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The British composer and conductor was honoured with the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 2023. His darkest opera ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ revolves around the historical male couple Edward II and Piers Gaveston, and it can be enjoyed at Zurich’s Opera. Moritz Weber interviewed the composer before the premiere.
63-year-old George Benjamin is in a very good mood, joking and very friendly when I connect with him at his home via video conference. Birds are chirping in the background and the sun is shining on his face.
The operas he composes and is famous for, however, are anything but friendly. On the contrary: in his first global success ‘Written on skin’ (2012), the cuckolded husband serves his wife her lover’s heart for dinner. Whereas his next full-length and equally acclaimed opera ‘Lessons in Love and Violence’ (2018) is a gripping medieval drama about the former English king Edward II and his lover Gaveston, both victims of a conspiracy.
Benjamin dreamed of composing operas since his early years and conceived them for himself in his head. Were the themes for these fantasy operas already so brutal? “Yes, I’m afraid they were very brutal. I liked dramatic and dangerous stories and wasn’t at all afraid of darkness in creativity as a small child.” His first favourite operas in the repertoire were Wozzeck, Elektra, Salome and La damnation de Faust – he couldn’t do much with Mozart’s Magic Flute, and he still has problems with Rossini today. “Too nice and not scary enough for me.”
His inspiration at the time was an illustrated book of ancient myths and legends, from Hercules and Pegasus to the Piper of Hamelin (the latter eventually became material for his very first stage work, the short two-person chamber opera ‘Into the little hill’ (2006). “I am very much for merriment and for harmony between people, but in theatre you need suspense, drama, mystery and possibly darkness”.
King Edward II neglected both his people and his political business, he was completely addicted to Piers Gaveston and preferred to spend money on art and music. It was important to George Benjamin to write an opera with a homosexual couple at the centre, “and the greatest challenge was a technical one: how do you write in a modern tonal language for a pair of two baritones?”
In opera history, there are hardly any models for male lovers, apart from the operas Brokeback Mountain (Charles Wuorinen, 2014) and Edward II (Andrea Lorenzo Scartazzini, 2017). In these two works, however, the lovers sing in the baritone and tenor voice ranges. When asked whether he had also brought autobiographical elements into the composition of this male love, Benjamin replies: “You’d have to ask my partner Michael Waldman, but not as far as I know. But life in West London today is also much more peaceful than it was back then, in the palace where the opera is set,” he laughs.
Benjamin succeeded in creating some striking scenes between Edward and Gaveston, in which love and violence are sometimes mixed. Two palm reading scenes, for example (scenes 3 and 6), form an axis through the whole play. They are accompanied by almost ritualistic sounds of percussion instruments from all over the world, like two Persian tombaks, an African speaking drum and two Caribbean tumbas. In addition, there is the Central European cymbalon, “my idea was that music from all over the world should sound while Gaveston reads from the king’s hand, a bit like a window on the supernatural.”
Another key scene takes place shortly afterwards in the theatre, when the betrayed Queen Isabel invites Edward and Gaveston to an “entertainment”, with the aim to initiate a coup d’état. The music is multi-layered, because what is shown on stage is supposed to stand out from and at the same time harmonise with what is happening between the protagonists. The stage play revolves around the Old Testament love story between David and Jonathan, also a male couple, and Gaveston is to be bewitched with this performance. “It took me six months to write this scene: In this theatre on theatre, high voices sing in a texture and timbre of their own, plus the hidden hatred and discomfort.” They finally culminate and Gaveston is arrested against the king’s will. At the end of the opera, the heir to the throne invites his mother Isabel to an entertainment in which he brings the conspiracy against his father to the stage and has her partner in crime, as well as lover murdered. Edward’s son has thus learned his lessons in love and violence.
For this, which can be considered his darkest opera to date, George Benjamin also worked intensively with the singers of the world premiere production at the Royal Opera House. “They all came to my house, I accompanied them on the piano in songs and opera arias, asked them many questions about their strengths and weaknesses and their musical preferences”. The roles are written for Stéphane Degout, Gyula Orendt and Barbara Hannigan, but of course not exclusively for them. “I love it and am excited to see what timbres and characteristics other singers bring to these roles. But it is important to me that they sing all the notes clearly and in the right place, with little vibrato. Because I have matched them very carefully to the orchestral sounds.”
