Ostrava appears on a map in my guide book to the Czech Republic, but there's nothing else there on the city: no story, no sights to see, not even a mention of its population or its reputation. Ostrava sits near the far east end of the eastern province of Moravia, and the closest notable destination from the city (for an American traveler, at least) is Kraków, Poland.
It's untrue, however, that there are no sights to see: the city itself encourages visitors to check out a smoking slag heap, the still-warm legacy of its past as a mining and industrial town. There is the morbidly fascinating monumentalism of the Poruba apartment complex, built by the Soviets for the miners and steelworkers who were already segregated on the outskirts of town. But now the place is becoming something of a provincial business center, although it is also the home of the Janáček Conservatory of Music and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra. Those are not just local charms, but integral to a biennial, late summer culture efflorescence, when the city plays host to the Ostrava Days Festival, likely the finest festival of new, avant-garde, and classic modernist music there is, anywhere.
Ostrava Days is the brainchild of flutist Petr Kotik—a true musician in the classic sense, he performs, conducts, and is a formidable composer. It operates in partnership with the municipality, the Conservatory, and the Orchestra, with the additional support of the Czech Ministerstvo Kultury, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the U.S. Embassy, the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, and more than two dozen business and cultural organizations. Spanning roughly the last three weeks in August, the festival begins with musicians and undergraduate, graduate, and post-grad composers working with older composers on new music and new practices for the Ostrava Days Institute. It concludes with nine straight days of concerts, music of the past and the future, all in the post-1945 modernist/avant-garde/experimental tradition.
The location belies not only the music’s cosmopolitan flavor, but also the international makeup of the body of resident players, which includes exceptional New York musicians centered around Kotik's Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, guests like pianist Daan Vandewalle, and the excellent Czech new music group Ostravská Banda (another Kotik brainchild). The Janáček Philharmonic also plays a role, and though they may be barely known outside their own country—if not their own town—under Kotik they have shown themselves to be one of the finer large ensembles around for this music: attentive, committed (if perhaps at times grudgingly so), and adaptable.
Why Ostrava? In a way, because it was there. When Kotik sat down over sixteen years ago and crafted the plans for the festival with composers Christian Wolff, Alvin Lucier, and Earle Brown, the city already had the musicians, it had the Janáček Conservatory, and it had a government and local business community both of which were interested in supporting steps that would move Ostrava away from waning industries and towards white collar businesses and the business of culture.
Along with the resources and the facilities—including several important, excellent new ones that are integral to the city's physical renewal—Ostrava is a place that, in Kotik's phrase, leaves you alone. Still substantially blue collar in look, feel, and social quality, there is no pressure to be hip, to be seen, to do any particular thing, or anything at all in particular. Despite the occasionally irritating air quality (there is still a working steel plant within the city limits), the city is comfortable to be in and to get around, it is spacious and green, with a solid public transportation system. There is not much to do except experience the music, which is the whole point.
Socially, Ostrava is a place where two beer pubs are essentially built into the symphony hall complex, and where longhaired, middle-aged men walk around wearing their European heavy metal band T-shirts, without a hint of irony or self-consciousness. They wear them to the festival concerts too.
But, why in Ostrava? Or rather, why do only the professionals and aficionados seem to know about what happens in Ostrava? Why can’t one read about the festival and the city in newspapers and general interest publications? With no particular bourgeois charm, with no particular material culture, with nothing particularly to do or see, rich people don’t go to Ostrava, so publications written in hopes that rich people will read them don’t cover Ostrava. The festival is about nothing but the music.
Everything about Ostrava Days is broader and deeper than not only the ordinary concert-going experience, but the average festival experience as well: the music stakes out territory from tonality to unpredictable experimentation, from acoustic to digital instruments, from absolute music to opera. It is a rare night when there is only one concert; the norm is at least two different events, and across the nine days, I sat, stood, and strolled around, across, and through forty hours of music.
