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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
Christian Fluri / Gabrielle Weber: Interview Martin Bliggenstorfer – 10 years ensemble proton bern: Anniversary season 2020/21
This is where a brilliant birthday portrait regarding ensemble proton bern’s 10 years activity, with plenty of notes regarding the anniversary season was meant to be found.
Christian Fluri talked with Martin Bliggenstorfer, the Managing Director, shortly after the lockdown of the first pandemic wave. At that time, he expressed confidence and urge for action.
Now, shortly before the big anniversary celebration of November 16th was originally planned, we find ourselves in the midst of a second wave, hitting with unexpected violence.
I therefore discussed the effects of the new situation on the ensemble proton bern and its anniversary season with Bliggenstorfer in a second conversation, immediately after the Federal authorities announced the new guidelines of October 18th. Since then, measures and guidelines have been changing constantly and most performances have become virtually impossible.
The ensemble proton bern is thus representative of many ensembles, musicians and organisers who are suddenly facing cancellations, postponements and an uncertain future.
ensemble proton bern has been researching with great passion since ten years now, looking for new sounds, new works and new composers. It is now one of the most in-demand ensembles in and outside Europe.
Since its foundation in 2010, the ensemble, which is based in the Dampfzentrale Bern, has performed some 273 works by 180 composers in 128 concerts, 175 of the works were world premieres. Among other highlights, its concerts at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Concert Hall in in front of large audiences and a West Coast tour of the USA.
During the first wave of Corona, the ensemble was quite lucky, as managing director, oboist and lupophone player Martin Bliggenstorfer states: “Right before the lockdown, we were able to play the protonwerk no. 9 concert in the Dampfzentrale. But we had to cancel the second performance at Basel’s Gare du Nord.”
protonwerk is a support programme for young composers* to whom the ensemble commissions works.
Adrian Nagel, Netzwerk, UA: protonwerk no.7 / ensemble proton bern 2017
“We were able to postpone our programme terrible ten, a concert with world premieres by Thomas Kessler (My lady soul) as well as Michael Pelzel and Stefan Wirth, which was planned for May, at short notice and managed to play in September. So not all of our planned programmes went completely lost,” says Bliggenstorfer happily.
Making music together is missed
The ensemble could hardly wait to get back playing concerts after the lockdown. So terrible ten became somewhat extraordinary as making music together again after such a long time and sharing music live with the audience was a great experience for everyone involved, says Bliggentorfer.
Thomas Kessler, My lady soul, UA ensemble proton bern 2019
Even though the ensemble’s musicians were able to make productive use of the lockdown period. “What we missed was making music together, being in direct contact with each other and rehearse with the concerts in mind. But at the same time it was also good to let our brains and bodies rest for a few weeks.”
Fortunately, the ensemble’s existence is currently not in danger. “We didn’t have to return any of the received subsidies or support for the cancelled concerts. That way we’ve been able to pay out our own fees as well as those of our guest performers”. Bliggenstorfer is very grateful for the generous attitude of Switzerland’s donors.
“The universe of sounds is limitless…”
The ensemble is therefore still in an excellent position and constantly striving to develop further. This, however, will happen without its long-time conductor Matthias Kuhn, with the ensemble since its founding. “He wishes to reorient himself artistically” which is something that Bliggenstorfer understands, however important Kuhn has been for the young ensemble’s development. In the future, the work will go on with a core of eight members and without a permanent conductor, in order to develop chamber music projects as well as concerts and performances with larger ensembles and guest conductors.
The passion for contemporary music in its various genres and orientations never changed as the ensemble has no blinders on and joyfully plays and shows how full of enthusiasm, lively and vital contemporary music can be. “The universe of sounds and their possible combinations is infinite”, and Bliggenstorfer knows that ” there are new discoveries to be made throughout an entire lifespan”.
Verschiedene Komponisten click & faun, ensemble proton bern 2019
Sound possibilities of new instruments are also far from being exhausted: i.e. the “clarinet d’amore” rediscovered by Richard Haynes, the double-reed instruments “lupophone” and “contraforte” played by Martin Bliggenstorfer and Elise Jacoberger or Maximilian Haft’s “straw violin” – not to mention the variety in the realmof electronic sound production. ensemble proton bern will continue to research.
2nd interview, October 21, 2020:
Despite growing uncertainties and the threat of new restrictions, Bliggenstorfer still appeared to be confident regarding future concert possibilities on October 21: “Cultural events should not be cancelled as long as they are not officially prohibited. Protection concepts must of course be implemented perfectly, which worked well so far”.
Fixed appearances as main act were planned as part of the “5 years Kultur-Kino Rex” anniversary programme, with two visual artists, during which composer Ennio Morricone was to be shown from an much less known side. “Morricone is well known as film music composer – but he was also active in so called ‘art music’, among others as trumpet player of the “Gruppo di improvisazzione Nuova Consonanza” in the 60s/70s.
However, the new Berne guidelines of October 23, closed cinemas and museums with immediately effect and the concerts had to be cancelled shortly afterwards.
“fette fête” (big fat party) – the ensemble’s 10th anniversary concert
The “fette fête” was planned for 16 November in Bern: a huge birthday party with premieres and works by Louis Andriessen, Christian Henking and Annette Schmucki. The ensemble also commissioned a work by young Swiss composer Tobias Krebs. “We are extremely pleased about this – he is an outstanding young composer whom we know from protonwerk”.
