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Michael Pelzel, Composer in Residence at this year’s Musikfestival Bern, shows the range of his compositional work through numerous world premieres. He can also a renowned organ player and interpreter. A conversational portrait by Friederike Kenneweg.
When I tried to arrange an interview with Michael Pelzel in mid-July 2021, he was not easy to reach and there’s a good reason for that: the works to be premiered featuring him as Composer in Residence at the Musikfestival Bern are piling up on his desk. “It’s one after the other,” he tells me, when we finally manage to talk. The piece that is in front of him as we speak on the phone is called Aus 133 Fenstern. Although “composer in residence” in Bern doesn’t mean that you actually have to be there for an extended period of time, the conditions at the festival venue have inspired Michael Pelzel to create a special spatial composition.
From the multitude of windows that open out from the PROGR Cultural Center onto the courtyard, the audience is treated to bells, triangles, lotus flutes and ocarinas, played by children and young people and even if the target of 133 musicians is not quite reached, there is no doubt that a unique spatial and sound event awaits the audience.
The piece is composed and written out in detail. Pelzel however does not expect the amateur musicians to manage to play in synch with each other under the special spatial circumstances. “Even professionals can’t manage to hit the percussion instruments at exactly the same time,” says Pelzel. But it is precisely this blurring tonal effect, the composer is particularly interested in. “Composers are, after all, always on the lookout for new, unheard sounds and the choral use of these metal percussion instruments is – in my opinion – not yet been explored in its full potential.”
Pelzel’s fascination with metal percussion instruments comes to the fore in several occasions during the festival. In composition Glissomaniac for two pianos and two percussionists, for example, where tubular bells produce this kind of blurs as the two percussionists and pianists play in unison. “Micro-arpeggios” is how Michael Pelzel defines the result. “It’s a bit like a river delta. Many little tributaries, each one with its peculiar course, but all with a common direction, flowing towards the sea.”
Michael Pelzel already combined vocal ensemble and percussion in 2019 in the piece Hagzusa zum Galsterei, premiered by the SWR Vokalensemble at Eclat Festival Stuttgart.
Michael Pelzel also relies on this effect in the vocal composition Luna for eight singers and percussion, with not only the percussionist using instruments, but also the eight singers playing triangles of different sizes. Due to the minimal temporal shift in the attack, metal sound clouds of different dimensions and never entirely predictable arise again and again.
Luna is a work commissioned by KlangForum Heidelberg as part of the ensemble’s series of works “Sternbild: Mensch” (Constellation: Man) and was actually to be premiered elsewhere. But as so often, had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
The work has already been premiered, but so far only in digital form. The “analogue” premiere in front of a physically present audience will now be able to take place in Bern: a special highlight in the context of a concert entitled Ferne Lichterschwärme.
Michael Pelzel, La Luna, KlangForum Heidelberg, ‘Uraufnahme’ online june 2021
In combination with Pelzel’s piece La Luna, the programme also includes orchestral works by Georg Friedrich Haas (born 1953) and György Ligeti (1923-2006) and Pelzel’s compositions will be presented together with works by Haas and Ligeti also during other concerts. Probably because there is a certain affinity between the three composers, as – just like Ligeti – Pelzel appreciates intricate micro-rhythms and shares a passion for microtones with Georg Friedrich Haas. Accordingly, the combination of his works with these two greats suits him perfectly: “Between Georg Friedrich Haas, who was my esteemed teacher and György Ligeti, an important musical reference for me in many respects, I feel very comfortable”.
Michael Pelzel, in memoriam György Ligeti: intricate micro-rhythms link the works of György Ligeti and Michael Pelzel, inhouse production SRG/SSR
György Ligeti also plays an important role for Michael Pelzel as an organist. Accordingly, the organ concert with Michael Pelzel as part of the festival will feature Ligeti’s organ work Harmonies from 1967. The composition …stream of debris… by Michael Pelzel, which he will premiere himself, is seen by the composer as part of the same tradition. “It’s also a bit of a tribute to Ligeti, who worked a lot with clusters in his organ music. When I improvise on the organ myself, I also take clusters as a starting point, but I try not to simply repeat that, but also to further develop Ligeti’s approach for the present times.”
