Distorted memories, concrete missions

Soyuz21, a five-piece ensemble from Zurich, has been experimenting at the interface of instrumental sound with electronics and interdisciplinary concert formats since it was founded in 2011. The new project with pieces by Martin Jaggi and Bernhard Lang is aimed equally at music fans and movie buffs. Friedemann Dupelius spoke with Mats Scheidegger, electric guitarist and ensemble leader, and Martin Jaggi.

Friedemann Dupelius
On July 6, 1976, the Soviet mission Soyuz 21 started its journey to the Salyut 5 space station. Several research projects were taken aboard with the crew: guppies (how would the fish behave in space?), various plants (can they germinate out there?) and crystals (why not?). In addition, Soyuz 21 was to record the Earth from a distance with an infrared telescope, hand spectrograph, colour as well as black-and-white film – and at the same time observe the sun. The communication via satellites was investigated too, as well as the station’s independent navigation. A military use was also one of the possibilities? After only 49 days, the crew headed back to Earth, rumoured to be homesick.

The main crew of Soyuz 21 on a Soviet stamp (1976) – Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, Uploader: Aklyuch at wikipedia.ru

Even though Zurich based ensemble Soyuz 21 does not operate with fish, plants or crystals, nor is it interested in warlike contexts, there are parallels to its namesake: both are concerned with autonomy, communication, observation and experimentation. However, Mats Scheidegger quickly clouds the pride of having deciphered the ideas behind the name: his ensemble, founded in 2011, has nothing to do with this particular mission. First of all, it’s about the Russian term “Soyuz”, which means companion. The reference to space travel generally functions as a symbol for their artistic curiosity. And 21? “It stands for the 21st century! How original!” laughs Mats Scheidegger with self-irony.

Yulan Yu: In den Dünen (2022), premiered by Soyuz 21 on 26.11.2022 at Ackermannshof Basel

The space probe documents diversity

He is right though. With its artistic approach, Soyuz 21 locates itself firmly in this century. The five-member ensemble – which was formed “for musical reasons, out of playing” – regularly premieres new compositions. It maintains particularly close ties with Klaus Lang and Bernhard Lang, among others, but also with the young Swiss generation. The ensemble cooperated during 3 years with the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) at the Zurich University of the Arts, whose students developed tailormade pieces. Aesthetically, Soyuz 21 is dominated by the diversity that would also document a photographically equipped space probe. There is just as much room for improvisation as for electronics, the record player as an instrument or the cinema screen as an artistic element. “With the keyboard instruments, we moved away from the piano towards electronic sounds,” Mats Scheidegger tells us. “You simply have a lot more possibilities. A piano always remains a piano, even if there are still great pieces for it.” The guitarist is also expanding his own instrument with all the rules and controls of technology.

Soyuz 21 during their project “Spielhölle” at Flipperclub Regio Basel © Guillaume Musset

Alongside with Scheidegger, Philipp Meier (keys), Sascha Armbruster (saxophone), Isaï Angst (sound design & electronics) and João Pacheco (percussion) are the current members of Soyuz 21, with guest musicians joining in from time to time. The ensemble realises many of its projects in own concert series, mostly taking place in Basel and Zurich. “We think a lot about new concert formats,” says Mats Scheidegger. “There has been a certain loss of audience since the cultural venues reopened. So Sometimes a concert title or a poster that jumps out at people can help – like the Schwimmkörper concert.”

