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The Berlin-based Swiss conductor Titus Engel is Basel Sinfonietta’s Principal Conductor for the current season. A portrait by Jaronas Scheurer
“There is this old Kapellmeister tradition: the Kapellmeister who lives, so to speak, in the opera house and conducts the whole history of music, no matter what piece, trying to do it at the highest possible level. I think that’s somehow a great approach,” says Swiss conductor Titus Engel at one point during our interview. Accordingly, he also rejects the notion that he specialises in new music, even though he is the new Principal Conductor of the Basel Sinfonietta, the only Swiss orchestra that specialises exclusively in music after 1950. “When I conduct new music, e.g. a Messiaen opera like this summer in Stuttgart, then phrasing experience I got from conducting Brahms for example, is helpful if a cantilena suddenly appears. On the other hand, new music, which is often very rhythmic, can help a lot if you really want to get to the heart and grind down the rhythmic parameters of traditional music.” This already defines some of the cornerstones of Titus Engel’s work: a precise tonal language, a serving attitude towards the work and great musical breadth.
This musical breadth was evident from an early age. As a teenager, he played double bass and bassists were in high demand, as they are today. He was soon active in a wide variety of musical contexts: from Bach to Boulez and even in big bands. After studying philosophy and musicology in Zurich and Berlin, Titus Engel decided to pursue a career as a conductor and studied conducting with Christian Kluttig in Dresden. Other influences include Peter Eötvös, Sir Colin Davis and Sylvain Cambreling.
Michael Wertmüller: The Blade Dancer, SWR Symphonieorchester under the direction of Titus Engel, premiere at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2020.
A steep path
Engel conducted the world premiere of Benjamin Schweitzer’s opera Jakob von Gunten in his second year at university and shortly afterwards, he became musical director of the Dresden-based Ensemble Courage. This was followed by performances throughout Europe at major opera houses and festivals, such as the Donaueschingen Music Festival in 2020. While contemporary music continues to play a major role in his repertoire, he has also repeatedly appeared with classical music or even early music, for example with a highly acclaimed production of Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo with Ensemble Resonanz in 2006. Further highlights of Titus Engel’s career are certainly his conducting of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag from the Licht cycle at Basel Theatre in 2016 and his “Conductor of the Year” award by specialist magazine Opernwelt in 2020. Engels has thus defined a further benchmark: opera, although it seems too short-sighted to simply dismiss him as an opera conductor: “The interplay between arts is important for my work,” he says. “Of course, music is primarily an acoustic phenomenon, but because music is open in terms of content, I believe that the collaboration with other art forms benefits music, especially contemporary music.” Titus Engel doesn’t just think about the visual and scenic aspect of the performance in opera productions.
Simon Steen-Andersen: TRIO, SWR Symphonieorchester (Dir. Emilio Pomàrico), SWR Vokalensemble (Dir. Michael Alber) and the SWR Big Band (Dir. Thorsten Wollmann), premiere at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2019
This also reflects a mediation concept that is important to Titus Engel, especially when it comes to contemporary music: “I’m not interested in distracting from the music, which would weaken its core. Instead, I believe that creative formats going beyond the normal concert can also be of interest for a wider audience and ultimately sharpen the focus on the music.” During the next Basel Sinfonietta season, the conventional concert format will be broken up again and again. The opening concert on 1 October 2023, will feature the work TRIO by Simon Steen-Andersen, in which a humorous dialogue unfolds between video recordings of orchestra rehearsals and the real orchestra playing. On 26 April 2024, Basel Sinfonietta and jazz pianist Nik Bärtsch’s band will perform a new composition by Bärtsch himself, in which lighting design will play an important role. The season’s final concert in June 2024, will exclusively feature female composers, with young Spanish composer Gemma Ragués Pujol as a performer and the audience being able to intervene on fossil stones in Cathy Milliken’s work Earth Plays V. Video, light, performing arts or audience participation – with Titus Engel, the boundaries between arts, musicians and audience, different musical genres or between pure concert and theatrical production can certainly be questioned.
