Maerzmusik pt. 1: The trouble with texture

The Berlin Maerzmusik festival, a two-week series of contemporary music of various avant persuasions, is ongoing. We’re seeing several, ranging from noise theater to (relatively conventional) orchestra. The latter may be the biggest disappointment.

Saturday was a Konzerthaus concert featuring the work of an Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin, preceded by a beautifully textured Ligeti piece and several by the Swiss/Viennese Beat Furrer. Furrer and Czernowin are exploring much the same musical space, focusing on unconventional sound textures and short, non-melodic (and I think non-harmonic in the conventional sense) phrases. Much stretching of instrumental limits: sucking sounds through wind instruments, blowing without playing notes, rubbing strings, rain sticks, crinkled plastic bottles, etc. They both use silences between these little phrases widely, creating the impression of a series of discrete, short statements, or breaths between each outburst. Czernowin has talked about the bursts as equivalent to words, which are rearranged to make different sentences; she apparently re-uses the little bits (more words than phrases, certainly) in different order throughout a piece.

Furrer’s second featured two sopranos on different sides of the stage, creating an almost phasing effect as they sung slightly different, utterly pure notes. Weird, haunting beauty. But the rest left me cold. Both his and the Czernowin verged into exploration of texture at the expense of continuity. I fear I sound old fashioned here. They offered a difficult listen, in the sense that the brain naturally filters out random noise in order to focus on patterns. With this music, much more than the noisy, or glitchy, or any of the sound-art that I tend to explore, I found myself drifting off, unable to piece together the composition into something beyond an experiment in an orchestra’s range of expression.

The audience itself, much younger than any Konzerthaus group I’ve seen, seemed similarly unmoved. I’ve never seen so many heads propped on hands, or heard such unenthusiastic applause afterwards. It felt academic, not like living music. I may be putting myself in the camp of those who rioted after Rite of Spring here; but at least that work caused a riot. This one just inspired indifference.