This weekend, the Goethe-Institut Boston along with Harvard University hosted a series of lectures and a concert entitled New Perspectives for New Music in Germany. It may surprise some that a conversation concerning new music is still relevant. Is there really anything left to say about it? We may recall from our music history courses the constant disagreements in the decades after World War II as many different schools of music sprang up and competed for dominance. Serialism, minimalism, spectralism, totalism, polystylism and many other -isms were all explored and, more or less, exhausted. Much of the listening public also became exhausted trying to keep up with trends and follow divisive polemics—it seems nowadays audiences have found relief in a relative stasis. They can listen to their Johns—Adams, Corigliano, Harbison—and almost forget all this nonsense at Darmstadt ever happened. This weekend’s miniconference was proof that the conversation is still pertinent.
It all started with Michael Rebhahn’s essay, “I Hereby Resign From New Music”, presented at the renowned Darmstadt summer courses last summer. The text [here] was presented to “a basement with 20 people in it,” and quickly ignited a dynamic conversation in the new-music community. Rebhahn’s critical diatribe was directed at music that has “fallen prey to a self-referential sonic-fetishism” and aimed to separate new music from the old-fashioned institutions which seem to support it only begrudgingly. In his lecture this weekend, Rebhahn used his essay as a jumping off point, discussing the critics and supporters of his movement and proposing that the labels “contemporary classical” and “new music” be used to differentiate between current trends being followed by living composers.
The weekend also included a lecture by philosopher Harry Lehmann based on his new book, “The Digital Revolution of Music.” Lehmann discussed the evolution of music as innovations in technology have guided it, pointing to a future that is performed by e-players (orchestral sample libraries) and is self-published and broadcast via the Internet. He makes clear how these innovations are contributing to the weakening of established music institutions. The lectures were accompanied by presentations by composers Johannes Kreidler and Hannes Seidl, who would have their music performed at the concert on Sunday night.
The evening opened with Johannes Kreidler’s Charts Music, in which he used various charts to compose melodies which he arranged using Songsmith, software for composer hobbyists. The composition was accompanied by a video which displayed the various charts on which the melodies were based. The stock market melodies would fall and fall with occasional rises before finally ending on a low sustained tone, while melodies based on deaths of soldiers in Iraq or the porn industry would rise seemingly indefinitely. The juxtaposition of these specific rising and falling charts obviously implies the backward priorities of national institutions. However, the not so obvious comment is in the orchestration of the composition. By using inexpensive software accessible to anyone, Johannes Kreidler is commenting on the role of the composer in a society where anyone, even with no experience, can churn out a decent song in an afternoon.
Next was Hannes Seidl’s Gegenkontrolle for electronics and percussionist. Seidl, in his earlier presentation, expressed strong interest in music for social situations. In this piece, he explores the lulling effect background music can have and the disturbances which intrude upon it. Sustained drones and gentle clicks made up the bulk of the electronic foundation, while percussionist Bill Solomon took care of the distractions. It started as shuffling in the back of the room, gradually taking on the form of dropping objects directly outside the perimeter of the room. These interferences annoyed me at first as they took away from the experience of the absorbing electronic music being presented. After a while I realized the distractions were part of the composition and, judging from my initial reaction, were a successful integration according to the composer’s intention. The piece progressed this way, electronics gradually bubbling more intensely, until it became a deafening wall of finely crafted noise. The decibel level maintained was astonishing and provided a thrilling visceral sensation until the wall of noise subsided and the piece returned to its initial stasis.
Johannes Kreidler’s Piano Piece #5 for piano and four-channel tape uses high-quality piano samples to extend the piano sound. The prerecorded piano is pitch-shifted up and down and combined with live piano (handled by the Callithumpian Consort’s Yukiko Takagi) so that the piano seems to drip and melt before your ears. Melodic runs up the keyboard, played by Takagi, would be extended far beyond the range of a real piano by the samples pitch-shifted almost beyond audible range. It was a fine example of how live electronics can enhance and complement live performance.
Another composition mixing electronics and a live performer came after the intermission with Kreidler’s Windowed 1 version 1 for percussion and single-channel electronics. For a percussionist who spent the first half of the concert dropping spoons in a hallway, Bill Solomon made quite an impression during this piece. He performed what would be difficult for two percussionists to accomplish, playing many instruments at once with extreme agility and precision. The electronic structure of the piece was made up of recorded and processed samples that included orchestral recordings and field recordings. These chopped-up files, according to the program notes, become “windowed,” and “depending on how far the window opens one becomes aware of an unspecified sound fragment or stylistic identity.” It is a cerebral exploration of the value system given to the mostly unnoticed sounds which accompany our banal daily experiences vs framed sounds such as those found in concert halls.
Takagi took the stage once again to perform Kreidler’s Study for piano, audio and video playback. It is another piece where Kreidler uses samples to extend the limits of acoustic piano. It starts with a tremendous jolt in the high range of the piano as the samples spider around dissonant chords until they break apart into unhumanly fast glissandos. Extended techniques also played a prominent role in this piece as Takagi was asked to pluck strings and bang on the piano with implements. About halfway through the piece the video playback began. Various images appeared on the screen—a piano recital, a thunderstorm—with accompanying audio .
Hannes Seidl closed out the evening with his Die Illusion erzeugen, dass die Zeit dynamisch und bedeutsam vergeht, which draws its title from a quote shared in the program notes by Murray Schafer: “generate the illusion that time passes dynamically and significantly.” (The Canadian Schafer is an “acoustic ecologist” and author of the Tuning of the World, 1977.) The piece was a sprawling exploration of Seidl’s interest in music for social situations and its interaction with acoustically near-silent spaces, or concert halls. The interplay between Bill Solomon’s percussive transients and Hannes Seidl’s electronic constructions ended up being the most beautiful part of the evening.
The weekend concluded early Monday afternoon with a roundtable discussion in Harvard’s Davison room. The atmosphere was much different from the first lecture, on Saturday morning. The group, which consisted mostly of Harvard graduate students, seemed to have developed a sense of togetherness from their passionate discussions and disagreements. The closing discussion went right up to the end of the allotted time (and of course still continues). To paraphrase one of Harry Lehmann’s comments, philosophers will always construct theoretical apparatuses to describe scenes and will continue to be able to give strength to movements merely by applying a name. Resignation from “new music” or “contemporary classical music” may be needed in order to secure a meaningful place for music in the future; constant redefining can propel innovation. However, too much attention given to arguments over arbitrary terminology may also distract us from what really matters: the music.