George Benjamin, Martin Crimp and Barbara Hannigan talk about the world premiere of Lessons in love and violence at Royal Opera House 2018
As with his other stage works, the libretto is by playwright Martin Crimp. If he hadn’t met Crimp, he probably would never have composed an opera, Benjamin says, “I waited 25 years to find him. All attempts with other librettists failed”. Now they are a well-rehearsed, congenial team, perhaps similar to Da Ponte and Mozart, or Hofmannsthal and Strauss. For Crimp and Benjamin also share common aesthetic premises: A very clear and concise (tonal) language as well as power – or violence – in expression. “He uses words very precisely and with intention; he is a perfectionist, just as I try to be when composing,” says the Siemens Music Prize winner modestly.
Fairytale-like new opera
George Benjamin’s fourth stage work will be premiered this summer at Aix-en-Provence’s opera festival in and he will conduct it himself. ‘Picture a day like this’ will be less dark than Lessons, he reveals: “Martin Crimp and I wanted to do something different, also to refresh ourselves. This opera is shorter and also has a smaller cast, five protagonists instead of eight and 22 musicians in the orchestra instead of 70”.
This work is about a quest: a woman loses her child and is supposed to find a perfectly happy person in a single day. When she doesn’t succeed, she turns to a sorceress. “I love instruments that don’t actually belong to the classical orchestra, and I use a few of them in Picture a day like this, for example tenor and bass recorders.” In this new and also shorter opera, the protagonist is on stage throughout the play, which is also a first for Benjamin and Crimp. The characters she encounters, on the other hand, are all very different. He does not reveal more yet: “I would rather have the audience discover it, without my words in mind”.
New production Opernhaus Zürich: 21.Mai -11.Juni 2023 (conductor Ilan Volkov, with: Ivan Ludlow/Lauri Vasar as König, Björn Bürger as Gaveston and Jeanine De Bique as Isabel.
Festival Aix-en-Provence, George Benjamin, Picture a day like this, UA 5.-.23.Juli 2023
Features SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, 17.5.23, 20h/ 20.5.23., 21h: Drama um den schwulen Edward II. George Benjamins düsterste Oper, Redaktion Moritz Weber.
Musikmagazin, 20./21.5.2023: Kurzportrait George Benjamin, Redaktion Moritz Weber.
Eric Gaudibert, pianist, composer and lecturer from Geneva has been a key figure in the contemporary and experimental music scene of French-speaking Switzerland. Deceased ten years ago, he influenced a whole generation of musicians as teacher and promoted important ensembles for contemporary music. From December 9 to 17, they will jointly organise a tribute festival and concert marathon in Geneva’s Victoria Hall, which will include the premiere of 22 miniatures composed by his former students.
They are called Contrechamps, Ensemble Vortex, Eklekto Geneva Percussion Center or Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain (NEC) and have two things in common, they are very active in the contemporary music scene of French-speaking Switzerland and they all have a strong connection to Eric Gaudibert.
Daniel Zea, Serge Vuille and Antoine François, artistic directors of Vortex, Contrechamps and NEC, initiated the festival as a collaborative project: “the idea came up spontaneously, talking about Eric and tackling it together came very naturally,” says Daniel Zea, because Gaudibert has been important for the development of the whole scene. The Haute école de musique Genève (HEMG) will host a conference, a film screening with table ronde, and a concert by Vortex, followed by the concert marathon with the HEMG orchestra at Victoria Hall.
Gaudibert described his urge to teach as “communiquer au-delà de la musique”, communicating beyond music. He first experienced this communication in France, where, he worked from 1962 in the fields of “animation” as well as music transmission, in rural regions, after studying piano in Lausanne and composition in Paris. After returning to Switzerland, he taught composition for many years at the Conservatoire Populaire de Genève and then at HEMG. Michael Jarrell and Xavier Dayer, both renowned composers and teachers with roots in Geneva, were his students and he accompanied many other national and international careers as an artistic guiding figure, promoter and networker.
