Music at the End of Time: MaerzMusik’s Online Edition

by Dagmara Genda // Mar. 31, 2021

‘The End of Time’ is MaerzMusik’s more than appropriate 2021 theme. Apocalyptic associations aside, it speaks to our limbo state after a year of lockdowns and the concomitant internet fatigue. Each and every one of us has had to redefine our relationship to time and develop new rhythms, often just to make it out of bed in the morning. These are not the most favorable of conditions to stage a completely digital edition of a new music festival, but MaerzMusik managed the seemingly impossible. Rather than just recording or streaming live events, many performances were pre-recorded and configured into films specially, and sometimes very intricately, designed for the festival. Even the live concerts, the recordings of which are often marred by poor audio and uninteresting visuals, were well presented. The result was a surprisingly engaging experience that used the online setting not just as a tool to disseminate its programming, but as a medium to be exploited in relation to its content. One could envision future festivals having a life offline as well as online, so as to deepen one’s experience of the music.

This is not to say an online festival is preferable. The drawbacks are obvious and almost too many to name: lack of spatial sonic dimension, a dependence on one’s own home stereo, uneven audio mixing in live recordings, the distracted nature of at-home viewing, not to mention the loss of the live concert experience as a whole. Some concerts were, nevertheless, so well-staged, that they could easily make you forget you were watching a substitute. Montreal’s Bozzini Quartet, for example, pre-recorded their premiere performance of Swiss composer Jürg Frey’s ‘Streichquartett Nr. 4’ (2018–20) with studio-quality audio mixing and video editing that focused attention on the production of sound—a focus that heightened the experience of the composer’s elemental and precise work. The video was often subdivided into two or four sections, each zoomed in on the movements of the musicians, which were in turn gently reflected in the pan of the camera. Together, they formed a semi-abstract depiction of collaborative musical performance. The hand of the cellist would flow into the movement of the violinist, which would echo the sway of the violist and so forth. This progression, rather than serving as document or ornament, as concert optics so often are, actually aided in moving the listener further into the tone. Moreover, quiet playing techniques like col legno (where a string instrument is played with the back of the bow) were more audible than they would be in a live situation, resulting in a fuller experience of the composition.

A successful filmic presentation of music was repeated in ensemble mosaik’s remarkably realized premiere of Manuel Rodriguez Valenzuela’s ‘time.cage’ and Ensembles Extrakte’s ‘Dulab al Taj,’ a group improvisation by 12 musicians in 12 different locations. All were pre-recorded and playfully executed with quarantine conditions in mind.

The live concerts were not specially made for online presentation, but at least their lack of audience allowed for a better-than-average recording. While sometimes it seemed that there was too much reverb in the Zafraan Ensemble’s renditions of Halim El-Dabh’s compositions, or that the drum was too loud in relation to the accompaniment, these complaints are relatively minor when one considers the calibre of the performances as a whole. Highlights include the violin and derabucca drum duet, ‘Sweet and Prickly Pear’ (2002) and drum solo ‘Sonic No. 7’ (1965). Other programming focusing on the Egyptian-American composer included Mena Mark Hannas’s ‘For Halim’ (2021), a solo work for Sofia Jernberg, who is spectacular live, but her performance also translated well into recording.

One of the more memorable concerts of this year’s program, ‘Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music,’ was curated by composer, academic and trombonist George Lewis. Lewis focused on the works of composers from the African diaspora, not as a “distinct sound of Africa,” whatever that would be, but as a contribution to and continuation of a classical music tradition that has long been formed through practices of “creolization.” Included were established composers such as Alvin Singleton and Tania León, but also younger artists like Jesse Cox and Daniel Kidane. Sadly, this is the one concert, streamed live from the Chamber Music Hall of the Philharmonie, that is no longer available online.

Considering her name has increasing currency in the world of visual art, it was interesting that the music of Éliane Radigue was featured without any video component. The decision was, however, apt, considering Radigue’s meditative soundscapes are ultimately about sonic presence and deep listening. The composer’s music can be superficially compared to drone, but unlike drone’s persistent static presence, her soundscapes gradually pulse and expand as time goes on. This makes her minimal compositions engrossing in a way that drone is not. Considering the importance of space in Radigue’s work, it is a shame that it could not have been experienced live, but the Bozzini Quartet’s acoustic rendition of |’Occam Delta XV’ (2018), recorded separately from eight different microphones, was an ambitiously executed compromise.

Traditionally, MaerzMusik ends with ‘The Long Now,” a 30-hour back-to-back performances in Berlin’s Kraftwerk. This year Peter Ablinger’s ‘TIM Song’ (2012) served as the basis for ‘TIMEPIECE,’ a 27-hour live stream of various sound works set to the live multi-lingual articulation of the time on a revolving stage at Haus der Berliner Festspiele. The work, composed of 130 musicians and speakers, acts not so much as a countdown to the end, but a pragmatic, if not hopeless, measurement of time. Though we do not know where it leads, we are left with the assurance that it at least passes.

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