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Sonic Matter – Festival for Experimental Music takes place for the second time this year from 1 to 4 December in Zurich. Under the multi-literal motto Rise, the festival points beyond itself. One focus being on music creation in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It matters what matters we use to think other matters with”, writes philosopher Donna Haraway. The Zurich festival Sonic Matter understands sound as something that matters. With sound and music, we can think about things that transcend it. Sound can be a gateway to the world, listening a way of reflecting and engaging with our environment. In the second edition of the festival, which succeeded the Zürcher Tage für Neue Musik in 2021, this perspective becomes apparent.
With “Rise”, the middle word of the motto triad Turn – Rise – Leap now provides the guiding thought impulse: “This can be understood in the sense of growing or emerging – or also as something resistant, rebellious, that aims at expanding boundaries,” Lisa Nolte explains. She, too, is part of a triad. Together with composer Katharina Rosenberger and artist and curator Julie Beauvais, they form of the core team behind Sonic Matter since its conception in 2021. The subtitle “Platform for Experimental Music” makes two things clear: Sonic Matter thinks beyond the boundaries of a festival. It is not over after four dense days, but sees itself as an ongoing process. In addition, the term “experimental” signals aesthetic breadth. According to Lisa Nolte, the aim is “to have as much scope as possible for sound-based current art forms”. On the one hand, there are formats with contemporary music as it has established itself in Europe – with for example, the Tonhalle Orchestra performing music by Peter Ruzicka and George Enescu, or Collegium Novum Zurich playing Iannis Xenakis’ Φλέγρα (Phlegra) alongside a world premiere by Laure M. Hiendl. But Lisa Nolte adds: “New music is often about a very specific idea of quality, which is not to be found everywhere. Other approaches can be very stimulating.”
Iannis Xenakis – Φλέγρα (Phlegra) (1975), played by Ensemble Phoenix Basel
Listening, thinking and dreaming with archives
These approaches can come from other forms of music and art, or even from places in the world that have long received too little attention. The duo Listening at Pungwe from South Africa and Zimbabwe, for example, has a very unique artistic approach to sound. Memory Biwa and Robert Machiri collect music and field recordings from their home regions. They understand this material as a sound archive whose contents they put in a new context during their performances and listening sessions. The eponymous term “Pungwe” is reminiscent of the ritual of a wake, during which those who attend are in a particularly alert state – a state that also makes it possible to dream of a better future or to motivate oneself for uprising.
A Live-Session by Listening at Pungwe in Kapstadt 2017
Sound and music archives are indeed such a “Matter” with which other “Matters”, like things or topics can be thought about. Collected sound recordings contain information about history, social and political circumstances and much more, offering the possibility of imagining and dreaming about how the world could be. In this sense, the students in the Once Upon A Sound project with Roman Bruderer, Peter Nussbaumer and Iva Sanjek have created their own sound archives, which they will present at the festival during dedicated listening sessions and DJ sets.
The people of all ages who worked with artists Léo Collin and Manon Fantini also sharpened their ears to the sounds of their surroundings, resulting in the installation Play The Village. In the joint listening sessions with the cozy title Soft Pillows – Hot Ears, the focus is also on listening together. Moroccan artist Abdellah M. Hassak will present an entire symphony of archives in the Walcheturm art space.
Noémi Büchi plays “live from the Listening Lounge” (3.12.) at Kunstraum Walcheturm
Another focus of Sonic Matter 2022 is the sub-Saharan region of Africa. In addition to Pungwe, artists from the Ugandan music festival and label Nyege Nyege will be in Zurich. Label founder Rey Sapienz, for example, will be DJing at the party in the Gessnerallee, stating what Lisa Nolte already knows: “Listening is an active procedure, which also becomes apparent when music puts you directly into physical movement.” Dancing is also Sonic Matter – a sonic experience and the moment when sound becomes embodied matter. Latefa Wiersch, Rhoda Davids Abel and Dandara Modesto tell of dreams and longings for the lost African homeland in their interdisciplinary performance Neon Bush Girl Society, exploring legends of the fled ethnic groups Nama and Damara from southern Africa.
Sonic Matter is always
Sub-Saharan Africa 2022 is prominently featured also in the Open Lab. With this permanent format, Sonic Matter emphasises that it takes place 365 days a year. At the Open Lab, experts from various fields, like arts, science and civil society work together on urgent issues in their respective regions of the world. The individual projects deal with indigenous peoples in Uganda and Mozambique, the cultural and political life of South Sudanese refugees in Kenya or historical sounds in Johannesburg. The online platform is continuously updated. Another project that keeps the sound and thought processes going around the clock is Sonic Matter Radio, as Sonic Matter is not only four exciting days of music, sound and art in Zurich – it is also a permanent state of listening, thinking and narrating around the globe. According to Donna Haraway, narratives create the world: “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories”.
Partner festival 2022:
Nyege Nyege (Uganda)
“Which machine would you like to have dinner with (smartphones don’t count)?” – Leo Hofmann ponders and decides on a rolling, self-playing piano on which he can also play himself sometime.
The relationships between humans and machines, or, to put it more trendily: between human and non-human performers, are currently a popular topic in art and debate, not least triggered by the latest hype regarding artificial intelligence. In their music theatre piece All watched over by machines of loving grace composer Leo Hofmann and director Benjamin van Bebber deal with these relations in intimate stage situations. In 1967, Richard Brautigan wrote of a „cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony“ in his poem of the same name
The utopia Brautigan describes originates from the hippie era. The counter-movements of the 60s saw in the emerging computer technology a revolutionary, humanistic potential for a better world. Even the founding of the first companies in Silicon Valley can be traced back to this. In the old days.
After a corona-induced film premiere of All watched over…. in 2021, the piece celebrated its premiere in physical co-presence at the Roxy Birsfelden in May. In June, the mixed choir reunites for two performances at Berlin’s Ballhaus Ost.
Film: All watched over by machines of loving grace
Human and non-human musical entities
All watched over…. is about how 21st century technologies are affecting the way we live together. In particular, regarding sound. How can we act responsibly in the midst of omnipresent constant sound? Where can space for intimacy be created? What is it with machines and us? The “extremely mixed choir”, which Hofmann and van Bebber founded for another project, represents the human part of the actors on stage. Extremely mixed means that it features professionals as well as so-called amateurs with the most diverse backgrounds. In addition, there are non-human devices, such as loudspeakers. Here a specific feature of Hofmann’s and van Bebber’s work becomes apparent. “I am an electronic composer and see matters from a radio play and loudspeaker point of view,” says Hofmann. “When you work with finished music, it creates a new freedom on stage and raises the question of co-presence in the production.”
In this regard, Hofmann and van Bebber have invented the term “complementary action”. What do liberated bodies do when the music comes out of the loudspeaker and does not have to be actually performed? The performers become co-present mediators of the music and can draw attention to certain musical details through small actions and gestures. The music theatre makers find another concept in the principle of “ritournelle” by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. This opens up the option of creating one’s own acoustic space for action, for example by a performer establishing an inner sense of security through quiet humming or murmuring, which the choir in All watched over…. can use as a starting point for improvisation and act upon. Leo Hofmann likes to speak of a listening space into which the performers and the audience enter together, thus creating a “shared attention”.
Leo Hofmann: Ritournelle
Hospitality in the music household
The duo will also set up such a listening room in July during the Nuremberg music installations. The festival which takes place for the first, wants to explore the space as a central element in experiencing music – in deliberate distinction to forms such as sound installation, music theatre or concert. Leo Hofmann interprets the guideline as follows: “To me, this is a promise that music will be produced ongoingly by acting bodies, but those are not stable.” But couldn’t a bar counter with background music and the right framing be called a music installation? Anyway, in Hofmann’s and van Bebber’s case the music is played live. During the four days of the festival, they will settle in the collective space of the Nuremberg band Borgo and have various musicians as guests. “We want to negotiate hospitality on different levels. It will not be a performance, nor a total space, but we will live, sleep and eat in this space for four days, make a daily programme and the guest musicians will bring what they already have,” says Leo Hofmann. Composer-performer Francesca Fargion, for example, composes sleep songs and works with stylized diaries. A visit to Hofmann/van Bebber is supposed to function like a house call. In contrast to sound installations that often run on their own, this musical household is only activated by its inhabitants and guests, with the audience of course also being invited into this space of shared attention.
Leo Hofmann: Kapriole, released 2022 by Präsens Editionen
Leo Hofmann immortalised a different kind of staged listening space on vinyl record in the spring of 2022. Although the Bern University of the Arts graduate has been primarily active with music theatre productions in recent years, he had already produced radio plays and music much earlier. Kapriole (leap) is nevertheless his first “real” album, released by the busy Lucerne label Präsens Editionen. Spread over eight tracks, Leo Hofmann shows his interpretation of contemporary sound practices. In his live pieces, he often deals with functional audio technologies, such as Bluetooth boxes. Above all, he is interested in their aesthetic and social significance – what listening, protective and private spaces does contemporary audio technology open up?
The music on Kapriole sounds intimate and close, also through the careful use of the voice, which sometimes seems as if it were singing or speaking only to the listener. Hofmann says that the biggest challenge has been to create space in the listening room. “I often hear that my music is very dense and requires a lot of attention. When working on the album, I kept de-densifying, taking away and leaving sounds in the background. But you should also be able to listen at any time and discover something.” Whether in divided attention in front of the music theatre stage or on the inner stage between two earplugs: In Leo Hofmann’s listening rooms, one can feel at ease.
11.+12. June, Ballhaus Ost, Berlin: Leo Hofmann & Benjamin van Bebber: All watched over by machines of loving grace
neo-Profil: Leo Hofmann
“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
Friedemann Dupelius: 40+1 years of Basel Sinfonietta
“An orchestra, unlike a chamber ensemble, has a certain inertia that one must first overcome in order to activate all its instruments and sounds,” says Kevin Juillerat. Although the Franco-Swiss composer is not a physicist, he is quite familiar with both properties and treatment of sound waves. Proof is the grey acoustic treatment on the walls of his current Paris residence at IRCAM, the electronic paradise. From there he discusses Waves, his first composition for the large orchestra that will be premiered on January 16, 2022 as 3rd concert of the Basel Sinfonietta’s anniversary season.
The Sinfonietta’s history has little to do with inertia though. In 1980, enthusiastic musicians founded an orchestra that remained unique to this day with its exclusive focus on contemporary music. The Basel Sinfonietta is still self-governing and democratic with a board consisting of orchestra members and elected from within the ensemble, as is the programme commission. Daniela Martin, its managing director since September 2020 states: “Starting from its free spirit, the orchestra grew to become firmly anchored in the professional music scene”.
Without a doubt, its 40th year was also Basel Sinfonietta’s most difficult one, marked by uncertainty and distance both from the audience as well as between the musicians, instead of great anniversary celebrations. Suddenly, distances had to be kept, which also brought acoustic consequences – the much-cited distancing takes on an audible quality when the musicians are far apart in the room. With the no less difficult return to a normal line-up, the audience has also been welcomed back and with great news: the number of subscribers having increased during lockdown and times of streaming concerts. This means that the slightly belated anniversary “40+1” can now be celebrated in front of a growing pool of fans and curious people. Daniela Martin speaks highly re the Basel audience: “People get involved and there is a dense atmosphere during the concerts, a palpable enthusiasm. People are not there to criticise, but to listen with open ears to the new and newest music.”
Isabel Klaus, Dried – Für Orchester, UA Basel Sinfonietta 2007, in-house production SRG/SSR: One of Basel Sinfonietta’s main goals is to provide a platform for young Swiss composers. Many others have benefited from this before Kevin Juillerat, such as Isabel Klaus with her work Dried.
Does a contemporary music orchestra tend to look back or forward when it celebrates an anniversary? “Both.” Daniela Martin says “But mainly we look to the present and the future. What social perspectives and utopias can we illuminate in our programmes?” In this special season, the Sinfonietta is addressing issues such as migration and relationships between Western and non-European music. In October, for example, the Bolivian “Orquestra Experimental de Instrumentos Nativos” was invited to perform an intercontinental programme together with the Basel Sinfonietta, featuring music by South American and Swiss composers.
Roberto Gerhard, Sinfonie Nr. 4 „New York“ (UA 1967), Basel Sinfonietta 2003, in-house prodduction SRG/SSR: Migration shaped the life of the Olten-born composer Roberto Gerhard. The Basel Sinfonietta already recorded his 4th Symphony with Johannes Kalitzke in 2003; the first will be performed during the January 16 concert.
The concert on the 16th of January at Stadtcasino Basel runs under the motto “Gravity Migration”, implying both external and internal migratory movements – the former, for example, in Roberto Gerhard’s work. This Catalonia born composer, who died in 1970, had family roots in Olten and wrote music from his British exile. He is represented with his 1st Symphony, dating from 1952/53. With Hèctor Parra, the journey goes inwards and at the same time into the widest distances – his 2011 work InFALL is about gravity and cosmological meditations on human existence.
With Waves, commissioned to Kevin Juillerat, the Basel Sinfonietta continues its mission to offer a platform to young Swiss composers – especially those who, like Juillerat, have never written for orchestra before. Does he feel pressured by the task? “Rather challenged, even though I work a lot with electronic as well as rock music influences, I always felt connected to the symphonic tradition. It doesn’t scare me. The orchestra is a great instrument.”
The 1987 born composer and saxophonist, thereby reveals his approach to the symphonic entity, which he sees it as a great meta-instrument able to create new timbres through combination and slow processes. He also incorporates techniques from electronic music, such as ring modulation – a simple form of sound synthesis in which two sound signals can be manipulated to create a third and new one.
Kevin Juillerat, Le vent d’orages lointains – for piano and strings, Camerata Ataremac / Gilles Grimaitre 2018, in-house production SRG/SSR: Layers of timbre and slowly changing textures can also be found in Kevin Juillerat’s “Le vent d’orages lointains” (2018) for piano and strings.
“In my last electroacoustic pieces, I worked a lot with slowly evolving textures. I wanted to implement that with the orchestra as well, so towards the end of the piece there’s a drone, that is a very long held tone, which is changed in its spectrum through ring modulation.” Specifically, Juillerat puts tones on the drone to go with this modulation, derived from the core cell of his piece: six notes obtained from the letters B-A-S-E-L and SI for Sinfonietta. “I worked a lot on ever changing timbres, trying to disguise the individual instruments in terms of their identification. It’s all about colours,” Juillerat emphasises.
It was this quality of his music that impressed Baldur Brönnimann when he performed a piece by Juillerat with the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. That’s why the Basel Sinfonietta main conductor suggested Juillerat for the commissioned work, which will make its first waves before the Basel audience on 16 January. As slowly as an orchestra needs to really get going – and, once it is moving, as gracefully as the Basel Sinfonietta would like to tackle the next 40+1 years.
You can enjoy a large selection of the Basel Sinfonietta audio and video archive on its neo.mx3 profile.