Opening night, Friday, August 21, was an overture for the whole thing—a massive one in five parts and multiple media. Held at the Provoz Hlubina, a defunct coal mine transformed into a versatile and hip arts and performance center, the festival's first sounds came from an installation of Peter Ablinger's multichannel audio piece, WEISS/WEISSLICH 27d. Then, going late into the evening, there were concert performances, improvisations, and everything in between. There were sets from baritone Thomas Buckner, the great new music singer and improviser, and some of the resident musicians, and from the violin duo String Noise (Conrad and Pauline Kim Harris), who played pieces by Bernhard Lang, John King, and James Ilgenfritz, among others.
All that and a beer courtesy of composer and Institute Lector George Lewis made for a fine evening. But as in all things Ostrava Days, there was more. Downing the beer, I hurried back to one of the performance spaces, where Irish composer-vocalist Jennifer Walshe presented one of her antic, hilarious, sad performance/lectures—she sang, spoke, and danced around, all the while reacting to, interacting with, and paralleling a digital video she had made. Her method produces a fascinating, somewhat overwhelming torrent of ideas, through which you grasp what appear to be central points. In this piece, The Total Mountain, it's the very real torrent of digital information, most of which doesn't even deserve the term “ephemera,” but which is metaphorically another pellet for the social media guinea pig, tabulating likes and juxtaposing Doge-memes with images of chaos and destruction. And all set to a beat! Call it a monodrama, call it an opera.
There was a real opera too, the first of three during the festival. This one, produced with spare and lightly deadpan staging, was Rudolf Komorous' Lady Blancarosa, its two parts sung by soprano Sara Dezso and mezzo Katalin Károlyi. This was an exceptional treat. Komorous is barely known even inside modernist music circles, and he's even less frequently heard. His music is clearly thought, finely made, and places formal and structural virtues of the past into a contemporary context, making it sound both familiar and disorienting.
The libretto is a collage that Komorous made from the writings of Jan z Vojkovic (Jan Nebeský), and is a mix of random sentences in English, Italian, and Czech. Each is amusing and makes sense on its own, but nothing at all comes together with any narrative sense. The music is small—for only two a cappella voices—full of delicate two-part harmonies that reach back to pre-Baroque counterpoint. Dezso and Károlyi sang expertly, and the sheer loveliness of the music made for a beguiling juxtaposition with the text, which is absurd, and the plot, which is non-existent. Around the shell of grand opera’s decadence, Komorous hangs a filigree of beauty.
Conceptually, opening night extended into the next day, with the other part of what still felt like a preliminary event, like the festival was warming up and clearing its throat. The Minimarathon of Electronic Music, held on the first Saturday, would have been the main attraction in any other context: eight and a half hours of live performances, with a parallel program of pre-recorded, multi-channel audio works in a separate room, all held at the Gallery of Fine Arts.
The music covered an unusually extensive range, and the quality of the music and performances varied just as widely. In the Acousmonium (for listening to recorded audio), I heard Bernard Parmegiani's classic electronic work De Natura Sonorum, in a wonderfully transparent and present multi-channel mix. From the live stage, I also heard what may have been the worst improvisation I've ever experienced. It seemed endless, the musician following the cues from his computer, rather than leading the action himself, and confusing the process of promiscuously tossing out ideas to see which are workable with the actual goal.
There were performances on unusual instruments: the theremin and the Cristal Baschet. Pamelia Stickney played the former and Lenka Morávková the latter. Each set was full of good sounds, and a clear overall direction, but without sufficient structure to carry the music all the way through to the end.
