Sunday, March 24, 2019

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Letter from Berlin: The Sound of …

I

I’ve been listening to music, lately. Weird music.

The other evening, for example, I was sitting in the upper ranges of architect Hans Scharoun’s mid-20th century chamber music hall, part of his Philharmonie auditorium complex, one of my favourite places in Berlin. I was listening to a piece by Giacinto Scelsi, a 20th century Italian composer (1905-1988) whom I’d never heard of, the lushly-titled Khoom — seven episodes from an unwritten story of love and death in a faraway country. Khoom is performed by a soprano and seven instrumental players (on this occasion, singer Natalia Pschenitschnikova and musicians from the London Sinfonietta), and was one of the more than two dozen performances in the 10-day “Maerz Music Festival,” an annual Berlin event that takes place during the first two weeks of March.

There are two problems with talking about almost any kind of music, and especially about this kind of “weird music,” that I’d better address immediately. First of all, this music doesn’t have a convenient moniker or label. It’s serious, post-classical, post-modernist, 20th and 21st century music, often dissonant, not very melodic, marked by odd rhythms and lots of screechy, scratchy sounds. Because it arises from the tradition of “classical” music, it’s sometimes simply called classical music or the oxymoronic term “contemporary classical music” is used. But it sure doesn’t sound much like Bach or Beethoven. More often it’s called “new music” or “contemporary” or “modernist” music (plus all the “post-” thises and thats one can add to any label of anything these days). But that’s not very helpful. After all, Nelly the Rapper’s “It’s Hot in Here (Take Off All Your Clothes)” is also new, contemporary, and, I suppose, modernist.

Second, and worse, music is generally indescribable. At least with Britney Spears and her ilk, you can describe her bare-midriff and wonder what the words mean when she warbles “Hit Me One More Time” — a phrase from black-jack cardgames? a request for another “rail” of cocaine? allusions to an S&M relationship with Eminem? But if you’ve casually read any descriptions or criticism of music of any kind, you know what I mean.

In no time flat (or is that B-flat?), it sounds like: “The somewhat dark and sombre ‘D minor Suite’ (No. 2) makes full use of the cello’s resonant low register… The following Allemande occasionally features double-stopping (the sounding of two strings simultaneously), while the Courante is a virtuoso tour-de-force of quicksilver semiquavers. A mournful Sarabande finds no reconciliation in the anguished, angular musings of a pair of minuets and an impassioned Gigue.” This is excerpted at random from the liner notes to Yo-Yo Ma’s performance of Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, and even with the kindly parenthetical explanation of what “double-stopping” means, you’re no closer to what it sounds like than you were when you started.

Nor do matters improve when there’s a singer, as there is in the Scelsi (by the way, that’s pronounced “Shell-see”) piece, Khoom, because as often as not the singer isn’t singing words, but just making sounds with the human voice. In terms of writing, then, there’s a real question of whether you can write anything about music at all. Unlike “pop” music, classical and new music is not especially narrative, or if there’s a sense in which it is narrative (maybe anything that unfolds in time has a quality of narrative), the narrative is abstract. And the abstraction is even less describable than an abstract painting or the movements of “modern dance.”

. . .

So, there I am in the upper ranges of the chamber music hall at the Philharmonie, listening to Scelsi for the first time in my life. It’s a wonderful hall, one of those buildings built, as they say in architectural lingo, “from the inside out.” Outside, the Philharmonie, which consists of a full symphony auditorium and the chamber music hall, looks like a jumble of dark gold-lame boxes and tent-like swoops, haphazardly piled on top of each other. The complex was started in the late-50s in a patch of Berlin bombed-out in WWII, then subsequently isolated by the Berlin Wall, not far from Potsdamer Platz, one of several dispersed centres of Berlin. While the symphony auditorium was opened in 1962, the chamber music hall wasn’t finished until 1987, five years after Scharoun’s death. Inside, it provides unobstructed seating-in-the-round, steeply rising in chunks and tiers, with a set of small sail-like panels dropped from the soaring ceiling (which has something to do with reflecting the sound). There’s not a spot in the 1000-seat or so house that offers less than perfect sound and visibility. It’s one of the few concert halls I’ve been in that calms my mild case of claustrophobia. I feel safe there, reassured by its hardwood floors and staircases. The only recent addition to the scene is a light-projected sign telling people to turn off their cellphones, and the only thing you need is a packet of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges to stave off hysterical coughing fits.

