After Donaueschingen

The weekend at Donaueschingen was rich, and it is hard for me to accept that it is over.

My first truly engaged moment came partway through a piece by Veli-Matti Puumala, called Mure. He wrote specifically about this section in the program notes:

“The dark and nearly statue-like music takes a lot of space in the middle of the work, where bright chords in the deep register gradually change their density.”

These bright, sustained chords included tones that bent microtonally, suggesting slight vacillations of light. Eduardo Moguillansky’s Cire perdue was a real discovery for me. He wrote,

Through the linked inexactness of repetition, the details erode, until a mask stands over the original.

The whole piece rested beneath the normal threshold of amplitude, and the sounds were extremely delicate by nature. To me, it felt like there was not a single element of repetition in the piece. It was always in motion, and always under the radar.

Over breakfast at the hotel, I found out that The Dialogue Experiment performance we would be hearing later that morning would in fact be a big block of music. I asked Rob Wannamaker and Rick Burkhardt if all of the composers had known each other before the project, and they said yes, of course, they would not have gotten into it otherwise. It turns out that this project was conceived in 2004! When I heard the performance, it was clear that the composers had to have known each other well, and worked closely together to construct this project. Each composer was clearly speaking with his or her own voice, but also reacting to previous material. Just as you can tell the difference between a conversation among casual acquaintances and good friends, you could hear that these composers each had an understanding of what the others were about. The responses were never casual. I left with a heightened respect for all of them as composers and listeners, and even as friends. There were three sets–the first one was half an hour long, with an especially rapid dialogue between composers for the last seven minutes. The second and third were 20 minutes each. Each of these sets contained work by at least four of the composers involved in the project. I won’t give the play-by-play account of what happened. You’d do much better to listen to the recording for yourself. The audience reaction was quite mixed–some people left between sections, and others booed, but many people, including myself and most of the students in attendance, were very warm towards the project and its performance by the ensemble ascolta. It was clear to me that here was a situation similar to what I experienced during my final year at Northwestern, where composers who were engaged with very different types of problems were nevertheless talking to each other and interacting intelligently with one another’s music. The approaches of these seven composers are quite different, but they found, in this piece, successful ways of speaking to one another. When the 70 minutes of performance ended, I had the feeling that nothing was resolved–after all, these composers are all still vibrant and will continue to develop–but something really special had happened. Keep an eye out for a rebroadcast of this piece, or wait for the recording that will come out next October at the 2009 Donaueschinger Musiktage.

The first piece on Sunday’s orchestra concert was Brice Pauset’s Die Tänzerin (Symphony V), which to me was most incredible for all of the elements it suppressed. His quote about wanting to go back to a time “when music didn’t exist” was very resonant during this piece. Sounds were abbreviated and limited in range, texture, and motion, in such a way that they never became familiar or definable. When a pulse appeared, it felt absolutely foreign, visceral, and non-referential. I would not have imagined that to be possible, if I hadn’t heard it.

Ben Johnston’s Quintet for Groups was next, and it was bright and compelling for its entire duration. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to hear this piece performed only once, and badly, over 40 years ago. When I spoke with Ben Johnston the next morning, he said, “I thought I knew what I was doing,” but he had to mentally reconstruct the parts that were misplayed. This time it was faithfully performed. Each of the five groups played in a different tuning, but their textures overlapped. I had the distinct impression that the dissonances were sculpted: they had life and dimension of their own. The architecture of the piece was tight and sometimes wonderfully surprising. As I try to describe it, I realize that this is a piece I will want to come back to, both for what it does and for its exuberance. Take a look at the offerings and conversation about this performance and other Johnston projects at NetNewMusic. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Of course I could have listened to the radio broadcast and gotten some sense of the music that I found interesting, but I would have missed out on a number of experiences. It’s so easy to talk with anyone, the way the festival is laid out. The only thing that occasionally held me back was my own shyness. I have kept in touch with a few friends from last year. Meeting with them and realizing how much we had to talk about was really great. I also made some discoveries about composers based in America, and even in Boston, who are quite exciting to me. I haven’t come up with a clear explanation for this, but over and over I find that by going away, I find out about the most interesting things that are happening at home. Another major attraction of the festival is the shop that is set up each year with scores, CDs, periodicals, and information. It crossed my mind that I might take a look through there. I came out with an armfull of free new music periodicals, sampler CDs, and festival brochures, as well as a few choice purchases. I decided that it was best to buy the CDs I wanted from last year’s festival there, and build up a wish list of Kairos CDs for later purchase. Even if I could have afforded everything I wanted, I wouldn’t have been able to carry it home with me. I’ve heard they have a similar setup at Witten in April. If it’s possible, I’ll build in some extra time to look through the scores there. I was on information overload, and I loved it. At the very least, the links and calendar section of this blog will grow once I start unpacking those materials.

Cumulatively, the best thing about being at Donaueschingen was the palpable sense of involvement with new music. Everyone’s taste is a little different, and you’ll hear very strong reactions–whether positive or negative–to most pieces. I have to say I do get uncomfortable with the booing, but maybe that’s just lingering culture shock. I love it that people care, though. And you can go to lunch or dinner with new or old friends and find out about what they are playing, or writing, or hearing that is most interesting. It’s all incredibly serendipitous and stimulating. That’s been true both last year and this year for me at Donaueschingen. Maybe it’s something about the warm and welcoming small town setting. In any case, I love it. And my experience this year was so good that now it’s impossible to imagine that I might have missed it.

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