In his preface to the booklet of the 2014 edition of the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music, director Thomas Schäfer talks about a ‘new self-image of the ensembles’, an image reflected in the title of that year’s course: Performing Matters. The new ensembles Schäfer refers to are made up of performers who are keenly aware of their own position within the field of contemporary music. These performers typically create their own projects, test different forms of collaboration, and leave their personal imprint on commissioned works. Further, they think and act beyond their immediate field, searching for new impulses in other musical genres, related art forms, politics and science, thus questioning the relevance of their work within a larger social context. Finally, they challenge prevailing discourses and modes of musical presentation, in particular the classical concert format.
The classical concert as we know it today clearly belongs to a bygone historical paradigm. Rooted in a 19th century bourgeois ideology and based on notions of economical and social success, it was established in times of great social change – industrialization, secularization and the flourishing of urban life. Back then, it represented a space in which the more aspirational social classes could satisfy their spiritual, social and intellectual needs that were no longer met by the church or the court.
The classical concert as we know it today clearly belongs to a bygone historical paradigm. Established in times of great social changes – with the industrial revolution in the late 18th century forcing hordes of people in Europe and the colonized world to move to cities and adopt an urban lifestyle in which traditions from land and church had little place, classical music concerts had come to represent a space in which the aspirational classes could form social bonds and satisfy their spiritual, social and intellectual needs. For that reason, the rituals that framed these concerts naturally evolved around ideals of economical and social réussite (self-control, a disciplined body language) firmly rooted in a bourgeois worldview.
Faced by a contemporary world characterized by more fluid relationships, the format has become anachronistic: concert organizers (and their funders) want programmes that more accurately mirror the pluralism of today’s society; diversity and outreach have become recurrent topics in the music scene; young musicians, no longer satisfied with merely executing scores, long for ways to connect with their audiences and to make their art and skills relevant to the world around them. Audiences and artists alike are thirsty for shared cultural experiences, but the raw exposure to musical works without attention to context or any kind of mediation, is too unfamiliar for some and, for others, not stimulating enough.
In Martin Tröndle’s 2011 book Das Konzert, curator Markus Fein describes the ‘concert of the future’ as including cross-disciplinary experimentation (with science, other arts, politics); a relational social dimension (sharing food, active participation by the audience, city tours); choreography and stage design (lighting, video, timing, movement); scenography (visual amplification of music, unusual seating arrangements, site-specific concerts). Other strategies may include eclectic repertoire, alternative venues and site/event-specific programming; inclusion of different narratives or historical dimensions via pre-concert talks, workshops for amateurs, etc.
Fein's argument for this expansion of the concert format is mainly based on the necessity of attracting new audiences. While performers are indeed concerned with the rehabilitation of an institution in decline, and while it may be important or unavoidable to consider the economic sustainability of our field of work, many of us are driven by aesthetic motivations that do not necessarily follow the market logic of audience-pleasing. Making use of newest technologies and/or inspired by practices of curatorship widespread in dance, theatre and the visual arts, these performers address the classical concert as a living practice and artistic material.
This essay addresses projects and practices that I consider particularly relevant and inspiring in that sense, as well as examples taken from my own work. I place particular focus on concert concepts that focus on cross-disciplinarity, reaching out to audiences, diversity, and on the social engagement of performers. Rather than a broad diversity and for the sake of precision, I have with few exceptions opted for describing productions in which I am either involved in or which I have personally attended. The examples chosen here represent therefore only a small fraction of the wealth of projects and initiatives out there.
At the intersection between audience development and aesthetic experimentation are projects by ensemble Ictus or the Danish Scenatet. In the tradition of Pierre Boulez, who replaced seats with comfy mats in the ‘rug concerts’ held during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in the early 70s, Ictus’s Liquid Rooms and Scenatet’s concert walks are informal, relaxed performance situations intended to lower the threshold for concert attendance for those not familiar with the strict rituals of the traditional classical concert.