Serge Vuille, director of Contrechamps, did not study with Gaudibert directly, but was still impressed by the “Gaudibert phenomenon” and its lasting presence in the scene, also demonstrated by how quickly other partners agreed to participate in the festival. Contrechamps works constantly with Gaudibert’s former students, be they interpreters or composers. “That’s why I wanted to show this teacher-pupil aspect and its two sides at the festival,” says Vuille.
On one hand, there is Nadia Boulanger, Gaudibert’s theory teacher in Paris: Contrechamps will perform one of her orchestral works. She taught many composers who are now performed all over the world, but her own works are rarely performed. According to Vuille, she is overlooked as composer because she is mainly perceived as a teacher.
On the other hand, Contrechamps commissioned Gaudibert’s former students with short compositions. Considering the high number of 45 graduates, “only” a regionally manageable circle of those still working in or connected with French-speaking Switzerland were asked and, with two exceptions, all of them accepted. “The strong commitment by his students was very impressive,” says Serge Vuille.
Guidelines were a duration of only one minute, but open instrumentation, from large ensemble to solo and even tape, 22 miniatures will now be performed, including works by Arturo Corrales, Fernando Garnero, Dragos Tara or Daniel Zea.
Daniel Zea highlights another aspect of the teacher-pupil communication: “We are all very grateful for what he gave us and what he made possible. At the same time, it was a game of give and take: Eric was open and curious – he was interested in what we were interested in. We influenced him, for example, with traditional music from our countries.” Zea, like some of the graduates of Gaudibert’s composition class, comes from South America. His ensemble Vortex came together in Gaudibert’s classes and was accompanied and supported by him until the end.
Hekayât, pour rubâb, hautbois, hautbois baryton, alto et percussion, 2013, in house-production SRG/SSR, performed by Khaled Arman on the rubâb, an Arabic lute, is one of Gaudibert’s late works, in which he seeks to integrate instruments, their performers, and modes of play from other cultural spaces.
Electroacoustics and diversity
Gaudibert, born in Vevey in 1936, studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Henry Dutilleux. He is best known for his poetic and visual instrumental works, but there are also other, lesser-known sides: Back in Switzerland, he researched electronic sounds during the early seventies in his self-described “experimental” phase at Lausanne’s radio experimental studio.
Vortex’s concert of December 10 is entirely dedicated to his electroacoustic works, which is consistent with the ensemble’s multimedia orientation: “it’s an important phase of his work that is rarely revealed,” says Daniel Zea. Together with John Menoud, composer and multi-instrumentalist, he visited Gaudibert’s widow Jacqueline and together they went through many videos, audio cassettes and scores. Pieces for instruments and tape or live electronics, often performed only once or twice, will be performed by musicians who worked closely with Gaudibert. Benoît Moreau, for example, who will play En filigrane for epinette (spinet) and tape, which was performed only once, by Gaudibert himself, at the premiere 20018 – with Moreau present.
The choice of repertoire for the final concert shows Gaudibert’s versatility. “We decided to combine key works such as Gong – his last major ensemble work – with rarely performed pieces to show the diversity of his oeuvre,” says Vuille. Gong is dedicated to pianist Antoine Françoise, who will also interpret it at the festival, together with Contrechamps. François, now an internationally sought-after solo pianist and director of the NEC, also had a close relationship with Gaudibert, who, pianist himself, accompanied and supported François’ development from their first meeting when he was 16 years and relied on his skills for Gong’s demanding part when he was only 24.
Gong &Lémanic moderne ensemble, in house-production SRG/SSR
In addition to his instrumental works, Gaudibert’s electroacoustic phase will also be represented at Victoria Hall: Vortex performs Ecritures from 1975 for one voice and tape, created in Lausanne’s Experimental Studio, in a new version for four voices distributed in the room. “The piece lives on with new technical possibilities, which would have been in Gaudibert’s spirit,” says Zea. Eric Gaudibert would certainly have welcomed the fact that his former students continue to work together – in communication beyond music.
“Eric Gaudibert, pianiste, compositeur, enseignant”. Film Plans fixes, 48mn, Suisse, 2005 : In this 2005 film portrait, Gaudibert talks about his most beloved themes, such as his fondness for literature and painting, his times in Paris, teaching and the influences of other cultures on his musical work: the film is the focus of a panel at Geneva Festival Gaudibert on December 10.
