This past weekend saw the conclusion of a two-part academic conference (and accompanying concert) jointly hosted by the Harvard Group for New Music (HGNM) and the Goethe-Institut Boston on the topic of new trends in German contemporary music.
More than two years in the making, the first part of the part of the conference (formally billed as “New Tendencies of Contemporary Music in Germany”) took place in the spring of 2013 with composers Johannes Kreidler and Hannes Seidl; musicologist Michael Rebhahn; and music philosopher Harry Lehmann invited from Germany to present their work. Of differing artistic and philosophical projects, the four are frequently understood, controversially, as advancing different types of musical postmodernism in historically modernist parts of the German contemporary music scene.
This past weekend saw the opposite, with composers Kai Johannes Polzhofer, Dániel Péter Bíro and Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf; sociologist Ferdinand Zehentreiter; and philosopher Gunnar Hindrichs invited to elaborate an opposing point of view. Lectures were delivered at the Music Department of Harvard University; concerts and additional presentations were given in the elegantly turned-out quarters of the Goethe-Institut on Commonwealth Avenue.
Presentations began Saturday afternoon with American-Hungarian composer Dániel Péter Bíro’s talk entitled “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh: The Future of Historicized, Nonrepresentational New Music.” Bíro’s keynote was a probingly personal reflection on two different points. The first of these being the global importance of the contemporary music scene in Germany. And the second being Bíro’s analysis of the ways in which the German contemporary music scene is now losing its way from this position of artistic and esthetic leadership, a process Bíro identified as paralleling the postmodern turn taken by the visual arts in the US of the 1980s and its ensuing commercialization. Choosing to end his presentation with music instead of words, Bíro played a recording of his flute solo, Kivrot hata’avah (“Graves of Craving”), for the more than 40 participants in attendance. Variegated and inward-looking, Kivrot hataavah wound its way through a musical territory positioned somewhere between a type of ghostly incantation and a polyphonic whirlwind of breath and explosive cross-accents, played expertly by Austrian flutist Sylvie Lacroix. Rising slowly and inexorably in register over the course of its 13- or 14-minute duration, “Kivrot hata’avah” moved with a quiet certainty about the direction of its enigmatic materials. The music was sphinxlike in its beauty, as though a type of text known only to the flutist, the composer (and perhaps to the divine) were driving forward the progress of the piece, an impression which Bíro, who has studied both Jewish and Islamic cantillation, was able to address in response to audience questions about the piece at the conclusion of his presentation.
Harvard PhD candidate and German-Austrian composer Kai Johannes Polzhofer followed Bíro’s presentation with an expansive lecture entitled “Music Without Content and Some Other Recent Confusions.” Deeply critical of the underpinnings of German New Conceptualism, Polzhofer’s polemics took aim at political music in Germany that Polzhofer analyzed as qualified to call itself neither politics nor music. Identifying a pattern of careerism in the composers and theorists of the New Conceptualism, Polzhofer argued instead for a radically humanized approach to composition that Polzhofer would position as the foundation of a truly political music able to change the individual and society.
Saturday’s events concluded with the beautifully discursive reflections of sociologist Ferdinand Zehentreiter, in his talk “New Creation or Playground: A Discourse-Analytical Sketch of Conceptualism in Music Composition.” Zehentreiter directed his remarks not towards any of the music of the composers of the New Conceptualism but rather towards the sociologically-oriented parts of the language that Hannes Seidl (a guest of the 2013 Harvard conference) uses to create the foundation of his musical project. Seidl’s esthetics, Zehentreiter argued, fails to understand the social situations of every day and musical life (the context of the concert hall, the context of a marching band) as requiring a certain type of translation —“trans-signification”, in Zehentreiter’s words—to rise to the level of fully critical art. Throughout his remarks, Zehentreiter used Baudelaire’s flâneur (as keen observer of the multitudes who is, nonetheless, never fully included within them) as a type of compass to help navigate the waters of this part of the discourse of contemporary music in Germany.
Hosted by the Goethe-Institut Boston, Sunday’s proceedings featured talks by composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf and philosopher Gunnar Hindrichs, as well as an evening concert by Canadian tubist and composer Max Murray and American pianist Keith Kirchoff.