During Scenatet’s concert walks in Glorup, Denmark in 2013, visitors were guided through the forest of Glorup, where they met musicians performing in stages set between trees, or boating on a lake. In Ictus’s Liquid Room, on the other hand, the audience was invited to move freely within the concert space, entering or leaving it at will.
Liquid Rooms are an ongoing immersive concert concept inspired by rock festivals and improv gigs. Although the repertoire presented in a Liquid Room session changes with each iteration, it generally includes composed works with a cool, ambient or hyperenergetic flavour mixed with what Ictus calls ‘instantaneous productions’ (remix, improvisation based on a framework). There is no fixed stage. Instead, music is performed in a series of stages placed in different parts of the room. Musicians dress casually. Blackouts, strobing, projections and other extra-musical elements ensure a smooth and unbroken transition between stages and musical works in addition to preparing the atmosphere for the next piece.
The connection between pieces is not chronological or stylistic, neither does it base itself on an articulated message or subject. Rather, it follows an logic coming from a quasi-visceral understanding of the combination of textures, motivic patterns, dynamics, speed and movement as way of eliciting particular atmospheres, emotional climaxes and listeners’ states of mind. This abstract form of ‘embodied dramaturgy’, familiar to most musicians and used intuitively in concert programming, is particular to music as an artform unfolding in time. If formalized, it could become one of music’s most interesting contributions to current curatorial discourses.
Ictus’s Liquid Rooms represent an effort to break free from the elitism of contemporary music by linking it to musical genres and contexts generally associated with mass culture. In a mix of artistic manifesto and brand statement, Nikel Ensemble propose something similar: ‘In the past 20 years, the knowledge revolution, with its easiness of transport and mobility under the general acceptance of a globalized capitalism, has generally redefined our experience of life and concretely reshaped the world of arts [...]. [In this new world] a “classical” music group jumps out of the concert hall to play in a bar or a club not for the sake of being COOL and attract additional public but for the idealistic (probably naive) thought to possibly reshape current structures within the pre-given social order where the relations between the artist, the audience and the hosting platform are to be reexamined.’
In this text, Nikel outline the social context in which they operate (a changing world, mobile, globalized, borderless); they identify a problem (the incompatibility between a classical music culture and this context); finally, they propose a solution: finding alternative venues for performance that allow for a restructuring of the relationship between musicians, audience and organizers.
I am not sure how far Nikel succeed in transplanting contemporary music to bars and clubs – to the best of my knowledge, most of their concerts take place in venues and festivals specializing in contemporary music. What they manage very well, though, is to bring a dynamic and refreshing spirit to traditional contemporary music settings, behaving as they would in bars or clubs. Thus, in a recent performance at the Orangerie, the members of the group entered the stage like rock stars and were treated accordingly by the audience of young composers and performers at the Darmstadt Summer Course. Nikel’s primary wish might have been to perform elsewhere, and not to be considered ‘cool’, but it is precisely the coolness they bring to the traditional concert hall that guarantees their success.
Belgian ensemble Nadar is another group yearning to present music that reflects and interacts with today’s world. They are happy to abandon the concert hall if the latter becomes a burden for the realization of a musical idea. In an article in the music magazine Positionen, the group insist: ‘new music needs to be programmed and presented in ways that match its content and context’.
One example is the outdoor multimedia concert Dead Serious, centred around a piece for four hot air balloons by composer Michael Maierhof. Hot air balloons were once used for espionage. In Nadar’s performance, they alluded to modern forms of vigilance. The concert, in the words of the ensemble, was ‘to be situated somewhere in between concert, immersive installation and political performance, with “surveillance” and the related blurring of the borders between reality and virtuality as recurring themes’. The hot air balloons were accompanied by an installation composed of four large screens showing footage taken during a balloon flight over the city. Brief interventions by visual artist Waafaa Bilal, including choreography for drones and belly dancer, reinforced the theme of surveillance and served as thematic bridges between the different pieces. Again, here the audience was invited to walk around, creating its own path in the proposed landscape. Nadar’s multilayered, choreographed and site-specific presentation far exceeded the boundaries of the traditional concert format.
