Composer David Helbich’s and Jennifer Walshe’s composer perfomer workshops is redefining the classical music’s traditional roles.
In recent years the title composer performer has become more and more common. Together with Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, the Brussels based artist David Helbich leads this year’s performer composer workshop at the Darmstadt International Summer School. I met up with him to reflect on how composers and performers can merge into one entity, and to hear more about their workshop.
The dichotomy between the composer and performer is deeply rooted in the history and education system of classical music. In a move towards a more interdisciplinary approach, several educational institutions such as Darmstadt summer courses for new music, California Institute of the Arts as well as the Royal Conservatory of Music in Copenhagen now offer various opportunities for musicians to transcend and move between the traditional roles within classical music.
In Darmstadt, eight participants from different countries (four male and four female) take part in this year’s workshop. It began with a week-long pre-workshop in March, which took place at the Performing Arts Forum in Ramecourt, France. This pre workshop is a good example for Walshe’s and Helbich’s approach to creative work – creating a community and emphasising a long term process. And indeed, this week did make a difference, visiting the workshop on Tuesday, I immediately felt a warm, supportive, yet professional atmosphere similar to that of a theatre or dance production.
Helbich’s career trajectory revolves around opening up experiences in an artistically restricted space. Understanding the audience as an active participant is a central principal in his work. Among his pieces are performances, audio walks, notated, textual, or graphic scores as well as visual art. His work has been presented in concert halls, galleries and public spaces. Helbich studied composition with Matthias Spahlinger and philosophy with Ute Guzoni.
Who might a composer performer be? “We received a lot of applications from composers that want to perform their pieces, or instrumentalists that want to play their own music”, Helbich explains. “Jenny (Walshe) and I are talking about a wider definition of this concept, a musician or an artist that perform their own work, and has an awareness of performativity, theatricality, form and to the compositional process. By its definition the composer performer practice speaks about openness,” he adds. “The word composer is important for us, since we both come from the world of sounds and emphasise this in our work. If you want to lead a workshop that is about a place in contemporary music which is, not yet, in the institutional centre and that is by its nature not about becoming a centre of something – you also need to think about how to protect your participants in an environment that is traditionally very defined,” Helbich elaborates.
Helbich mentioned some of the course participants felt they might not belong in Darmstadt. “I often hear things such as ‘I never studied solfège, I never studied any kind music theory, I’m not into score writing’. There’s a reason they’re here, they find the music in this field fascinating and relate to this music. Especially then I think – they are important for this scene”, he says.
Practice and doing are key words in the composer performer workshop. Helbich describes this approach: “If a participant wants to create a work which uses the body language of a boxer, we try to think together – what kind of a school do we need for that? How do we keep the body fit for this idea? An important part of this process is research and practice”.
There is a transition between notated composition, to graphic scores to photography, walks and performances in Helbich’s work. A recurring theme is the audience as active participants.
“I actually ended up in the public space and stayed there”, he says. Helbich’s piece Hallo 5 (2000-2002) in which the guitarist is requested to set the guitar aside and play air guitar, represents a major transition point. “For me today, this piece is quite symbolic, I wanted to create a piece which is not dependent or limited to the score and engages with other elements such as the body and the audience.” When asked about what inspired him throughout his artistic process, he replies, “Art, dance and architecture were always very important. During my studies I was inspired by Lachenmann, loved going to a four hour long Feldman concert and was very much into baroque music, but at the same time I danced my soul out in techno parties.”
Helbich’s is fascinated by the physicality of the musician. “What I learnt in the conservatory, is how musicians play their instruments, the bodies behind the instruments. I saw how the musician’s body was raised. I saw how an oboe player learns to deal with air pressure in the head, slowly building up a trained body that is capable to play a very long concert. Becoming an instrumentalist is an incredibly long and precise training of deformation, deforming your body in one way. Knowing how this happens is much more important for composing music than to know what is the highest pitch a clarinet plays – especially today when you can just google that,” he explains, and continues, “Just to say, studying composition in a conservatory is a very lonely experience. Everyone is behind double doors working all day. And you’re the only one who’s like ‘you’re not sitting in the conservatory to sit alone in one room with a piano!’ I did that. And all my friends I made there, I realised, were busy becoming these amazing craft artists. And then I went to art schools for exhibitions. The art students were all busy finding themselves, finding an expression for a person that does not exist yet, that was also funny.”
Helbich’s experience might sound familiar to many other musicians – the composer’s or the performer’s solitude. Classical music’s education system and its institutions push toward excellency and specialisation. Roles are defined at an early stage of a musicians life, the violin player, the pianist, the composer. A byproduct of this specialisation is a competitive atmosphere between peers – an elite training comparable to that in sports – leading to an environment which is contra-productive for creative work.
The development of new interdisciplinary approaches should go hand in hand with the evolution of new music. In that sense this workshop, taking place in Darmstadt, is an exciting step towards a more open community, enabling those who seek it to find ways of expression which are not strictly predefined by the institution.
“Somehow it was so weird to understand slowly that the contemporary music scene is not conscious to it’s own social implications” David explains. “I find it weird that somebody can make a piece of art, which is not sensitive to the context in which it is presented in”. He is concerned with ways of activating the audience. “I use for myself the word intro-activity. I try to trigger inner activity in people. Self performativity, I like the idea of a participation which is not there just to make the artist happy, something which is also happening in a neutral space.”
When asked about his own experiences as a performer, he references Fluxus art. “As a performer, I have to become someone for the work, which is very close to the Fluxus idea. Fluxus art is often about the performative act that changes you in the world, about the way you become someone else while you perform.”
As published by the Darmstadt International Summer Festival BLOG