Dancing is Political
Review of MaerzMusik, Berlin 2017
Published by Seismograf
“How can a festival live up to the fact that it is a public, communal, and hence a political space?” this was the question posed by Berno Odo Polzer , artistic director of MaerzMusik, in this year’s editorial note.
In times of mass migration, change, and political instability on both global and local scales, the festival’s made the important decision not to shy away from these issues, but rather to engage with them heads-on. Creating a community that corresponds with the current state of affairs is not an easy challenge, all the more so given the relatively insulated environment within which contemporary music is often produced and consumed nowadays. Reconciling this political ambition with the confines of the festival and its homogeneous intellectual-class audience creates tension. In a short conversation Polzer acknowledged this tension: “the first step is recognizing one’s privilege”. Polzer is keen to create a political debate in the new music scene.
One way to do so, was by hosting a “thinking together” conference, held this year under the title: “Decolonizing Time”. In the words of theoretician Donna Haraway this means “[…]coming to inhabit multiple temporalities, coming to inhabit enfolded and entangled times that are ontologically complex […] learning to inhabit these times of urgent trouble with a memory that is not and has never been all of time, including all of now […]”. The conference hosted a three day Gender Relations in New Music workshop led by Georgina Born , Ashley Fure and
Arnbjörg María Danielsen as a positive continuation of the GRID events in Darmstadt last summer.
This year’s program presented an inclusive and diverse spectrum of works by composers, performers, musicologists and philosophers. It is the curation of this festival that makes it quite wonderful to visit – where else could one watch a video-essay-composition from the 70s, followed by a grandiose performance of a recent composition by the vocalist Eva Ritter together with Ensemble Ictus , then juxtaposed by a late night recital of Maronite and Byzantine songs and motets performed by the Belgian Ensemble Graindelavoix in a nearby church?
The opening night of the festival presented three pieces by African-American composer, pianist, vocalist and dancer Julius Eastman , whose work often deals with questions of race and gender. Eastman is considered to be one of the pioneers of the minimalist movement, and is known as one of the first composers to integrate pop music elements in his music. He passed away at the age of 49 in New York, and only gained wider recognition posthumously.
The concert hall was rendered into a ampitheater of sorts, allowing the listeners to sit around the four grand pianos. The four pianists performed to a sold out Berliner Festspiele, opening the concert with the energetic, almost demonic, Evil Nigger.
All three pieces consist of a rapid repetition of notes, the harmonies changing every minute and a half. A long drone is created through the relentless repetition, filling the concert hall and the listener’s bodies with a resounding tone and fierce overtones. In Evil Nigger the falling fourth motif played throughout the piece resembles the opening of Mahler’s fourth symphony, and “Gay Guerilla” is known for quoting the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” as a gay manifesto.
During a short intermission, a rare recording of Eastman in which he refers to his provocative work titles was played for the audience. Eastman elaborates about his use of the
word “Nigger”, it has “a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that thing which is superficial or—what can we say?—elegant.”
Throughout the concert I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like, performing the three pieces one after the other, pounding relentlessly on the pianos for two hours? Questions about the physical strain of performing these pieces came to mind.
This feeling of marathonic duration was present in programing throughout the festival, Ensemble KNM’s concert at Radial System on a Monday night lasted four hours, and many of the festival’s evenings were several hours long – clearly the Long Now was taken here quite literally. On the one hand this offered an opportunity to commission plenty of new works and involve lots of artists, but on the other hand, it seemed to be testing the limits of the audience’s capacity.
Eva Ritter ’s The Lichtenberg Figures for voice and ensemble – a series of seven songs and six interludes opened with an instrumental prologue – was composed after the american writer and poet, Ben Lerner’s collection of sonnets. The stage and light design created by Nico de Rooij and Djana Covic changed synchronously with the music, providing the spectator with an immersive experience. Ritter utilizes a plethora of electronic effects, with vocals reminiscent of PJ Harvey’s grunge and Lorry Anderson’s mechanized voices. The different movements dissolved into one another, in what seemed like meticulously organized chaos. Every hit of the bass drum seemed to insinuate the coming of a groovy resolution, only to dissipate into a dense, raw, metallic fog.
Composer, performer and artist Jennifer Walshe ’s Everything is Important and An Gléchant were two remarkable performances, representative of Walshe’s rich interdisciplinary work. Walshe’s improvisation together with Tomomi Adachi , Chris Heenan and Mario de Vega to her first short feature film An Gléchant, was especially moving. I was taken by the
performativity of the electronic musician Mario de Vega, his subtle electronics acting like a thread linking the four players together.