In OurEars (2018), Nadar presented a series of mini-concerts designed specifically for private locations in Darmstadt – a shared apartment, an artist’s studio, a doctor’s surgery and an alternative cultural centre. The audience was invited to experience the music through the imaginary eyes and ears of the buildings’ inhabitants, whose life stories we could reconstruct from photos on walls, personal objects, biographical notes in the programme booklet or recorded interviews aired during the events. The feeling of taking part in an irreproducible situation was, if possible, even more present than in Dead Serious.
Other strategies used by Nadarto turn music concerts into full-blown cultural events include storytelling and the stimulation of dialogues across artistic disciplines. Long Live the New Flesh, from 2012, investigated the use of sampling in different art forms, combining musical and video pieces in the same concert. According to Nadar, the result of this combination formed a ‘metacomposition’. In Lesaserma Pokhunakis (2016), the ensemble commissioned four composers to create individual works and to collectively design a structure to frame them. This resulted in a new ‘metacomposition’ consisting of a faux-documentary film about the imagined life of fictional writer Pokhunakis, with the four new pieces used to punctuate or illustrate different stages of the writer’s life. Nadar is also attentive to the way it presents content on the internet, extending their curatorial concerns to online platforms and social media, or as they say, to the ‘virtual concert halls’.
While Nadar builds its image and repertoire around new technologies and virtual reality, other perfomers and ensembles cultivate diversity. In such cases, it is the exploratory approach of our increasingly chaotic world, and the way these musicians deploy the mix – of styles, repertoire, media, activities – which defines their distinctive image.
For Manchester-based ensemble Distractfold, for instance, it is the diversity within the ensemble that makes it ‘unique’: ‘Coming from different continents, backgrounds and having received a diverse education, [the members of Distractfold Ensemble] create a nexus of ideas and influences which all contribute towards the ensemble’s unique voice and identity.’
If some ensembles and musicians bet on diversity when curating concert programmes, others such as the Norwegian Ensemble neoN wager on the opposite extreme. Although the ensemble’s overall profile is versatile, neoN prefers programmes centred around focused listening, with single longform works such as the performance of two tea roses by Phill Niblock at HOK in 2012, or even performances lasting several days in which one idea is explored from various angles. The latter is best illustrated in a project with electronica artist Jan St Werner from 2018. Here, a limited number of composed works served as the basis for improvisation in shifting formations as well as for collaborations with other artists, including spontaneous guests who jammed along with the musicians. Diversity, for our group, is represented by our musical choices rather than by the combination of pieces within a concert. It means expanding the sonic palette beyond that which we have learnt at school, as well as approaching our not exclusively classical musical interests with a language familiar to all of us. This goal is generally achieved through crossover collaborations such as the project with Jan St Werner. The ensemble’s portfolio in this direction also includes a collaboration with pop artist Susanna Wallumrød and a forthcoming partnership with noise musicians Lasse Marhaug and Otomo Yoshihide’s Far East Network.
Another example of musical crossover is that of the Silk Road project of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, prominently described in Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s recent Music After the Fall: Music Composition and Culture Since 1989. Silk Road is an ensemble composed of musicians with different origins, from classical, folk and contemporary Western and non-Western traditions, whose individual characteristics are as important as their identity as a group. The multiculturalism of the musicians is clearly mirrored in their attitude on stage and in their styles of dressing, from casual to formal clothing or national costume.
Silk Road defines itself as an ‘imagination platform’: through affiliation with universities and public schools, the group encourages dialogue between artists, educators and entrepreneurs. It has indeed become more common for performers and ensembles to propose activities that encompass much more than concerts but which do not necessarily fall into traditional models of teaching. Nadar and Nikel offer summer academies in which they promote the music they like; Distractfold is ensemble in residence at the Architectural Association in London; Nikel and Distractfold organize their own festivals; and the Berlin ensemble Adapter regularly offers open evening workshops called Open Mic’s where composers work with musicians on fragments or ideas-in-progress in front of an engaged audience.