9/10 décembre 2022, HEMG : Congrès / Concerts : Composers and lecturers Xavier Dayer, Nicolas Bolens and ethnomusicologist as well as interpreter Khaled Arman, among others, will discuss the portrait at HEMG.
17 décembre 2022, Victoria Hall Genève, 18:30h : Concert marathon Contrechamps, Eklekto, le NEC, Vortex, orchestre de la HEMG, chef d’orchestre : Vimbayi Kaziboni, Gaudibert, Boulanger, UA 22 miniatures
musique d’avenir, 6.2.2023: Festival Gaudibert 2022, author: Anne Gillot
Eric Gaudibert, Daniel Zea, Antoine Françoise, Arturo Corrales, Fernando Garnero, Dragos Tara, Ensemble Vortex, Contrechamps, Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain, Eklekto Geneva Percussion Center, John Menoud, Benoit Moreau, Ensemble Batida, Xavier Dayer, Michael Jarrell
‘Wood, mouth, ritual, possession’ and ‘multiple speakers’. This year’s edition of Geneva’s traditional contemporary music Festival Archipel does not focus on one main theme only, but on several individual motifs. The artistic directors, Marie Jeanson and Denis Schuler, wish to tell stories and create unexpected encounters, with a playful, light-hearted approach and special focus on shared experiences.
Jeanson, organiser of experimental and improvised music, together with Schuler, composer, curated their first joint festival edition in 2021. Although online because of the pandemic, the edition was successful and able to offer plenty of concerts and encounters between musicians, despite the lack of an actual live audience. This year, the festival’s main venue – ‘Maison communale de Plainpalais‘ – will feature music around the clock during ten days and also become a meeting place. In addition to the extensive concert programme – with composer-in-residence Clara Jannotta or a series on Alvin Lucier – sound installations, shared meals prepared by musicians, nightly salons d’écoute with performers presenting their favourite works in Dolby Surround, or pannels as well as mediation workshops will be featured. In addition, a festival radio programme will broadcast around the clock daily and the programme offers numerous other events spread throughout the city.
The motifs are a hidden thread running through the entire festival, with various composers closely involved and spinning their own stories. Geneva composer Olga Kokcharova is one of them and I spoke with her about her multi-part festival project ‘sculpter la voûte‘ – shaping the vault.
“We have lost our connection to the environment and sound can restore it,” says Kokcharova. The delicate, almost shy composer of powerful natural soundscapes dedicates her central festival project to wood.
Sculpter la voûte is based on several years of research in which Kokcharova studied the growth of trees in Ticino forests. In the process, she examines wood as a sound producer as well as the forest as condition for human culture.
In spring 2021, Kokcharova recorded sounds in a natural reserve in the south of Switzerland. “One can hear the physiological activity of the trees. These are almost brutal, raw sounds – deep sonorities, cracking. You sense that there are forces at play that go far beyond human,” she explains.
Kokcharova is originally from Siberia and emigrated to Switzerland at the age of 16. She experienced a real cultural shock, but also a boost of inspiration. In Siberia, she grew up surrounded by nature, far away from cities and did not know anything about European culture.
In Geneva, she first studied architecture, design and fine arts, then piano and composition. Sound has been important to her from the very beginning. Today she works especially with natural sounds and field recordings, integrating them into compositions, installations, soundwalks, sound performances or film music, for festivals and institutions at home and abroad.
Olga Kokcharova and Antoine Läng, Venera, 2018
Kokcharova’s work is always concerned with larger connections and the relationship between people and their environment.
Trees cracking as they grow – raw, brutal sounds
In the premiere of Sculpter la voûte- ‘altération’ for amplified loudspeakers, a composition commissioned by the festival and at the same time the first part of her project, she presents the sounds recorded in Ticino through an orchestra of loudspeakers. The forest sound is realistically spatialised by an ambisonic system, a space-spanning ‘dome of loudspeakers’, created in collaboration with ZHdK Zurich, which will also be used for other performances during the festival, such as the Swiss premiere of Luis Naón’s string quartet with électronique ambisonique, performed by Quatuor Diotima on the previous evening.