The Scelsi is on a program that includes music by British composer Jonathan Harvey, who uses a lot of live-electronic sound, and Sam Hayden, another Brit, as well as an elegant piece by the famous French composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, whose 80th birthday will be marked in Berlin later in the month with a series of concerts which he’ll conduct or be present at. I’ve gotten used to hearing these kinds of sounds, and have, in the last year or so, come to prefer them. I’ll try to figure out how I got my taste for all this in a bit.

The Scelsi comes on at the beginning of the second half. The singer has a powerful soprano voice and is backed by several instruments, mostly strings. She’s tall and lean (the other day I read the phrase, describing certain women: “toothpicks marinated in Chanel”). Beyond that, there’s little to say, except that it’s electrifying, a sustained passion that lasts through seven pieces. If Scelsi says it’s about love and death, “in a distant country” yet, I’m inclined to believe him. No, nothing describable, other than the soprano’s shriek, meshing, clashing, interweaving with the nearly unbearable tautness of the strings. If I write another sentence attempting to describe it, it’ll turn into the liner notes cited above, except it’ll be even less helpful since I know less about music than the erudite liner-note writer.

There are two things I can say. First, I can distinguish between the various pieces and my level of interest in them. I’m not especially taken with the Jonathan Harvey, though I recognize the intelligence behind the music. Pretty much ditto for Sam Hayden. I like the Boulez; its gracefulness interests me. But the Scelsi is riveting. It makes me pay attention. Something is happening, and even if I don’t know exactly what, I know I’m involved. And that’s the second thing I can say: having heard the Scelsi, I know and feel something I didn’t know previously, didn’t know before I entered the chamber music hall, and climbed up to my spot in section D-left. Whatever it is I claim to know now, it’s abstract, almost unarticulatable, but has something to do with everything I think about the meaning of life, and I’m slightly changed as a result of having heard it.

 

II

I’m trying to remember when I first heard music. I was seven years old and on holiday with my mother at a resort in Wisconsin called The Dells, not far from our home in Chicago. The holiday had been paid for by her brother, Irving, a successful accountant. In the evenings, the guests assembled in the resort restaurant and a floor-show was provided, featuring a handsome young lounge-singer named Jimmy Spitalny, whose signature closing piece each evening was a song called “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” It had a slow lilting melody and went,

I’m bewitched,
bothered,
and bewildered . . .
by
        you.

The “by you” came with a dying fall that I thought very sophisticated, the “you” tossed off slightly ironically, and yet perfectly capturing the pain of being in love. I developed an instant 7-year-old’s crush on Spitalny, and of course had no idea that he was a very obscure entertainer who’d managed to secure a summer gig at a very obscure lower-middle-class resort.

But I wasn’t a complete naïve. In my early teens, although I faithfully watched and listened to the weekly television show, “The Hit Parade” (with chart-topping ballads like “The Tennessee Waltz” — “I remember the night. . . and the Tenn-es-see Waltz” — sung by Snooky Lanson), I also recall the pale yellow cover of the booklet which somberly announced the scores of Chopin’s Preludes, whose rhythms I utterly failed to navigate at the spinet piano my mother had insisted upon us purchasing. I wasn’t much better with the even simpler tunes of Stephen Foster’s 19th century songbook.