Making the backstage area of music-making transparent is likewise at the core of Impossible Situations: A Collective Experiment (IS:CNE), a platform for artistic creation and exchange initiated by myself and violinist Karin Hellqvist (Duo Hellqvist/Amaral) and with a membership including a number of composers, architect Filippa Berglund and sound engineer Max Sauer. IS:CNE artists have been meeting regularly since 2016 to develop new compositions and to work out together how to integrate them into different concert situations. Working with an architect at all stages of the process brings the question of the use of space into the picture, allowing for an even more sustained exploration of the diverse parameters of the concert situation, particularly in regard to the constantly shifting performance contexts, as becomes clear from the example above.
Inspired by ideas about exhibition-staging from the art world, we experiment with the placement of musicians, audience, projection and speakers in the space, and try to integrate elements of the process into our performances. We have, for instance, invited photographer Ellen Inga to freely document our workshops for a period of three years. Inga’s work serves a double purpose: Considering that the project wishes to explore new roles for all parties involved, the collective observation of the pictures between and within concerts is a useful reminder of how easy it is to fall into habitual and unproductive patterns of communication. More importantly, we use them as tool to remember special moments or to reflect on unnoticed ones. Lately, it has also become part of the scenography, as in our last performance, where the audience sat on the floor surrounded by small prints of Inga’s pictures. With the video of Øyvind Torvund’s Plans for Future Keyboard and Violin Pieces projected on the ceiling and the pictures covering the ground, we tipped the customary horizontal angle of viewing towards the vertical.
The exposure of processes also takes place at a discursive level. IS:CNE working sessions include workshops organized either independently or in partnership with festivals and/or music academies. During these workshops, students, artists and curators working at the intersection of performance, composition and visual presentation are given the opportunity to shadow rehearsals, set-up and concerts, and hence to get a glimpse of what happens backstage at a concert. Such public workshop situations force us to articulate doubts and concerns normally confined to the practice room, thus bringing more clarity and precision in musical decision-making.
On the occasion of a workshop at the SPOR Festival in Aarhus in 2018, we decided to share with the audience our dilemma concerning the video projection in Daniel Moreira’s piece The Delivery. The problem was as follows: the marionette theatre designated for the performance had turned out to be too small to accommodate the staging intended by the composer, which consisted of a central projection with instruments placed on one side of the stage. Not only was the stage too small to fit the projection, piano and violin next to each other, but the dark colours of the walls made the projection blurry. After long deliberations, it was decided to place supplementary low-standing screens on each side of the stage running simultaneously with the backwall projection, with the performers standing right beneath the latter, in the centre of the stage.
The new setting enhanced the visibility not only of the video but also of the performers, and contributed both to the rhythmical energy and to the overall intensity of the piece. Aesthetically, however, it had travelled far from Moreira’s original intentions , for it shifted the focus from the storyline of the film; that is, from a clear narrative structure to a multilayered interaction between between live performers, tape and video.
The conversation with the audience during the workshop began in quite a heated tone, with the composer feeling somewhat cornered by the rest of the group, who supported the scenographer’s solution. As the discussion evolved, though, arguments became more nuanced; daring even. Suddenly, what had started as a fight between two sides turned into a common object of reflection and experimentation: what would happen if… The following evening, both audience and artists felt a strong ownership over the final presentation, aware at the same time that the iteration proposed was only one option out of many.
Thinking across disciplines is also a particular asset when connecting music to topical issues. Kaleidoskop Soloists’ Ensemble and choreographer Laurent Chétouane joined forces to develop the concert format Transit presented at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 2017. Embodying the tragic situation of migrants in Europe, musicians dressed in ragged clothes entered the concert hall in a truck and moved erratically among the audience while performing meditative music by Chiyoko Szlavnics, Dmitri Kourliandski and Sebastian Claren. Although I react to the one-sidedness of the repertoire and the choice of costumes – too illustrative for my taste – I admire the way Transit brings the political concerns and interests of the performers to the new music stage.
In the same line, albeit in a complete different format, Norway’s Ning Ensemble created Rikskonsert (Kingdom Concert). A mixture of talkshow, conference and concerts, including unorthodox arrangements of Norwegian classics, national anthems, folk songs, jingles and pop hits, the project was intended as a questioning of Norwegian musical identity in times of globalization, multiculturalism, self-realization and commercialism.