Claus-Steffan Mahnkopf began Sunday’s events with his searching talk entitled “When Is Great Music Possible?” The most overtly provocative of the weekend’s events, Mahnkopf’s talk centered not on his own practice as a composer but rather on the intersection of cultural and esthetic issues writ large: What defines the category of musical greatness? Is resistance still the requirement for great art and, if so, is it primarily a type of suffering that engenders resistance? Are we forced to accept a moral or cultural relativism in our understanding of contemporary music? And, ultimately, does the zeitgeist allow for the greatness of musical works in the current moment? The positioning of Mahnkopf’s comments were not without controversy, as was proved by discussion with the audience following the talk. The ideas of greatness advanced in Mahnkopf’s remarks may have best been extended by a question of Chaya Czernowin, who asked whether the diversification (or even splintering) we now see in contemporary music might in fact function in a fundamentally different and more pluralistic way than the divisions in previous music history (such as, for example, the divisions between Brahms and Wagner or between Schoenberg and Stravinsky, divisions always reintegrated by the culture into a type of unity after the fact).
Philosopher Gunnar Hindrichs then articulated an argument in favor of a formal definition of the musical work according to a type of Kantian reasoning adjusted to start from the foundations of category theory. Deriving, perhaps surprisingly, from a perspective of analytic philosophy rather than from critical theory, Hindrichs’s argument sought to unseat ontology from the position of “first philosophy” (a position given to it in antiquity by Aristotle) for the purposes of understanding of what a musical work might be. Deciding in the end in the affirmative that the concept of the musical work can, and does, exist, Hindrichs weighed in on one of the perennially contentious divisions between musical postmodernism and its opponents.
The events on Sunday concluded with a concert of music for solo tuba by composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charlie Sdraulig and György Kurtág (all expertly played by Canadian tubist and composer Max Murray) together with Claus-Steffen Mahnhkopf’s incredibly difficult La rêve d’ange nouveau for piano (as played by Keith Kirchoff).
Meditative and introverted, Australian composer Charlie Sdraulig’s Category (2014) turned the interior of the Goethe-Institut Boston into a collective experiment in listening. Eschewing musical narrative for a type of delicate performer-environment responsiveness, Sdraulig’s piece transformed the tubist into a receiver of ambient noise to be silently captured by the player and then re-emitted into the hall as a delicate and wavering fabric of sound. The piece seemed to exist at something of a borderland between concept and fully notated score and provided for subsequent discussion by the audience as to what might qualify a music as concept music. Murray’s excerpted transcription of Hungarian composer György Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages (1989-2005) served up a charming interlude in the evening’s concert. Light, playful and perfectly rendered, Murray’s transcription traded the characteristic string-crossings of Kurtág’s original (scored for viola) for a delightful technique of alternating heavy and light attacks on repeated pairs of notes in the tuba. Enigmatic and miniaturized, the short moments of Murray’s Kurtág transcription suspended this traditionally heaviest of instruments astonishingly in midair.
Just as expertly played was Murray’s performance of Stockhausen’s In Freudschaft (1977), a disappointingly unambitious piece by the composer of such incredible works of musical modernism as Gruppen (1955-57) and Kontakte (1958-60). Stockhausen wrote In Freudschaft at the end of the 1977 as a birthday present for American clarinetist Suzanne Stephens, later transcribing it for a number of different solo instruments, all of which seem frequently still to be programmed but none of which seems ever to be musically effective. The inclusion of a piece by one the truly outsized figures of postwar German music made for a richer concert than would otherwise have been the case. But even Murray’s prodigious interpretive skills couldn’t save the underdevelopment of the score.
Concluding Sunday’s concert was the incredibly difficult piano solo La rêve d’ange nouveau (1997-2000) by German composer (and invited guest of the conference) Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf. Conceived as one of an interlocking collection of related works comprising Mahnkopf’s work-cycle Angleus Novus, the solo asked for moments of extreme virtuosity from American pianist and composer Keith Kirchoff. Played entirely on the keys rather than inside the body of the instrument, the piece effected a fireworks of material running from the extreme lower to upper ends of the instrument, interwoven with a collection of trills and other gestures designed to problematize the otherwise explosive course of the music. Kirchoff’s performance capped off the evening’s concert with moments of the brilliance that musical modernism can so effectively still produce and may have been, for that reason, one of the strongest of the weekend’s arguments in favor of a continued modernist response in the face of the German musical postmodernism.
On Monday the conference returned to Harvard’s Music Department for a formal conclusion to the weekend’s events. A light lunch was served as the conference’s presenters were joined by a full room of conference participants for a wide-ranging discussion on the status of contemporary music in Germany and elsewhere. Topics raised concerned what the current and future contribution of the New Conceptualism in Germany might be; whether and how the contemporary music landscapes (and their funding) in Germany and the US are to be compared; how a type of musical pluralism might allow for the continuance of serious musical investigation in the present moment; and many other questions besides. Wherever one might fall on the esthetic topics litigated (and on the music performed), there was a decided feeling in the room that both the previous installment of the conference in 2013 and the one from this past weekend evidenced an unusually effective example of critical discourse in contemporary music.