Stickney is a real virtuoso who has pioneered new ways to play the theremin, but much of the music fell back on the aesthetic of the old school electronic music studio—there was a noticeable gap between her concepts and her technique. Her set was overwhelmed by nostalgia for the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Studio and limited by the loops of the dance floor. Morávková's instrument is exceptionally rare, one of a handful made by the sculptors/instrument builders the Baschet brothers. It combines rods of various lengths (pitches) with two warped thunder-sheets, and Morávková played it by rubbing her fingers along the rods. The instrument produces a tremendous moan, rich with overtones, and the timbre of the sound changed in direct proportion to the dynamics—the louder the volume, the more the moan sounded like a French horn, and at and above certain levels, sympathetic vibrations from the thunder-sheets added a delayed steel drum-like attack. The music she played, repetitive and new-age, didn't have the same interest.
Other pieces came out of a cultural or aesthetic context either too specific, obscure, or personal, to communicate anything much. The best music came from Martyna Poznánska and Tristan Perich. Poznánska mixed a series of processed urban field recordings into an attractive, mesmerizing wall of sound, dense with activity and full of clear colors. Perich brought a new piece, Formations for cello and live electronics. Beginning with bright, fast, repeating square-wave patterns, the music hurtled through time and space with tremendous vitality. The mix between electronic and acoustic sound was good, and cellist Juho Laitinen surfed the audio field like Laird Hamilton. The acoustic music matched the electronics in repetitive energy and clear attacks, and then after a time turned lyrical and minor-key. Formations was gorgeous, crunchy, palpable. The sheer beauty of the sound and the irresistible groove, along with Laitinen's amazing playing, built a momentum that produced a substantial emotional power. This was the finest new composition I've heard this year.
Taken with opening night, the Marathon offered evidence of the sophistication of the audiences in Ostrava. With the Institute and all the musicians and composers around, the crowd of spectators that gathered for each performance always featured a substantial cadre of people involved in Ostrava Days. But the festival also draws a dedicated local crowd, and faces quickly grow familiar and become a welcome part of the social landscape.
The musicians listen with focus and interest, of course, but so do the local audiences. Their attention is absolute, and their reactions are adoring—everything and everyone gets multiple ovations. At times it feels like being inside Aki Kaurismäki's film La Vie de Bohème, especially when Rodolfo and Marcel sit down with utmost seriousness to hear composer Schaunard's latest avant-garde work, which is a “classic" combination of random bashing at the keyboard, yelling through a bullhorn, and throwing things around.
When the music is bad—inevitable, but a far less frequent occurrence in Ostrava than anywhere else—this can seem comical; but no less so than at the typical classical concert, where even dull and insincere thinking and playing are rewarded with self-regarding standing ovations. And the locals are no rubes: they have the sophistication and the patience to listen to and through things that are new to them, and the more unfamiliar or unusual the concept, the more they reach out to it. They’ve been enjoying this through eight iterations now (the first installment took place in 2001), and they’ve been able to hear more meaningful, important, and constructively challenging modern music than audiences virtually anywhere else. Ostrava is building a musical history, and telling a musical tale.
Ostrava Days offers a reminder of the incredible capaciousness of the post-Second World War avant-garde. During the middle decades of the last century, this quality was not obvious, although it is now clear in retrospect. Avant-garde classical music was dominated by the ideology of serialism. In a way, this was only natural in the context of what was a viciously, dangerously ideological century, though it led to strange, sad conclusions, like the disruption of the developing friendship between John Cage and Pierre Boulez around 1950. Listening to passages from Cage’s Music of Changes and Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 1, one finds the music strikingly similar, even though the underlying processes that produced each piece came from fundamentally different intellectual and aesthetic value systems. They both can’t be right. It all seems so strange now.
Serialism, which (to be fair) did produce some good music, now seems as quaint as any other notion of the end of history. Atonal music will always be with us as a valid style, as will tonal music: ideas never really go away, they just wax and wane in prominence. There was only one piece from the Second Viennese School on the entire festival schedule, Alban Berg's Chamber Concerto of 1925. Not strictly atonal, it was the key that deciphered the history of modern music a la Ostrava—that in terms of success, and despite such titanic figures as Berg, atonality is as much museum-piece music as any other past epoch, and that the traditions of modern music encompass far more than that. But where the typical classical concert is a tour of history, Ostrava Days explores the roots of the past and the branches that bloom from it. It’s sightseeing for the ears.
