Festival Report

Seventh Munchener Biennale - 4 - 19 May 2000. (JW)

 It is a pleasure to publish a second report from the important Munich Biennale. John Warnaby offers in depth reviews of some of the events previously covered in S&H May and he was also able to stay until the end of the Festival and report on the later events. We hope the two reviews taken together will encourage some readers to make a note in their advance diaries to consider holidaying in Munich in May 2002. (PGW, Editor)

Extending Boundaries.

One of the functions of a worthwhile festival must be to generate a degree of controversy, and this has helped to ensure the continuing vitality of the only international event primarily devoted to new music theatre since its inception in 1988. The current Director, Peter Ruzicka, has upheld the radical approach established by Hans Werner Henze, and in response to the theme of 'crossing borders', this year's commissions transcended familiar operatic conventions in various ways.

The Biennale included a collaborative venture, supervised by Peter Michael Hamel, involving seven student composers from the School of Music and Theatre, Hamburg, but the two main productions featured former pupils of Brian Ferneyhough. Yet while Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and Chaya Czernowin dispensed with traditional libretti, thereby responding to the challenge of writing non-literary music-theatre, their concepts were entirely different.

Mahnkopf's Angelus Novus received its premiere on 4 May. It was devised in collaboration with the theatre director, Taygun Nowbary. Mahnkopf is preoccupied with aesthetics in relation to all the creative disciplines. He views Western culture from a European perspective, having studied with Klaus Huber and Emmanuel Nunes, besides Ferneyhough; He also studied philosophy with Jurgen Habermas. His compositions have been supplemented by several books on music and aesthetics, and a Deconstructive Manifesto, written in conjunction with Marc Andre, criticising an innate conservatism of most contemporary music, is due to appear in the autumn.

The initial idea for Angelus Novus came from Paul Klee's painting, and especially Walter Benjamin's interpretation, called The Ninth Theory of History, which suggests that humanity is driven from paradise by the notion of progress. Mahnkopf's sequence of compositions, performed by Ensemble Surplus, conducted by James Avery, interspersed three solo pieces, for piano, cello and flute, respectively - inspired by three aspects of Klee's 'angel', but based on the same material - with three ensemble items. Angela Nova, for soprano and ensemble, encompassed the five basic human emotions: fear, happiness, hope, grief and despair; Chamber Symphony No. 2 reflected on the plight of humanity in relation to civilisation; while Solitude-serenade, for piccolo oboe and ensemble, dealt with isolation.

Throughout, Mahnkopf employed an advanced compositional style, in which the soloists and ensemble were required to explore, even transcend, the limits of vocal or instrumental technique. This was particularly true of the soprano, Monika Meier-Schmid, who had no text, and consequently relied on vocal gesture to convey the emotional extremes of Angela Nova. There were no electronics, and the consistency of the style was in accordance with the tenets of high modernism.

Essentially, this was a concert of works written during the past five years, reaching its climax with the Chamber Symphony, while the Solitude-Serenade provided an effective coda. A solo percussionist, stage left, functioned as intermediary between the ensemble and the stage action, which was developed largely independently of the music. Three silent figures, representing man, woman and child, enacted Nowbary's visions of paradise, utopia, and contemporary alienation, but much of the material was projected on screens. In the centre were details from various paintings, by Cranach, Bosch, etc., plus quotations from Benjamin's writings; and these were flanked by images from 20th-century political and cultural history. The predominant themes were war, and man versus machine, neatly encapsulated in both Chaplin's film, 'Modern Times' and in a projection of Einstein's equation on the side of an aircraft carrier, while Solitude-Serenade was accompanied by a glimpse into the 21st century.

Mahnkopf's standpoint has a good deal to do with the 'New Complexity' group of British composers, but with a German component. Unlike his teacher, however, his main source of inspiration is Berg, rather than Schoenberg, and this has probably inspired the numerical methods he uses to organise pitch classes, sequences of durations, as well as the overall proportions of each piece. Hence, Angelus Novus is consistent with Mahnkopf's earlier development, in such scores as Interpenetration, for ensemble, Medusa, for oboe and chamber orchestra, or his two String Quartets. It will be worth following the progress of his vigorous espousal of 'modernist' principles in the face of the proliferation of post-modern culture.

Pnima ... ins Innere, first performed on 10 May 2000, offered a more extreme, intense sound-world, but whereas Mahnkopf and Nowbary worked on 'abstract' ideas, largely independently of each other, so that Mahnkopf's scores can be performed outside the theatre, Chaya Czernowin, and her theatre director, Claus Guth, adopted an integral approach. The starting-point of Pnima ... ins Innere was the vulnerability of an individual's, or society's response to a traumatic experience, as suggested by David Grossmann's novel, 'See Under Love'. A small boy tries to help his grandfather communicate his experience of the holocaust, but is drawn into a world of destruction. 'live' electronics - for which the experimental studio, Freiburg were responsible - played a vital role in transforming the material and enhancing the particular atmosphere of the piece. They projected the Munich Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke, around the audience; the two male singers representing the old man sat on one side of the stage, while the female singers representing the boy sat on the opposite side. The stage action was restricted to two mime artists, but there were video projections, dealing with fleeting images from the man's psyche - such as trees leading to a concentration camp - or the inner consciousness of the boy. In addition, a group of instrumental soloists was assigned to each of the protagonists.

The piece played continuously, but was subdivided into three sections, involving the introduction, elaboration and apotheosis of the material. In keeping with the absence of verbal communication between the protagonists, the music was fragmentary, reflecting the boy's incomprehension. As this increased, the orchestra played a more dominant role, mirroring the intensity of his bewilderment and fear. Above all, Czernowin's greater emphasis on 'subjectivity' stemmed not only from Grossmann's novel, but possibly her own experience of growing up in Israel, at a time when children were not informed about the holocaust. She has developed a personal language from her extensive studies in Israel, Europe, Japan and the United States, particularly in such works as Shu Hai Mitamen Behatalat Kidon, for voice and electronics, written for Ute Wassermcnn, or in the second version of Dam Sheon Hachel, for string sextet. A crucial component reflects her use of electronics, which she developed both at the Experimentalstudio, Freiburg and at IRCAM, as well as the University of California, San Diego, where she studied with Roger Reynolds, and where she now teaches. Likewise, her knowledge of extended vocal techniques owes a good deal to Philip Larson, who is one of Roger Reynolds' closest collaborators, and Ute Wassermann.

Accordingly, these two productions offered contrasting views as to how music-theatre might be developed in the 21st century. In comparison with Mahnkopf, Czernowin's view of 'modernism' embraces a wider range of sources, and might even be considered 'post-modern' in some quarters. Ultimately, the personal nature of Pnima .. Ins Innere made a greater impact than the more 'abstract' Angelus Novus, but the Biennale must be credited with having nurtured two significant additions to the repertoire of advanced music-theatre which would not have attracted support from elsewhere.

The same applies to Uber Frauen Uber Grenzen, which would otherwise not have achieved a large scale public presentation, and would probably not have been attempted without the encouragement of the Biennale, and the example of Adriana Hoelszky's Parsifal Project in 1999. Peter Michael Hamel was the ideal co-ordinator, not only because of his extensive output, but also because his range encompasses everything from large scale choral works to pieces influenced medieval music, 'pop' and jazz. His wide range of sympathies is thus supported by a highly practical outlook.

The seven composers were assigned specific tasks. There appear to have been many joint discussions at the start and towards the conclusion of the project. In between, each had to contribute about 15 minutes of music, either as asingle span, or in the form of interludes, each went away and 'did his own thing'.

The initial stimulus came from three Ancient Greek women: Medea, Ariadne and Antigone, whose modern counterparts were also represented. Various themes were explored, not least, a generous slice of murder and mayhem, and there was a wide variety of texts, including passages from Grillparzer, Seneca and Sophocles, the latter in Ancient Greek. The musical styles were no less heterogeneous, and any suggestion of a linear narrative was carefully avoided. There was also a measure of topicality, not merely referring to contemporary events, but also presenting a spoof talk show.

Whether any of the composers becomes well-known in contemporary circles remains to be seen, but they responded enthusiastically to the challenge. Moreover, they still have some way to go in their composition studies, so their creative personalities will develop further. In the mean time, the project was very well received by a mainly young audience, and was enhanced by a livery production directed by Stefan Herheim. The Musical Director was Frank Loehr.

