen, were enacted elsewhere.

Two of the principal sections comprised spoken dialogues with percussion, entitled Labor im Licht 1 and 2, which opened and closed the project. The first, between Tsangaris and Jaki Liebezeit, was serious; its counterpart was humorous, largely due to the vocal agility of Tsangaris’ fellow participant, Frank Koellges. However, the hub of the project was Nacht-Labor, to texts by Tsangaris and Yashida Kenko, for soprano, two speakers, accordion, piano, percussion, objects, projectors and lights.

This was a piece of miniature music-theatre which each member of the small audience experienced from two perspectives: initially, outside the performance space, accompanied by a speaker; then, inside the performing area, enabling them to hear the complete performance, including a different text. Indeed, Tsangaris regarded the separation between inside and outside as one of the main features of Labor.

Yet despite the interpolation of small pieces into several of the main concerts, rather like intermezzi, Labor lacked the spontaneity, and hence the whimsicality of Winzig. At the same time, it did not attempt the cohesion achieved in Relief, oder die Buchstabenrevolte. Nevertheless, it was undoubtedly a worthwhile experiment, and as such, added an intriguing layer to a very successful weekend.

John Warnaby

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)