Of swarms, bells and insects

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.

 

Portrait Michael Pelzel zVg Michael Pelzel

 

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.

 

Probe zur Uraufführung von Aus 133 Fenstern für 133 Musizierende, UA im Progr am Musikfestival Bern ©Martin Bichsel / zVg Musikfestival Bern

 

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.”

 

“Micro Arpeggios”

 

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.
Friederike Kenneweg

 

Michael Pelzel © Manuela Theobald / zVg Musikfestival Bern

 

 

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 FensternMittwoch, 1.9. 17h
Streamed Polyphony, in concert: Open the Spaces, Mittwoch, .1.9. 19h
Glissomania, in concert: Durch unausdenkliche WälderFreitag, 3.9. 21h
La Luna, in conczert: Ferne LichterschwärmeSamstag, 4.9. 19h
Harmonies / ...stream of debris… in concert: Con Passione, Sonntag, 5.9. 17h

Neo-Profiles:
Musikfestival BernMichael PelzelCamerata BernGyörgy LigetiGeorg Friedrich HaasThomas KesslerJürg FreyJean-Luc DarbellayFritz HauserPierre-André Bovey

“A Madrigal Trip”: Jannik Giger – World creation@Festival Ultraschall (22.1.) – live on air! 20-25.1.2021

The Berlin festival Ultraschall will be taking place! Live and later broadcasted on Deutschlandfunk Kultur as well as rbbKultur. Composer and video artist Jannik Giger, from Basel, premieres a new piece on January 22: ‘Qu’est devenue ce bel oeuil‘ for soprano, bass clarinet and fictional four-channel organ. The concert can be enjoyed live on Friday, January 22, 2021, at 20h00 and again on February 16th

Jannik Giger Portrait ©zVg Jannik Giger

Gabrielle Weber
In his work, Giger often refers to the ‘sounding past’, with audio documents or pieces by Franz Schubert, Leos Janacek or Bela Bartok, for example. Most of his pieces also include videos, installations or spatial components. Giger also creates film music, which serve the images but can also be considered independent musical works. 


In the video installation Gabrys and Henneberger – Transformations (2014), double bass player Aleksander Gabrys improvises live to a video. (Jürg Henneberger conducts the Phoenix Ensemble in Giger’s Clash).  

In his new piece for ultrasound “Qu’est devenue ce bel oeuil” Giger turns for the first time to the Renaissance, as the work is based on the a capella madrigal with the same title by composer Claude Le Jeune.
I talked to him via zoom from Zurich to Basel shortly before the world premiere. 

Music is so to speak on hold at the moment, because of the pandemic…. How did this affect your work?  

 Working as a composer, I spend a plenty of time alone in the studio or in a room. So apart from the extreme social restrictions, little has changed. But preliminary work and rehearsals have become complicated.   

I started the new piece for Ultraschall in Berlin. I had a residency there (Atelier Mondial) and wanted to spend half a year intensively visiting museums, galleries and concerts but because of the pandemic everything was closed. On the other hand, I now know all the lakes, parks and forests in and around Berlin. Through this vacuum, I spent a protected, secluded time and was able to concentrate really well on composing, which was a positive side.  

The negative side: rehearsal and concert situations are the real reward for solitary composing. These special moments, when everything condenses, which set themselves apart from the working routine, no longer exist at the moment. 

Your works usually include visuals such as videos or installations: are there any in Ultrasound or did you adapt it for the radiophonic premiere’s purpose 

 Although it is a chamber music piece ‘for voice, bass clarinet and fictitious organ’, it was originally intended as a spatial live piece. I received the commission from the soprano Sarah Maria Sun and Nina Janssen-Deinzer, the clarinetist. Their wish to include of electronics, so I decided on a four-channel feed, an imaginary big organ consisting of four speakers placed around them. Since it now takes place without an audience and broadcasted on the radio, the initially planned spatial component is no longer included. 

