Open-mindedness and consistency

35 years ensemble für neue music zürich

Setting significant standards since three decades: the “ensemble für neue music zürich” was founded in 1985, when contemporary music was only just beginning to emerge – today it is facing particular challenges.
A review with perspective by Thomas Meyer.

ensemble für neue musik zürich

One must remember the musical situation in Zurich around 1980. The Conservatory still lived up to its name: a place of preservation, not at all focusing on creation as it is today. Premieres for instance were highly unappreciated at the Tonhalle. There were small concert series dedicated to new music, but no specialist ensemble for it. There was a lot to be done.

When the “Tage für Neue Musik” were first held in 1986, a young ensemble, simply called “ensemble für neue musik zürich” emerged. It had presented itself for the first time only one year earlier and gathered a handful of musicians who were looking for something new. The musicians supported young composers of their generation and their environment and who had a very broad concept of music. Everything started with a concert by the “Gruppo Musica Insieme di Cremona” during the Zurich Junifestwochen, with mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. “It was an eye-opener: I felt the urge to do something like that,” says flutist Hanspeter Frehner, who founded the ensemble with other young students and still leads it today. Together with the pianist Viktor Müller, he is the only member of the original line up.

Hanspeter Frehner Portrait

Two essential characteristics define the ensemble: open-mindedness and consistency. Their open-mindedness is reflected, for example, by the choice of presenting female composers’ programmes from very early on, commissioning works to Liza Lim or Noriko Hisada. Another characteristic is asking jazz musicians to compose – which launched, for example, the career of Dieter Ammann. They also dedicated themselves to the visual arts, as in their homages to the Zurich sculptor Hans Josephsohn or in their collaboration with the experimental artist Peter Regli.


Verwandtschaft, composer: Junghae Lee, UA Winterthur, Villa Sträuli  2019, ensemble für neue musik zürich

But above all, they pushed music theater to a new level: the ensemble’s instrumentation is based on Schönberg’s cabaret-like “Pierrot lunaire”: flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, complemented by percussion, similar to Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Fires of London”. With two short operas by Davies, the “ensemble” proved early on that it was possible to create grandiose musical theatre with a few, consistently applied means. Another experiment, together with director Herbert Wernicke, was a radical version of the “Merry Widow” – so bold that Léhar’s heirs promptly banned it. Since then, chamber operas have been a permanent feature of the programme. Next November, for example, the operetta “Neues vom Weltuntergang” by Dortmund composer Johannes Marks is on schedule.

Their consistency is reflected in the long collaboration among each other, but also with the composers. Noriko Hisada, from Japan, states for example, that “ensemble für neue music is one of those groups in which I have deep trust” and Sebastian Gottschick has been the ensemble’s guest conductor for a long time. These days, the “Hat Hut” record label (ezz-thetics) is releasing two new CDs with his “Notturni” as well as arrangements of Charles Ives songs. A remembrance of composer Franz Furrer-Münch, who died in 2010, is also planned for next autumn. This all shows that it’s not only a matter of featuring the big names of new music, but also about working, as well as promoting, from the base upwards…


Trailer ZUHÖAN, composition duo: Christoph Coburger / Sebastian Gottschick, UA 2015, ensemble für neue musik zürich

This is how the “ensemble” has been setting standards for some three and a half decades. Some time ago, the rumour started to circulate, that the musicians were gradually reaching retirement age. Actually, financial support from the city of Zurich will expire at the end of 2021, but Frehner says there are still a few ideas and projects beyond that. Moreover, he believes that it would be perfectly fine, if the regular city support were invested in the future, i.e. a young ensemble.

One has to consider the situation in Zurich today: New Music does not have a fixed venue such as the Gare du Nord in Basel and with the Walcheturm in Kaserneareal, at least one option for the independent scene is available. The Tage für Neue Musik are on the verge of a new conception, the orchestral concerts are not exactly bursting with innovations. Although creation is flourishing at the ZHdK and the city has a fixed chamber orchestra “Collegium Novum Zurich”, a new smaller ensemble would also require support and there is still a lot to be done.
Thomas Meyer

The concerts planned for May and June were cancelled due to the current Covid-19 restrictions and will be made up on the following dates:
Stöckli/Neumann/Ustwolskaja (instead of 16.5.20): 5.2.21
CD Taufe Ives/Gottschick (instead of 14.6.20): 12.12.20
Grüsse an Regli (instead of 28.6.20): 29.6.21

ensemble für neue musik zürich, Hat HutSebastian Gottschick, Liza Lim, Franz Furrer-Münch, Dieter Ammann, Hans Josephsohn, Johannes Marks, Peter Regli

Neo-Profilesensemble für neue musik zürich, Dieter Ammann, Junghae Lee

Contemporary music in Ticino

Autumn is when the musical seasons traditionally start, in Ticino as elsewhere. Contemporary music has its own niche in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, having a peculiar geographical structure with a relatively large area and uneven distribution of population.