Catherine Christer Hennix , one of the pioneers of electronic music and sound art, was a central figure in this years festival. Her installation and performances were presented at the domed Silent Green hall in the northern part of the the city.
A special guest of this year was the 86 year old Alvin Lucier , his pieces performed throughout the festival. A new version of his 1978 piece Clocker – in which the sounds of a Tennessee Walker striding on a hard surface road are accelerated and decelerated in response to the output voltage of a skin response sensor attached to the performer, was performed by Lucier himself in the echoey hall of a local church. During the first ten minutes the audience seemed to be engaged in the performance, though for the following half an hour the concentration drifted away, the audience fidgeting uncomfortably while some of my neighbors were sound asleep. It might have been a completely different (possibly more suitable) experience, listening to this composition in an open space, that would allow the spectators to move around freely, engaging and disengaging with the performance according to their own capacity.
The Long Now , a weekend featuring over 30 hours of music is a mini festival on it’s own. Held in a massive concrete ex-power plant in the centre of Berlin, the weekend is a rare new music event in which the spectators are free to experience music in a fluid way, moving around the monumental building, lying or falling asleep on bunk beds, coming and going in their own time while (possibly) sipping through a gin and tonic. A fusion of works between new music classics such as Morton Feldman ’s pieces and electronic music artists such as Kara-Lis Coverdale, Punctum and Tim Hecker.
Lucier’s canonic work I am Sitting In a Room was one of the weekend’s highlights performed to a vast crowd of eager fans. The performance was quite short in comparison to the famous recording, due to a commotion caused by the overload of bunk bed. Except for the purpose of sleeping the bunk beds made incredibly loud swishing noises and brought to a somewhat strange sleepy atmosphere especially during the day. Nonetheless, sitting in this room with it’s phenomenal resonance, listening to Lucier performing the piece himself was a special moment in the festival. Later that evening, I fell asleep listening to Leyland Kirby ’s the Vast Sea of Recollection , waking up early in the morning feeling floaty after a couple hours of lucid dreaming to intense frequencies.
In Kraftwerk’s colossal space, listening to acoustic pieces was somewhat challenging, bass frequencies from the neighbouring club Tresor intruded the intimate broken harmonies of Feldman ’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field performed by Duo Ascolta . Ensemble Graindelavoix presented two staged performances during the weekend, a wonderful chance to listen to the mere perfection of their a-capella singing again. The performance involved the dragging of wooden chairs from one place to the other, forming small different groups around beautiful minimalist lamps, all narrated by the soprano. Unfortunately it was acoustically challenging to follow the narration, and it felt like the staging and the narration were a bit lost in the industrial space, perhaps even unnecessary especially in comparison to the concert (presented a week before) in the church.
Tim Hecker , american electronic musician and sound artist, was the last to perform this festival, bringing ten days of avant-garde music to a closure. Hecker, disguised by a haze of fog, sent into the room an array of drones, spatial harmonies and metallic sounds blurring into each other. The abundance of frequencies, noise and harmonies sounding clamorously in the space
guided the spectators through a deep listening meditation, one could almost levitate through the space.
On the last day of the festival I had a chance to talk to a fellow musician about the festival’s curation, it’s intention to relate to it’s environment, to the current political situation and about cultural budgets in Germany. He mentioned that in Berlin there’s a saying which goes “dancing is political”. It comes to celebrate small underground cultures, communities, even if they serve just a small group of people. It also refers to the famous hedonistic culture in the city. The concerts of this year’s festival were often sold out, and in average had a 90 percent capacity. The Long Now attracted a varied crowd, old and young, familiar faces one often sees in contemporary music festivals in Europe and a lot of music lovers. It was just at the very end of the festival, that the dancing at one of my favourite small local clubs OHM began – but the ten days of music altogether created an ambience which is still resonating within me.
Two MaerzMusik 2017 concerts were pre-recorded and then broadcasted by Deutschlandradio Kultur. MaerzMusik on Air Arthur Kampela’s work “…tak-tak…tak…” by Ensemble Modern’s “Re-inventing Smetak” project was live-streamed on the concert evening on 23 March and can still be listened to there: www.facebook.com/ensemblemodern
The presentations of Thinking Together including Georgina Born, Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, Chandra Kant Raju and Rolando Vázquez were live-streamed and can still be listened to there: www.facebook.com/MaerzMusik