Streamed Polyphony for strings, which will be premiered by CAMERATA BERN, is appropriately announced in the programme as a “swarmig piece” in line with the festival motto “swarms”. “Swarming is not actually correct,” says Pelzel when I ask him about it. “I rather thought of three insects buzzing around a light source while composing it.”
That is why the distribution of the musicians in the room plays an important role in this piece, allowing the sound of the strings to literally buzz around the room. Even if the title of the composition no longer suggests the association with insects: perhaps the swarming and buzzing effect will still be recognizable to the listeners during the CAMERATA BERN concert.
This year’s Bern Music Festival will take place from September 1 to 5 under the motto “schwärme” (swarms) with works and world premieres by Salvatore Sciarrino, Fritz Hauser, Jürg Frey, Johanna Schwarzl, Hans Eugen Frischknecht, Pierre-André Bovey, Thomas Kessler and Jean-Luc Darbellay, among others.
The festival also features a cinema matinée on György Ligeti (documentary: Wenn die Zahnräder Menschen sind, 1996) followed by a discussion between Michael Pelzel, composer in residence, and Thomas Meyer, music journalist (Thursday, 2.9., 10h).
World creations by Michael Pelzel:
Aus 133 Fenstern, Mittwoch, 1.9. 17h
Streamed Polyphony, in concert: Open the Spaces, Mittwoch, .1.9. 19h
Glissomania, in concert: Durch unausdenkliche Wälder, Freitag, 3.9. 21h
La Luna, in conczert: Ferne Lichterschwärme, Samstag, 4.9. 19h
Harmonies / ...stream of debris… in concert: Con Passione, Sonntag, 5.9. 17h
Archipel, Geneva’s Contemporary Music Festival, will take place live and stream online from 16 to 25 April. Archipel sous surveillance, the festival web TV, brings the performances live into the audience’s homes.
2020 was a special year and this in many ways for the legendary Geneva Festival. After many years of directorship by musicologist Marc Texier, a new duo of directors took over. Marie Jeanson – who has a background in experimental and improvised music- and Denis Schuler – composer and artistic director of Geneva’s Ensemble Vide – want to turn the festival upside down.
The new artistic director duo explained their vision of the ideal festival to me last spring, shortly before the planned launch. Their vision was to be implemented in an exemplary way through a one-day Carte Blanche.
The festival was one of the first victims of the first lockdown.
This year it takes place online.
Marie Jeanson und Denis Schuler present themselves before the Carte blanche, planned for Archipel 2020. Video Geneva März 2020 ©neo.mx3
Jeanson and Schuler’s vision sounded like a five-point plan: what has become of it and what has been accomplished – despite the pandemic and streaming? I dug out our earlier conversation to compare their pre-pandemic vision with today’s reality:
The 2020 five-point plan <> the 2021 festival: a comparison
‘La musique c’est fait pour être vécue ensemble‘
2020: All is one – music and life belong together. The Carte Blanche should last an entire day and all take place in one place – Plainpalais’ Maison Communale -, focusing primarily on hospitality, with shared meals and as well as dialogue and interaction opportunities. Because: “The purpose of music is to share and experience it together,” says Schuler.
2021: The unity of life and music will be achieved through Archipel sous surveillance. The experimental festival web TV covers the festival – backstage on site – and brings it into the audience’s living rooms, daily between noon and midnight. The audience gets the opportunity to live with the festival.
2020: In the future, the festival wants to focus less on the music makers and more on the audience. “We wish to establish the right framework so that people are touched by a poetic coherence. We tell stories and want to create a desire to come back,” says Jeanson.