Jannik Giger: Sarah Maria Sun (Sopran) in Schlotterarie from Kolik, UA Gare du Nord Basel, 2019

A Crazy Harmonic… 

How did you come across Claude Le Jeune? So far, you have been more familiar with Romantic, Classical and Baroque music, or modern masterpieces. What is your connection to the Renaissance?   

I often draw from existing pieces or materials that I come across by chance and appeal to me in some way. Singer Jean-Christophe Groffe brought this fantastic vocal piece to my attention. 

The special thing about Le Jeune is the crazy harmonies. The piece is completely chromatic and uniform: with a text, a harmony, a form, a repetitive rhythm. Starting from this material was an intuitive decision and the result was an associative, almost anti-intellectual piece with a simple concept: the combination of the chorale material with organ sounds. My own guideline was that it should not contain any samples other than organ sounds.   

Claude Le Jeune (1528-1600), Qu’est devenu ce bel oeuil

… was this maybe related to the pandemic? A reference to a distant past, to the musical renaissance….  

 No – or maybe yes… It is about decay and the piece has something nostalgic to it. Even the title question ‘Qu’est devenue ce bel oeil?‘… What happened? Everything unravels… Le Jeune accompanied me during my time in Berlin. I also composed a piece for the Arditti Quartet in which I referred to him. 

How did you proceed composing and why this instrumentation?  

I listened to many organ recordings – by Bruckner, Machaut, Bach, Brahms, Buxtehude – and sampled individual organ sounds from different organs in different tunings as well as in different rooms. Over a period of weeks, I built up an archive of sounds. Then I “built” the fictitious organ from various samples by assembling and pasting. The sequencing and overlaying of sounds and spaces created an almost orchestral complexity. 


Jannik Giger, Ausschnitt from soundtrac / ficticious organ in: Q’est devenu ce bel oeil, world creation Festival Ultraschall 22.1.2021

During the piece, both soloists get to the fictitious organ: how must we imagine it all?  

The previous track is the organ alone, each chord coming actually from a different organ. The soundtrack runs through, distributed over four speakers, and will mix with the live instruments, having the two levels interacting with each other, sometimes merging, other times in opposition. 

A “Madrigal Trip” 

Le Jeune’s original is an a capella madrigal, you transferred that aspect to the four-channel organ but how do you handle the voice?  

Sarah Maria Sun, the soprano, sings to Le Jeune’s original text. Sometimes sounding like French chanson, sometimes like Renaissance or contemporary music, occasionally with new playing techniques. The voice fluctuates from melodious and tonal to very noisy passages, playing with aesthetic references. What eventually emerged is almost a ‘madrigal trip’.  

Giger on air or streaming live: is that even possible? Do you also see opportunities in the current situation and how do you deal with it?  

If chamber music is well received, also visually, it can work as a live stream. But I approach pieces for several instruments or for orchestra differently right now. There is a physical vacuum: because the musicians’ bodies are not present and the rituals of the concerts are missing, the performance, the endings, the moments of tension. Pure documentation is no longer enough. I try to go one step further, for example, I recorded a CD with Dieter Ammann (CD Ammann-Giger, Mondrian Ensemble, Ensemble Nuance): the sound engineer Alexander Kordzaia recorded it by using close mic techniques and deliberately almost overproduced it. The music is therefore microscopically expanded and not a live reproduction, but has been given a completely different quality of perception.   

What next? In 2021, for example, a new CD on the KAIROS label is to be released with the title Krypta can you reveal anything about that? And are there other upcoming projects?  

The record combines some already produced, but not yet released instrumental music. Krypta was a sound installation for the Bern Music Festival, of which there is also a plain stereo audio track. Then there is a new piece, a montage of studio recordings with the ensembles Xasax and Thélème.    


Jannik Giger, excerpt from Krypta, Multichannel Orchestration, Musikfestival Bern 2019

I’m looking forward to a project for the Architecture Biennale in Venice. A spatial piece of mine is to be performed in the Pavillon Suisse during the opening in May – if it will happen... Based on architectural texts, I am working with the opera singer Andrej Krutojs. It’s about Venice and Italian opera. For ZeitRäume Basel on the other hand I set to work on a video installation dealing with the ‘blind audition’ theme, a form of gender-appropriate auditioning for orchestral roles 
Gabrielle Weber

Jannik Giger Portrait © zVg Jannik Giger


Ultraschall Berlin
– Festival für neue Musik: from february 20 to 24.

