Just returned from a lovely evening of comtemporary music played by a string quartet and a percussionist on various acoustic and electronic gadgets at C3-Festival at Berlins notorious club Berghain. There seems to be a “trend”, by some called “neo-classic” or “modern classical/electronic music”, that follows the intercourse of classically trained musicians and composers with club culture and electronically produced music. My friend Me Raabenstein recently released a compilation of such endeavours under the name “XVI Reflections on Classical Music” together with Universal Classics, who established the “Yellow Lounge” already in 2001 and brought together stars of the classical music scene and well-known DJs. I remember one concert in the panoramic “Weekend” club based in the 12th floor of a skyscraper at Alexanderplatz with Daniel Hope on violin accompanied by Sebastian Knauer on piano: people were just sitting on the stage and under the piano, there was literally no distance between the audience and the artists, when one person in the back of the club screamed “louder” during the quiet intro of a classical composition. Both musicians stopped their performance and returned the offence in a very polite way with the comment that the score asked to play this passage pianissimo, but they would play it a bit louder the next time to please the audience in the back. I was at the same time baffled by the ignorance of some of the young listeners and the forbearance and greatness on the side of the artists. It seemed as if the performance of both musicians was hanging on a thin thread and that made an even deeper emotional experience compared to the well-secured classical concert hall ritual.
I have to think of an article written by Alex Ross in the New Yorker called “Why so serious?” about the “sacralization” of classical music that took place during the 19th century when the bourgeoisie took over control of musical life from the declining aristocracy that was known for its disrespect towards serious artists. This way the bourgeois were able to signal their membership in a social and cultural élite because in contrast to the aristocrats, they lived in fear of going back down the social ladder. The once usual habit of applauding and talking during music was banished and replaced by respectful silent listening. By the middle of the last century, the concert routine worshipped dead composers and the audience was stifled by the genius of the great masters while some wild avantgarde composers searched for new ways of musical expressions without questioning the rite of the classical concert. It was to a great extend the merit of minimalism that “serious” music achieved a more accessible character. In the beginning concerts took place in alternative spaces like galeries and lofts and from there, minimal music entered the bourgeois concert halls and changed the way people perceived experimental or pre-conceived “complicated” musical structures. It’s no surprise that almost all artists of the so called neo-classical field refer in some or the other way to the one dominating person of minimal music, which is, of course, Steve Reich. (I skip a discussion of the term “minimal music”, that is, musicologically speaking, incorrect and should be replaced by something like repetitive or gradual music, but the term is widely used and established and therefore I’ll stick with it…)
Today, the bourgeois culture itself is aching under the pressure of popular culture and mass consumption leading to a situation with diclining and overaged audiences that is often described as a crisis of classical music. An answer to this situation is to open up the classical concert to a younger and hipper audience and bring the music to the places where they usually celebrate their musical rituals, the trendy in-clubs of metropolitan life like the Weekend or Berghain in the case of Berlin. One might feel tempted to denounce this strategy as another marketing trick for classical music sales, but be it so, if the result is that musicians find fresh ways to play canonical scores and present themselves in unusual places to a curious but uninitiated audience, all endeavours are welcome. The Yellow Lounge project is such a thing as is the Wordless Music Series in New York or the, to a certain extent, Carnegie Hall Commissions that promote young striving composers. The C3-Festival is another attempt to crossover contemporary and club-based music with a, at least for this night, beautiful outcome. The Elysian Quartet is a string quartet based in Great Britain and exclusively dedicated to modern compositions, some of them were presented tonight in striking performances with humorous undertones embracing lyrical romanticism and noisy sound structures at the same time. After that, Percussionist Joby Burgess took the stage under his monniker “Powerplant” and gave his interpretation of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint on the Xylosynth. Later he teamed up with the Elysians to perform poetic and likewise danceable versions of Kraftwerk classics like Radioactivity and Model. One could feel that great musicians with open minds and the willingness to experiment were at work (check this remix made by two of the Elysian musicians of Hot Chip’s “One Pure Thought”).
But is it all so new? Bang On A Can was founded 1987 by American composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang and has since then organized numerous concerts worldwide with a similar mindset. More recently I have to think of So Percussion, a brilliant performance group of 4 percussionists playing complex and challenging, but nonetheless very modern sounding rhythmic compositions from Steve Reich to Matmos (read more here and listen to them here). Or think of Alarm Will Sound, a 20-member chamber orchestra that attracted attention with excellent acoustic arrangements of Aphex Twin tracks, collected on their album Acoustica. Or Sylvain Chauveaux, who composed acoustic versions of Depeche Mode hits. Can we still think of them as composers and musicians being part of a genre that was once called postminimalism or totalism? Or is it just an expression of a new freedom, a postmodern attitude? In many ways this last notion might be the most applicable, considering the key attributes of musical postmodernism: There is a sense of irony, the idea of ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultural values is challenged, also elitist and populist attitudes, musical postmodernism takes social and political contexts into account, encompasses eclecticism and contradictions, distrusts totalizing forms, considers technology as part of the musical process and above all: attributes more meaning to the side of the listener than to scores and composers (all these ideas follow Jonathan Kramers “16 characteristics of postmodern music”, expressed in the book “Postmodern Music/Postmodern Thought“, 2002). This way of thinking is one possible answer to a world that gets increasingly complex and diverse. And it is interesting to notice that many of the proponents of the above mentioned attitudes stem from the angloamerican hemisphere, since the new music avantgarde in Germany with a highly subsidized cultural machinery has established its own institutionalism that has often hindered fresh unconventional thinking and musical practice.