2021: Four sound installations occupy four rooms of Plainpalais’ Maison Communale and can be walked through online throughout the festival. The festival’s characteristic and historic headquarters are reborn online, creating a continuous poetic space between fiction and reality….
‘faire exister la création’
2020: Archipel does not want to be involved (any more) in the festival competition for the most and best world premieres. “Many people are only interested in being the first ones to do or show something,” says Schuler. But the artistic director duo is all about “keeping the creation alive”. “What we’re mainly interested in, is the combination of composition with what is created during the very moment.”
2021: Composition and improvisation meet at many concerts, the improviser Shuyue Zhao and the Basel ensemble neuverBand are only a few examples. In her performances, Zhao questions the interpreter’s role and works with live electronics, noise and improvisation. While works by Sofia Gubaidulina or Junghae Lee, among others, interpreted by the ensemble neuverBand, create a new kind of unity with Zhao’s improvisations.
Shuyue Zhao: noise fragments, 2019
‘partage de l’écoute’
2020: Transdisciplinarity won’t be the future festival’s focus neither. It is rather about ‘pure listening’. “We want to create a special setting in which concentrated listening takes centre stage,” says Jeanson. Concentration creates a special presence that paradoxically comes close to silence. “At the Carte Blanche, for example, there are ‘salons d’écoute‘, rooms dedicated to pure listening, with a sound diffusion system (Acousmonium) and sound engineer. Those who want can bring their own CDs to listen and discuss them together”.
2021: the “salons d’écoute” will take place in a slightly different way: You can’t bring your own CDs. But every noon there will be so-called ‘partages d’écoute’ where a composer will share his/her listening treasures. For example, you can discover composer’s Jürg Frey or composer-singer’s Cassandra Miller favourite records.
Rencontres à l’improviste – unexpected encounters
2020: Musicians who did not know each other before are brought together by the curators. “We provoke make encounters happen and create the framework: the musicians can play what and where they want within a given time frame. They decide at short notice, so the audience is surprised,” says Schuler.
2021: Insub.distances#1-8 links remote musicians. Cyril Bondy, Geneva’s Insub Meta Orchestra and d’Incise’s director, winner of a 2019 Swiss Music Prize, initiated the project for Archipel’21. During Geneva’s second lockdown, from September to December 2020, four Geneva-based and four international composers, composed each one piece for a duo. The works have proximity and distance as their theme and were rehearsed remotely, recorded and put online. Now they can all be enjoyed throughout the festival.
Insub Meta-Orchestra / Cyril Bondi & d’incise: 27times, 2016
It is astonishing how precisely Marie Jeanson’s and Denis Schuler’s festival vision, created on a small scale, is now reflected on a large scale, despite the pandemic’s and streaming restrictions.
Festival Archipel Teaser 2021
Archipel Festival, Geneva takes place from Friday, 16 to Sunday, 25 April.
During ten days, international performers and ensembles such as Ensemble Ictus, Collegium Novum Zürich, ensemble Contrechamps and Eva Reiter will perform works by Clara Iannotta, Alvin Lucier, Jürg Frey, Helmuth Lachenmann, Eliane Radigue, Cassandra Miller, Morton Feldman, John Cage and Kanako Abe, among others. All concerts can be streamed free of charge.
Archipel sous surveillance broadcasts daily between 12:00 and 24:00 from all venues, backstage and onstage, involving Geneva-based film crew Dav tv as well as the alternative television station neokinok.tv.
Le festival Archipel met à l’honneur les musiques experimentales
SRF 2 Kultur:
neoblog, 12.3.2020: Ma rencontre avec le future – ANNULÉ, Gabrielle Weber talks with the new artistic directors Jeanson/Schuler.
Composer Jürg Frey devoted four months to the composition of his new piece “Elemental Realities”, commissioned for the closing concert of the “Donaueschinger Musiktage”. In this interview he talks about this extreme state, about “listening” per se and the privilege of not having to compose on commission only.
