Musica Electronica Nova – 2007 and 2009

Musica Electronica Nova graphicThe young Polish festival, which started in 2005, takes place every spring in odd numbered years, the even numbered ones given over to a different new music festival with more instrumental music. Asymmetry Music Magazine, itself even younger than that, wasn’t even around for the first of these festivals, but managed to make it to the last two thirds of the 2007 festival and to all of the 2009 one. Roll on 2011.

While the festival does feature many Polish composers, as is only right and proper, Musica Electronica Nova is an international festival, with music by Pan Sonic, The Electric Hammer, Jonathan Harvey, Helmut Lachenmann, and Kaiji Saariaho (2007) and Harvey, again, David Berezan, Mauricio Kagel, Brian Ferneyhough, TAM Teatromusica, The Spy Collective, and Fausto Romitelli (2009).

Cathedral IslandWrocław, where the festival takes place, is a lovely university town, with the obligatory river (the Odra), several picturesque churches made picturesquer by said river, and numerous nice places to eat, many of them clustered around the photogenic town square. So while the nights (and a few afternoons) consist of innovative and high-powered new music concerts, the days can be given over to unabashed tourism.

The first concert of the 2007 festival that I attended was called Cello +, with Andrzej Bauer, cello, Ałexsandra Rupocińska, sampler, and Cezary Duchnowski, computer. These three played music by Kaiji Saariaho (2007’s featured composer), Dobromiła Jaskot, and Jonathan Harvey (who would be the featured composer in 2009). The + ranged from supportive, in Saariaho’s Près, to conversational, in Jaskot’s hannah, with cello and electronics commenting and elaborating on each others’ gestures, some savage, some delicate, to interactive, in Harvey’s Advaya, with the sampler spitting back cello sounds and distorting them variously in real time. Harvey’s piece also had a substantial bit for electronics alone, giving the hard-worked cellist and sampler a well-deserved break.

After this was a concert by Pan Sonic. What can you say about a concert by Pan Sonic. That it was great? Everybody already knows that. (It was great.)

The next evening started off with the first of two concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Experimental Studio of the Polish Radio, doing it mostly with fairly recent music, too, the oldest piece being from 1980 and most of the others from the 90s. Most of the scheduled pieces flirted with tonality or at least with pitch (periodic). Bohdan Mazurek’s Pennsylvania Dream opens with taped band or orchestra sounds that are eventually overwhelme by the eletronics. This has an interesting narrative flow to it, done simply by overlapping each event. Andrzej Bieżan’s Miecz Archanioła, the oldest piece on the program, starts out with hard, bright, ringing sounds, to which is added some low, hollow vibrations. It’s a slow-moving piece, stationary really. Mostly things just happen. Lovely piece.

The real high points of this concert, for me, were the two additions, imported from cancelled concerts on the 25th: ElletroVoce, the duo of Agata Zubel and Cezary Duchnowski, and Zubel’s Obciążenie dopuszczalne for percussion and computer. The latter had bowed crotales with extended delay provided by the computer—lots of soft, whistly sounds from the speakers and soft, clattery, tinkling sounds from the percussion. There was a contact miked gourd and some five gallon metal cans, too, at whose entrance everything breaks loose and becomes quite frenetic and nice. Indeed, the computer part pretty much matched the percussion part, subtle for subtle, frenetic for frenetic, loud for loud, soft for soft.

The next concert that evening, in Kościół Ewangelicki, was music performed by and (with one possible exception) composed by Carter Williams and Ulrich Krieger. This concert was a real mess, deviating in order and perhaps in other ways from the printed program—the verbal explanations were all in Polish, so I cannot with any confidence align any of my notes with the titles of the pieces. Was it Sternjäger I liked so much or Naglfar? Oh well, at least it was a good show. One of Williams pieces was for prepared violin, which I noted sounded very much like prepared piano. Otherwise, hearing Ulrich Krieger live is guaranteed to be entertaining, and so it was.

Cesary Duchnowski, Apoftegmata to jest krotkie a roztropne powiesciThe first concert of the 24th was the second of the Experimental Studio of Radio Poland. This time, with one exception, the pieces were all from this century. From, but not really of, many of them. Figliki, by Sławimir Kupczak, had some interesting licks—every time the piano gets into a 19th century mode, the electronics get seriously odd. And when the electronics get into a Pan Sonic kind of groove, the piano moves into a Stockhausen Klavierstücke kind of world. But the more interesting pieces were Cezary Duchnowski’s Apoftegmata to jest krótkie a roztropne powieści for speaker/actor and computer, interesting in spite of my total ignorance of Polish (though from the audience reaction, I could easily tell where the funny bits were), and Epilogos, a piece for tape by three composers, Eugeniusz Rudnik, Bolesław Błaszczyk, and Jarosław Swiński. This worked quite well, I thought, a lot of variety, of style and materials, and sounded very much like live improvisation.

