Und links das Meer: new works with Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt

Last night, I was at the closing concert of this year’s Cresc… Biennale, a festival for contemporary music in the Frankfurt am Main area. It was my first time experiencing Ensemble Modern, Germany’s leading new music ensemble, in a live performance. On the programme were five premieres by young composers participating in Ensemble Modern’s composition seminar (organised by the International Ensemble Modern Academy), each responding to the topic of ‘transit’, the festival’s loose overall theme.

The five composers* took up this theme in creative and contrasting ways, but sometimes producing mixed results. I found the opening work, Matej Bonin’s Shimmer II, difficult to get into. While there were some nice timbral highlights and a wacky extended clarinet solo, it had little structure and failed to really engage me. Malte Giesen’s Surrogat/Extension interpreted the theme on the level of identity in transit or transition and did this in the form of a ‘double concerto’ for piano and electronic keyboard, the ‘original’ or older instrument meeting its ‘copy’, according to the composer’s description. This idea was explored well; the solo voices were at times cooperative, at times warring, with the keyboard frequently interrupting and manipulating the piano’s sound.   

I particularly enjoyed Ole Hübner’s Drei Menschen, im Hintergrund Hochhäuser und Palmen und links das Meer for live electronics and amplified ensemble. Hübner mashed together fragments of recorded speech, field recordings from Beijing and Istanbul and snippets of folky fiddle music, making for an vivid and intense sound collage or piece of ‘auditory theatre’ (‘Hörtheater’), as he describes it. The final two works put Ensemble Modern’s famed versatility to the test. Vladimir Gorlinsky’s slightly unconvincing ‘sound performance’ had them screaming into gongs and wandering around the stage investigating a range of different sound sources. In the concluding work, Andreas Eduardo Frank’s How to pronounce Alpha, the ensemble were confronted with quite a complex choreography of arm and hand gestures, all performed with admirable dedication. Complete with beatboxing percussionists and a quirky stage arrangement (all the typical solo instruments were placed in the back row), Frank’s deconstruction of ensemble hierarchies was a witty, entertaining end to the evening.

Click here for the Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network site

* All five participating composers were male.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at Funkhaus Berlin

I’ve been a fan of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music since first hearing ‘EARS’ last year, her daringly bright and lush exploration of the Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer. This year’s follow-up album, ‘The Kid’, needed a bit more time to grow on me but its colourful innocence and washes of breathy melody have since firmly brought me round.

I was curious to see how Smith would realise this complex album live. Live electronics sets can often feel disappointing to me; the performer remains distant, communication with the crowd sometimes almost seems unwanted. But Smith’s set yesterday evening at Funkhaus Berlin enticed and intrigued.

Silhouetted against the backdrop of a dizzying, skittish video projection, Smith stood side-on, darting rhythmically around her setup, the Buchla Music Easel at its centre. Album opener ‘An Intention’ had an impressive grandeur to it, a slow unfurling to the whole performance. The more upbeat songs ‘A Kid’ and ‘To Follow & Lead’ buzzed and churned with a fresh energy. But the instrumental track ‘Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am’ was where Smith really demonstrated the ethereal beauty of her work. The humming layers were delicately controlled, rising gradually to an ecstatic chorus of tripping rainforest bird samples. Throughout the performance, the video projections made for an intense accompaniment, taking us on a journey from what seemed like the insides of a bubbly dream pop washing machine through to a kaleidoscopic night sky.

As engaging as it was, I would have liked more re-invention around the album material. While it’s certainly a legitimate approach to perform straight through an album, a bit more deviation from the ‘script’ could have unearthed yet more sides to this playful, creative record.

Pierre Boulez Saal: Mönkemeyer & Youn

Last night, I finally made it to Daniel Barenboim’s ‘Prachtbau’ in the centre of Berlin, the new Pierre Boulez Saal. It is one of the few finished projects in the Unter den Linden area, sitting alongside the semi-reopened State Opera house and the still skeletal Berliner Schloss. Inside, the PBS is maybe a little boring visually (why the train company seat covers…?) but acoustically satisfying: warm, direct and intimate.

Nils Mönkemeyer and William Youn interspersed modern/contemporary solo works for viola and piano (from Sciarrino, N. Boulanger, Chin and Pintscher) around a Mozart arrangement and two staple duo sonatas by Schubert and Brahms. While of course most time and attention went to the Romantic and Classical repertoire, Mönkemeyer and Youn really excelled with their contemporary choices and curation. Segueing through Sciarrino and Mozart in the first half, for example, gave the concert a dynamic feel, mixing old and new without being too deliberate or self-conscious about it. Another highlight was Nadia Boulanger’s ‘Vers la Vie nouvelle’ for solo piano in the second half. Youn played it with real crunch and drama, revelling in the piece’s strong contrasts. Unsuk Chin’s manic Piano Etude No. 5 made for an interesting partner to it, continuing on the vivacity the Boulanger work ends with and taking it somewhere else.

True to their understated mission of combining old and new, their encore presented a recent work written for them. The duo played the second movement of Konstantia Gourzi’s ‘Hommage á Mozart’, a dreamy piece with a lilting ostinato in the fortepiano part that remained muted throughout, sounding fragile and distant. A very atmospheric evening in an exciting new space.