by Dagmara Genda // Apr. 1, 2022
Like everything else, Maerzmusik, ‘The Festival for Time Issues,’ has been subjected to the capricious category of pandemic time over the last two years. After being cancelled in 2020, appearing exclusively online in 2021, this year it has returned as a live multi-disciplinary, multi-venue event. The corona restrictions were only noticeable in the opening and closing performances, which were staggered with time slots and repeated to allow for social distancing. These limitations might be conceptually fruitful for an event preoccupied with ideas of duration and repetition, raising playfully paradoxical questions like “can a world premiere happen twice?” though the benefits were not always evenly spread out.
The biggest casualty of the pandemic was ‘The Long Now,’ the festival’s traditional 30-hour sonic finale in Berlin’s Kraftwerk. Instead of the immersive overnight camping event, visitors booked four-hour time slots over two days to listen to installations and electronic music in and around Nettelbeckplatz and Silent Green, based on field recordings. In Kraftwerk, the ambient soundscapes would rise or recede in the cavernous space, and were regularly punctuated by a variety of analogue performances. This year, at least in Finale 3, the atmospheric noise persisted in its starring role, which might have been conceptually interesting, but ultimately provided for a somewhat dry and at times monotonous experience.
On the other hand, the three-hour opening at Gropius Bau, which was staged twice in one evening, embodied the expansiveness of the ‘The Long Now’ far better than this year’s finale. Both events were named after Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths,’ wherein an “infinite” book is imagined that could detail all possible narratives, had time fractured along alternative paths. In using this idea as a curatorial blueprint, the opening became a shining example of how current circumstances were not just adjusted to, but taken as a creative opportunity to craft a multitudinous experience. The evening’s intimate musical encounters, ones in which musicians wandered through stairwells and exhibition spaces while the audience either followed or marked its own path, were an experiment in programming music like visual art. It embraced the inevitability of the fractured perspective, the incompleteness of experience and the singularity of individual reality.
During the virtual press preview, the manager of Klangforum Wien, Peter Paul Kainrath, noted that the pandemic has changed the musician’s “concept of being solo.” Over the past two years, musicians had to devise not only a new relationship to their audience, which disappeared overnight, but also to their music. This idea was emphasized through the spatial dispersion of musicians in Gropius Bau, as well as through the programming choices. At two different points in the evening, a number of musicians played John Cage’s ‘One7’ (1990), a semi-improvisational solo work from the composer’s late number pieces, the theme of which is duration and continuity. Though the musicians played solos, they played simultaneously and in proximity to one another. Placed in different locations in and around the atrium, their tones merged together as an ensemble of monologues. Lacking were the usual eye contact and bodily gestures used to communicate between players on stage. These cues were replaced by insular pacing or concentrated swaying, evoking typical urban scenes of a confused person yelling at nobody on a busy street. At one point, the clarinetist even shadowed an unsuspecting man, who seemed somewhat nonplussed when he discovered the musician squawking loudly behind his back.
Another highlight of the festival was the “multi-generational and intersectional” pairing of artists who have never worked together in a series called ‘Interpoeisis.’ Because the results of these collaborations didn’t have to be finished pieces but conversations, or works-in-progress, audience members were witness to the creative process itself. The conversation between composer George Lewis and writer Jeffery Renard Allen on the topic of the not-yet-finished ‘Song of the Shank’—a musical work based on the forgotten history of 19th century Black pianist “Blind Tom”—for example, felt more like an act of sharing, in all its intimacy and incompleteness, than a formal presentation.
In the end, nothing can replace the exuberance of the live concert event, a stunning example of which was the live orchestral performance of Éliane Radigue’s ‘Occam Océan’ (2015) at the Philharmonie, although by the end of the three-hour program I could barely sit still anymore. This was the pragmatic benefit of the labyrinthine wanderings during the opening: they intensified the moments when the audience had to stay in one place. A work like Rebecca Saunders’ aggressively growling ‘Flesh’ (2019) for voice and accordion permitted no indecisive pacing or the recording of Instagram stories. Even the walking singers in the exuberant ‘Segen #1’ (2022) by Anissa Rouas and Myriam Van Imschoot held its audience breathlessly still. When the (first) opening ended with a last stationary performance in the atrium, the audience seemed to have somewhat diminished. Those whose meanderings took them out the front doors of Gropius Bau should know that they have real reason for regret. Satch Hoyt’s world premiere of ‘Ride Cycle’ (2022), a deceptively simple piece for eight players and 16 cymbals, swelled through the space with the impregnable depth of an incoming tide. Starting with one player rapping on a cymbal, then escalating to all eight over time, the resulting overtones screamed an orchestra into existence that seemed to hover heavily in the air above our heads. I even searched the atrium’s upper stories with my gaze just to see if someone really wasn’t playing a trombone from above. Then, frozen in one spot, I could feel the space thickening with all the possible times and voices that, though invisible, were made irrefutably present. It was in that moment, that every forking path became endowed with the weight of reality.