The concert that evening was the second of the Kaiji Saariaho portraits—six pieces from 1982 to 2004, including From the Grammar of Dreams, which pits a live soprano (in this performance the wildly talented Agata Zubel) against an electronic one. Hard to tell if it’s live electronics altering Agata’s voice, or if she’s prepared a tape, or if it’s someone else’s voice—not terribly important, I guess. But it gave a quality of uneasiness to the performance very much in line with the title. Lonh, also for soprano and electronics, does not have that quality; though it also has a voice on the “tape” part, it’s more about the sounds themselves than about the interaction between a live voice and a recorded/distorted one. Both very satisfying pieces.

Arditti QuartetOn the 25th was the highly anticipated concert by the Arditti quartet. I anticipated it highly, anyway. I had seen the Arditti once before, in Paris, in a revelatory performance of Berg’s Lyric Suite, and had heard them many times on many CDs and had been eagerly awaiting their performance of Grido by Helmut Lachenmann.

I selfishly treated myself to listening only—no note-taking—so my more than two year old recollections of that event are necessarily less than detailed. I certainly enjoyed the show, intrigued by how much nineteenth century technique Lachenmann uses in Grido and vastly entertained by the super quartet Jonathan Harvey makes in his fourth string quartet with live electronics.

In the Mleczarnia club later that evening, came what was for me the biggest treat of the festival, a set by Jazek Kochan and  Kazuhisa Uchihashi. I had only heard Uchihashi on CD, and that was nothing like so wild and unrestrained as this. A terrific show with Kochan on drums and electronics and Uchihashi on electric guitar and daxophone. Arditti and Uchihashi in the same evening–a little taste of heaven, there.

On 26 May, in the final concert in Philharmonic Hall, the works of Kaiji Saariaho predominated (three out of five), including Verblendungen, which has a lot more contrast and variety than the title would lead you to expect and has a much bigger sound than the other Saariaho pieces had led me to expect. I particularly liked the bit where the orchestra stops playing and the tape part continues on with the orchestra’s music (instead of doing something other, as it had done earlier). Then after the orchestra plays some more, the tape fades back in, an other orchestra floating over the top of the live one. Beauty!

The other two pieces by Saariaho were also pretty rowdy, especially Du Cristal (a long piece that you don’t particularly want ever to end), although …à la fumée had its moments, too, especially when the alto flute tries to out-do the cello.

The other two pieces were no slouches, either. Ryszard Osada’s Trance-formation opens with a percussion bit to which some zippy licks by the winds and brass are added. The tape part adds some metallic percussion noises of its own, and after a lot of different combinations of the orchestra and of orchestra and tape, the piece ends with an electronic version of the acoustic opening. Katarzyna Głowicka’s Exophony was the reason I came to this festival, or, more accurately, it was her mention of it in an email that caught my eye. Either way, I hoped Exophony would not turn out to be a disappointment.

And luckily for me, it did not. Exophony builds up quite complex structures, often with quite simple sounds, even those coming from the loudspeakers. Lots of variety, lots of contrast—a lovely, rich, confident piece. Can’t ask for anything more.

Musica Electronica Nova 2009All in all, a most satisfying festival, enough so that I made sure to be at the 2009 version, which retained all the good qualities of the 2007 festival—high quality, adventurous music, stylistically varied, from all over the world. The 2009 festival was, if anything, even more varied, with more extreme, outside music (which pleased me, for sure) and more music from the early years, really edgy, avant examples from the fifties and sixties.

The first concert of the 2009 festival, at XO, was bedevilled by technical glitches, but the show that eventually emerged from them was fortunately quite good. TAM Teatromusica’s set was deForma_09, a piece for actors, speaker, electronics, rope, and light. The four actors move slowly about the stage, underneath large, hollow “boxes” made of rope, occasionally stopping in front of a microphone to make noises into it. They each had a wire hooked onto the back of their shirts, so could be dragged off-stage from time to time. Later, as they would stop in front of a plain backdrop, a light pen would draw an outline around them. At one point, the speaker came out and arranged himself to fit one of those outlines as he said his piece.