That was how Cage and Stockhausen, mediated sub rosa by Alvin Lucier, came to logically and aesthetically share the same stage, or rather, stages: Stockhausen, the most prominent citizen of Darmstadt, and Cage, who for so many years was rejected from that institution, and who was later gingerly accepted, though never embraced, as if his fame and the body of his work had embarrassed the institute into inviting him after all that time. Today Stockhausen’s work is becoming a historical legacy, frozen in time, while Cage, though never frequently heard, has a living, global cultural standing that looks poised to only keep growing. Both had something of a cult of personality about them, but while Stockhausen's was focused on his own ego, Cage's was focused on his ideas. Cage's values, as hard as they may be to emulate, are so deeply attractive, his extraordinary discipline offering a model for every artist in every medium, and his particular manner of working with the problem of time is, like the bottom of the oceans, barely explored territory that promises one surprising, astonishing discovery after another. We are far enough along that we can refer to the current epoch of music as the post-Cage era.
It's fair to say that the Festival took off in earnest with the Sunday night concert billed as “Music for Three Orchestras,” with Stockhausen and Cage on the program. It was held inside the Trojhalí Karolina, a former industrial site for the Žofín Iron and Steel Works and Karolina Coking Plant that feels, from the inside, like two generously-sized train terminals with an adjacent jumbo-sized barn, but which have been reworked into a set of massive, elegant, and acoustically superior performance spaces.
Along the sub-basement entrance level, there were continuous loops of four different films produced by Virginia Dwan, unspooling in three different medium-sized screening rooms: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet, Cage on Cage: An Interview, Reconfigurations: Carl Andre at PS1, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. A floor above, in one quadrant of the main area, there was Alvin Lucier, sitting in this enormous room, listening, with the rest of us, to an installation of his Music on a Long Thin Wire. The smooth, cool concrete floor, the vaulting, hangar-like ceiling, the wide-open space: all worked together to produce a luscious, mellow timbre, pervasive yet unobtrusive. I heard Lucier articulate the space.
Later in the evening, three orchestras (the Janáček Philharmonic and other musicians divided into three large ensembles) articulated the space further. One of the most talked-about performances at the entire festival was that of Stockhausen's Gruppen (1955-57), which shared the Concert for Three Orchestras with one of Kotik's specialties, a simultaneous playing of Cage's Atlas Eclipticalis and Winter Music, the latter with Christian Wolff himself at the piano.
Gruppen, which fell in the middle of two intermissions, and came after a quadraphonic playing of Stockhausen’s seminal tape piece Gesang der Jünglinge, is a logistical challenge—three orchestras set apart from each other, playing separate music that they hand off to, or that overlaps with, their colleagues. There’s no way to hear how it works via recordings, and I had experienced it live only once before, at a spectacular June 2012 performance given by the New York Philharmonic in the 50,000-square foot drill hall at the Park Avenue Armory. The resonance of the Armory produced a colorful wash of sound, Stockhausen as avant-garde impressionist.
Ostrava Days had the better space. The orchestra sat on three stages in a U-configuration around the audience, and their closeness, along with a rug laid down under the seats, produced an ideal sound, with presence, transparency, and enough reverb to add texture without distortion. I could hear the piece the way Stockhausen wrote it, with precise, sharply defined dynamics, rhythms, and accents. Individual voices came through, especially the vibrant, skillful guitar playing of Johannes Öllinger. I could hear how Stockhausen used space to spin together multi-dimensional structures—the music doesn't just pan from one side to another, it uses notes placed around the ears to connect things horizontally as well as vertically, harmonies and rhythms that are unique because their components are spread both through time and across the points of a compass.