Konzert 22.1., 20h, live Deutschlandfunk Kultur:
Sarah Maria Sun, Sopran, and Nina Janssen-Deinzer, Klarinetten and Saxophon, UA Jannik Giger Qu’est devenu ce bel oeuil und Werke von u.a. Georges Aperghis, Toshio Hosokawa, Wolfgang Rihm.
also on 16.2.20, 23:04h, rbb Kultur in: Musik der Gegenwart

Jannik Giger, CD Ammann-Giger / a tree in a field records – Koproduktion SRF 2 Kultur, Atelier Mondial, KAIROS, Andrejs Krutojs, Alexander Kordzaia, Ensemble Nuance, Festival ZeitRäume Basel, Biennale Venezia, ThélèmeJean-Christophe Groffe

Broadcasts SRF 2 Kultur
Kultur Aktuell & Kultur Kompakt Podcast, 22.1.21, 8:05h/11:30h: Livegespräch zum Festival Ultraschall und UA Jannik Giger, Gesprächspartnerin Gabrielle Weber
Musik unserer Zeit, 3.2.21, 20h: Jannik Giger, der Scherbensammler, Redaktion Theresa Beyer
Musikmagazin, 6./7.2.21: Jannik Giger im Café-Gespräch mit Theresa Beyer

Neo-Profiles
Jannik Giger, Sarah Maria Sun, Musikfestival Bern, Ensemble Phoenix Basel, Mondrian Ensemble, Aleksander Gabrys, Dieter Ammann, Xasax Saxophonquartett, ZeitRäume Basel

A Quiet Rumble – Composer Charles Uzor

A portrait by Cécile Olshausen:

At the age of seven, he forgot his mother tongue Igbo and learned Swiss German. In his music, composer Charles Uzor sets out on a journey back to his Nigerian childhood, to the “pounding and quivering nature” of the African tropics, to the distant voice of his mother. Cécile Olshausen visited Charles Uzor.

Charles Uzor Portrait ©zVg Charles Uzor

Cécile Olshausen
It’s raining as I get off the train in St. Gallen. My smartphone I supposed to show me the way to Charles Uzor’s flat, in the centre of St. Gallen, just a two-minute walk away. Nevertheless, I manage to get lost.

Detours have led me to Charles Uzor. Many years ago, we happened to sit next to each other during concert and we talked. Since then, I often heard his name and music, but we never met in person again.

As he opens the door I shake off a few raindrops and Charles Uzor welcomes me into his spacious city flat. My gaze falls on a grand piano, on shelves full of books and CDs, while in the kitchen a radiator ripples like a fountain. A parasol leans in a corner of the living room reminding me of summer, while outside a big Christmas star hangs over the small balcony.

We take a seat at the dining room table. And from the urban holiday lights outside his window, our conversation slowly moves into the life and sound of Charles Uzor, a biography in which so many paths cross.

Charles Uzor was born in Nigeria in 1961. A few years later, a brutal war for independence broke out in his home region of Biafra. At the age of seven, he escaped the horrors of war and found a new family in St. Gallen, where he went to school and graduated. His studies – first oboe, then composition – later took him to Rome, Bern, Zurich and London. Finally, he wrote his doctoral thesis on melody and inner time consciousness. Charles Uzor’s works are many and varied: operas, dance, orchestral and choral compositions, but also many pieces for different ensemble settings.

Through music, Charles Uzor connects with his past and his childhood in Nigeria.

Our chat is calm, a conversation that allows for silence. A silence that I also find in some of Charles Uzor’s pieces, in Nri/ mimicri (2015/2016) for Ondes Martenot, percussion ensemble and tape for example. It is not a linearly developing composition, but rather a soundscape through which one senses by listening attentively. It is as if you enter a tropical house and find yourself – as soon as you step over the threshold – in a completely different world. For Charles Uzor, Nri/ mimicri is an approach to his “African origins”, as he puts it, a piece in which one can perceive ” pounding and quivering of nature”. And it is a reference to his ancestors, the Nri, a legendary Nigerian tribe.