Concert poster “Schwimmkörper” (Photo: Mats Scheidegger)

Travelling compensates for wasted time

Sometimes the format itself is attracting. On 13 May, the audience should flock to the cinema, whether music- or movie-fan. At Zurich’s Filmpodium, the project “Constructed Memories” brings contemporary music and film together on equal terms, which leads us back to Soyuz 21, the probe from 1976, as for this project, two companions have joined forces, observed the world and captured it on camera, in colour and in black and white Here too, old recordings have to be interpreted from a distance – spatially, as well as temporally. In 1999, composer Martin Jaggi and video artist Adrian Kelterborn travelled through Malawi. In doing so, they wanted to compensate for the waste of time caused by the Swiss military’s compulsory service. In 2004, a trip through West Africa followed, more precisely: Ghana, Togo and Benin. While Kelterborn recorded the second trip with his digital camera, Jaggi saved many musical memories: “On both trips we went to many concerts. In Accra we played music with an orchestra, Handel was on the programme.” The Highlife genre, a predecessor of Afrobeat, which originated in Ghana, also plays a role in Martin Jaggi’s travel memory.
Martin Jaggi and Adrian Kelterborn have already produced the video version of „Constructed Memories“, published online on the Soyuz 21 website.

From this mix of both technically and neurologically recorded memories, Jaggi and Kelterborn created the two parts of the audiovisual piece “Constructed Memories”. Some 20 years after the two trips, the two school friends discovered how different and how distorted their memories of their time together were. “It was a real archaeological site,” Jaggi recalls. “But we were less concerned with setting specific memories to music. We rather aimed at recreating certain states of being that we associate with the different places.”

A lockdown in the midst of production phase intensified the moment of alienation and re-construction of those memory snippets even further. “We couldn’t work directly together. I was stuck in Singapore and Adrian was in Switzerland, so I composed the music first and described the mood to Adrian in detail. He then set images to the music without any instruments having ever actually played it.” The result is a dynamic interaction of music and film within and sometimes against each other. The images are grainy and pixelated, they flutter and flow. The sounds grind and drag, merge and cross-fade with the visuals, only to detach themselves again. The pandemic’s state of consciousness certainly flowed into the work. “A journey occupies a much larger place in the memory than the same period of time when spent at home and covid made this even more extreme with. If every day is the same for two years, no memories are stored – or only one,” laughs Martin Jaggi.

„Constructed Memories“, Part 2. The video footage comes from the memory card of Adrian Kelterborns’ digital camera from 2004.

The two visual scores (or music videos) are complemented by a piece from Bernhard Lang’s “DW” series (number 16), in which he musically processes his pop music socialisation. This is also about memory and its shifted perception in the present. Musically, these influences can again be located in the time when Soyuz 21 was rocketing into space – we remember.
Friedemann Dupelius

Martin Jaggi & Adrian Kelterborn (“Constructed Memories”) + Bernhard Lang (“DW 16”)
Sa, 13.5., 20:45: Konzertpodium im Filmpodium Zürich
So, 14.5., 20:00: Kulturmühle Horw (Luzern)

Soyuz 21Martin Jaggi, Adrian Kelterborn, Bernhard Lang, Klaus Lang, Isaï Angst, João Pacheco, Nicolas Buzzi

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Soyuz 21, Martin Jaggi, Sarah Maria Sun, Mats Scheidegger, Philipp Meier, Julien Mégroz, Nicolas BuzziMusikpodium der Stadt Zürich, Forum Neue Musik Luzern

Game spaces between heaven and hell

From January 26 to 29, Basel festival “SPIEL! Games as critical practice” explores the critical potential of playing. Composer Michel Roth curated the festival.

Live-Installation Rave-Séance by Marko Ciciliani will be presented at the festival on 27th of January at the Jazzcampus. ©Katja-Goljat

Friederike Kenneweg
Anyone who happens to talk to Michel Roth about playing can’t help discovering that it’s not just one single subject, but a multidimensional thematic field that opens up. For one can play with very different things: words, things, thoughts, sounds, colours or instruments… A game sets rules and creates its own world for its duration, whether it is music, a computer game, role-playing game or a board game. Those who see themselves as players in such a world look for rules to play by and each player has the possibility to influence the game within the space given to him or her, but the rules by which a game is played can also be changed – revealing a sudden philosophical or political dimension. It is true that playing can serve as an escape from the world and lead to a certain escapism. But it can also develop a critical, even world-changing potential.