Similarly, politically-minded musicians from ensemble Interface created the project Zwischenzone Ost to assert their concern with the porousness of the East European border with the precarity of nations such as Russia, Turkey and Greece. Zwischenzone Ost consists of a series of concerts and open roundtables in which composers, interpreters and audience shared music and views that critically reflected on the notion of ‘Europeanness’.
Like Zwischenzone Ost, Disobediences in Sound combines performance and public discourse. A platform initiated by violinist Karin Hellqvist and myself in 2017, Disobediences combines concerts with satellite activities that are either discursive (lectures, roundtables, screenings about relevant issues) or that integrate practice and discourse (workshops, open rehearsals). Nothing is really new in the topics addressed by the project: we look at at presentation formats, audiences and the use of public space in contemporary experimental music. The difference, however, is the perspective: we focus on the role of the performer and on the question of whether and how a socially-engaged performance practice of contemporary music is possible.
The opening concert of the project at CentroCentro, the headquarters of the government of the city of Madrid – raised questions that were discussed at length during a symposium organized together with composer, sound artist and Vang-Curator Alberto Bernal at MediaLab Prado: What does it mean to perform a concert with explicit political context in a building that houses the city council, and which is guarded by dozens of heavily armed security officers who accompany the artists around the building and constantly peep into the auditorium as if criminal acts were about to be perpetrated? Besides, whom do these guards represent? What government sits in this building and what does it stand for? On another note, what do we performers wish to say by programming a work commenting on the habits of the US military (as in Marina Rosenfeld’s my red red blood) side by side with a harsh critic of the inhuman aspects of capitalism (as in Fran MM. Cabeza de Vaca and rapper Maria Salgado’s ACAB)? More importantly, who is listening to us, and who do we want to reach with such messages?
As these examples show, performers have been taking more responsibility for the content of what they present, with many of us rejecting traditional models such ‘wait for a call from a programmer in need of a performer for this or that work’ or ‘commission pieces by composer X to get a concert at festival Y’ in favour of cohesive self-curated projects or initiatives developed in close dialogue with composers, concert organizers and others.
These initiatives denote a paradigm shift from an interpretive tradition of musical performance to an understanding of performance as relational, critical and, ultimately, performative practice.
Curatorship as a discipline is concerned with making visible, making aware, connecting, reconfiguring, reconstellating that which already exists. Performer-curators no longer just play: they think, manage, coordinate, imagine scenarios for an ideal outcome. In this regard – and as some of the examples above illustrate – concerts have expanded into ‘events’, and performers have become – to quote art theorist Claire Bishop – ‘producers of situations’.
With this changing role, our expectations towards the field also change, and so does our wish to participate in the musical discourse. The voice of the performers, it is true, is still not as present in the field in the same way as that of composers, critics and curators. Luckily, though, composers and programmers are increasingly open to discussions with musicians, and to hosting musician-led projects. More importantly, we have become conscious of the necessity of being part of the shared discourse.
This essay is adapted from a lecture held on 17 July 2018 as part of the Defragmentation Convention in Darmstadt.
Heloisa Amaral (PT/BRA) is a pianist, artist-researcher and curator. Her musical partnerships include Duo Hellqvist/Amaral and Ensemble neoN as well as collaborations with composers such as Joanna Bailie, Simon Steen-Andersen, Johannes Kreidler, Phil Niblock, Helmut Lachenmann, Natasha Barrett, Jan St. Werner, Marina Rosenfeld and Catherine Lamb. A former curator at NyMusikk and co- founder/programmer of Ultima Academy at the Oslo Ultima Festival until 2015, Heloisa lectures in curatorial practices in music at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and pursues an artistic-research PhD on the same topic at the Orpheus Institute (BE) /University of Leiden (NL). She is an advisor to DEFRAGMENTATION – Curating Contemporary Music, a project of the German Federal Cultural Foundation and the International Music Institute Darmstadt (IMD), the Donaueschingen Festival, MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues.