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10 September 2014

Kupka's Piano in Darmstadt

Kupka's Piano performing Liam Flenady's work at Darmstadt Image: Kupka's Piano performing Liam Flenady's work at Darmstadt  

Brisbane new music ensemble Kupka's Piano sent something of a reconnaissance team to the famous (or infamous) Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music this year. Flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith reports on her impressions and experiences.

The Darmstadt Summer Courses were in many senses the birthplace of post-war European modernism - where Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and other musical innovators met and developed their radical ideas for musical creation - and they remain a focal point for new music around the world. Darmstadt 2014 was a mass gathering of composers, performers and new music aficionados from all over the globe that, over the course of two weeks, solidified into a vibrant community of creators and innovators. On offer was a hotpot of lectures, workshops, discussions, lessons, and concerts (with the pain of having to choose between multiple options at any one time).

I was attending thanks to funding from an Australia Council ArtStart grant. By my side were my Kupka's Piano colleagues Alex Raineri (piano), Angus Wilson (percussion), Liam Flenady and Michael Mathieson-Sandars (composers). Across the two weeks, Kupka's musicians rehearsed, workshopped and performed new repertoire, participated in masterclasses, had lessons, listened to lectures, joined in debates, went to as many as five concerts a day, and met many amazing young new music makers. We each attended the festival as individuals, but being there together allowed us both to network on behalf of the entire group and to perform in the Open Space program.

The theme of the festival this year was 'Performing Matters', really an examination of modern performance art as music, under the terms of 'Musiktheater' and 'New Conceptualism'. Lively discussions and debates abounded. Major premieres were given of works by Stefan Prinz, Georges Aperghis, Mauro Lanza, and Johannes Kreidler, whose seven-hour epic involved the gradual destruction of some 50 violins. Another collaborative work, by Belgium's Nadar Ensemble and Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal, saw Darmstadt's Georg-Büchner-Platz lit up by hot air balloons in each corner and a giant cube of screens in the centre, with tiny drones hovering above.

Darmstadt is also an opportunity to perform some of the major works of the last 60 years that are often prohibitively expansive. The opening night concert centred around a rare performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Carré, a work with four orchestras positioned around the performance space (in this case, a sports hall). Because the experience of hearing a work requiring such a mass of forces live is so rare, it was in fact performed twice, with Harrison Birtwistle's Cortege as an interlude. Audiences were later treated to a double performance of Giacinto Scelsi's Anahit for violin and ensemble, with extracts from recently released tape archives that show the basis of the work played in between. As per Scelsi's wishes, the doors to the archive of the Fondazione Isabella Scelsi in Rome have been opened for the first time in 25 years, and so a group of composers were commissioned to write new works based on these incredible tapes of Scelsi himself improvising, including celebrated French composer Tristan Murail.

While Darmstadt gives stage to such gigantic performances, there is simultaneously a busy schedule of smaller performances, offering a soapbox to every participant. Open Space is a particularly interesting component, which allows anyone attending the festival to put on performances, run workshops, and host discussions. Participants made great use of this feature and sometimes it was more interesting than the official program! It allowed Kupka's Piano to give our European debut performance, playing the works of Furrer, Ferneyhough, Aperghis, and Liam Flenady. Other notable Australian contributions included Phoebe Green (viola) and Jessica Aszodi (vocalist) performing works by James Rushford and others, Samuel Dunscombe and Aviva Endean (bass clarinets) playing excerpts of Pierluigi Billone's epic 1 + 1 = 1 (with the composer in attendance!), Jonathan Heilbron's (double bass) interpretation of concepts by Florian Baumgärtner, and a workshop for new violin etudes hosted by violin tutor Graeme Jennings.

This year saw most likely the biggest Aussie contingent in Darmstadt so far. There were Australians from Australia as well as the many Europe-dwelling Australian musicians. This is so important for us who are just making it over to the Continent, because it gives us the opportunity to meet and become a part of a community, a real head-start for anyone emigrating to, or even just occasionally working in, a new country. There is another good thing about this group of people, and that is that Australian musicians playing new music overseas tend to be completely fantastic: successful musicians who are also lovely, and have great tips for young musicians cutting their teeth.

This leads to something of a side note: one thing this made me realise was how not in touch Australian musicians are with each other when they come from different cities. Perhaps there is more contact between Melbourne and Sydney musos, but us Brisbanites - perhaps a slightly more junior group of musicians in a renewed contemporary music scene - found ourselves meeting and hearing of people we'd never caught a sniff of before. This was particularly the case with knowledge of other young composers. With an evident revival of interest in new music performance amongst young Aussie players, I think it's time we worked to set up some kind of national network that can connect performers with composers and create that sense of community that will serve musicians well at home as well as overseas.

The Australians really held their own, recognised this year with three of them taking out Kranichstein 'Stipendium' Prizes: violist Phoebe Green (Melbourne), saxophonist Joshua Hyde (based in Paris), and our own pianist Alex Raineri (Brisbane)!

For me personally, the highlights of my time in Darmstadt were my incredible lessons with Eva Furrer (Klangforum Wien), studying further Brian Ferneyhough's Cassandra's Dream Song alongside other flautists, some very special performances (the Scelsi concerts, Helmut Lachenmann's GOT LOST, Phoebe Green playing a James Rushford viola solo), and playing with Kupka's Piano in the Open Space.

I owe a great deal of thanks to the Australia Council's ArtStart program, which funded my time in Darmstadt as well as my earlier few months in Cologne studying with Dr Camilla Hoitenga and Helen Bledsoe. Alex Raineri, Angus Wilson and Michael Mathieson-Sandars also received funding from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust.

Further links

Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music (http://www.internationales-musikinstitut.de/en/summer-course/)
Kupka's Piano (http://kupkaspiano.com/) - see also: more blog articles on Kupka's Piano website
ArtStart - Australia Council for the Arts

Subjects discussed by this article:

Hannah Reardon-Smith is a flautist, feminist and animal tragic from Queensland. She is co-director and flautist with two ensembles: Kupka's Piano in Brisbane, and Ensemble FRACTALES in Brussels, Belgium.


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