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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.
As part of the Focus Contemporary festival, Musikpodium Zurich is celebrating Urs Peter Schneider’s 80th birthday.
Tribute to a ‘one-of-a-kind’ by Thomas Meyer:
The 60s were a very exciting time for music, as forms dissolved and concepts, happenings, performances, aleatoric concepts and improvisation took the place of written works. While many soon returned to more traditional procedures, one group in Switzerland stubbornly devoted itself to this new openness: “Ensemble Neue Horizonte Bern”, founded in 1968 and still active to this day. “We will” – as one member of the ensemble once stated – “play until we drop”. Without this Ensemble there would probably be no Cage tradition as well as less conceptual music in Switzerland.
Swiss Cage Tradition
Urs Peter Schneider has occupied the special position of “Spiritus rector” in this composers and interpreters collective since the beginning. Born in Bern, currently living and happily crafting his compositions, texts, structures and concepts in Biel, he celebrates his eightieth birthday this year.
For this special occasion, Musikpodium Zürich is organising a concert as part of the Focus Contemporary festival: Dominik Blum will perform piano pieces by Schneider, his Neue Horizonte colleague Peter Streiff and Hermann Meier, whose almost forgotten work Schneider has consistently stood up for. In addition to his 1977 “Chorbuch”, the choir “vokativ zürich” will perform the new work “Engelszungenreden” (angel tongues speeches), whose title indicates that Schneider’s music also likes to point up, towards more spiritual directions.
Hermann Meier, Klavierstück für Urs Peter Schneider, HMV 99, 1987
Composer/pianist/interpreter/performer/educator in one, Schneider is one of those ‘one-of-a-kind figures’, that are not uncommon in Switzerland. It is not easy to describe his music as it can be extremely varied and he often changes his procedures. Schneider likes to work with strategies, essentially following the serial techniques in which his music has its roots, often tinkering for a long time and thoroughly with permutation of tones, instruments, volumes etc. until they finally come together. For this purpose, he develops his own radical gestures of persistence.
Urs Peter Schneider, ‘Getrost, ein leiser Abschied’ für zwei Traversflöten und Bassblockflöte, 2015
Radical persistence gestures
But it goes even further, as Schneider applies such strategies not only to tones, but also to words, graphics and theatrical actions, actually to almost everything that surrounds his work, including dates, or credits. The concert programmes are also composed – another important quality of Neue Horizonte. “The components of a performance relate, complement and comment each other in a sophisticated way”. Likewise, when books or CDs are published, his pieces are never loosely assembled, Schneider rather creates a new constellation for the entire oeuvre, being a strategist obsessed with order.
Every element is twisted and turned, in an ongoing discovery and invention of new processes. He can actually be defined as a process composer and thus very close to conceptual music, a genre he dedicated 2016 his book “Konzeptuelle Musik – Eine kommentierte Anthologie” to, which can be considered an exemplary and indispensable compendium.
The spontaneity of these open forms probably also acts as a corrective to strictness. Sometimes the liveliness and flexibility could get lost in these procedures and order might turn out to bury these aspects. But that is precisely when surprising things often occur. For Schneider’s work contains wit, even cheerfulness, in sometimes unusual places, other times with soothing self-irony.
The “Focus Contemporary Zürich” festival will take place from November 27, to December 1: Tonhalle Zürich, Collegium Novum Zürich, Zürcher Hochschule der Künste and Musikpodium Zürich will jointly present a selection between of experimental creations and works by renowned masters in five concerts at venues such as “Tonhalle Maag”, “ZKO-Haus” or “Musikclub Mehrspur” of the “Zürcher Hochschule der Künste”.