Alberto Barberis: Oratorio Virtuale, a Stradella Reloaded, Eutopia Ensemble / 16 .10.19 Villa del Principe, Genova @Ommegraphie

Nadir Vassena
Except for punctual or short events, the continuous presences, spread throughout the year are actually few. Among them, two in particular have marked and are still marking the cultural diversity of Italian-speaking Switzerland.

Oggimusica

The first is the 1977 founded association Oggimusica, which has distinguished itself for years as the only institution organizing events in the most diverse present genres: from contemporary music to jazz, from rock to improvisation and world music. Many important artists, now considered part of the musical history of the second half of the twentieth century, such as Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Cathy Berberian, Steve Reich, Egberto Gismonti, Fred Frith, Laurie Anderson, Iva Bittova, Irène Schweizer, Luciano Berio and many others have been invited – often for the first and only time – to Ticino by Oggimusica.


Alberto Barberis: Oratorio Virtuale, A Stradella reloaded

The peripheral situation of the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland was obviously very different at the end of the seventies compared to the present day, but Oggimusica remains one of the few opportunities for musicians from other Swiss regions to have their contemporary voice heard in Ticino. During this 2019-2020 season, for example, this will be the case for the Neuma ensemble and their interplay between the voices and saxophones of Dominique Vellard and Giacomo Schiavo (tenors) and Pierre-Stéphane Meugé and Marcus Weiss (saxophones), skilfully moving between ancient and contemporary music, but also for the improvised music of Âme Sèche (Walter Fähndrich, Remo Schnyder, Christy Doran, Benedikt von der Mühll) or the Mondrian Ensemble with its “no reality” programme. These are just a few “Swiss examples” of programming.


Nadir Vassena, Markus Weiss, ‘Materia oscura’

EAR

Another more recent initiative, which has reached its fourth season, is EAR: Electro Acoustic Room. Music as pure listening experience. Acousmatic music is a young art form, originating from the radio, born only a hundred years ago.  If the label “Contemporary music” is already ambiguous, stating everything and nothing at the same time, that of “electronic music” is perhaps even more so. The soul behind EAR can be seen, or rather heard, from the programming. It’s not club music, nor 90’s raves or Zurich’s Street Parade, but rather the search for a moment dedicated to intimate, concentrated listening. The verb “to hear” (sentire) can also mean or be synonym of “to feel” in the Italian language and there is an archaic link between the skin and the hearing related to the embryo’s development, as both organs – ear and skin – develop from the same germ layer. Just as touching always gives a feeling to be touched, when speaking, one can always hear the own voice. Knowing how to listen, to oneself and the others, is underestimated and should never be taken for granted as it is the foundation not only of musical experience, but also a fundamental aspect in the sphere of human relations.

Timo Hoogland @Oggimusica

RSI Rete due: Neo

Radio remains the privileged space to talk about (and listen to) these issues, both by vocation and institutional duty. It is therefore a pleasure to learn, that from October 29, 2019, every last Tuesday of the month at 20:05, Retedue of RSI will make room for contemporary music with ‘neo’, a programme curated by Valentina Bensi, that will look for and find material as well as themes on neo.mx3.ch, the new SRG SSR platform for Swiss contemporary music.
Nadir Vassena


Esther Flückiger, Verso Nikà, 2019

Radio broadcasts neo / RSI, curated by Valentina Bensi:
Next episode:
Monday, December 23: meet Esther Flückiger, composer, representing Switzerland at the ISCM World Music Days 2020 in New Zealand.
Tuesday, October 29: meet Alberto Barberis, new artistic director of Oggimusica

Concerts Oggimusica: LAC teatrostudio, 12.1. / 16.2. / 1.4. / 15.5. / 5.6.2020
Concerts EAR: LAC teatrostudio, 28.2. / 20.3. / 24.4.2020

Oggimusica, EAR, ISCMEsther Flückiger, Mondrian Ensemble, Alberto Barberis, Timo Hoogland

Neo-profiles: Oggimusica, Mondrian Ensemble, Marcus Weiss, Nadir Vassena, Alberto Barberis, Esther Flückiger