Basel Sinfonietta – an orchestra for the whole city
Titus Engel shares this love for experimenting and artistic adventures with the Basel Sinfonietta, which he personally believes to be Switzerland’s most exciting orchestra: “Because a) it is democratically organized, which means that an incredible amount of energy and commitment comes from the orchestra itself. And b) because its openness to exciting programmes and its focus on contemporary music totally suits me.” He already has clear specific for his time with the Basel Sinfonietta and would like to work on his own “Sinfonietta sound”. “Of course, one has to be very flexible in the broad repertoire that the Basel Sinfonietta plays. But I’m interested in finding something even more specific. For example, extreme dynamics, sometimes the courage to play very smoothly. Then crisp and hard again.” On the other hand, he is interested in the physical, performative presence of the orchestra, which ties in with his interest in other art forms. “I would love to develop exciting formats with the orchestra: for example, playing outside on the Rhine or in the forest, also to reach an even wider audience, which of course also requires more educational work. This also means projects involving people that wouldn’t necessarily attend the Stadtcasino for orchestral concerts, that we go to them and develop projects together. I would like to broaden the Basel Sinfonietta‘s base in the city so that we become an orchestra for the whole city.”
So Titus Engel has big plans. But the Basel Sinfonietta is a self-managing orchestra, which means that its members have their say regarding the programming. However, his desire to make the Basel Sinfonietta an orchestra for the whole city of Basel by means of unconventional, exciting programmes and formats will undoubtedly be welcomed.
The opening concert of the Basel Sinfonietta under Titus Engel took place October 1st 2023 at 19:00 in in Saint-Louis (F).
Broadcasts SRF 2:
Musikmagazin, 30.9.2023: Interview with Titus Engel by Jaronas Scheurer.
Musik unserer Zeit, 20.2.2019: Der Derwisch: Titus Engel, Redaktion Florian Hauser.
Musikmagazin, 1.2.2014: Interview with Titus Engel by Mariel Kreis, Redaktion: Florian Hauser (ab Min. 28:47).
Summer series for Swiss Music Prize No. 3: A special prize goes to Kunstraum Walcheturm, as – according to the jury – the concert venue “occupies an outstanding position for the further development of experimental music and art in Switzerland”.
Jaronas Scheurer spoke to its artistic director Patrick Huber.
I meet Patrick Huber while he is supervising the set-up of a party to take place that same evening. The party has rented the room and there is a lot to explain and negotiate. Huber is also about to go on holiday: Between discussions with the sound engineers, briefings for the bar staff and final holiday preparations, he still finds time for an interview. Being in-between things, i.e. different projects, parties, experimental music, contemporary art and experimental film, in-between-ness seems to be a modus operandi for Patrick Huber and the Kunstraum Walcheturm: “This place shouldn’t really exist,” he says during the interview.
This venue – the Kunstraum Walcheturm in the old Zeughaus courtyard, about 10 minutes’ walk from Zurich main station – is the city’s most important venue for contemporary and experimental music and it received one of this year’s special music prizes from the Federal Office of Culture (BAK).
How is it, that Walcheturm came to be known primarily for exciting concerts and less for exciting art? After all, it was founded in the 1950s as an association to promote young Swiss art and artists. And in the 1980s, the now internationally renowned art dealers Eva Presenhuber and Iwan Wirth moulded it into one of the most important places on the Zurich art scene, named after its first location on Walchestrasse. “At some point it became clear, that an association was not the right vehicle for an internationally active gallery with such commercial endeavour”, says Huber. A spin-off took place in the mid-1990s, from which the Eva Presenhuber and Hauser&Wirth galleries emerged. The Walcheturm association then went through a difficult phase before the association’s management was handed over to Patrick Huber in 1999. Huber applied with the vision of turning the gallery into an art space: “A rupture – not a gallery, nor an art market anymore – but an art space,” as Huber outlined his idea at the time.
Luigi Archetti: LAVA – Part 01, Label Karluk 2021
From gallery to art space
Patrick Huber already had a lot of experience in organising exhibitions, parties and festivals. He had been organising parties since the 1980s: techno, hip hop, drum’n’bass, curating exhibitions in off-spaces and, since 1998, the experimental film festival VideoEx.
“When I took over, there were no members, so to speak, and there wasn’t even a hammer at hand, to hammer in nails for the artworks.” However, this also had its advantages, as it allowed him to create something from scratch. He was able to build on a large network of friends on one hand and his experience as a party organiser on the other. “For the first few years, parties, often techno parties, financed the art space.” The income generated from the big evening parties was channelled into the art space and the exhibitions during the day. “I didn’t even realise back then that one could apply for financial support,” Huber says with a laugh. But the Walcheturm art space soon had to move. Fortunately, they were accepted for the current location in the old armoury. “We got the key in January 2002. The key opened a dusty room. It was 5 degrees outside and the same temperature inside. Gravel on the floor, not much else. There wasn’t much money, but there was a big deal of help, a whole group of people: Someone was able to drive an excavator and dredged out a few cubic metres of gravel. Others were able to install electricity, someone installed heaters, etc.” says Huber, describing the move. “Then, in May, the floor was installed and the experimental film festival VideoEx was held for the first time. In August, there was an official opening with a project featuring 12 drummers. A performance, categorised as art, with twelve drummers playing.”
Katharina Rosenberger: REIN, Basel Sinfonietta under the direction of Baldur Brönnimann, premiere 2019 in Basel
From contemporary art to experimental music
The transition from exhibition space for contemporary art to a venue for experimental music seemed to be already apparent at the opening. “I was interested in contemporary, experimental music. I found it to be exciting. But there also seemed to be a need for such a space in Zurich. Because there has always been space for contemporary art in Zurich,” says Patrick Huber, explaining the change.
Julian Sartorius: Locked Groove 093, Label OUS 2021
These days, Walcheturm hosts mainly concerts. In addition to several important festivals such as VideoEx, Sonic Matters, Taktlos Zürich and FemaleClassics, musicians and ensembles play somewhere between noise, free improvisation, new music, sound art and free jazz. Patrick Huber receives numerous requests for concerts, but the problem with the programme is funding. The Kunstraum Walcheturm is supported by the canton of Zurich, which barely covers the rental expenses. Beyond that, they have no budget, so to speak. “The amazing thing about Walcheturm is the musical diversity despite the tight financial guidelines,” says Huber. For this to work, a good deal of pragmatism and common sense is required. In concrete terms, the groups that play at Walcheturm, finance the place depending on the level of their own funding. “If the other side has a yacht, then please let our side have some money too, if they’re in a small rowing boat, then we can row around too. We’ve always done that,” says Huber with a laugh. “On paper, our calculations don’t actually work out. But somehow they do.”
And so they carry on – the impossible space in the centre of Zurich: two to four concerts a week, with the help of friends, a healthy dose of pragmatism and, above all, a lot of love and commitment to the music.
Broadcasts SRF Kultur:
SRF Kultur online, 11.5.23: Trompeter Erik Truffaz erhält den Grand Prix Musik, Redaktion Jodok Hess.
Musikmagazin, 22.7.23, Carlo Balmelli: Ein Leben für die Blasmusik, Redaktion Annelis Berger, Musiktalk mit Carlo Balmelli (ab Min 9:40).
Musikmagazin, 17.6.23, Inspirationen mit offenem Ende: Die Vokalkünstlerin Saadet Türköz, Redaktion Florian Hauser, Musiktalk mit Saadet Türköz (ab Min 8:38).
Musikmagazin, 13.5.23, Schweizer Musikpreise 2023, Redaktion Florian Hauser, Musiktalk mit Katharina Rosenberger (ab Min 4:55)
Young composer Anda Kryeziu stages Ingmar Bergman’s cult film “Persona” as music theatre for Theater Basel. A musical reflection on voice, silence and identity.
Anda Kryeziu and I met for an interview on a rainy February evening in downtown Basel. The final rehearsal phase for her music theatre “Persona”, based on the film by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, has just begun and she is facing a stressful final rehearsal month, with rehearsals from Monday to Saturday all day followed by revisions at night. One might think that the 30-year-old composer is under a lot of pressure, as writing a full-length musical for the renowned Theater Basel is not something everyone gets to do. But Anda Kryeziu seems surprisingly relaxed and at ease during the interview.
Originally from Kosovo, she studied piano and composition with Dieter Ammann in Bern, then composition and electroacoustic music in Basel and Berlin with Caspar Johannes Walter and Daniel Ott as well as cross-media composition with Wolfgang Heiniger. Her catalogue is already astonishingly extensive, featuring theatrical works, performances, orchestral compositions, works for instrumental ensembles with or without electronics, multimedia compositions, installations and acousmatic pieces. Kryeziu switches effortlessly between different formats and instrumentations and has already presented her works at renowned festivals such as Impuls Festival Graz, Neue Musik Rümlingen or the Munich Biennale. Her rich and diverse portfolio might be the reason for her ability to keep calm and relaxed, despite the prestigious Theater Basel commission.
Anda Kryeziu: «Infuse: Playtime» (2021), Ensemble Recherche.
She is setting Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona” to music for Theater Basel and describes her work, for soprano, performer, four instruments and electronics as an “ambivalent music-theatrical format, oscillating between opera, theatre and performance”. Bergman’s 1966 cult movie revolves around two women, actress Elisabeth Vogler and nurse Alma. Elisabeth has suddenly stopped speaking and is therefore sent to be cured with Alma in a villa by the seaside. Due to Elisabeth’s silence, Alma takes over the speaking and tells Elisabeth about her innermost wishes, dreams and well-kept secrets from her childhood. A complex relationship develops between the two women and Elisabeth’s silence takes on very different facets, from arrogant distance to empathetic participation or passive aggressiveness. More and more, the boundaries between the two protagonists become blurred. Bergman’s film is on one hand an accurate chronicle of this unusual relationship and on the other hand a reflection on what actually makes a person and whether we are not just wearing different masks.
To what extent does the voice define our identity and what happens when the voice factor suddenly disappears? “Persona” captured Anda Kryeziu’s, as well as director Caterina Cianfarini’s and dramaturge Meret Kündig’s attention because it deals with voice, silence and identity in close connection.
Anda Kryeziu: «co-» (2016-2017), played by Theo Nabicht (Kontrabassklarinette), Seth Josel (E-Gitarre) und Gabriella Strümpel (Cello) from the Ensemble KNM Berlin.
How does one compose silence?
The main character’s silence of Perona’s central aspects. But how does one actually compose silence? Music consists of sounds and silence does not. Whereby, as Anda Kryeziu emphasises, “silence is not the same as stillness. Silence is the decision not to speak, while stillness is the absence of sounds”.
However, she did not need to actively compose silence: “silence was already there conceptually and actually triggered all the other musical ideas in the piece. For me, silence is the strongest and most blatant stylistic tool in this project. With Elisabeth’s silence, I try to shape all the dynamics and energy of the work and it serves as an igniting spark for many musical and dramatic situations.”
Anda Kryeziu sees the main character’s silence as a welcome challenge and composed it as an important factor. It is a similar story with the the other main character’s voice. Nurse Alma does the talking for both of them. For Kryeziu, the voice of soprano Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir, in the role of Alma, is the starting point for her composition. “The human voice is a complex mean of communication, a whole package of information, a semiotic system through which one can learn a great deal about identity,” says Kryeziu.
Guðmundsdóttir’s voice is alienated, distorted and multiplied by Kryeziu through electronics. “With the changes in the sound of the voice, I can also change the perception of the person speaking. She can suddenly sound masculine, childlike or totally destroyed.”
Anda Kryeziu: “Kreiswanderung im Raum”, from the production “Grosse Reise in entgegengesetzter Richtung” at the Münchener Biennale 2022. Jens Ruland (percussion) and the Ensemble Hand Werk.
The voice through the instruments
In addition, Kryeziu relates the voice to various counterparts: through loops, Guðmundsdóttir’s voice speaks to herself, through room-filling playback and re-recording it enters a dialogue with the space and with the help of so-called transducers, Kryeziu can project the sound of the voice or individual snippets of it onto the four instruments. The voice then kind of speaks through the instruments. A coherent metaphor for the fact that an identity operates in close connection and constant interaction with the outside world.
A voice speaking through many instruments is perhaps another fitting image for Kryeziu’s work. The identity theme emerges again and again, in her diverse work. “Identity never comes by itself in my opinion, as it cannot be separated from a socio-political context. We do not exist as abstract entities. We are the way we are because of our environment, our history and biography,” says Kryeziu. Her works are never autobiographical, but perhaps her migrant biography is one reason why the theme of identity regularly comes up.
Music theatre “Persona” is a Theater Basel production and will be presented at Gare du Nord on March 4, 6, 7, 15, 16 17 – 2023, featuring: Álfheiður Erla Guðmundsdóttir: soprano, Alice Gartenschläger: performance, Jeanne Larrouturou: percussion, Chris Moy: guitar, Maria Emmi Franz: cello and Aleksander Gabrýs: double bass.
The Lucerne Festival Forward has taken place in Lucerne from November 18 to 20, 2022. Alongside big international names such as Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Tito Muñoz, the programme also included the collective intervention A Clean End to end the festival.
During an interview, Lucerne composer and musician Urban Mäder described himself as an expert on all kinds of cleaning machines – and there is a good reason for that. Because for the closing of this year’s Lucerne Festival Forward (LFF), for once it is not the musicians of the Lucerne Festival Contemporary Orchestra (LFCO) who are in the spotlight, but, among others, KKL’s cleaning staff and their various types of hoovers, mops and cleaning machines.
Urban Mäder and Peter Allamand: sound installation ‘Balgerei’ at the festival Alpentöne, Altdorf 2015.
Researching at 6 o’clock in the morning
After LFF’s first edition last year and the performance of Ricefall by Michael Pisaro by 49 amatuers, another participative action took place this year: A Clean End. The action is called a collective intervention and its driving forces are Urban Mäder, Nora Vetter, Pia Matthes and Peter Allamand. The intervention took place as closing event of the last concert.
But what is there to do at the end of a festival or a concert? Well, cleaning, so that the whole thing has “a clean end”. This was the premise on which the four artists based their work and dealt intensively with the used cleaning equipment. After every KKL concert, a fifteen people strong cleaning team from Vebego arrives at 6 AM on the following morning and cleans each and every corner of the place, concert hall, foyer, toilets and the numerous rooms. They do not use buckets and brooms, however, but various ultra-modern cleaning machines, which Mäder, Vetter, Matthes and Allamand studied intensively, examining exactly the different sounds they could generate, as Urban Mäder reports. They even went to the KKL at 6 o’clock in the morning to watch the Vebego team at work. Their research and work eventually gave birth to a composition for a group of amateurs who responded to a call from LFF to become the actual A Clean End performers.
The team behind A Clean End
A Clean End is an initiative by Lucerne composer and improvisation teacher Urban Mäder; violist, composer and performer Nora Vetter; artist and scenographer Pia Matthes, who has a strong bond with sound art and Urban Mäder’s long-time collaborator Peter Allamand. Each of the four artists brought in a different perspective, says Nora Vetter in conversation. Urban Mäder has his very own language and a huge experience in this field, Pia Matthes has a good feeling for dramaturgy and, as a trained product designer, an eye for visuals, Peter Allamand knows very well how things work and takes great pleasure in trying things out and fiddling around. For example, he brought a leaf blower to a meeting of the four so that they could try out directly in the café where they met how such things sounds and works. As for herself, Nora Vetter explains that, in addition to the focus on the sound and compositional aspects which she shares with Urban Mäder, the political dimension in this work has been of great importance. Thus, she says, it was important for the actual cleaning staff to appear. As a result, fourteen of the fifteen employed cleaners were actually featured and while the musicians on stage come from all over the world and are rightly celebrated for their performances, the cleaning staff, who are often migrants, usually remain hidden. Furthermore, the cliché is attached to this occupation that the cleaners unfortunately have no other choice. “But,” says Nora Vetter, “at the end of the day, both making music and cleaning are work tasks and both are equally necessary for a festival like the LFF to happen.”
Nora Vetter: ‘Dream Paralysis’, latenz ensemble, Zürich 2021.
To be taken seriously
To be taken seriously are perhaps the keywords that can be used to summarise the various concerns behind the collective intervention A Clean End. Both the people who do the important but invisible work of cleaning and tidying up, as well as the sonic, even musical potential of the cleaning equipment are to be taken seriously.
The initiative’s aim is not to put on a funny show, but to take the sonic possibilities of the cleaning activity and the cleaning equipment seriously, says Urban Mäder. Their intervention is based on a clear musical idea, which is comparable to classical compositions. “When you compose for the orchestra, over time you get to know the woodwinds, the brass, the percussion instruments and so on. Now we know about all the cleaning machines and how they sound.” And above all – the audience finally sees the people who make sure that the KKL presents itself clean, tidy and in impeccable at every concert and can thank these mostly invisible people with the applause they deserve.
Trailer of the intervention “A clean End” from Urban Mäder, Nora Vetter, Peter Allamand and Pia Matthes. Lucerne Festival Forward, November 20 2022, KKL Luzern.
The Lucerne Festival Forward took place from November 18 to 20 in Lucerne.
The collective intervention was premiered at the final concert on the 20th of November in the concert hall of the KKL.
Beside Urban Mäder and Nora Vetter, Pia Matthes and Peter Allamand are part of the team behind A Clean End.
Geneva’s AMR association (AMR stands for “Association pour l’encouragement de la Musique improvise”) is the oldest Swiss institution for improvised music. Since it’s foundation in 1973, it has been committed not only to improvised concerts but also to offer rehearsal opportunities and lessons in improvised music. Its almost 50-year commitment is now being recognised with the Special Music Prize 2022.
Especially in niche genres like improvised music, most of the work is done on a voluntary basis. Fees for the musicians are low, the work behind the scenes is based on goodwill and the money for the organisers is generally scarce. The pandemic, during which no concerts could be held for months and general uncertainty reigned for even longer, exacerbated this deplorable situation. Not so in Geneva – where AMR managed to paid both the musicians who were booked but couldn’t perform as well as the technicians and staff who were unable to work. This is not only extremely honourable, but also quite unusual. “We had the money and we had booked them, furthermore the musicians were worse off than the organisers,” explains Brooks Giger, secretary of the AMR programme committee and double bass player.
John Menoud: Which way does the blood red river flow? Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain and the trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj, 2017. John Menoud is member of the AMR programme committee.
Milestone of Geneva’s cultural landscape
The AMR exists since 1973, almost fifty years. In the 1970s, the free jazz scene in Europe was buzzing. Peter Brötzmann, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Peter Kowald & Co. in Germany, Irène Schweizer and Pierre Favre in Switzerland. John Stevens and his “Spontaneous Music Ensemble” or the improvisation ensemble AMM in the UK, not to mention the USA with Charles Mingus, Alice and John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, etc. The time was right for a few musicians in Geneva, who go together and devoted themselves to this musical genre.
