Ultraschall Festival Opens Journey Into Contemporary Music
Berlin's Ultraschall Festival for new music, this year in its 14th iteration, took on an ambitiously broad scope.
The program dedicated itself to reviving classics of the avant-garde while exploring new roads in the European music scene, opening an unresolved view into the stylistic plurality and fragmentation that defines the landscape of post-modern and contemporary developments.
American legends John Cage, this year celebrating his centenary, and Morton Feldman received slight emphasis alongside 20th-century European essentials such as Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Jean Barraqué, one of France's most prominent champions of serialism, received a thorough revisiting, including the performance of unfinished works which have been edited posthumously.
The festival, hosted by RBB Kulturradio and Deutschlandradio Kultur from January 21-29th, gave equal weight to today's upcoming talent, from the Swiss, New York-based composer Oscar Bianchi to the Berliner Sarah Nemtsov, whose staged cycle "A Long Way Away" received its world premiere.
The boundaries between theater and concert performance have been eroded steadily since the second half of the 20th century, not always to convincing effect. Nemtsov's cycle consists of musical responses to texts by Marcel Proust, Walter Benjmain, W.G. Sebald, whose writings are infused with haunting nostalgia.
Against a minimalist yet surrealist stage design by Anna Peschke, Nemtsov's music at times succeeded at creating eerie sound worlds that crawled under your skin, from the whirring of tops under rattling teacups and the plucking of harp strings in "Laterna magica/Combray" to the clanking of suspended bedposts, bagpipes and clinking of typewriters in "Central Park/Manhattan or Landzunge/New Jersey."
Musicians of the Ensemble Adapter, led by Manuel Nawri, fleshed out their roles with conviction, although their deathly serious expressions often proved distracting. The unrenovated ballroom of Mitte's Sophiensäle provided an ideal setting, an immediate reminder of the disintegration alluded to by Sebald and Benjamin, although the memories captured by Nemtsov were more self-reflexive than socially encompassing.
Returning to a more traditional genre, the Quatuor Diotima gave a concert at the Radialsystem revealing the dramatic possibilities for string quartet, which carries a great deal of formal baggage for composers.
Recalling the innovation of Arnold Schönberg, who included a passage for soprano in his Second String Quartet, the German premiere of "La tenación de las sombras" by Alberto Posadas created an angst-ridden, neo-expressionist landscape in which the singer (Caroline Stein) fought to rise above a cruel outer world, the shadows of death that threaten to consume her.
Stein blended masterfully with the string's glassy tones. High-pitched squeals, cacophonic friction and metallic textures also drove the piece forth, often to painful, grating effect, providing the listener with little emotional respite.
Barraqué's "Quatuor à cordes," in its much-delayed German premiere, provided lighter dialogue, sparser textures and a distinctly lyrical character in the third movement, wielding serial patterns with an elegance that one can only associate with his French origins.
Rounding out the program were the young composers Oscar Bianchi and Miroslav Srnka, who revealed a wide palette of formal and timbral tools at their disposal. Bianchi's "Adesso" began with isolated creaks and slides before escalating into fragmented outbursts and desperate scurrying.
Srnka's "Engrams" deployed scales and unisonos that relegated classical textures and harmonies to specters of themselves as the quartet struggled to find one voice, wading through searching tremolos and sharp dissonances before culminating in a distorted, neo-baroque melody.
While string quartets are standard fare for any contemporary classical program, one wouldn't expect to come across a quartet of recorders. The Quartet New Generation (QNG), with an armory of recorders of all sizes, proves an exception to the rule, specializing in new music and even inspiring composers to conceive works for them.
At the Music Instrument Museum at Potsdamer Platz, the QNG premiered Marianthi Papalxandri-Alexandri's "atemlos," a composition designed for dismantled, prepared recorders fastened by nylon string to motor-driven rods. While the sound of the strings' friction against the rotating rods changed in pitch and volume according to the players' manipulation, the results were too subtle to appreciate from the audience.
Staking a claim to their instruments as a notable part of today's canon, the QNG premiered their arrangement of Sofia Gubaidulina's Flute Quartet, which was originally rejected by the composer's publisher but managed to win over Gubaidulina herself. Shrill, forceful blowing at moments of climax proved jarring to the flow of the piece, while chattering polyphony was handled skillfully by the players.
Mathias Spahlinger occupied about half the program with works that tended toward Cagean sound happenings such as ripping fabric, a turning bicycle wheel, unraveling duct tape and more. 1970's Paetzold recorders designed out of large wooden organ pipes were used musically to the least possible extent in "eigendynamik," while "eigenzeit" featured staccato melodies, warbling tones and required select players to play two piccolo recorders simultaneously.
Also featured were the "Clockwork Toccata" by Fulvio Caldini with pleasantly interlocking minimalist textures and Alexandra Filonenko's updated version of "Sirenen," which exploited a wide range of different recorders and their timbral possibilities, from dampened tones to exuberant cacophony, although the piece lacked structural definition.
Closing the festival, the Deutsche Symphonie Orchester Berlin performed works by Dai Fujikura, Mark Andre, Luigi Nono, and Matthias Pintscher, a leading composer of his generation who doubled as conductor for the evening at the studio auditorium of the RBB.
In Pintscher's violin concerto "Mar'eh," Hebrew for "countenance" or "a beautiful apparition," intricate textures intertwined like fine-spun silver thread. Violinist Hae-Sun Kang sung in delicate flights above the orchestra, which alternately reacted in wonder or provided subtle atmospherics.
"Hij 1," an acronym for "Hilfe, Jesu" (help, Jesus) and a Scandinavian greeting, included even more imperceptible orchestration recalling the bristly techniques of the Andre's mentor, Helmut Lachenmann. Sound emerged as if a chimera until string snaps, muted howls in the brass and persistent "col legno" attacks evoked unearthly suffering.
Fukijara's "Tocar y luchar," originally commissioned for the Venezuelan "El Sistema" youth orchestra, built slowly into waves of neo-Romantic harmonies and melodic fragmentation that clattered and twittered until subsiding into shivering strings. Despite colorful and animated instrumentation, it was difficult to find a dramatic arc.
Such concerns dissipated in the final piece, Nono's "No hay caminos, hay que caminar," which submerges the listener in auditory extremes that are not meant to be resolved: there is no path, the title says, only the journey itself. With the orchestra dispersed into seven groups, the music unfolded in a sloth-like process, the silences weighing as heavily in all corners of the auditorium as the screeching strings and flickering percussion.
The journey remained open as listeners filed out of the hall, perhaps carrying the vestiges of Nono's leftist, anti-western ideology onto the cold streets of Berlin.