The Ostrava performance featured memorably fine orchestral playing—especially taking into account how far away the music is from the Janáček Philharmonic's standard repertoire of Czech and other European romantic era composers. Kotik and the orchestra have been doing this together for many years now, and while they may not like each other (there were the usual stories of grumblings and conflicts in the rehearsals), the respect comes through in the final product. At Kotik’s 2012 Beyond Cage Festival in New York, the orchestra played Morton Feldman’s scores for large forces better than any other in my experience. The group’s musicianship is always impressive, and in Gruppen they were led with obvious care and precision by Johannes Kalitzke, Rolf Gupta, and Kotik. Depending on one’s taste, the piece may or may not be an aesthetic or intellectual pleasure, but at least at Ostrava, one could finally hear what it was, and decide for oneself.
Kotik’s own Variations for Three Orchestras was also on the program. Spread across three orchestras, his long, fluid, horizontal lines rose and fell in harmonies that came together in sonorities surprisingly reminiscent of William Schuman, and then vanished like the lights of fireflies. There was a carefully made but slight piece, beautiful to me. Ah, from young composer Jacek Sotomski, as well as Phill Niblock’s wonderful Three Petals. This was a typical Niblock composition, with the grouped ensembles playing an F major chord and then, over the course of twenty-four minutes, gradually sliding by a half step to a F♯ minor chord. But the realization, the orchestral sound, and the concentration of the playing all added up to make Three Petals Niblock’s finest work.
Kotik doesn’t have the greatest conducting technique, but he clearly excels at preparing musicians in rehearsal, and has made all the concerts or recordings where he’s led Atlas Eclipticalis historic occasions. More than any other piece in the orchestral repertoire, this one is about preparing the musicians to think about music in a new way, getting them to play the pitches and attacks and dynamics of their individual, independent parts with a cool discipline.
In the Triple Hall, with Kotik on a platform in the middle of the audience, the playing was solid in the moment, but nothing like the transcendent account at Carnegie Hall for Beyond Cage. That was a performance of approximately an hour and forty-five minutes duration that felt short; this was planned as a half-hour performance that felt a little long. Kotik added the wildcard of the Coal Mine Band, a traditional ensemble that burst into energetic stretches of waltzes and marches. There was something unexpectedly routine about the playing, like a competent but unexceptionable rendition of a Haydn or Beethoven symphony, pleasant as it rolls by but ultimately jejune. But the possibility that the world of music may have reached a tipping point where there can be routine performances of Cage’s works is deeply profound and exciting.
Atlas also brought together the threads of the past into a series of resonant and ephemeral moments (having the rarity and half-life of exotic sub-atomic fragments spinning through particle accelerators, these moments can only be produced in live performance). Cage originally constructed the piece using Antonín Becvár’s 1958 volume of star charts, Atlas Eclipticalis 1950.0, and Kotik accordingly returned the music to its intellectual origins. But the Coal Mine Band was, as Christian Wolff told me a couple days later, a stretch, and yet also within the bounds of Cage’s values, as their inclusion “referred to the local situation.” (Ostrava is the kind of place where you sit next to Wolff at a concert and chat about his music, Cage, and the quality of the performances.) Cage, outside of theoretical and determinist views of history, has a home in every local situation.
Accordions and cimbaloms are features of the Ostrava situation, too, and they were scattered amidst the compositions at the festival, including beautiful to me. Ah. There was also a late-night jam session (a regular festival feature) held at the Kulturní Centrum Cooltour, where the Irvin Cimbalom Band played and sang traditional music. An Ostravská Banda clarinetist sat in, and the crowd either sang along or tapped their feet, depending on both their native language and the night’s alcohol consumption.