The British music scene revolving around Cornelius Cardew and the London Scratch Orchestra or Christian Wolff played a decisive role in Jürg Frey’s early years. Today he is regularly played in London’s insider circles, but this hasn’t always been the case. For many years he was considered an insider tip, he hardly ever composed for the public and from the 90s onwards he did so in close collaboration with the composers collective and label “Wandelweiser”, a community of likeminded people aiming to do “radically quiet things”. Then, in 2015, as Composer in Residence at the Huddersfield Festival, he set off on a rather unexpected late international career.
Jürg Frey, Floating Categories 2015, live recording 2017
Jürg Frey, you define yourself “composer of silence”. How do you feel before the premiere of Donaueschinger Musiktage’s closing concert?
Calm right now. In my case tension is at its highest peak before the first rehearsal – the first meeting between my music, the conductor and the orchestra. If things go well then, I can attend the premiere in a confident state of mind.
How did this commission come about?
That is not clear to me neither (he laughs). I received an e-mail from Björn Gottstein, the artistic director, with the subject: “Attention, short-term request”. I thought it was going to be around 2020. I first took a few days to think about it but eventually agreed and set to work for four months, non-stop. I reached the limits of both my physical as well as mental capabilities.
How did you start to work on your new piece ‘Elemental Realities’?
The beginning, the first three to four weeks, was the most difficult time for me. At first there were hundreds of ideas, a real thunderstorm or flickering of them. Then the energy and direction of the piece started to take shape. In order to be able to work at all, I had to bring down the exuberant initial creativity to a reasonable level.
Were there guidelines or could you just set to work?
I could do whatever I wanted. The piece just shouldn’t turn out to be overly long: that’s the nice thing about short-term requests, no demands allowed.
In a quote regarding the piece you refer to “sheet of music as membrane” between silence and sound – and to the individual performer as fragile link between “private silence” and “music resonating in public space”…
Every single note occurs to me in awareness that it resonates into a room and that it comes in touch with silence on the back of the sheet. Each note has two directions and each note counts. The interpreter also stands on the threshold between sound and silence and this threshold is fascinating to me.
Jürg Frey, Extended Circular Music No.8 (excerpt), Live at Dog Star Orchestra, LA 2015
“The piece gives musicians the opportunity to shine.”
What can we expect concretely in terms of sound?
There are two components taking turns with each other. On one hand a two-dimensional one: for example strings or percussionists, playing continuous stationary sounds.
On the other hand, small musical elements, such as short melodies and chords, sequences of individual notes, all very delicately instrumented. The musicians are very challenged.
You spoke about the composition, conductor and acoustic entity triptych, but what role does the audience play?
The act of “listening” – be it carried out by the musicians or the audience – is crucial in my opinion. The connection to the audience occurs through listening. When musicians play but also listen precisely, this is conveyed to the audience, even in large concert halls.
“Mine is music for the ears, for the listeners’ eardrums – be they sitting in the concert hall or in the orchestra.”
Jürg Frey, Louange de l’eau, louange de la lumière, Basel Sinfonietta 2011
Donaueschingen, especially a closing concert performance, is regarded as a key moment in a composer’s career – has your composing changed since then?
It had no influence on the act of composing itself. But the work situation has changed since my music now has more resonance. In the past, 90% of my works were written without commission and my only motivation was artistic urge. Now I sometimes decline commissions because I wish to continue composing freely and if I feel the inner need to do so. I consider this freedom as a great privilege.
Interview Gabrielle Weber
The Donaueschinger Musiktage will take place from October 17th to 20th. In addition to Jürg Frey’s, the event will feature premieres and panel discussions by and with Michael Pelzel, Beat Furrer and the Collegium Novum Zürich.
World Premiere Jürg Frey: “Elemental Realities”, Donaueschinger Musiktage, Sunday, October 20, 17h, Saalsporthalle
Sendungen SRF 2 Kultur: t.b.a.