Kokcharova, on the other hand, supplements these ambisonics with an Akusmonium, a system of additional loudspeakers, whereby she strongly alienates the sound with ‘altérations’.
“It’s like resurrecting the forest. One is directly in touch with the sound of life that inhabits it: you feel you are in the midst of it.”
For Kokcharova, the forest is not a place of relaxation, on the contrary it triggers highest concentration, creating connections with things we do not understand and she draws attention to this through alienations in her piece.
Olga Kokcharova, Mixotricha Paradoxa – part II, 2019
Performance installatique et sensorielle
The second part of Sculpter la voûte – ‘auscultation‘, is a collaboration with Geneva’s Ensemble Contrechamps, as a performance installatique et sensorielle. In her installation, Kokcharova traces the sound path of wood: from the living tree, vibrating through the circulation of its sap, to the tonewood, which becomes an instrument in the hands of the violin maker and then comes to life with the musician. This happens tangibly, in the truest sense of the word, as one of Ensemble Contrechamps’ musicians will play for each individual member of the audience. The latter can truly feel the instrument, trace its sound and vibration, and thus experience his or her own expérience vibratoire.
Pour entendre le son on a besoin de la matière...
Sound is vibration: it is our connection to the world, says Kokcharova. In order to hear sound, a material, for example wood, is needed. For Kokcharova, this connection also creates a larger context that secretly shapes us: “When we talk about the history of mankind, the focus is always on humans, tools or animals. Plants are never mentioned – but without plants, mankind wouldn’t exist”. She is interested in showing how other life forms – in this case trees – influence all aspects of our lives as well as our cultural production.
Man and nature have always had a relationship, says Kokcharova, so for her festival project she chose to tell a somewhat different, very personal story of wood and man.
Festival Archipel Genève: april, 1-10th Geneva
Clara Ianotta, Italian composer is artist in residence and present at the festival.
Alvin Lucier, dem 2021 verstorbenen US-Elektropionier ist eine Hommage mit drei Performance-Installationen gewidmet.
Saturday, 2.4.: world premiere Olga Kokcharova ‘Sculpter la voûte– altération’, and ‘Mycenae Alpha‘ by Iannis Xenakis (1978), in honour of his 100th birthday, Olga Kokcharova at ‘système ambisonique‘.
3.-10. April: Olga Koksharova: Sculpter la voûte – ‘auscultation‘:
Saturday, 9.4., 14h: Gespräch ‘arbre, bois, vibration, transmission‘ with Ernst Zürcher, writer, and Christian Guidetti, lute.
radiofeatures SRF 2 Kultur:
in: Musikmagazin, Sa, 2.4.22, 10h /So, 3.4.20h, by Benjamin Herzog: Café with Olga Kokcharova, editor Gabrielle Weber
Musik unserer Zeit, Mi, 22.6.22, 20h/Sa, 25.6.22, 21h: storytelling at Festival Archipel Genève 2022, editor Gabrielle Weber
“You really have to be a poet to live in the north,” says Cosima Weiter and laughs out loud. She must know what she’s talking about, having travelled to the far north of Europe several times with enjoyment. No wonder, she is also a poet, a sound poet to be precise, “I don’t want to idealise it though” she points out. She still identified a special mindset when travelling to the northern regions of Finland and Norway to prepare the scenic Kaija Saariaho evening Nord with Ensemble Contrechamps. Together with video artist Alexandre Simon, Cosima Weiter captured not only images and sounds, but also impressions of the people living where Nord will be set. “If you live in a big city and meet someone you don’t like, you just move on to the next person. But finding yourself where so few people live, you have to make an effort and try understand the others. Thus, being far away from everything means being open,” she explains.
Nord is about a woman who sets out to wander from Finland to the very place where one is far away from everything: the north. During this thoroughly romantic undertaking, she meets different people who react differently to her. Some are envious, others admire her and one is even heartbroken. “I actually wanted to tell the story in a feminist way,” says Cosima Weiter, “pointing out that it’s not easy for a woman to wander alone. But when I was in the north, I had to discard that as everyone is the same there. Nobody cares if you are a woman, you can do whatever you want. This is something we’re not familiar with here in Central Europe.”
