At the beginning of the 2018/19 season Bas Wiegers took over the position of Principal Guest Conductor of Klangforum Wien from Sylvain Cambreling. For the ensemble's 2018/19 program, the conductor contributed an essay entitled “Some thoughts about diversity and character,” a shortened version of which we reproduce here with kind permission of Klangforum Wien.
Focussing on what is “contemporary” means being in continuous change.
“Now” is always different, fluid. Twenty to forty years ago, the leading
forces behind the formation of the ensembles for new music were
composers and their direct friends, who had the feeling they needed
different organisms and constellations for their music. Of course young
composers today write different music than what their colleagues were
writing in the Seventies and Eighties. The new generation of listeners
has different expectations from their colleagues decades ago. They need
different vehicles for their musical experiences.
This is all very obvious, but what does it mean for the established ensembles of contemporary music? Formed decades ago, perfected and institutionalized during the years, the danger is that they are growing old and will stop being contemporary. Just like their predecessors, the symphony orchestras, they then become specialized ensembles for music of another generation.
So the ensembles (and orchestras!) need to keep refreshing their urgency, their necessity, if they still want to be of importance to a future audience and a future generation of composers. Otherwise, sooner or later, their relevance will dry up. And ensembles, even more than symphony orchestras or opera houses, are incredibly vulnerable and seemingly easily discarded by thoughtless politics, as my home country The Netherlands has so sadly demonstrated in the past couple of years.
This development does not mean that ensembles need to get rid of the repertoire and knowledge that was formed in all those years of existence, quite the contrary. A hybrid situation seems the most interesting and viable option: one where musicians keep giving the audience the opportunity to hear live music from the near and further past, while at the same time keeping the curiosity for the newest developments and shaping the near future of music. For me, the key words on which to focus our actions are diversity and character. [in German: Eigenheit]
Whether the discourse is about race, gender, income level, sexual orientation, food, or art: the world of today has clearly embraced the idea of diversity. If we want to represent the world around us, and communicate with it, diversity in programming, in the way we communicate, in the way we create, is crucial. Some music needs the focused concentration of deep listening, some music needs almost scientific attention, some music needs an informal setting, and some music needs a more theatrical presence to reach its full potential. It is important for musicians, ensembles and programmers to take up the position of a curator: we love this, we think this is extraordinary, and we want to attest to this. It is important, because otherwise, inside this enormous diversity, we will get lost. Someone needs to make choices, feel the necessity to share these choices and create a context for the audience where they can be shared.
At the beginning of written music, composers were always also performers. During the ages, this has been shifting, settling for a while on the idea of the composer as the creative genius, who delivers the score to the musician, who then faithfully plays the written notes. But in our time, the idea of the composer-genius seems to be only one of many ways to create new music. We have interesting composers who come from a traditional musical background, but also ones who come from improvised music, from film music or even from visual and conceptual arts rather than music. Our scope needs to be wide: On one side of the spectrum we still have composers who deliver a perfectly thought-trough score, and on the other side we find the composer who can barely read notes and needs imaginative performers to bring the musical ideas to life.
Do we want to play this whole bandwidth of musics? And are we capable of it? One thing is clear: if we only play music with technical instrumentation qualities of, say, post-Ravel or post-Lachenmann finesse, we miss out on a whole world of other ways of making music. Importantly, the musician-performer also misses out on the possibility of developing skills on a more co-composing and co-creative level. But this demands a different attitude, a different working process, and a different responsibility from both the composer and the musician-performer.
The ensembles that have been formed in the Seventies and Eighties were
born from the need for a new musical and artistic direction. But weirdly
enough, despite the then already omnipresent pop culture, they have
held onto quite traditional stage concepts, both in the dramaturgy of
the concert experience and in the musicians´ behaviour on stage.
Concerning the dramaturgy, we see more and more differentiation here. Building a concert on the ouverture-solowork-symphony-format (a romantic format that still makes its mark on many contemporary music concerts) is only one possibility. Another of the many options is a concert in one arch, guiding the audience without interruption from experience to experience. This leads to a different concentration and a different message all together. Again, it is about differentiation: not all music is meant or even fit for one or the other approach. Conceiving a more holistic dramaturgy might even mean integrating ideas about light, sound, or set design in the process. Connecting to other art forms will not only enrich our own ideas about what a performance might be, it will also open doors to audiences who are interested in those other fields of the arts, rather than just in music.
Talking about stage presence in music is not trying to put an extra awareness on the shoulders of the musician. It is simply acknowledging what has always been part of our art, but is quite often ignored or taken for granted. A symphony orchestra dressed in tails is theatre. It may be a very formalized, uniform spectacle, but it is theatre nonetheless. We are never anonymous, all is seen, registered, part of the audience’s experience. This doesn’t mean that we all need to look fashionable and Instagrammable on stage. Different situations call for different visual messages, but also different behaviours. Are we relaxed on stage, are we very concentrated? Is there a distance between the performer and the audience, or do we try to keep this distance as small as possible?
Addressing the audience directly is often still considered as something that “serious” music would not need and that would belittle the grandness of the art. I once conducted a very complex and disturbing Birtwistle piece in an afternoon concert that was freely accessible to whoever wanted to attend. It was a situation where you could easily scare off uninformed audiences with the “harsh” sounds of new music. But I absolutely loved the piece and I really wanted to open some doors to the listeners, to invite them into this world – a world that I had been exploring for months and they had to grasp in 20 minutes! I had to beg the organizers again and again before they allowed me to address a few very simple words to the audience. This fear of contact needs to go.
We must never forget the strength of a live performance. I started my
journey as a conductor with the Dutch Ricciotti Ensemble. This is a
student orchestra, formed amidst the unrest of the wild Seventies in
Amsterdam, with the socialist motto of bringing music to the people:
“Music for everyone, everywhere.” The orchestra still exists, playing in
public squares, in hospitals, in schools. I am proud to say that I have
been inside most prisons in The Netherlands and in many abroad. In one
of those prisons, a women’s prison, I vividly remember playing the
second movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. The atmosphere was
tense, and the women didn’t really know how to relate to us. But after
we finished the symphony, the atmosphere had changed. And in the silence
that followed the music, in that moment before I dropped the tension, a
woman right behind me sighed and said quietly: “This is life.” I will
be grateful for this moment forever. It was one of those rare occasions
when you get a completely honest feedback on what you have just done, on
that weird stage. I was made aware of the power of a group of people,
in joint concentration, managing to create something together with the
audience (yes, we need the audience to do this!) that actually, however
briefly, changed someone’s life.
The present time is a very exciting one. In music, we are amidst an ocean of possibilities and developments. On stage our presence can be at once more theatrical and more informal than has ever been possible. It is all wonderfully confusing. Inside this multi-facetted reality, our task as musician-performers is to take in the vast possibilities of all those various kinds of music around us, to sharpen our love and to find the best way to attest to what we love. Composers can be “monogamous” in their love, in their choices. But performing musicians and programmers need to be polyamorous and versatile. We need to develop ways of dealing with that complexity and to share these loves with the audience, in the hope that some of our own bewilderment and fascination will transfer to them. Every step we take in that direction is one that makes the world more complete, more understanding, better.
Bas Wiegers, 2018