Cultural practitioners in the field of contemporary music find themselves in a complex situation. On the one hand, there is obviously a great aesthetic freedom of “anything goes.” On the other hand, there is a fast pace of renewing social and political discourses at work. And in between, there are audiences who become more fragmented, hard to track down, and less willing to commit. Institutions seem to be crumbling and losing power (which is welcome), but it also leaves freelance musicians with a lot of responsibility of their own. They are in charge of conceiving and implementing meaningful projects, including administrating and organizing, as well as staying on top of current social, political, and scientific discourses. They must keep an eye on their career development and their professionalization. They are often in a leadership position in middle-size companies. Furthermore, they should not lose their playful, critical, artistic spirit that inspires their peers and audiences.
How is it possible to fulfill all these tasks at once when the professional training of musicians provides little to no space for these kinds of issues, leaving young musicians unprepared and exposed to a difficult learning-by-doing or trial-and-error process in the early stages of their careers.
Of course, curating is not the ultimate solution, let alone some miraculous cure to all of this. But when ten young practitioners from the field of contemporary music came together in 2021 for the first “Curating Contemporary Music” at the Music University of Basel, it became clear that active engagement with these issues in a group with like-minded peers can certainly contribute to developing adequate skills. One of the participants concluded during the course that the term of “curating” summed up all her problems and made tangible the challenges she faced being a musician who conceives programs, directs an ensemble, organizes projects, fundraises, administrates, etc., all at once.
In this sense, curating is actually just a term summing up a variety of necessary tasks and steps in a cultural/artistic project and points towards perceiving all of them as part of the same creative process or practice. Curating makes us think about the interconnection of the aesthetic/conceptual aspects and the socio-political dimension of what we are doing. It offers us the opportunity to analyze what is actually happening when people come together in a room to experience music together. It allows us to reflect on the meaning of the relationships that we create between the different agents (music, audience, technology, etc.).
This collection of texts reflects experiences from musicians’ practices and hopefully helps contribute some meaningful written traces to this still relatively new discourse in contemporary music. And hopefully it will trigger new ideas and ways of acting curatorially.
This issue contains texts by lecturers of this first course edition in 2021 and by experienced practitioners beyond. It starts with an imaginative proposition by Michał Libera who wants to record ambient noises, labeling it with the title “Sounds from Earth” and sending the compilation into space. It goes on with Jennifer Kessler, who is executive director of an organization that aims to put social change into practice. Following that, Bernhard Günther points out the necessity of considering the audience’s desires while curating. A more sociological perspective on the relations that are created while curating is elaborated by Irena Müller-Brozović. Meanwhile, in his text, Will Dutta reflects on how the creative and distributive processes as a curating composer are intertwined in his work. Thomas Burkhalter puts his own role as a curator on display. One of the Curating Contemporary Music course participants, the composer and curator Ioannis Paul, analyzes curatorial decisions that were made during the pandemic to set up different online projects. A more general reflection of how we actually approach the act of listening in relation to ancient practices from the Sápmi culture is proposed by the sound artist Elina Waage Mikalsen. Finally, the Sonandes collective from Bolivia establishes a straight line between curating sound art in public spaces and researching the social and cultural consequences of lithium extraction in Bolivia.
Please remember that curating can also be the subject of an artistic creation in itself, as displayed by Trond Reinholdtsen during his online lecture on Donaueschingen 2121 for students of the Next Generation program at the 100th edition of the Donaueschingen Festival in 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnoFg46hp00&t=3s.
What will the future of curating look like? Trond's response suggests that an all-healing remedy is not in the cards.
Anja Wernicke completed master's degrees in cultural studies with a focus on music in Hildesheim and cultural mediation in Marseille. An internship at the Gare du Nord brought her to Basel, where she has been involved in various projects and organizations, including the festival ZeitRäume Basel – a Biennial for Contemporary Music and Architecture (2014-2021) – and the research department of the Hochschule für Musik FHNW (2016-2021). She teaches courses on music curation and published the book "Musik machen" in 2023 (Vexer Verlag). Since 2022, she has been working in the music department of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.
Michael Kunkel, born 1969 in Winz-Niederwenigern/Ruhr (FRG). Studies in musicology and Allgemeine Rhetorik at the University Tübingen, 2005 doctorate at the University Basel. 2000-2006: Journalistic activities (Basler Zeitung, Tages-Anzeiger, etc.). 2004-2015 editor-in-chief of the multilingual journal Dissonance. Since 2007, Head of Research at the Hochschule für Musik FHNW, teaching assignment, also at the Musiwissenschaftliches Seminar of the University Basel. Since 2016 curator of "Next Generation", the student program of the Donaueschinger Tage für Neue Musik. Research, writings, curations, teaching, radio broadcasts, exhibitions mainly on contemporary music. Own artistic activities.