This is how the AMR idea came about. When the association was founded in 1973, its members already knew that they wanted more than just a stage and organising concerts. “There was this great desire of the founding members to have something where they could gather, work together and create. Where they can listen to this music in concert and share it in the classroom.” – says Brooks Giger. From the beginning, AMR included also a music school as well as rehearsal rooms. The City of Geneva was receptive to this concept and soon financial support was allocated. “We were also very, very lucky that we received support from the city in the 70s and to this day,” Brooks Giger says regarding Geneva and its special situation.
In 1981, the AMR was able to rent a building on Rue des Alpes, the “Sud des Alpes”, which is still the association’s centre and headquarter. Until 2006, the “Sud des Alpes” was gradually renovated and today, it houses not only the AMR offices, but also 13 rehearsal rooms (including two large ones for ensembles) and two concert halls, one in the basement for 50 people and one on the ground floor for 120 people. In the meantime, AMR has become an integral part of the city’s cultural landscape. Brooks Giger describes it this way: “If someone in town asks where to listen to some jazz – AMR. If someone is looking for musicians for a gig – AMR.” In the meantime, they have become an institution for jazz and improvised music in Geneva, which means they still get money from the city – “on croise les doigts” (fingers crossed), says Brooks Giger.
Concert programme between local scene and international stars
The City of Geneva’s financial support is tied to the condition that at least 60 per cent of the performing musicians must be from the region. The programming of the 250 to 300 annual concerts and the two festivals is therefore always balanced between local artists, national stars and international guests. The workshops held at the AMR also show what they have learned in regular concerts. So it may well be that in the same week one can enjoy the New York star saxophonist Chris Potter with his quartet, a South African-Swiss combo, a local jazz band and the AMR’s funk workshop. Fair play reigns not only through the concert programme, as the AMR staff is composed of musicians and thanks to the part-time employment at AMR, they are assured a regular income. Performing musicians who live in Switzerland can also be employed by the AMR, which ensures certain employment and welfare benefits. The ticket prices are moderate, so that everyone can afford the AMR concerts and since a few years ago, a group of members promotes gender-balanced concert programmes.
The group Noe Tavelli & The Argonauts from Geneva at the AMR Jazz Festival 2022
A Geneva gem for improvised music
In 2022, AMR is on solid fondations: it has a location with the necessary premises for lessons, concerts and rehearsals, financial support seems to be secured for the longer term, it has survived the pandemic and is again presenting a colourful, interesting concert programme. But above all, the AMR has a lively and committed music scene behind it and its commitment to improvised music has now been recognised by the Federal Office of Culture with the Special Music Prize 2022: “The association is a place of culture, equality, debate and growth,” writes the FOC on the reasons that led to the award.
Brooks Giger, however, doesn’t see growth as a top priority. “We already do a lot with concerts, festivals, workshops and the rehearsal rooms. There is no need to do more. What we have is already a gem, a diamond. We just have to keep polishing it and taking care of it.”
Next year, AMR will turn 50. There will of course be some special events, such as a photo exhibition at Bains de Pâquis and a publication with photos and essays. Furthermore, a documentary about the AMR is currently in the making and last but not least, there will of course be plenty of good, improvised music from Geneva, Switzerland and from all over the world at “Sud des Alpes”.
The Munich Biennale is a festival for new music theatre curated by Daniel Ott and Manos Tsangaris since 2016. The festival’s premieres always go beyond familiar formats and take the audience to unexpected and surprising places. This will be proven again this year, from May 7 to 19 May, for example, with the production “s p u r e n” by young Russian composer Polina Korobkova.
I meet Polina Korobkova a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a cosy café in Basel. After completing her composition studies in Moscow, Korobkova studied in Zurich with Isabel Mundry and in Basel with Caspar Johannes Walter. In 2021 she completed her Master’s degree in Zurich and recently moved to Berlin, while pursuing her studies with Martin Schüttler in Stuttgart. These points already mark some of Korobkova’s characteristics: an alert, sensitive political awareness like Mundry, the interest in microtonal soundscapes like Walter and thorough conceptual work like Schüttler.