Mary Flanagan’s “Critical Play”

Michel Roth found this idea formulated particularly succinctly in the writings of American game designer Mary Flanagan, which he came across during his research on games and play. He was particularly impressed by Flanagan’s 2009 book “Critical Play. Radical Game Design”, in which she emphasises the critical potential that can lie in the setting of games from the designer’s point of view. Which images, clichés and ideas should be reproduced, which ones should be changed? In what realm of possibilities should the players stay during the game? How games are designed can also influence real life and how we see it and perhaps even: what we want to change in it.


Mary Flanagan will be a keynote speaker at the festival in Basel. and also present her mapscotch project in Theater Basel’s foyer. The project is based on the chalk drawing and playground game “Hopscotch”. Visitors can define their personal squares and the foyer’s floor becomes an individual hopping playground during the entire festival.

Sound and structure of the pinball machine

Another phenomenon that has long fascinated Michel Roth is slot machines. For ZeitRäume Basel in 2021, he designed a “game hell” in which the soundscape of pinball machines significantly determined the sound.

No wonder that such machines will also make a guest appearance at the festival. The former Theater Basel ticket office will host pinball machines and other games for the audience to try out (and listen to). In a lecture performance in collaboration with double bass player Aleksander Gabrys, Michel Roth will deal with the pinball game once again under the title Pinball Etudes, but this time by transforming a double bass into a pinball machine and preparing the strings with movable balls. Normal instrumental playing is no longer possible, but action and sound now also depend on where the balls roll. What exactly will happen can neither be composed nor rehearsed.

In the piece Räuber-Fragmente after Robert Walser, Michel Roth applied game theory to a composition for the first time, putting Walser’s novel Räuber into a kind of play configuration. A free improviser is on stage and free to intervene in the play whenever he or she feels like doing so, like a kind of spoilsport.

Play and composition

The festival also presents a variety of works by composers who have explored the game subject from different points of view. For example, Bernhard Lang has been working on a series of works entitled Game since 2016, in which the instrumentalists are given a playing space defined by a fixed set of rules, which they can then use freely. GAME 3-4-3 and Game ONE by Bernhard Lang will be featured in Basel. In Homo Ludens (2019), Mike Svoboda offers the players a choice of five settings, each of which with its own set of rules, while in her percussion piece Poker, Roulette (2020), Sarah Nemtsov explores the contrast between gambling instinct and gambling addiction – two principles that seem very close to each other and yet involve completely different energies.

Mike Svoboda’s Homo Ludens divides the musicians into two teams. Do they also compete against each other while making music? Recording from the first night of the piece, Gare du Nord, March 2019, played by Camerata Variabili and Mike Svoboda und Lucas Niggli as guest musicians.

Contrast, clash, encounter

Michel Roth consciously decided not to limit the thematic width that goes hand in hand with the festival theme, but to let approaches from game design, musicology, performance art, composition and pedagogy collide against or with each other. He is particularly curious to see whether the different target groups will relate to other areas. Will the gamers perhaps  become hooked to new music? Will everyone play Mapscotch together in the foyer? Will visitors also meet completely uninvolved people at the Real World Audio Game on Theaterplatz? Will they all participate together in the Jeu sonore, to which Sébastien Roux and Clément Canonne invite the audience?

The festival itself becomes a space of possibility that invites the audience to play and make decisions in many different ways. Whoever gets involved in this mixture of lectures, concerts, installations and interactions can experience something intellectually, sensually and playfully – depending on where the pinball rolls.
Friederike Kenneweg

Festival “Spiel! Games as critical practice” from 26th to 29th of January 2023, in the Foyer Theater BaselMusikakademie and Jazzcampus.

Bernhard Lang, Sarah Nemtsov, Sébastien Roux, Clément Canonne, Marko Ciciliani, Mary Flanagan, Critical Play: Radical Game Design,

Broadcast SRF Kultur:
neoblogpost 2.9.2021: Infinite game worlds, Auhtor: Jaronas Scheurer über about “Spiel Hölle”, project by Michel Roth

Michel Roth, Mike Svoboda, Aleksander Gabrys, sonic space basel