It was some years later, I was in my 20s, and had just gotten beyond Elvis Presley, and was about to be plunged, along with the rest of us, into the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the 1960s, when the poet Robin Blaser introduced me to modernist music in San Francisco. That meant Igor Stravinsky, Eric Satie and the group of early 20th century French composers known as Les Six. There were also recordings of Virgil Thompson’s music for Gertrude Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, and a related piece, William Walton’s settings for Edith Sitwell’s Facades. We went to a concert in Berkeley, California one evening, and Blaser pointed out to me an elderly man tottering down the aisle toward his seat, the composer Darius Milhaud, one of the legendary Les Six (Auric, Honegger, Poulenc, Durey, and Tailleferre were the others).

There’s a long period after that, several decades, in which I listened to music only sporadically. Apart from the ubiquitous sound of pop songs, I knew the names of the famous classic composers, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and had at different times heard some of their music, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that I discovered Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). I can’t remember the details of encountering Mahler, but as soon as I heard his symphonies, with their mixture of late romantic longing, snatches of pop music that included everything from hurdy-gurdys to military marches (there was a barracks near his central European boyhood home), and the first dissonances of the new century, I immediately recognized that he was the bridge between Romanticism and Modernism, something that was also noted by the young Viennese modernist composers of his late years (Berg, Webern, Schoenberg). As it happened, just at that time, in post-Wall Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado, was giving a series of performances of all of Mahler’s major works at the Philharmonie, and I attended several of them.

One of the things that is obvious about Mahler’s music is that, somehow, it tells you something about the 20th century; it conveys, however indirectly, the feelings of romantic yearning of the late 19th century that would be blown to smithereens on the battlefields of World War I, whose sounds Mahler anticipates. The mantra I’m operating from while hearing all of this is a remark of Robin Blaser’s, made long after we’d seen Darius Milhaud in Berkeley, a remark about living in your century. Blaser said, “A lot of people lived in the 20th century without having lived in the 20th century.”

What he means is that it is possible to have lived in a particular period without really living “in your time,” that is, without experiencing the culture, science, or politics of the era. Like living in the 20th century without having read Joyce or Beckett, or heard about Einstein, or thought about apartheid or feminism. Blaser of course wasn’t referring to people who had been prevented from “holding one’s time in thought” through economic and political oppression, or other circumstances of isolation, but to those of us extravagantly privileged people for whom access to literature, visual art, music and the rest is no further than your local bookstore, art museum or concert hall. To not hold one’s time in thought (I think the phrase is from philosopher Richard Rorty, out of Hegel), to not live in one’s century, is to live in the world without engaging the world, and if you don’t encounter the complexity, velocity, density of the world, then what’s the point of going through the whole painful business of living at all? Better, as one of the gloomier Greeks said, not to have been born.

About a year ago, my current cultural mentor in Berlin, Thomas Marquard, handed me a pile of CDs of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas to listen to. Marquard, who is a friend of Blaser’s as well as of mine, is, at least to my untrained ear, an almost concert-class violinist. I’ve heard him play Bach and Telemann in at-home concerts in his apartment — we live in the same building in Berlin. He’d recently heard a performance of the Berio works for solo instruments, and his enthusiasm was contagious. I duly listened to these wonderfully strange pieces and was easily hooked. The question I repeatedly asked myself, with considerable puzzlement, is, How come I’ve never heard this stuff before, and just as bad, or even heard about it?

Something similar had happened to me with modern dance several years earlier: once the classic picture breaks up, you see odd movements by dancers and suddenly learn something about human bodies and how we move in relation to each other that you didn’t know before. The world and your own time are revealed in ways you hadn’t suspected. And so it is with these sounds. There is a surprise in hearing them that makes you say, “Ah, so that’s another way the world is,” an astonishment at the variousness of reality.

For the next several months, I attended a lot of concerts, mostly with Thomas and other friends, sometimes by myself. One of the attractions of this music for me is that I find it to be a relief from words. I spend most of my days reading words, or thinking in words, or writing them. In the evening, when I’m too tired to read, music, abstract “weird” music, wakes me up again. It allows me to think without words.