The quality of the playing is another feature. Good musicianship is commonplace in classical music, but the beauty, exactitude, and ensemble comity that one constantly hears at Ostrava are so fine as to always be remarkable. Vandewalle played Wolff’s hour-long Long Piano (Peace March 11) with such an enticing light touch and so much well-judged space that it seemed to fly by: the composer himself remarked how fine and refreshing Vandewalle’s musical thinking was. At a late night concert of solos and songs, there were fabulous performances of Kaija Saariaho’s Petals (by Laitinen), Embellie by Iannis Xenakis (played by violist Nikolaus Schlierf), and the continuous eighteen-minute violin solo, Das Andere, composed by Horațiu Rădulescu (played by Harris). Not to mention Ilgenfritz attacking his bass with three bows at once for Elliott Sharp’s Aletheia and Charles Curtis’s lovely cello playing for Wolff’s One Cellist.
There were only two truly poor performances during the whole festival, the products of misguided thinking rather than incompetent execution. At the Wednesday night Large Orchestra concert at Philharmonic Hall, Vilém Veverka offered a repulsively narcissistic account of the solo part in Feldman’s Oboe and Orchestra, playing fortissimo in a part that demands pianissimo, and drawing attention to his efforts as strenuously as he could. When not playing, he stared at the music on the stand as if he was preparing to bed it. Later, on the penultimate night, at a show back at the mine, a trio of students condescended to show that they had no musical feel for, nor social empathy toward, the bluegrass of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow”.
Exceptions, meet rules. Once intermission cleared away Veverka’s ridiculous playing, trombonist William Lang came out to—in the term of art—utterly demolish Xenakis’ concertante work Troorkh. This is an exciting piece, tremendously demanding on the soloist, and yet Lang played it not only with seeming ease, but with rare gusto and relish. He loved every second of it, and the orchestra followed him along in an unforgettable, inspired performance.
I also heard Ligeti played more beautifully than I had before—his Six Bagatelles for wind quintet in a concert for “Voices and Instruments” at the austere yet comforting St. Wenceslas Church, off Ostrava’s old town square, and his Double Concerto, during the closing concert on the second and last Saturday of the festival. In the Double Concerto, flutist Daniel Havel and oboist Jan Souček, with the Ostravská Banda and conductor Ondřej Vrabec, made a gorgeous blend of colors. In both pieces, intonation was exact, rhythms were swinging and vital, dynamics were shaded by fractions of degrees, and the music was expressive and exciting. At the church, the Banda offered Galina Ustvolskaya’s Octet, playing it more musically than I have ever heard any other performance of her work.
That same Saturday concert featured the dense Berg Concerto, one of the most difficult pieces to bring off in the entire classical repertoire. The lead parts were played by Vandewalle and violinist Hana Kotková, who a few days earlier was masterful in Sciarrino’s whispering quasi-concerto Allegoria della notte. With Roland Kluttig conducting, the ensemble at first concentrated fiercely on the music. The playing was solid, but with some muddled rhythms before the first big piano solo; then after that, the players relaxed, listened to each other avidly, and played with easy confidence, drive, and clarity. The respect Kluttig and the audience offered to Vandewalle and Kotková—and the ensemble—at the end was a sign that no recording could ever match the memory of this playing. And then, to top it all off, trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich played the solo part in Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s concerto Nobody Knows de Trouble I See with a full, shining tone and expressive aplomb. That was the last piece of the entire festival, and the quality of the playing ended the nine days with an exhilarating exclamation point.