Charles Uzor, Nri/mimicri, Percussion Art Ensemble Bern, UA 2016, Production SRG/SSR

Charles Uzor belongs to the Igbo people and grew up in the south-east of Nigeria, in the Niger Delta, a region with tropical rainforest and many rivers. He spoke Igbo with his family. When he came to Switzerland at the age of seven, this language disappeared within a very short time. To this day, Charles Uzor is haunted by the fact that he could simply forget his mother tongue.

… traditional Igbo sayings spoken on tape….

Fortunate circumstances led to him finding his family again after the Biafra War. As a teenager and firmly anchored in his Swiss life, Charles Uzor decided to stay with his St. Gallen family. However, he has stayed in touch with his Nigerian mother, who now lives in the USA, ever since. And in his cycle Mothertongue (2018), you can hear her voice, speaking traditional Igbo sayings on tape.


Charles Uzor, Mothertongue Fire / mimicri for tape, Maria Christina Uzor, 2018

Uzor processes these recordings into a composition and thus connects sonically with a language he no longer understands, his mother tongue.


Charles Uzor, Mothertongue for Mezzosoprano, Ensemble and tape, Ensemble Mothertongue, world creation Musikfestival Bern 2020, Prodcution SRG/SSR

Charles Uzor’s compositional paths lead him not only back to the past of his African childhood, but also to centuries afar. During a short break in the conversation, when we open the windows to les some fresh air in, I take a look at Charles Uzor’s bursting, colourful CD shelf – and notice a lot of music by Pérotin, Guillaume de Machaut, Johannes Ockeghem or Costanzo Festa. I’m curious to learn, where this love for early music comes from as soon as we continue our conversation.

According to Uzor, pre-baroque music opens up a vastness and wildness, an order and structure that magically attracts him: “I often have the feeling that I was there; images of myself as a Renaissance man come to me, that’s how close I relate to it”. This music with its rounds, rhythms and repetitions also has something African for Charles Uzor. Thus, early music and African language sounds come together in his compositions. Paths that meet, moments of encounter.

What his music manages to combine effortlessly, the old and the new, the African and the Swiss, cracks in his everyday life experience. Because as a black man, Charles Uzor is affected by racism – even in Switzerland. And, as he tells me, every day. Everyday racism.

8’46” – that’s how long George Floyd’s agony lasted

Charles Uzor could not remain silent when George Floyd was murdered. For the black US citizen who was violently killed by the police in May 2020 and whose murder triggered worldwide protest – along with the Black Lives Matter movement, Charles Uzor composed the piece 8’46” seconds – that’s how long George Floyd’s agony lasted when his breath was taken from him. The composition only consists of breathing sounds. For Charles Uzor it was a necessity to write this piece in order to process his own deep shock and to externalise it.


Charles Uzor, 8’46” – Floyd in memoriam, world creation Musikfestival Bern 2020, Prodcution SRG/SSR

Charles Uzor’s homage to George Floyd was premiered in Bern on September 4, 2020. I have an intense memory of this focused performance by the Mothertongue ensemble, directed by Rupert Huber. Not pathetic at any moment. And at the end of the 8’46” no applause – but concern, quietness and just silence.

The rain has stopped now and it’s dark outside. We talked for a long time. In the kitchen, Charles Uzor makes coffee and the soothing ripples of the radiator brings us back from the depths of our conversation to the present. Then I set off towards the station. Now I know the way.
Cécile Olshausen

Charles Uzor Portrait ©zVg Charles Uzor

Musikfestival Bern – Mothertongue, Rupert HuberPercussion Art Ensemble Bern

Broadcast SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, Mittwoch, 16.12.20, 22h: Pochen und Beben – der Komponist Charles Uzor, Redaktion Cécile Olshausen.