The most powerful of the concerts took place last fall, when I heard, for the three nights running, the piano pieces of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, performed during the “Festival Weeks” series, which is held at the Berlin Festspiele House and other venues. The 76-year-old composer was present at the performances, in mid-audience, operating the electronic soundboard, while various of his disciple-pianists hammered away at, tinkled, elbowed, muttered, and threw themselves into the instruments before them. Again, no attempt at description of the music, just the recognition that Stockhausen (enough of a living legend that people often ask you if he’s still alive) had crafted a very large aural world within the world. I’m using the word “aural” in both senses simultaneously: pertaining to the ear, and aura as felt ambience. The slogan for me here is: the trancendent occurs within the world. That is, these are experiences that transcend normal, everyday experience, but since we now pretty much know that there isn’t a transcendental world beyond time and space, such experiences must occur here, in this world. Stockhausen’s “world” enlarges the world.

I soon heard other important “new music” composers: Gubaidulina, Saariaho, Kurtag, Nono, Rihm, Carter, as well as younger, local composers like Enno Poppe, in the profusion of musical events and series with which Berlin abounds. The most extraordinary of the events was a mixed-media performance of dance, live music and singing by a troupe led by Moroccan-Belgian choreographer-dancer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, from the company Les Ballets C de la B (Contemporary Ballet of Belgium), held at the Hebbel Theatre, another of the places in the city marked by intelligent, innovative programming.

The Cherkaoui piece, Tempus Fugit, combines North African Arabic music and Corsican folksongs (so, the sound is Mediterranean), and its narrative elements, structured around fragmented episodes, seem to reflect a world of immigrants and refugees crossing Europe’s increasingly permeable borders. The whole piece is powerfully melodic, at times funny, and emotionally moving even though the narrative is non-linear. About as much of a description as I can offer is that it’s my idea of what an avant-garde non-Broadway musical might be like, if there is such a genre. I went back a second night just to make sure that it was as great as it seemed to be, since a lot of this stuff balances on an aesthetic knife-edge between plain silliness and magnificence. The second time it was better than the first. My local sophisticated CD store, Fidelio, of course, had a copy of Jean-Paul Poletti and Le Choeur D’Hommes de Sartene’s Fiori di Memoria, and soon I was listening at home to the Corsican folksongs that had inspired Cherkaoui.

Interestingly, all the “new music” didn’t take me away from, but on the contrary, often led back to old music. I went to a concert at the Philharmonie with Thomas that included a piece written by the 90-something-year-old American composer, Elliott Carter, for clarinet and orchestra, as well as an oratorio performance of Bartok’s one-act opera, Bluebeard (1911). When I expressed my pleasure about the Bartok, Thomas said, knowing that I like string groups, “Well, you ought to hear Bartok’s String Quartets,” and promptly me loaned me a CD of them, and that somehow led to Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (c. 1720), and from there to Yo-Yo Ma’s version of Bach’s cello suites. The curriculum continues to unfold.

And then, as I’ve related, some months later, I heard Scelsi’s Khoom.

 

III

When I got home from the Philharmonie that night, I googled Scelsi (what else does one do these days other than “google”?), accompanied by my now familiar sense of, How come I’ve never heard of this guy?, plus an equally familiar bemusement about how it’s possible to be so ignorant despite having lived a relatively long life. If Scelsi’s music is “weird,” so is the composer. Scelsi, according to the thorough biographical essay by T.M. McComb on www.classical.net, was born in 1905 to a wealthy, aristocratic family on an estate outside Naples, and from the beginning was relieved of such onerous duties as wondering where the next meal was coming from or earning a living.