After an intermission video that was OK, there was a more than OK video by Kotoka Suzuki, Umidi Soni Colores, which was a lovely treat, musically and visually.

XO is a new venue in Wrocław and so is Impart, where the next concert took place. This one had two pieces for flute and electronics and two for electric guitar. The flute pieces were quite nice. Agostino Di Scipio’s Book of Flute Dynamics took us through many ways to tap a flute’s keys, more than even I had ever heard, and Ferneyhough’s Mnemosyne literally illustrated that word in the interaction between flute and tape.

I had been looking forward to hearing some Fausto Romitelli live, having just recently heard his music on a Stravidarius times future disc. His Trash TV Trance, however, for electric guitar, is nothing like any of the music (orchestral) on that disc. Mostly this piece is made up of glitchy sounds, which was a little suspicious at first, given the genuine glitches at XO, but after a few seconds, it didn’t matter if the sounds of a system stuttering out of control were intentional or not. (They were.) And as we all know from listening to the likes of Yoshihide and Tone, those kinds of sounds are delightful.

Adding live electronics raises the expectation that there will be more noise and higher volume, so it was nice that Stefan Prins’ Not I started out with tiny, tiny sounds. Also nice that it gets louder and louder, only to end with a quiet section of the guitar strumming with the volume off.

Next day was a concert at the radio station for instruments and electronics of which the real stand-out for me was Lidia Zielińska’s Nobody is Perfect, which was the most perfectly integrated and inventive piece for ensemble and electronics I had heard since the last Dumitrescu and Avram concert I attended (in 2006).

However much fun the other pieces were—Uli Fussenegger’s Toy Music #1 for doublebass and CD being particularly interesting for the delicate exchanges between instrument and electronics—the real crowd-pleaser was Peter Ablinger’s brief Two Strings and Noise, which was just exactly that. Try to hear this piece live if you can. You’ll be vastly entertained.

That was on the 11th of May. On the 12th, things did not go so well, at first. First, all of us were required to pick up little slips of colored paper at the ticket counter before we could leave the lobby, without being very clearly instructed to do so. (This caught Polish speakers by surprise, too, so it wasn’t just me!) Once we’d all gotten our slips, we met in the hallway outside the main concert hall, where a girl surrounded by candles was reading something outloud.

Then the group with the color of slip that I had was called out to another part of the building, the part of a washroom where the sinks are, which were festooned with string. Above them, a slide with a woman dressed in white standing in a stream surrounded by black clothed men, lines (like the string) drawn from them to the woman. Some not very interesting electronic noodling was going on while a narrator told us about the legend(s) of the woman in white—about the possible historical basis for these legends. This might have gone over better for me had I had a seat, but there were 23 of us and only 20 seats.

After several minutes of this, with lines appearing on and disappearing from the picture, our group was then ushered into a room with plenty of seats, of which I ended up with the best. A live woman, dressed in white, was pouring water from a pitcher onto a child’s shirt while better electronic music played. She then stood up and came over to a microphone to recite something about a man on a horse and happy dreams of marriage and such and then makes her hands into claws and her voice into a raspy snarl. Ah. Now we’re interested. She and some black-clothed figures (one large, two small) then mime the story presented in the WC, and now that whole presentation didn’t seem so lame.

We are then moved to the other side of a white cloth screen, that we had only noticed because a light has been shining through it, where we watch the whole pouring/talking/singing/mime that we had just seen, with a slide show going on on the wall above the sheet, the slides showing many of the elements of the WC presentation with more and different images. Brilliant!

The 13th was old school night, with ensemble recherche and the Experimentalstudio SWR Freiburg playing Nono, Boulez, Kagel, and Stockhausen. Power glitches again in the first half—the Boulez had to be repeated from the beginning after the power went completely out for several minutes—but by the Kagel (Transicion II), everything had been sorted out. Unfortunately, this was not a terribly exciting performance. Loving, careful, precise, but not terribly exciting. I had heard this piece live back when it was still new school, and that performance really crackled and sizzled. I wondered if we were treating Kagel now as we’ve treated Shostakovich since his death, reverently and respectfully—that is with irreverence and disrespect for the music itself. I hope not.

Stockhausen’s Prozession, with the same people, plus a few others, fared much better. This was a truly edgy performance that very little resembled the recording I’d grown up with—apparently there’s more room for performing in this piece than I’d thought.

