Berlin's 'MaerzMusik' Festival Mystifies As It Illuminates : NPR FM Berlin Blog La Monte Young, a founding figure of minimalist music, had his European premiere of "The Dream House," a collaboration with lighting designer Marian Zazeela at the Villa Elisabeth as part of Berlin's MaerzMusik last week.
NPR logo Berlin's 'MaerzMusik' Festival Mystifies As It Illuminates

Berlin's 'MaerzMusik' Festival Mystifies As It Illuminates

"The Dream House," a collaboration between La Monte Young, a founding figure of minimalist music, and lighting designer Marian Zazeela, made its European premiere at the Villa Elisabeth as part of Berlin's MaerzMusik last week. Kai Bienert/Berliner Festspiele hide caption

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Kai Bienert/Berliner Festspiele

Blue and red silhouettes dance against the wall as La Monte Young, sitting cross-legged in a black cape-like garb and a tight-fitting cap, lifts an exposed arm to gesture the start of a new vocal raga.

He and his female companions chant in ancient Indian over an electronic drone and occasional tabla drumming. Listeners stretch out on the shaggy white carpet in front of them, some assuming meditative poses.

"The Dream House," a collaboration between Young, a founding figure of minimalist music, and lighting designer Marian Zazeela, made its European premiere at the Villa Elisabeth as part of Berlin's new music festival MärzMusik last week.

It's one of many events that scattered around the city from March 17-25 exploring the legacy of John Cage.

A concert at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele brought together all four founders of the Sonic Arts Union, created in 1966 as a platform for live electronic music theater. Alvin Lucier enacted his iconic "Music for Solo Performer" (1965), attaching small electrodes to his scalp and meditating to create alpha waves which were electronically engineered to set off wired percussion instruments scattered behind him like objets trouvés.

Cymbals, gongs, and bass drums started beating as if controlled by ghosts, while the alpha waves were streamed faintly through the speakers.

The concert also featured the world premiere of Lucier's "Slices" (2002/2012) for cello and pre-recorded orchestra, in which the soloist (Charles Curtis) bows a melody against a cluster of 53 tones that gradually dwindles to a tonal center.

David Behrman, along with fellow composer Gordon Mumma and two other performers, stood around a wired piano for his "Wave Train" (1967), which uses the reverberation of piano strings as feedback. His "Long Throw" (2007) for prepared piano, live electronic and two instruments—here trumpet and cello—featured dreamy atmospheric textures, jazz-inspired elements, and free minimalist melodies, the perfect late-night fare.

A portrait of American composer Annie Gosfield at the Berghain brought to light more recent developments in experimental electronica. Much like Behrman, her work is driven by an interest in the innovative possibilities for blending instrumentalism and originally-developed electronic sounds. Her "Luminous Reflection of Metallatic Direction" for cello and electronic, here in its world premiere, featured samples of interlocking industrial sounds that became uncannily lyrical against the scrubbing of an aluminum cello (Frances-Marie Uitti).

MärzMusik naturally featured straight orchestral music as well, delving into the works of German composer Wolfgang Rihm—whose 60th birthday presented an occasion for presenters to contrast him with Cage.

A concert at the Philharmonie with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg under Lothar Zagrosek featured his "3. Doppelsang" (2004/7) for clarinet and viola, a dramatic work that unfolded in impetuous lyric dialogue and neo-Romantic harmonies, and "Magma" (1973), an explosive avant-garde mix of snapping strings, insistent pizzicatos, and crashing organ.

The program further included Morton Feldman's kaleidoscopic "Coptic Light," his last piece for orchestra and a masterpiece of polytonal textures that are uncharacteristic for the composer, and Christian Wolff's "John, David" for orchestra and percussionist (1998), respectively dedicated to John Cage and David Tudor (an important figure in promoting Cage's piano works at home and abroad). The first half was composed using the I-Ging (one of Cage's favorite methods), isolating the different sections of the orchestra between long silences; the second features unruly dialogue with the percussionist Robyn Schulkowsky.

The program notes maintain that Cage and Rihm share in common the fact that they both rebelled against their teachers: the former by rejecting Arnold Schönberg's serialism in favor of radical experimentalism, the latter by departing from Karlheinz Stockhausen's proscribed conceptual development in favor of spontaneous, expressive structures.

Yet the contrast effectively skips a generation. Surely it would be worth mentioning that Cage's sound system was fundamentally a reaction to the European avant-garde, which found its most important continued expression in the Darmstadt School—championed by Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, and Luigi Nono.

Rihm may reactionary in his own right, that this is surely not a defining quality of his music. Cage is mystifying enough without having to confront such double-negatives.