Tobias Krebs, ambra, UA Duo Vers 2018
During the interview, Bliggenstorfer held on to the possibility of performing, for “as long as it is possible to propose art as a live experience, we do not want to give up the opportunity to perform. We want to deal with the situation responsibly by observing the protection rules and concepts”.
Unfortunately, the concert had to be cancelled (as of October 30 guidelines) and will be rescheduled to February 2021 (tbc.).
Further uncertainties arise regarding future projects with guests from abroad: “If they cannot enter or travel, we will have to look for replacements. Furthermore, engagements abroad are cancelled for the time being. For the anniversary season, the ensemble had invitations to New York and Salzburg, for example.”
The financial consequences of the current situation cannot be assessed yet: “At the moment we are still in a good position financially, but the medium to long-term impact of the crisis on the funding landscape is uncertain.”
The ensemble continues to show its full commitment. The urge of research and innovation, as well as the desire to play and discover, remain intact.
However, it is impossible to foresee long-term consequences regarding live concerts, in particular as far as the international situation is concerned.
Konzerte Jubiläumssaison 20/21 &aktuelle updates
30.Oktober: The dark side of Ennio Morricone, Kino Rex Bern: ABGESAGT
16. November: “fette fête” – 10Jahre proton, Dampfzentrale Bern: ABGESAGT: VERSCHIEBEDATUM 2. Februar 2021 (tbc)**
17. November, 20h, Konzert Gare du Nord Basel: protonwerk nr.9 (Wiederaufnahme)
Sendungen SRF 2 Kultur:
Musik unserer Zeit, 28.10.20: Redaktion Florian Hauser, Gespräch zu My lady soul, mit Thomas Kessler, Martin Bliggenstorfer, Bettina Berger, Vera Schnider
Neue Musik im Konzert, 28.10.20: My lady soul mit terrible ten, Konzertaufzeichnung vom 15.9.20, Dampfzentrale Bern, Redaktion Florian Hauser.
Musikmagazin, 25.7.20: u.a. Richard Haynes, Redaktion Florian Hauser
**DATUM OFFEN: Neue Musik im Konzert: “fette fête”, Konzertaufzeichnung, Dampfzentrale Bern, Redaktion Florian Hauser.
Swiss composer Thomas Kessler is “Composer in Residence” at Lucerne Festival 2019.
His over half a century long journey is filled with surprises and yet marked by intrinsic coherence. He’s known to have influenced a young generation of musicians in Berlin in the 1960s, such as Klaus Schulze or Edgar Froese, founder of the cult band “Tangerine Dream” and yet some were astonished when Thomas Kessler decided to broaden his horizons and break contemporary music boundaries again by starting a collaboration with a Californian hiphop poet.
“Utopia” – no perfectly smooth sound
Kessler’s work has been considered groundbreaking from his earliest pieces, in which the single performers had complete control over the electronic output of their playing instead of being routed to a central mixing console. But he went even further and dared to transfer this configuration to an entire orchestra, wanting to create something utopian – and called the piece “Utopia”.
Each time, this procedure led to a new journey of research and discovery, for as soon as a solution was found, it led to further possibilities and suggestions. Over the decades, a dozen of “Control pieces” originated from 1974’s “Piano Control” for instance, and “Utopia” also experienced two further orchestral transformations. In the third piece, which will also be performed in Lucerne, the orchestra – and thus the sound – will be distributed throughout the room.
Thomas Kessler: Trailer, Composer in Residence, Lucerne Festival 2019
This is quite representative of how Kessler (born 1937 in Zurich) proceeds. He is never satisfied with the achieved solutions and always yearns for something new and unique. This let him to systematically avoid the mainstream patterns of New Music. After his composition studies in Berlin, Kessler founded his own electronic studio, which soon became renowned. His reputation eventually reached Switzerland and from 1973 onwards he taught composition and theory at the Musik-Akademie in Basel, where he also built his prestigious Electronic Studio. He’s to be considered one of this country’s electronic and live-electronic music pioneers, alongside Bruno Spoerri and Gerald Bennett.
He always distanced himself from any kind of academicism and instead of aiming for a perfect, smooth sound, he would strive for the unusual – as in the “Utopia” orchestral pieces. One needs a certain amount of confidence, in order to delegate sound modulation during the concert, live and via laptop to each individual musician within the orchestra. Something new can emerge: “The result is an electronic orchestral sound, because nobody is absolutely precise. One is a bit louder, the other a little quieter, it’s not quite right and the result is a mix of sounds you’ve never heard before.”
Slam poetry and orchestra
When Kessler moved to Toronto, after his retirement in 2001, he was looking for new musical encounters, beyond the established concert scene: “on the street, in the pubs where young people meet on weekends, the place of vibrant slam poetry, an art form that impressed me deeply and that is highly popular over there. Although people tend to state that rap is dead, slam lives on and simply can’t be killed”.
After some research he finally contacted slam poet Saul Williams and the two got along right away. Their first work for orchestra was based on lyrics, (“…said the shotgun to the head”), followed by a string quartet (“NGH WHT”), with a completely different style and use of musical idioms – but both unique in contemporary music, because of their bold but still accessible effect, that cannot leave the listener unaffected.
Concerts Lucerne Festival u.a.:
17.8.2019, Late night 1: Mivos Quartett, Saul Williams: u.a. NGH WHT
24.8.19, 15h, Moderne 1: Thomas Kessler u.a., Control-Zyklus III
24.8.19, Late night 2: Thomas Kessler, Saul Williams, Orchester der Lucerne Festival Academy, u.a. Utopia III, „…said the shotgun to the head“