The only event on the 14th was very short, but it was a very fascinating exploration into perception. This was Ana Martino’s Subterrâneos do Corpo, which takes place in such darkness that you’re not sure at first whether you’re seeing one dancer or two, whether the dancers are clothed or unclothed, nor can you always tell what it is you’re looking at in the persistently dim lighting, an arm, two arms, a leg, four legs. Only when the dancers moved, which was seldom (and slow), could suspicion become certainty.

The first show on the fifteenth was supposed to be Pierre Henry, music and film, with the composer himself in attendance. Alas, he had had to cancel mere weeks before. If you had attended the concert that was put on in its place, knowing nothing of all this, I think you would never have guessed that that show had been thrown together only a week or so before. Nothing much stood out for me, particularly. It was just a good, tight little concert.

The next show was disappointing. The setup was interesting enough, a bunch of drums made out of paper and cardboard. But the inventor simply played as if he were playing a regular drum kit. So nothing of the unique sonic qualities of paper were at all exploited for this event.

On the 16th, there were three concerts. The first, in the Botanical Gardens (in a greenhouse type of room, to be out of the rain), began with Slamet A. Sjukur’s Ronda Malam, one of those minimalist pieces that sounds like it’s going to be a phase or process piece without ever doing it. The licks sound like they would be good for phasing, but here they are simply repeated. The rhythms do get messed about with, and that’s quite nice, and then every line speeds up and gets all jumbled up with every other line, and then the opening returns, the end. Pretty cool, actually.

David Berezan’s Unheard Voices, Ancient Spaces works with grinding, gritty sounds and low hollow tam-tam like sounds. There’s a wind/jet plane kind of sound that’s used as a rhythm. The piece suggests water throughout (the grinding, gritty sounds often sound like frogs and a sound like wooden balls crashing about could easily remind one of rain on a roof), but it’s only near the end of the piece that there are actual water sounds. The same composer’s Cyclo consists largely of rotating things—hard, bright, sounds, often very soft—and smaller sounds, looms and clocks and such. The piece ends like an Ives’ piece, with a few little bell sounds. Two quite delightful and imaginative pieces.

Mateusz Ryczek was there for the performance of his Neptun for alto flute and computer, which starts out with some fairly lively flute work (played by Elżbieta Woleńska) over some unobstrusive electronics—so unobstrusive that they started to obtrude. And then it gets better. And then it gets much better, with all sorts of harsh sounds and very vigorous flute playing.

The second concert of the 16th was a quartet + show, with the Sląski quartet. Some interesting and lively interaction between electronics and live instruments in the pieces by Krupowicz, Schaeffer, and Sikora, and one true ensemble piece, Phrase and Fiction, by Alejandro Viñao, with the electronics as “orchestra” and the quartet as “soloist.” There’s some mimicking of the strings in the electronics, not much, until the very end, when a huge chord of the live quartet’s is taken over by the electronics—very loud, harsh, and distorted. Sweet ending to a very interesting piece.

That evening there was some more music by David Berezan, a really high energy piece called Styal that opens with some nice low frequencies and crackling then some machine-like sounds that really get cranking, in a manner of speaking. Elzbieta Sikora’s Lisbon, tramway 28, Hommage à Fernando Pessoa was another lively piece, the kind of thing one almost expects from a piece for sax and computer. Certainly the most visceral piece I’ve ever heard from Sikora.

Pick of the show, though, was a live set of analog synthesizer and electronics by Robert Piotrowicz. Not much happens for a long, long time. It gets incredibly loud (noise band loud), gets very soft—lots of little details—gets really loud again. Stops. Doesn’t sound like much by the description, but just imagine things going on for a half an hour or more. It was a stunner and no mistake.

The last concert of the festival was Fausto Romitelli’s An Index of Metals (opera video) for ensemble, soprano (Agata Zubel), and a video (of various metals, yes). This is a very lovely piece, almost 19th century lovely. (If you’ve heard that orchestral CD I referred to earlier, you know exactly what I mean.) Romitelli is the only contemporary composer I know who can handle big, lush romantic sounds without sounding like a feeble Brahms rip-off. I’m not sure how he manages to be so satisfyingly current sounding, but he does. Perhaps the clip will give you a clue.

(I apologize for the shutter snapping during it. I didn’t realize it would be so invasive.)

Taken all in all, a very impressive and enjoyable festival. I can’t wait for 2011.

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