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Concert Review/ Eclat Festival: Day 3

img  Tobias

Sometimes you know you're going to feel comfortable in a concert space the moment you walk through its doors. The Theaterhaus Stuttgart is such a place. To the left, delicious drinks and fine snacks are sold from behind a counter at very reasonable prices (right after founding France, the God of food must have created Baden-Württemberg) and to the right, the unrendered brickwalls of the building are illuminated by discreet spots in friendly earthcolours. Divided into several platforms, it feels like a miniature size babylonian garden, each plateau constituting a little world of its own. Despite its vast dimensions, the hall comes across as friendly and sympathetic – an open antithesis to the prevailing trend towards cold, puristic and gargantuan architecture.

The familiar ambiance of the Theaterhaus is not the only reason why the organisors of the Eclat festival fell for it. More importantly, the open programming of the venue and its emphasis on staging dramatic work next to Pop, Rock, Cabaret and Contemporary Composition corresponds ideally with the festival's focus of regarding new music as a „stage“ upon which philosophical, political and social issues can be presented and discussed. Thanks to its firm policy of putting the music first, the typical mood of egos on the prey is noteably absent here – even a composer like Helmut Lachenmann, who is not even on the menu for this edition, has dropped by to meet up with friends and family and to listen to exciting composers of our times performed by equally exciting soloists and ensembles. And nothing can prevent the audience from interacting spontaneously with the artists: Later in the evening, for example, an elated and broadly smiling Wolfgang Rihm can be seen posing for fotos with Japanese fans.

Last but certainly not least, Eclat really feels like a festival and not just like a couple of thematically connected concerts. Depending on the logistics, there are no more than three quarters of an hour or less between events, all but seamlesly seaguing different programs for those lucky enough to be in the possession of several tickets for one night. After one concert has ended, you refresh yourself with a late coffee, have a freshly baked Panini with Tomatoes and then it's time to head over to the next hall and the next gig. Two friendly ladies of the SWR (the regional broadcasting agency co-presenting the event) are selling CDs by Charles Ives and Morton Feldman for a mere 10 Euros a piece – high culture is truly accessible on this occasion.

Humour is no stranger either tonight. The master of ceremonies of the SWR, whose confident, competent and sensual stage presence would qualify her for TV just as much as Radio, announces that because the concert tonight will be aired in real time, we will be played the end of the news while the singers make their entrance to syncronise the performance – and to „bring us up to date with the latest weather reports“. In the second half, the procedure repeates itself, this time however, the preceding section contains a prerecorded interview by her with artistic director of Eclat, Hans-Peter Jahn, which she ends with the words: „And now we return to the Theaterhaus Stuttgart – and to myself“. The lightness of these introductions, meanwhile, contrasts sharply with the dramatic seriousness of the music on the bill tonight.

Up first ist Matthias Pintscher's „She-cholat ahavah ani (shir ha-shirim V)“. A choral work based on one of the songs from the Song of Salomons, it is a twenty-minute composition encompassing extreme emotional states and various forms of interaction between the members of the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart. Fluctuating between spoken or shouted words and dense, scintillating vocal textures, it is a timbrally dark and subtle work of rich harmonic vocabulary dominated by an irresitible flow towards a consoling and resting last chord. The music never once rises to an overpowering crescendo but establishes grandiosely detailed dynamics oscillating between lamentuous whispers, complex tutti and plaintive solo outbursts.

Pintscher upholds a fragile balance between coherency and fluent use of various techniques, with small groups of the choir answering each other before coallescing into faceless collectivity again. Intrugingly, he seems to have awarded shifting spatial characteristic to the composition, establishing a changing equilibrium of various axes. If you compare each singer to a red or yellow LED on a giant switchboard, then the music is like a sequence of luminous alliances, flashing on and off and establishing temporary coalitions before searching for new centres of gravity. The fact that the female soloist is positioned at the very left front of the stage and the male soloist in the middle of the second row furthers this sensation of perpetual instability. Because of its intricate arrangement, „She-cholat ahava“ is not a piece which reveals all of its secrets straight away, however. When the music ends, therefore, I can hear myself thinking: I wish they'd play it again!

And then something utterly extraordinary happens. Conductor Rupert Huber picks up a microphone and addresses the audience. I can hardly believe what he is saying: „Imagine yourself waking up inside a pitchblack room. There are neither windows nor airlights, so you will not be able to see anything at first. As your eyes gradually adapt to the darkness, you will perhaps be able to make out vague contours of the varios objects around you. As you feel your way forward, you will even be able to gather incomplete information about the size of the room. And then, if you're lucky, you will find a switch and turn on the light and finally be able to see everything clearly. Isn't that just what listening to a piece of contemporary composition for the first time is like? Initially, you don't have any clue about its form and where it is headed. Very often it is only afterwards that you're able to understand and to appreciate what has happened and you wish you could hear it again once more. So tonight, we'll anticipate this wish and play the same piece to you one more time.“ This statement of bizarre telepathic power is greeted with welcoming applause by the audience, as the Vokalensemble launches into a second, even deeper rendition of the piece.