But there was so much more impressive music and memorable music-making. There were composers we simply do not get to hear in America, like Petr Bakla and Petr Cígler, and Bernhard Lang. Bakla’s Classical blend/Weihnachtsoratorium had its premiere under Gupta on the Large Orchestra concert, and was an intriguingly moody piece that drew one in while keeping its secrets. The music walks the fine and intriguing line between abstraction and expression, like a mathematical puzzle that reveals a cry of anguish when solved. Cígler is a contemporary Borodin, a chemist who writes one piece a year, and his Daily Patterns, with the Ostravská Banda, was a sharp combination of rhythms adapted from King Crimson and a well-made form. The repeated patterns belie any sense of routine or tedium: Cígler’s days must be constantly interesting. Lang’s DW 23b … Loops for Dr. X is one of a series of pieces he has made that combine staggered, imperfect repetitions, idiomatic jazz and rock riffs, and samples from Boris Karloff and Hammer Horror movies. It has a fiendishly virtuosic bass clarinet part that Bohdan Hilash played with satisfying tension, momentum, and confidence. Lang’s music serves up the avant-garde edge of the classical tradition with an earthy attitude and an impish delight in the pleasures of pop culture.
One of the objectives of the festival is to propel the classical tradition into the future, and that means a generous helping of new music from composers under forty, and even under thirty. The most outstanding of these works were Devin Maxwell’s Chester, NJ, a rich-sounding, skillful portrayal of musical memory. The expression was personal, but the music built an impressive force that was broadly appealing. Daniel Ting-cheung Lo’s Ode to the Wind was a nicely shaped, beautifully orchestrated, and highly atmospheric tone poem—each time the music appeared ready to drift away, it coalesced into something solid. Daniel Skála’s Sanctus, a liturgical update built around his own skillful cimbalom playing, concluded the concert at the church, and managed a fine balance between the ancient and then new.
Alongside the notable names on the final night, the Janáček Philharmonic played two new pieces from the current generation, Alex Mincek’s Pendulum X: “Harmonielehre”, and Rivulose by Ben Richter, both world premieres. After a brash opening, Mincek’s piece settled down into a slow alternation of quiet sounds followed by full-throated playing. It’s a big piece in broad strokes. There are gorgeous sonorities that seem to remember Debussy, Mahler, and John Adams, and some exciting, grinding slabs of sound. It made a terrific impression.
Richter’s piece was subtler. The orchestra held a single note for a substantial duration before the instruments began to slide against each other. There was an involved, strange piano solo that tried to carve its way through, like Chopin being played in the apartment next door. There seemed to be some balance problems, but eventually the music came together around a mesmerizing pulsation that entirely reshaped the perception of what had gone before, wielding an irresistible physical power.
The operas, both heard on the second Friday at two different venues, were by George Lewis and Kotik. For Lewis, it was a partial version of his Afterword, based on his own book, A Power Stronger Than Itself, about the legendary free jazz collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The production was staged by Sean Griffin, conducted by Gupta, and starred talented young singers: soprano Joelle Lamarre, contralto Gwendolyn Brown, and tenor Julian Terrell Otis.
Afterword almost works, but it has an important flaw. The piece is, strictly speaking, not an opera, but a narrative, and the first half or so has the singers telling a condensed but sharp story of the African-American diaspora, and the movement from the south to cities like Chicago during the first half of last century. Although the vocalists portrayed (in Lewis’ word) archetypes, not characters, that all proved compelling enough, especially with such fine singers and Lewis’s inventive, expressionist, through-composed score. But then the music tried to convey what amounted to a debate over musical philosophy: whether, why, and how to make original music. The story changed, and concerned itself with the fundamental operatic subject of transformation, but the music didn't follow. The libretto made an awkward stab at drama, while the music kept moving along as if there was still only plot. All the same, the singing was so fine—Brown’s flexible, firm-edged voice was a particular standout—that the experience fully satisfied.
Kotik’s Master-Pieces, although experimental, is indeed about transformation. The text comes from Gertrude Stein and her essay “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them”. Kotik has been setting Stein to music for more than four decades now, and he exploits her syntax and rhythms better than any other composer. The dramatic argument came through in soprano Kamala Sankaram’s fiercely concentrated performance, singing straight at the audience from the downstage depths of the Antonín Dvořák Opera House. She is Stein, arguing with herself until she finds clarity and understanding. Kotik has reworked this piece a few times, and the performance had some rough edges, with the musicians occasionally unsure of themselves and the trio of narrators, made up of young composers (not trained actors), lugubrious and flaccid. But Master-Pieces is curious and questioning, and always worth seeing.