Neo-Profile: Charles Uzor, Musikfestival BernPercussion Art Ensemble Bern

“Sprechstunde für neue Musik” @Musikfestival Bern

“Sprechstunde neue Musik” (new music consultations) is an online offer by Musikfestival Bern based on the slogan: “Listening to and discussing music”. Tobias Reber, composer and performer, is responsible for the festival’s communication program. He initiated the format in 2019 already, when the consultation hours took place live and now offers them as video conferences.

Gabrielle Weber talked with Reber about this format, field recordings and Terry Riley’s work “In C”.

Portrait Tobias Reber © Samira Reber

Recently you held the first online “Sprechstunde neue Musik”, under the title Schichtungen (Layering) you discussed Terry Riley’s piece “in C”, a work belonging to the minimal music genre, insistently focused on the note C. Why this particular work?

I decided to start with this piece because on the one hand it is accessible and on the other hand it relates to the festival theme of tectonics. It is a layering work in which layers of sound are shifted over and against each other.


Terry Riley, In C, Ensemble Ictus live, 2012

The title “Sprechstunde neue Musik” (new music consultations) is to be interpreted in an entertaining way – people are usually rather reluctant to consult their doctor…

On one hand, consultations are of course meant literally, as the idea is to speak together. At the same time, it has an ironic twist, as some sort of “hotline”, because contemporary music can also cause headaches. It has a problem with reaching a larger audience. My concern is: how can I stimulate the desire for the multi-faceted nature of this music. I often encounter the fear of having to understand everything and would like to get rid of it.

Let us take gourmet cuisine as an example or analogy. If I were to eat in a molecular restaurant, I don’t expect to have to understand that either. I am consciously embarking on something new. New music is also about getting involved sensually, trying, tasting.

“I would like to offer a large buffet.”

The consultations are unique, taking place in the here and now, albeit virtually – whoever is present experiences an exclusive interactive moment… how did that come across?

Actually, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the idea of being together in that particular moment.

There is a need to experiment with virtual encounters. We are all learning to build trust, for example with strangers via video conferencing, it is almost a new cultural technique.

The next dates are themed: “Klingende Welten” (Sounding Worlds) and “Brüche, Störungen, Falten” (Fractures, Disturbances, Wrinkles) – which sounds a bit general: can you provide further information?

“Klingende Welten” is about real sounds recorded in the “real” world, so-called field recordings. For example, the sound of earth movements recorded by dedicated sensors, or of ice floes moving or rubbing against each other, recorded by hydrophones or waterproof microphones in Arctic waters.

In the final talk, we will discuss works that have been created for a specific location, in the form of performances or sound sculptures for example.


Tobias Reber, Polyglot, 2013

The talks are completely open and aimed at experts as well as interested amateur audience: how does this combination work?

During the first online session we had a good combination of professional musicians and amateurs. All of them brought very different angles and knowledge. But we had to establish a common ground first, which was enriching for both sides.

I defined the initiative as an experiment and encouraged people to make suggestions, in order to find out together what works well.

How exactly did you approach Terry Riley’s “In C”?

I started by preparing a private, dedicated playlist on Soundcloud, which I shared and we compared three very different interpretations. There is a recording with musicians from Mali for example, where they improvise on the themes instead of repeating them, which – by the way – is absolutely in Terry Riley’s nature.


Terry Riley, Africa Express, In C Mali, live at Tate Modern, 2015

Is there anything in the next talk we can look forward to in particular?

Last winter we experienced the so-called “singing ice” phenomenon. I experienced it myself in the Upper Engadine by the frozen Lake St.Moritz. One of the recordings I bring along has to do with that…
Gabrielle Weber

Klang-Spaziergang mit Radio.Antenne.SA © Musikfestival Bern 2019

Musikfestival Bern will take place from September 2, to September 6. This year’s festival is themed “Tectonics”.

Musikfestival Bern, 2.-6. September, Tektonik
Registrations for “Sprechstunde neue Musik”: Sprechstunde für neue Musik @Tobias Reber

Neo-Profiles: Musikfestival Bern, Tobias Reber