Focus Contemporary Zürich, 27. 11.- 1. 12, concerts:
27.11., 20h ZHdK, Musikklub Mehrspur: Y-Band: Werke von Matthieu Shlomowitz, Alexander Schubert
28.11., 19:30h Musikpodium Zürich, ZKO-Haus: Urs Peter Schneider zum Achtzigsten: Werke von Urs Peter Schneider, Hermann Meier, Peter Streiff
29.11., 19:30h Tonhalle Orchester, Tonhalle Maag: Heinz Holliger zum Achtzigsten: Werke von Heinz Holliger und Bernd Alois Zimmermann
30.11., 20h Collegium Novum Zürich, Tonhalle Maag: Werke von Sergej Newski (UA), Heinz Holliger, Isabel Mundry und Mark Andre
1. 12., 11h ZHdK, Studierende der ZHdK: Werke von Heinz Holliger, Mauro Hertig, Karin Wetzel, Micha Seidenberg, Stephanie Haensler
Neo-profiles: Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, Collegium Novum Zürich, Urs Peter Schneider, Hermann Meier, Heinz Holliger, Peter Streiff, Stephanie Haensler, Karin Wetzel, Gilles Grimaitre, Dominik Blum
Helmut Lachenmann is invited at “Hochschule der Künste Zürich» and «Opernhaus» Zurich.
Helmut Lachenmann, one of the most important contemporary composers, wrote his first opera at the age of 62 and achieved the biggest success of his life with its world premiere in 1997. Avant-gardist and pupil of Luigi Nono, feared by the orchestras as “noise” composer, Darmstadt’s “victim” – as he amusingly defines himself – gives his take on Andersen’s fairy tale “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern”, focusing mainly on the social and critical message of the material.
Lachenmann interprets the fairy tale as metaphor for the icy coldness of post-capitalist societies and breaks the narrative with texts by Leonardo da Vinci and Gudrun Ensslin. Synopsis: A girl tries in vain to sell matches on New Year’s Eve. She eventually lights the sticks herself and experiences the delight of bourgeois warmth for a brief moment in the “glow” of the flames. The girl ends up freezing to death and her dead grandmother takes her to heaven.
Interview with Helmut Lachenmann about Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, Ruhrtriennale, Jahrhunderthalle Bochum 2013
Not a story, but “meteorological conditions.”
Lachenmann sees beauty as “denial of the accustomed” and music as a “liberated art of perception”, beginning with the creation of sound and the necessary efforts in order to achieve it. Lachenmann uses eight horns in his opera. “The eight horns are one single instrument. It all boils down to new ways of hearing and to do so I must start with suspending the melodious perspective.” Things he demands from the musicians are for example fluttering tongues, air noises, valve rattles and vibrations. This acoustically attractive effect results from the overlapping of two oscillations with frequencies only slightly differing from one another. But he goes even further and calls the opera a “pretext to write for singing voices”. The music does not tell a story but represents “meteorological conditions”. The girl is surrounded by freezing cold and feels burning fire for a moment.
The core of Lachenmann’s gestural music is actually theatrical. Those who experience it live can observe busy performers and invent their own scenery. Transforming these actions into the art form of ballet is a challenge. How can one create a choreography that goes beyond images and leaves room for music and its actors?
Helmut Lachenmann, Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, Opernhaus Zürich 2019, Trailer
This new production: “Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern” is the focus of a three-day symposium, which the Zurich University of the Arts organises in cooperation with the Zurich Opera House, as well as the starting point for an interdisciplinary examination of Lachenmann’s work. Musicologist Hans-Ulrich Mosch illuminates Nono’s shadow, music journalist Julia Spinola the methods used in previous productions, dance scientist Stephanie Schroedter the transformation of musical score into movement. Finally, the composer and his choreographer Christian Spuck will discuss the opportunities and limitations of the new production with composer Isabel Mundry.
“Can an Adorno student be happy in the act of composing?”
Lachenmann’s utopian musical thinking has fallen out of date and is – perhaps for this very reason – of vital importance. In addition, the composer knows how to convey his beliefs in a humorous way. His colleague Hans Werner Henze once asked him if it was possible for him – as an Adorno pupil – to be happy in the act of composing. “No. Never happy, but I’ve been joyful.” What about the feeling of happiness after the premiere of a new production? “Every performance is an adventure and its outcome always uncertain.”
Helmut Lachenmann, Allegro sostenuto 1986/88, interpreted by Trio Caelum
ZHdK: Zu Gast: Helmut Lachenmann: Congress / conference / symposium, 8.-10.11.19
Opernhaus Zürich: ‘Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern‘, 12.10.-14.11.19