One of the surprises of this year’s festival was just how few experimental works there were. Other than Kotik’s opera, there was Sharp’s piece, Radulescu’s, and the young composer Liisa Hirsch’s magical Cloud Tones, premiered at St. Wenceslas. Hirsch uses a technique she calls gliding, where she rubs a plastic ruler along a piano’s strings until the vibrations start to produce notes, overtones, and sympathetic responses from neighboring strings. She was joined by Schlierf, who listened carefully until he found a central pitch, and then matched it on his viola. There was no tempo, meter, or rhythm, and the harmonies were a surprise, but then, that was the design. Hirsch is trying to see if something works, and how it might work, and she and the audience waited as the results unfolded through time. The ten-minute duration seemed to pass in mere seconds.
But back to the general trend the festival brought into focus—how experimental music has become something of an afterthought for younger composers. This also seems to be by design. The heroic age of experimentation is waning because the heroic experimental composers are either gone or elderly. Perich is young, and has been an important experimental composer, but he’s now writing for instruments. And Lucier himself is writing for instruments, too: his Orpheus Variations, for Curtis’s cello, was one of the festival's highlights, but it is also a work from an entirely different era than Music on a Long Thin Wire. This is a case where the underlying conformity of the academy—the values one implicitly accepts in order to teach the next generation of composers—dominates, at least for now.
The divide in classical music is no longer between competing pitch systems, but between the academy and the streets. In the academy, a composer earns a masters degree and a PhD, and writes music while teaching, supported in life by institutional resources. Music from the academies is full of craft and knowledge and, while often satisfying on its own terms, rarely troubles or puzzles the sensibilities. Music from the streets doesn’t always have the same skill with counterpoint or subtlety in orchestration, but it understands that form and structure—or even equal temperament—are not the end, but the means, and that form, structure, and tuning need to be examined and even abused in order to discover new ways to make music. But making music in the streets is economic suicide.
Still, that music gets made. That’s where it has always come from, after all—or at least, that was where it came from until about fifty years ago. Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Ives, Stravinsky, Debussy: they were all working composers and musicians, or else they had day jobs. Harry Partch built his musical universe from scratch before IRCAM was even a gleam in Pierre Boulez’ eye. Steve Reich and Philip Glass had their fair share of schooling, but their breakthroughs happened away from the academy, as was also true of La Monte Young and Terry Riley. John Adams, by contrast, increasingly shows the satisfied entropy of the academy, which was his home for his formative years.
The academies preserve history and examine its ramifications to the nth degree—scholarship. The streets make history, frequently adding to it by ignoring what has come before. These two sides are beneficially intertwined, and there is a pendulum that sweeps ideas from the streets to the academy, cleaning slates and refreshing viewpoints.
Ostrava is an essential part of this dynamic, and the academies are of course aesthetically important, just as they are an economic necessity, especially as rich audiences don’t attend Ostrava Days. The festival is a tremendously learned and accomplished musical event. Listening through it, it came as a surprise that the oldest pieces made the strongest impressions, that the satisfying certainties of history overwhelmed that tantalizing feeling of catching a glimpse of the future, of more music one has never dreamed of heading toward the ears. But the pendulum keeps swaying, and by the time we gather again in Ostrava in two years, it may well have swung to an entirely different position.
George Grella Jr. is a composer, independent scholar, and critic. He is the music editor of the Brooklyn Rail and a freelance writer for the New York Classical Review, publishes the Big City Blog, and has written for publications like the Grove Dictionary of American Music and Musicians, Signal to Noise, and His Voice. His book Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew will be published as part of the 33 1/3 series in October 2015.
Except where noted, all images by Martin Popelář. Banner image: Ostrava pedestrian underpass, by George Grella.