As a student of new music, the experimental events among the accompanying programme of concerts and recitals were more interesting than the relatively mainstream presentations. The Munchener Rundfunk Orchester, conducted by Marcello Viotti, played impressively in the concert of religious music at St Gabriel's Church, despite the extraordinary acoustic. Messiaen's L'Ascension was particularly memorable, but there was more excitement to be had at the recital of mainly new solo pieces given by members of Ensemble Surplus. None of the pieces is likely to have an extended life, but in these post-modern times, it is refreshing to observe that an avant-garde may yet emerge. The evening certainly had a polemical atmosphere, largely stimulated by Mahnkopf. Not only has his music been described as very traditional by some commentators, but his outspokenly intellectual attitude is not to everyone's taste. Yet whatever the quality of his music, or that of the composers who introduced their pieces in some detail, the extent of their ambition is commendable. It differs strikingly from the paucity of imagination which is all too evident in much 'post-modern', especially minimalist, music.

Nevertheless, the border line between 'modernism' and 'post-modernism' can be surprisingly fluid, as was demonstrated by the concert featuring Ensemble Triolog, in the studios of Bavarian Radio. A redeeming factor in Martin Smolka's interpretation of 'post-modernism' is that he at least possesses a sense of humour. Unfortunately, this tends to be rather obvious, sometimes extending to silly titles, and the humour tends to lack variety. Consequently, his pieces tend to lose momentum, as happened on this occasion with Autumn Thoughts, which was disappointing, after such a bizarrely promising opening. Josef Anton Riedl's Piece, for piano, drums, clapping and wooden sticks was less arresting - surprisingly so, as the composer has explored some astonishing sound-worlds in installations, sometimes involving glass, and frequently employing electronics. Still, he knew precisely when it had run its course.

It was a good idea include Isang Yun's Trio, and Scelsi's Rucke die Gucke in the same programme, but the highlights were the remaining ensemble works: Hanspeter Kyburz' Danse Aveugle, and Tobias M. Schneid's Umbrellas and Sewing Machines. Kyburz' reputation as a composer is well established, thanks to several recent pieces, among them, Danse Aveugle. He has also attracted a number of composition students, and this aspect of his work is becoming increasingly important. Tobias More. Schneid has achieved success within Bavaria, with a variety of scores, including ensemble pieces influenced by Beckett. The subtitle of Umbrellas and Sewing Machines: Music for a Man, who was cut into pieces by a Window, puts it into the Smolka category, and the games he played with tonality were equally strange. Yet his ensemble writing showed real ingenuity, and the work's entertainment value was well sustained. It did not outstay its welcome, but the same could hardly be claimed for Galina Ustvolskaya's Fifth and Sixth Piano Sonatas, which appeared in Siegfried Mauser's recital of spiritual piano music. The redeeming feature in this instance was Morton Feldman's contemplative Palais de Mari, but the programme would have been more successfully balanced if this had been placed last.

The discussion and concert, involving music selected by Chaya Czernowin, began unconvincingly with a very routine performance of Beethoven's final String Quartet. Webern's Bagatelles were performed more persuasively, illustrating Czernowin's sympathies with early modernism, but the most memorable item was the revised version of her string sextet, entitled 'Dam Sheon Hachel'.

Another Bavarian Radio event, in association with the Biennale, also began this year's Jazz and More Festival. This was 'Loose Shoes', devised by Raymond Federman and Michael Riessler. Federman was mainly responsible for the text, which might be described as a wry look at the seven ages of life. A particularly amusing extract ran, somewhat approximately: 'Never look up, only the sky is above you; never look behind you, only your arse is there'. Federman's delivery was under-stated, but curiously effective, while the music involved some of the finest improvisers and free jazz exponents in the business, such as Riessler himself, Michel Portal, Markus and Simon Stockhausen, Mike Svoboda, etc. This attracted a rather different audience than that seen at most events, which will do the Biennale no harm at all.

Finally, the 6 hour piano extravaganza to celebrate 300 years of the instrument. Everything from four to twelve hands, but the finest playing tended to come from various duos. Reger's Mozart Variations, Stravinsky's Concerto, and Debussy's En Blanc et Noir were the pick of a long evening, and Alfons Kontarsky - it was excellent to see him still going strong - was involved in all three. A good way to end the Biennale, and many were still there at the end.

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