Sunday, May 13, 2007

Festive Klang

This was the weekend of Hessischer Rundfunk's first "Klangbiennale." The program included concerts with forces from solo to chamber ensembles to full orchestra and a baker's dozen of sound installations scattered around the Funkhaus. The motto -- not quite a theme -- of the festival was "Kraft-Werke", and Elliott Sharp, represented by solo, chamber, and orchestral performances was an appropriate headliner. The featured guest composers included Maria de Alvear, Robyn Schulkowsky, Jens Joneleit, Matthia Kaul, and Dániel Péter Biró. Also included were works by Lucier, Hába, Nono, Tenney, Carter, Adams, and others.

I'm not a critic, so I won't review the program in any depth, but I do have a few observations:

A first observation, unsurprising for a festival devoted to Klänge, was that the music chosen tended to emphasize timbre and texture over other elements, and the European and American responses to such an emphasis could not have stood in greater contrast -- with the European tending toward more intuitive approaches and rather more unruly sounds while the Americans favored formal clarity and simpler harmonic spectra. Hearing Lucier's Navigations for Strings next to Hába's 16th Quartet and then Nono's A Pierre. Dell'azzurro silenzio inquietum next to Tenney's Critical Band made this contrast explicit. (Nota bene -- the Tenney performance suffered because the players played the score in good faith, as written; unfortunately, Tenney had made a substantial change in how he wanted the piece played with regard to a continuous pulse and never corrected the score to indicate this; anyone who would like to play it should consult with players experienced with rehearsals under Tenney's direction. Nota-not-so-bene -- with late Nono, the state of the scores and the electronics required to realize many of them is distressing and that raises some fundamental questions about the nature of the works; but this deserves another post, another time).

A second observation is that sound installations are seriously boring these days. There should be a voluntary moratorium on installations in which recordings are simply played back through any array of loudspeakers, there should be more installations which do not involve loudspeakers in the first place (heck, there should be more installation which do not involve electricity), and it would be nice if, from time to time, an installation involved an object or contraption or an array of such objects or contraptions that was or were lovingly crafted and attractive to look at, instead of being thrown or cobbled together from industrial and consumer detritus.

A third observation is that Maria de Alvear is working in the same thematic territory that Varese was in his late, unfinished, works (Nocturnal, Nuit, Dans la Nuit, etc.), and that being explicit like de Alvear or Varese about sex in music is difficult territory, and any effort is going to be provisional (one-piece stands, if you will). Classical concert audiences are prudish by nature and her piece, Sexo, never found a way to effectively challenge that prudishness other than through assertion and duration (the sexual politics of the piece were not clear), but perhaps that was the point. There is nothing remotely intimate about a full orchestra in a hall like the HR's broadcast hall, gymnasium-sized and covered on all sides by basketball court-quality parquet, and de Alvear's non-stop narration struck me as too syntactic, too full of whole sentences, too full of, well, sense, to ever invite the audience to loosen up, but again, that might have been the point. On the other hand, there was striking orchestration, so strikingly unlike anyone else's orchestration that the border between naive and knowing was clearly in play, making the whole a compelling 70 minutes.

A fourth observation is that Dániel Péter Biró is a young composer to whom attention should be paid. I have rarely experienced music that was both so obviously musical and so unapproachably strange, and Biró's Simanim, for nine players and electronics was just that.

And a final observation is that although HR's programming has always been more friendly to the US than any other European broadcaster, this was ultimately a very European festival. It's hard to imagine any institution in the US sponsoring a festival with a program including as much "difficult music" as this one. It is equally hard to imagine that during a American concert groups of concert-goers would gather together in the breaks and cheerfully argue about Kantian aesthetics while munching down Currywurst.