Turning point February 24
Korobkova seems shaken, but nevertheless contained about Ukraine’s invasion, still trying to come to terms with what happened and of course in a state of shock. Although she does not identify with Russia, as Russian citizen she is inevitably associated with it. For her, who -like many other Russian artists – on the one hand vehemently rejects and publicly criticises the invasion, and on the other hand professionally and privately suffers from the war, February 24 2022, the day on which Russia began the war against Ukraine, represents a turning point. There is a time before and a time after for her and she is still sorting herself out without being able to tell what the aftermath will look like. The Russian invasion also affects her Munich production called “s p u r e n”. Most of the work was created before 24 February, but the latest developments in Ukraine cannot leave the production unaffected. She does not yet know how this will be reflected in the final result. We will find out at Munich Biennale from May 12 to 18.
Polina Korobkova: flashbacks to perform i, UA 2021: at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste.
Lost in the air-raid shelter
“s p u r e n” is in any case conceptually designed in such a way that nothing stands in the way of addressing the Ukraine war. The production is shown in the basement of the University of Music and Theatre in Munich. Adolf Hitler had the building constructed as the “Führerbau” in the 1930s and the basement rooms were intended as air-raid shelters. From 1943 onwards, however, the basement rooms in which “s p u r e n” is set did not provide shelter for people, but for some 600 mostly stolen paintings that Hitler wanted to exhibit in his “Führer Museum” in Linz. Today, however, there is no trace of them and according to Korobkova, the rooms all look the same and offer no clues regarding time, country or history. One only gets an uneasy, claustrophobic feeling due to lack of daylight and thick cellar air. One feels very lost down there.
Korobkova presents a pop song in the basement, fragments of which are sung live by five female singers. The song sounds like a normal pop song, even the lyrics are typical. But because of the personal story behind it – Korobkova wrote this song when she was twelve years old – it is also very personal and intimate. By placing it in the unified, claustrophobic basement rooms, a strong contrast is created. It’s a very different setting from a conventional concert – both in terms of the space and format. For Korobkova has the music playing through the entire air-raid shelter, while the audience is led through the facility without sitting on assigned chairs.
Polina Korobkova: anonymous material i, UA 2020: in Apeldoorn (netherlands) with the Orkest De Ereprijs.
Countless historical traces
The pop song and the five singers are joined by the recording of a 36-note organ played by a pre-programmed robot. The instrument, called Arciorgano, is located at the Musik Akademie Basel and is a replica based on a description by composer and music theorist Nicola Vicentino, who was active in the 16th century. With this organ, Vicentino wanted to solve all the tuning problems that were being thoroughly discussed at the time: he designed some kind of super-organ that would unite the idea of “universal harmony”, an important point of reference for Renaissance musical philosophy, with the harmony matters becoming more and more complex. Vicentino thus attempted to tame the overflowing musical practice of the time with a fixed, superordinate system. For Korobkova, this organ also stands for the slightly dictatorial attempt to force the wildly proliferating world of music into a fixed system; hence the mechanical way of playing and the megaphone speakers, reminiscent of political repression of whatever side, through which the recordings are played.
Dictatorial-looking megaphone speakers from which the mechanically clicking recording of a super-organ from the 16th century blares; five female singers singing the 08/15 pop song of a teenager growing up at the beginning of the 21st century; the claustrophobic, identity-less basement rooms in which the Nazis stored masses of looted art almost 80 years ago: In “s p u r e n” by Polina Korobkova, very different historical layers of time flow together, leaving countless traces. But all of them somehow revolve around the problem of fixed systems – be they of music-theoretical or political nature. This questioning of fixed certainties and systems is also her compositional drive, as – with every piece – she asks herself over and over again why she actually composes and where her place in the world of art and music is.
The Munich Biennale will take place from May 7 to 19, 2022 at various venues around town.
«s p u r e n» by Polina Korobkova will be performed between May 12 and May 18 in the air-raid shelter of the Hochschule für Theater und Musik at Arcisstrasse 12 in Munich.