Scelsi’s first music, for the piano, an instrument on which he was apparently a virtuoso performer, reflected his early 20th century training in Vienna with a teacher associated with Alban Berg. I’m not going to reprise his musical career here, but just want to note a couple of moments. For the most part, until his death in 1988, at age 83, Scelsi was relatively obscure, rarely performed, considered a musical outsider even by the avant-garde, and personally increasingly reclusive. He was rather phobic about photos, uninterested in interviews or contacts with many people, through he was friends with the poet Henri Micheaux, and preferred to speak French.

During the Second World War, Scelsi’s marriage broke up, and he went through some sort of psychological breakdown. His therapy, according to his online biographer, “eventually consisted of playing a single note on a piano over and over again…,” and along with a deepening, even mystical interest in the musical ideas of the East, especially India, this led to the development of a new style or subsequent period in his music. As Scelsi’s biographer puts it, during Scelsi’s long recovery, the key was playing and listening to “his single note… to the resonance and decay, and most importantly the lack of uniformity even within a single sound. This is really Scelsi’s most profound realization: that a single sound is not a musical point in any real sense, it is a dynamic entity shaped by a variety of influences.” He set this realization “to music in a way no one else has ever done,” McComb claims.

In the mid-1950s, when Scelsi was 50 years old, he settled in Rome, after extensive travels in India and Nepal, where he had learned a considerable amount about yoga and mysticism, and in the Italian capital, he produced many of his masterpieces, even as he increasingly withdrew from social contact. During the 1960s and 70s, Scelsi wrote vocal music, including Khoom (1962), whose text consists of phonemes and words made up by the composer, a technique he had already used in an earlier piece called The Birth of the Verb (1948). Khoom marked the beginning of Scelsi’s collaboration with a Japanese singer, Michiko Hirayama, whose voice continued to be a model for much of Scelsi’s subsequent vocal writing. In the same year, Scelsi began writing a series of songs, Canti del Capricorno, written specifically for the Japanese singer’s voice as an instrument. There’s an account of all of Scelsi’s orchestral and string works, none of which I’ve heard, and which I can skip here since I’m for the moment interested in his music for voice.

As it happened, a couple of nights later, at the Maerzmusik series, the Capricorn songs were being performed as a concert in the Philharmonie’s chamber music hall. They were being sung, I noticed in passing, by a Japanese singer, backed by a contrabass, saxophone, and drums. Earlier in the evening, there was a performance of the music of a local composer, Walter Zimmerman, whose work focuses on the notion of the instrument players themselves singing. If not exactly to my taste, it’s an interesting enough idea, and was part of the festival’s thematic focus on voices.

After the break, I was back in my familiar spot in the chamber music hall when a somewhat elderly Japanese woman in a red gown and black cape appeared on stage, accompanied by four German musicians in standard issue intellectual black. They took seats in an unlit background, while the singer was spotlighted. Her name, I saw in the program, was Michiko Hirayama. It was Scelsi’s singer from Rome, now 82 years old, and from the moment she began, unaccompanied, it was clear that she was both the muse and voice of this song-cycle that Scelsi regarded as having been dictated to him, in the same way that modern Orphic poets understand themselves to be messengers or transmitters of their poems.

Again, there is no description of the music, at least none I’m capable of providing. An elderly woman in a red gown, occasionally accompanied by a single musician, the bassist, the saxophonist, or the two drummers together playing bongo-like instruments, but mostly on her own, her powerful voice shifting between two or three music-stand locations on the small chamber hall platform, the sound filling the auditorium. My attention didn’t waver, nor did that of most of the rest of the audience. What happened? What was it about? Again, there’s the knife edge between silliness and splendour. An old woman screeching meaningless phonemes, or a supernal voice charting all the intimations of what it is to be human and mortal?

At the end, the majority of the audience thought it was the latter, and there was not only applause but a very rare standing ovation. Thomas told me that the pianist Evgeny Kissen, a favourite in Berlin, once received one, but generally Berlin audiences are very parsimonious about rising in tribute to a performer. Later on, I ran into David Moss, a musician and one of the people responsible for organizing the festival’s voice events, someone whose judgment I’m inclined to trust, and he confirmed that I’d heard something special. So did Joachim Sartorius, the Berlin cultural major-domo who runs Maerzmusik and other events from his Berlin Festspiele headquarters. Hirayama appeared once more, for a fourth or fifth call, fell to her knees and kissed the floor of the chamber music hall.

 

 

 

IV

Part of what was on my mind during the Maerzmusik series was a recent article about contemporary music by the (London) Guardian columnist Martin Kettle. “When did the music die?” Kettle pugnaciously asks in his lead. “And why?” Kettle notes that, of the moderns, Dmitri Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten both died 30 years ago. Aaron Copland and Olivier Messiaen managed to stagger on until the early 1990s. “But apart from these?” Kettle asks dubiously. Is there really anything in modern music worth listening to? Anything that anybody really wants to hear? Isn’t it mostly elitist junk?

“I can see them already.” Kettle sneers. “The protestations on behalf of the half-forgotten and semi-famous, the advocates of Henze and Berio, the followers of Tavener and Ades. Perhaps there will be a good word for Golijov or Gubaidulina, for Piazzola or Saariaho.” Kettle parenthetically allows that these are enthusiasms that he sometimes shares. But driving the main point home, Kettle adds, “And maybe, even now, there remains someone who believes that Stockhausen should be mentioned in the same breath as Bach, the last of the true believers clinging to the shipwreck of modernism.”

Kettle waxes nostalgic for a minute about some Puccini he heard on the radio recently, and then challenges readers to “answer this question: what is the most recently composed piece of classical music to have achieved a genuinely established place in the repertoire? I mean a piece that you can count on hearing in most major cities most years and a performance of which is likely to bring in a large general audience.”

The thrust of Kettle’s argument is that “modernism” killed the popularity of classical music. Instead of popularity, modernist theory led to the awful dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg, and it’s been downhill ever since. Until then, crowds were happily going to hear Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms. Along came big, bad musical theory and the “deliberate renunciation of popularity.” The “public,” says Kettle, “looked elsewhere, to what we are right to call, and right to admire for being, popular music.” Then Kettle looks around for a few signs of melodic spring and declares that “the need to create something beautiful that excites the public and goes beyond its experience is too strong to be frustrated indefinitely.”

I guess the place to start in this blustery farrago is with the specious notion of names that might be mentioned “in the same breath as Bach.” As my violin-playing friend Thomas quickly pointed out to me, even Bach’s name wasn’t mentioned in the same breath as Bach (or whoever the equivalent was back then) during his lifetime. When Bach died in 1750, he was relatively little-known. Other composers, like Mozart, paid serious attention to Bach in order to learn from his genius, but there wasn’t a clamouring public for Bach’s music until the early 1800s in Berlin, some two or three generations after his demise, when Bach was rediscovered, thanks to some intelligent local cultural impressarios. The same thing is true for other “classics.” As one of several letter writers replying to Kettle noted, both Beethoven and Mahler were “composers who suffered huge problems in getting their music recognized.” Actually, the little mini-bio of the obscure Scelsi that I read on the Net makes exactly the sort of same-breath mention Kettle is looking for: “The fact that Scelsi could write such fine violin music (arguably the finest in this idiom since Bach) …” I suppose that counts as a mention “in the same breath as Bach,” for whatever such mentions are worth.

What they’re worth is very little. This sort of name-game is mostly nonsense. In terms of who there is who is capable of listening to what kinds of music, it’s fairly easy to chart. There is a literate public, which constitutes a very small fraction of the large not-so-literate general populace, that knows, a century later, what to make of the early modernism of Mahler, Bartok, Dvorak, Stravinsky, Satie. There is an even smaller elite audience that can knowledgably listen to Stockhausen, Berio, Carter, and the rest of the contemporary roster of “new music” composers. The audience is limited: a couple of thousand people in each of the major cities of Western Civ. How these composers will stack up in two or three generations is something to leave to musical history.