Even though Wolfgang Rihm's eight eclectic „Fetzen“ for String Quartet and Accordion are an obvious counterpoint to Pintcher's preceding hypnotic pull, they, too, combine starkly individual expressions into unified pieces. Rihm's argument that there can actually be no such thing as music without context is supported by his work here: In the furiously fast sections, the Leipzig String Quartet sound like a Death Metal combo on a classical masterclass (you can virtually see them shredding the hair of their bows), in the microtonal episodes, Teodoro Anzellotti's Accordion sends out nothing but sharp, fleeting sinewave signals and Cellist Matthias Moosdorfer sprints across his instrument's body like a ballet dancer moving to a Free Jazz soundtrack. And yet, they never once loose sight of each other. Even as they throw alreay performed sections of the score to the floor, gradually approximating a student's appartment two days before final exams, their fractioned figments become ever more closely aligned.

Perhaps it is only the listener's brain doing the work, but it does seem as though there are certain recognisable elements holding these consciously piecemeal inspirational episodes together. One of them is the astonishingly sympathetic timbral correspondence between the String resonances and the Accordion, which complements the pallette rather than unnaturally extending it. And the other is the dichotomy between rhythmless passages of harmonically liquid states and frenzied outbursts of energy and pulsation. In stark contrast to Pintscher, Rihm operates with a wider range of volume, dipping into near-silence for seconds and touching upon pure noise the other. The results, however, have a peculiarly similar penchant for states between physical tangibility and creative reality. Unfortunately. this time there just isn't time to play the music one more.

After a short intermission and a short delay, therefore, the second concert is under way in the much smaller, but equally atmospheric second hall of the Theaterhaus. Even more in tune with the festival's ideal of exclusively presenting material by a single composer per performance, works by Ecuadorian Mesias Maiguashca have been programmed. In the first piece, „La Seconde Ajoutee“, the Pianos of Yukiko Sugawara and Tomoko Hemmi are not just minutely detuned against each other, but also in themselves, which lends their duo efforts a slightly unreal sensation and turns the high-speed sections where both appear to be playing the same notes on paper into dense drone sheets of impure tonal complexity, while the moments of minimal material, relying on nothing truncated motives gain a dark, nocturnal quality.

Compared to the reduced set-up of „La Seconde Ajoutee“, the second piece „Holz arbeitet II“ („Wood Works“), is a much more spectacular affair in visual terms. Two percussionists operate within an open cube on whose aluminum frames wooden branches have been suspended either in a horizontal or vertical position. Each of these sound-objects has been prepared with contact microphones and sample-triggers, thus amplifying and distorting their emmanations through two vast speakers placed center stage. One third of the tonal material comprises noisy glitches, rumbles and howls, another the immediate, unprocessed sound of the mallets hitting the wood. The final third, meanwhile, is a simple folk song trying to fight its way through the sonic debris. The result is of a primal, naive and direct, physical immediacy and just as enticing when appreciated with wide-open eyes (to watch the artists carefully moving and playing inside the sculpture) as it is with closed lids (which emphasises the nostalgic melancholia of the music).

In the closing „El Nego Bombon“, this unique instrument (now played by two additional instrumentalists) and the Piano are combined in a sort of Sonatenhauptsatzform for the evening – as Maiguashca puts it: „They now share a bed together“. For the composer, the main idea of the work consists in its juxtaposition of „perfect“ tonal materials transformed into imperfect ones (the Piano) and imperfect tonal materials transformed into astoundingly clear ones (the woodblocks) and how these two sound worlds combine. The performance reveals a different and possibly even more exciting meaning: The wooden resonances of the percussionists approximate cluster-chords in the lower register, symbiotically adding force to the Piano. And the high-frequeny octave-oscillations of the Keyboard have a decidedly organic, wood-like timbre to them. „El Nego Bombon“ can thus be regarded as a sonic summary, proving how much the prepared Piano experiments of the past decades have transformed our perception and expectations of the instrument. In a sense, the composition renders itself useless in a hypothetical sense, as the theoretical contrasts are no longer experienced as such. On a practical level, however, this suspenseful and playful music is enough of a reason in its own right to justify its existence.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Eclat Festival Stuttgart
Homepage: Matthias Pintscher
Homepage: SWR
Homepage: Mesias Maiguashca
Homepage: Leipziger Streichquartett