MaerzMusik 2019 Takes Didactic Approach with ‘Thinking Together’ Program

Article by Dagmara Genda // Apr. 03, 2019

The discursive turn of this year’s MaerzMusik gave the impression that the program was so full as to be bursting at the seams. The bulk of the events, however, were video screenings, on-going exhibitions, conferences and workshops. Even some of the concerts featured live readings. The effect of all this didactic material was that music ceased to take center stage, as if the organizers didn’t have the funds for new ambitious musical works, or they had started to find sensory experience suspect, fearing that the audience might come to its own wayward conclusions.

The didactic approach comes courtesy of the visual arts and it’s made its way into the concert halls as well. Thursday night’s Recital—a tribute to the late visual artist Terry Adkins—traced back to the etymological roots of the term, literally referring to the act of “reciting.” Originally, Adkins’ recitals were made as animations of his sculptural installations and were often devoted to a figure of historical importance. They were auditory/musical interventions that allowed the sculpture to “speak.” In this case, composer George Lewis devoted the recital to Adkins himself. The resulting homage was elegantly, even satisfyingly, reasoned, but the performance, though not without its musical high points, ultimately came off as random. The occasional meandering of the soloists did little to highlight their contribution. The projections in the background failed to add another sense-bridging layer, but rather floated between an especially imaginative Powerpoint presentation and impatient YouTube surfing. The effect was over-determination, which is what usually happens when the ambitions are too big and the subject matter too precious. The Recital thwarted the capricious whim of chance, which can be a little more risky or confounding.

Trusting the gut is not a good policy when it comes to thinking, but this year it did yield the best results. The music of composer Horațiu Rădulescu, whose spectral composition technique can sometimes sound like Raga music, was solely steered by his esoteric religious convictions. Clepsydra, the Greek word for “water clock,” is one of his earlier, more restrained titles. Later ones like The unnamable is eternally real can read like new age quackery. Yet the music, with its tight formal restrictions, probes its way through the texture, or timbre, of an isolated pitch to yield something that could almost be described as thought, if thought itself could speak.

The tension between the gut and brain could be felt in the performance of Clepsydra, especially if one is already familiar with the mystical ambience of the vinyl recording. The performers, dressed in dark but casual clothing, entered the stage and started playing the so-called “Sound Icons” without so much as acknowledging the audience. In comparison to the lushness of the album, the sound was somewhat dry, almost analytical. This contradicted the religious reference of the customized instruments—the over-turned, stripped pianos were intended to resemble Byzantine icons. For Radelescu, who grew up in Communist Romania, music was the only way one could be religious. I asked one of the conductors, Ernst Surberg, if he thought the intent of Radelescu, who described his music as the “emanation of the immanence,” was somehow lost in the lack of ceremony. Surberg noted that every performance is a reinterpretation, and this one was an attempt to bring Radelescu down to earth, if only with the intent to let him soar again.

Making music from the gut is however no guarantee of quality. Intuition, in its sidestepping of analysis, can be painfully revealing, but at the very least, it brings about something honest. The Thursday night concert yielded similar tensions that started on a high note with Bound to the Bow by Ashley Fure. Inspired by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fure created an impressively textured soundscape from the image of the Albatross. Justė Janulytė’s Was there a Swan? felt like a slow expansion, a moment of bated breath endlessly held. Olga Neuwirth, though an audience favorite, presented a finale that fell prey to over-determination. Masoat / Clock without Hands was a piece in response to Gustav Mahler—a cinematic mash-up of references that never quite coalesced.

The experiential pinnacle of every MaerzMusik is The Long Now, 30 hours of music inside Kraftwerk, though the program contradicted the title. Rather than presenting an enduring continuity, classical pieces from the opening and Saturday night were repeated during Sunday, presumably for the older ones among us, and the nights were devoted to the younger electronic crowd, many of whom seemed to be waiting for the doors of Ohm and Tresor to open.

It’s clear that the festival wasn’t designed to be seen as a whole, but I certainly wish it was possible. It could benefit from something sleeker, and more auditory, instead of this monolith buttressed in the safety net of intellectualism. This is not to make a plea for entertainment or mysticism, as much as blind curiosity and a willingness to sometimes be wrong.

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