The insidious idea in Kettle’s piece is the conflation of popularity with an idea of good or interesting music. Surely, it wasn’t Shoenberg who sent people to the music hall or the jazz speakeasy. They were already there. Wasn’t it the Broadway musical that knocked out opera, rather than Stravinsky? And when was the concert hall filled with the masses rather than a select segment of the relatively well-to-do? As another letter-writer to the Guardian remarked, “At no stage in my lifetime (longer than Martin Kettle’s) has classical music been anything other than a minority interest.” The whole notion of serious music seeking general popularity probably hasn’t made sense since church music in the 18th century, and even then, after church, the peasants were probably humming other tunes down at the local inn.

I think Kettle’s remark about “the need to create something beautiful” is a sly reference to some contemporary neo-classical composers who write recognizably melodic music in toe-tapping rhythms. Kettle shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this, or be ceded ownership of the “beautiful,” since discordant works like Scelsi’s Songs of Capricorn are, among other qualities, also beautiful. In any case, the attempt to reproduce 18th and 19th century classical music in the 21st century usually comes off as mere pastiche, something like those awful contemporary sequels to Jane Austen novels written in an imitation of Austen’s style.

In the end, plaintive cries like Kettle’s are simply wrong-headed. The point isn’t whether new music works have made the canon yet or filled the concert halls on an annual basis, but whether they’re interesting, whether they reveal something about life that you didn’t already know. Composers aren’t trying to be popular, they’re trying to hold their time in sound. And sometimes in silence.

 

V

The Maerz Musik series wrapped up on a mid-March Sunday evening at the Philharmonie main hall with a performance of Berlin composer Dieter Schnebel’s Symphonie X, on the occasion of the composer’s 75th birthday. It’s a 3-hour extravaganza for a full orchestra, choir, electronic devices, and pockets of musicians stashed in corners of the furthest upper reaches of Scharoun’s hall. Composed in the early 1990s, Schnebel had recently returned to it, and written a new movement which had its premiere at this performance.

The festival was interesting and intelligent from beginning to end. From the first multi-media evening, with the London Sinfonietta playing Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen and a sampling of young composers, while Britain’s Warp Pictures provided punkish video accompaniment, through to the latest Brazilian music-theatre satire on Brazil’s addiction to TV soap-operas, to the Schnebel finale, Maerz Musik was striking as an expression of what I think of as “the mind of the city.” That is, the state of culture is measured by the intelligence of its artists and organizers. In this instance, the figure behind Maerz Musik, and a variety of other events in Berlin, is the somewhat saturnine-looking writer and cultural organizer I mentioned earlier, Joachim Sartorius. I first met him some years ago at an Academy of Art poetry reading, where Sartorius appeared in one of his many roles, as the translator of American modernist poet John Ashbery, who was reading that evening.

Ever since, Sartorius has been the rather unobtrusive presence who shapes much of the city’s mind. Of course, there are a dozen or more similar people, who run museums, dance companies, and theatres. When all of it is working well, there’s a kind of cultural critical mass, and some 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, more than one commentator has observed that the city is as vibrant a cultural centre as is to found in Europe.

Of course, none of this comes without complaint. Since Berlin is a voluable, disputatious, endlessly critical city, Sartorius is a figure who has the physical appearance of someone with slightly bowed shoulders bearing the weight of the various criticisms and carpings that inevitably attend those who are responsible for anything. When I occasionally run into him in the foyer of the Philharmonie or the Festspiele House, he invariably has the baggy-eyed look of a man having to worry about ticket sales. Of course, if we’re feeling generous, I suppose we can regard the criticism and maybe even the carping as part of the civic intelligence. In any case, it’s that intelligence that makes for events like Maerz Musik, where someone listening to “weird” sounds of music can discover a Giacinto Scelsi.

Berlin, March 14, 2005

Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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