Time, Space, Sound
A Finnish woman who has been doing and composing what she wants for decades is Kaija Saariaho. Her music is at the centre of the scenic narrative, embodied by three actors in front of a large screen. “It was very important for us to respect Saariaho’s music and give a large space, not cutting it short.” Four of Saariaho compositions form the musical basis for the plot, Nocturne (1994) in the version for solo viola, Aure (2011) for cello and viola, Petals (1988) for cello and electronics and Fleurs de neige (1998) in its version for string quartet. Around the slow, cautious music, a soundscape opens that Weiter and Simon, together with Lau Nau and Bertrand Siffert, have created from their own recordings and sparks of other music. “There are three things that interest me in music and poetry: Time, space and sound,” says Cosima Weiter, “and in Saariaho’s music I find them all.” In Nord, the sound poet lends her voice to the protagonist, rendered disembodied through loudspeakers.
You really have to be a poet to tell stories about the North.
Kaija Saariaho, Graal Théâtre, Contrechamps, In-house production SRG/SSR 2009
Nuit de l’électroacoustique
Contrechamps will spin a completely different tale on March 19, when the ensemble invites to its first Nuit de l’électroacoustique. It was almost cancelled due to supply issues, as the renovation of the post-industrial premises, where Contrechamps is due to move to, could not be completed in time. Les 6 Toits on the Geneva ZIC site was supposed to be inaugurated with the Nuit. Luckyly, exile was found at short notice in Pavillon ADC, a centre for contemporary dance in Geneva. The Geneva subculture club Cave 12, which presents the Nuit de l’électroacoustique together with Contrechamps, was also involved its curation and organisation from the beginning. The fact that Pavillon ADC is now also part of the event, will most probably lead to a more diverse audience.
Heinz Holliger, Cardiophonie, Contrechamps, Oboe: Béatrice Laplante, In-house production SRG/SSR 2018
“Parts of our regular audience will certainly be more familiar with Heinz Holliger,” is what Serge Vuille, artistic director of Contrechamps, supposes. Holliger is represented with Cardiophonie for oboe and electronics. “Other people from the electronic music realm, will rather come for Phill Niblock, Jessica Ekomane or Beatriz Ferreyra, for example.” These two last-mentioned names, already cover a wide range. On one hand, a young artist who has been drawing attention since a few years with astute performances, for example recently at the MaerzMusik Berlin festival – on the other hand, the 84-year-old pioneer who already worked with Pierre Schaeffer in the 1960s. “We want to make connections,” says Serge Vuille, “for example between purely electronic music and organic instruments in combination with electronics, or between new and old tools, who knows, maybe Beatriz Ferreyra will bring old tape machines?”
Casualness and Focus
For the curatorial collective of Contrechamps and Cave 12, the goal is not only to mix old and young, but also international headliners with local acts from the independent Geneva scene. The latter is represented with performances by Salômé Guillemin and d’incise. In addition, three new pieces have been commissioned to a smaller version of the Contrechamps Ensemble plus live electronics, a reminiscence of the IRCAM school, as Serge Vuille points out.
d’incise, Le désir certain, 2019 (Insub.records & Moving Furniture Records)
The Nuit de l’électroacoustique is intended to casually generate a focused listening experience. The audience can walk around freely, “we want to prove that – whether sitting or not – one can enjoy electronic music in a focused way.” The public can even take a break from the five-hour programme at the bar, or walk around the virtual reality installation by Raphaël Raccuia and Nicolas Carrel, which invites to discover the future, because that is what electronic music has been about since the beginning.
Contrechamps in spring 2022:
Nord: 7.-20.2., Le Grütli, Geneva
Nuit de l’électroacoustique: 19.3., 19-24 Uhr, Pavillon ADC, Geneva
radio-features SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, 9.10.2019: Johannes Knapp und Serge Vuille – zwei junge Querdenker am Ruder, editors: Theresa Beyer / Moritz Weber (in German)
neoblog, 19.6.19: Ensemble Contrechamps Genève, expérimentation et héritage, Interview with Serge Vuille by Gabrielle Weber
More diverse and gender-equity oriented practices in New Music: Vision, Option or Must?
In mid-November, three days of meetings and conferences with international figures were held at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) in order to exchange experiences and visions regarding the future.
‘Positionen’-Editor Bastian Zimmermann was there and draws his conclusions.
Quite far from the first and kind of subversive meeting held in a camping tent during the Darmstadt Summer Courses 2016, the GRiNM (Gender Relations in New Music) group is rapidly growing into an important platform where gender and diversity issues in contemporary music can be addressed and debated. The loose group of committed protagonists in the field of contemporary music met at the ZHdK and for the first time without the need to bind to another New Music festival.
They came together from Berlin of course, but also different parts of Europe and even Canada, with the mutual goal to present projects and strategies aiming at the development of a more diverse musical world based on gender equity, learn from each other and – at best – initiate and decide on new projects together. Although the rather unpleasant wish of an “outcome” usually hovers over so-called “network meetings”, this weekend undeniably enjoyed some kind of general “flow”. This may well be due to the fact that the GRiNM co-founders Meredith Nicoll, Brandon Farnsworth, Lucien Danzeisen or Rosanna Lovell, as well as all those who joined them, are driven by a real concern: The horrendous imbalance in the music business with partly 100 percent white male economy to be pointed out and concretely brought into an opposite “even harder imbalance”. Through actions such as statistical analyses, their publication and a call for change, GRiNM drew attention to the imbalance so successfully that currently vacant artistic leadership positions are hardly filled ‘only’ by men.
As a result of this attention, numerous leading male actors gathered in Zurich to reflect on the music business as well as their own work. Thorbjørn Tønder Hansen from the Ultima Festival in Oslo for example, who reported on the challenges of implementing changes or experiments like an all-female festival into a large complex of cooperation partners and donors. Dahlia Borsche discussed these difficulties within the DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst).
The network for women and non-binary persons Konstmusiksystrar (Art-Music-Sisters), represented by Anna Jackobsson and Rosanna Gunnarsson, presented, among other topics, a possible radical breaking through statute regarding common curatorial conventions: The idea to chose works received through calls for application randomly – which is in many ways challenging for the current mindset, an issue that has been subsequently discussed further.
There have also been attempts to discuss a “Global Music Network Initiative”, but this turned out to be a somewhat utopian undertaking with regard to inclusion and exclusion of musical genres and practices.
Each one of the three days started with a keynote speech, on the first day by Christina Scharff, a brilliant rhetorical and analytical lecturer at King’s College in London, on the thought of gender categories in contemporary music. Most productive, however, were the multiple initiated, moderated, but still open discussions and round tables among some 40 participants: On the basis of individual statements, such as “how to deal with the strengthening right-wing movement in the curatorial/artistic context”, the group discussed solutions in a lively and focused manner. And all this within a GRiNM framework in which more and more people who want to change something in the hierarchically organized music business will be able to gather in the future.
Some of the most recent engagements on the Swiss side were presented by Serge Vuille for Contrechamps Geneve, ZHdK and FHNW, Global Music Network Norient, Katharina Rosenberger from San Diego or SONART, Musikschaffende Schweiz.
Überläufer – Eine performative Klang-Raum-Komposition zu Wandel und Migration (Trailer), UA 2019 ©ZeitRäume Basel 2019
There is still quite some work to be done in Switzerland: Join in the discussion, share your experiences, thoughts and suggestions here on this blog. We are happy to exchange views on gender and diversity in New Music.
Whishing you a great start into the new year!
Gabrielle Weber, Editor/Curator of neo.mx3.ch
Read also: Neo-Blog:
GRiNM? = [GRiNäM]!: Interview with Brandon Farnsworth by Gabrielle Weber
Ensemble Contrechamps Genève – Expérimentation et héritage: Interview Serge Vuille / Contrechamps by Gabrielle Weber
Interview with Serge Vuille, Artistic Director Ensemble Contrechamps Geneva
After spending ten years in London, Serge Vuille, percussionist and former director of the contemporary music ensemble “WeSpoke”, is back in his native Romandie (French-speaking part of Switzerland), where he has taken over the artistic direction of the ensemble “Contrechamps”. In this interview, he tells us about the ensemble’s positioning within the contemporary music scene and the first concert season under his direction (starting in September 2019).
Serge Vuille, as a young musician-percussionist and programmer, your background is rather experimental. Now you’re leading the most important as well as steeped in tradition ensemble of this part of Switzerland. What is your position regarding the ensemble’s tradition and history?
Contrechamps’ 40-years strong history is a legacy I consider to be very important.
The “historical” side of a contemporary ensemble consists in regularly playing and fostering important masterpieces of the repertoire, which is crucial. On the other hand, the ensemble’s take on creation, research and experimentation is a critical aspect too. I enjoy combining and linking these two angles in my programmes.
Contrechamps being an instrumental ensemble in the traditional sense, how do you position yourselves in relation to the interdisciplinary and multimedia trends?
This is a key point within the regular activity of an ensemble like Contrechamps: What place do acoustic instruments occupy within the scope of 21st century sound and music experimentation? I’ve noticed that there is still great fascination for such things as instrumental music, the concept of virtuosity and even simply acoustic sound.
“There is something that remains absolutely magical about sitting in a silent room and hearing the sound of an instrument.”
It is important to find a balance between the repertoire, which is part of the history and DNA of the ensemble and innovative solutions in order to create instrumental or hybrid music, in a musical landscape that went through major revolutions over the past ten years. For this upcoming season, we will not only invite classical composers, but also artists and dancers approaching the concept of composition.
In this current season, you have scheduled two concerts that will be linked with two of the main aspects of your work during the past few years: the collaborative space between visual arts and instrumental music…
The first one is called “Sculptures sonore” (Sound Sculpture), for which I invited the sound sculptress Rebecca Glover. The musicians find different placements around the audience during the concert, while Rebecca interacts with her electronic instruments. The programme also included works by Rebecca Saunders, Alvin Lucier and Paula Matthusen.
Rebecca Saunders, Concert Sculptures sonores, Genève 1.11.2018 ©Contrechamps
The second concert featured Marianne Ammacher, an American composer working with sound perception and the physiological awareness of listening, with a significant part of electronics, in a unique combination with the instruments.
“If I had to name the things I like best in a programme, those would be the kind of creations that are highly risk-taking and focused on experimentation, but still framed in contemporary music’s historical context and relating to its canon.“
One thing that is clearly noticeable when looking at your programmes, is your commitment towards gender balance.
Gender balance is more of a general, societal issue, not specifically related to contemporary music. Arts must also act as role model in society. Finding balance, however, requires a target-oriented approach. Being convinced by my research’s findings, I believe that the quality of my programme is achieved through this balance.
You are particularly interested in the social aspect of the concert, the ritual that comes with it…
The social side of artistic approach is constantly neglected in the contemporary music world. We have to find formats that encourage daring contents while allowing spontaneous exchanges. My experience as curator of the “Kammerklang” series at the “Café Otto” in London has proved that it is possible to create a relaxed atmosphere, whilst keeping the necessary focus. But one must pay attention to it.
What can we expect from the upcoming season?
The season is called résonance par sympathie (sympathetic resonance), a physical process through which instruments placed close to a sound source begin to resonate even if they are not being touched. In Geneva, I was able to meet with many partners and I could feel this kind of resonances taking place and starting to vibrate. A major part of the season is based on this concept.
There will be twelve concerts, many creations and a lot of experimentation, for example an opera by Mathieu Shlomowitz, in collaboration with the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
As for the compositions, we invited Christine Sun Kim, a deaf-mute visual artist, the electronic musician Thomas Ankersmit, Geneva composer Jacques Demierre, Canadian Chiyoko Szlavnics, the Geneva-based Punk-Rock band Massicot and many more. For three concerts the ensemble Counterchamps has been invited to the “Gare du Nord” in Basel.
The season will start with a pre-opening, on August 25th, at six in the morning at Les Bains des Pâquis with Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps; at sunrise, by the lake, outdoors, in a truly magical atmosphere….
Any wishes left for the Ensemble?
My wish is to present the scene in all its diversity and richness, paying attention to the balance between past, present and future, between genres and formats, as well as between the artists and the public.
Interview Gabrielle Weber
9.10.2019, 20h: “Musik unserer Zeit”