If I might be permitted to adulterate a bit of Emily Dickinson, the 2013 edition of the Ostrava Days festival opened twice before its opening. (In addition to hosting a weeklong institute for student composers and two other evenings of composition and improvisation, all before the official Philharmonic Hall opening night.) The intense biennial in the Eastern end of the Czech Republic has long been known for stretching into long nights across August. But this year seemed especially expansive with an unofficial opening night featuring a four-hour Philip Glass performance on August 16 and a presentation, one week later, of Petr Kotik’s nearly six-hour Many Many Women.
Glass and his Ensemble performed his Music in 12 Parts (composed 1971-1974) in the Gong, a massive sphere that was an underground gas tank before being raised last year and renovated into an impressive auditorium, nicely finished without trying to hide its former life. Kotik booked Glass and company after seeing them play at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in February 2012, and it was far and away the most popular concert of the festival, with a good 80% of the theater’s 1,500 seats filled. The spiraling repetitions of the music—presented with three intermissions—were remarkable inside the big globe, the changes fluid, always present yet often imperceptible (with the exception of some surprise dissonance at the beginning of the seventh part).
A full week later, Kotik (the festival founder, artistic director, and leader of the resident chamber ensemble Ostravská Banda, as well as New York City’s S.E.M. Ensemble) presented Many, Many Women, his setting of a Gertrude Stein text which (like the Glass) calls to question the use of the phrase “evening length” to denote a work of a mere two hours. But where Glass for the most part had all his musicians going all the time, Kotik worked in strict rotation and augmentation amongst the paired singers, flutes, trumpets, and trombones; instrumental combinations changed every three to five minutes. It’s an active piece, creating a sensation of ever-shifting and interlocking elements, as if it were a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that morphed as they were fitted together—duos, quartets, up to a tentet at times, and finally a full dozen at 75 minutes in, although not for long before the basses dropped out. But it didn’t mark the culmination of a cycle; it’s not as easy as that. The score is linear and it’s scripted from beginning to end, but the pairs of players are free to enter each of their sections when they choose. It is also quite arguably the most effective musical setting of Stein to have been attempted, and that includes Virgil Thomson! To read her texts on the page is (as with any great writer) a rich and deeply private experience. To hear it read aloud is exhilarating, as the hypnotized mind can wander without leading the text astray. But music courses many channels, and Kotik better than anyone has realized the poetics of her repetitions in a layered, auditory setting.
Kotik’s Nine + 1 (composed this year and presented later in the week) was a piano and drum kit boxing match with pizzicato strings finding their way into the gaps and brass and winds yelling from the sidelines until the strings demanded some romance. Eventually they too were pulled into the fray. A lush piano interlude played by the stunning Daan Vaandewalle pulled the factions together and then a second, unaccompanied piano section ended the piece mid-stream. Kotik’s string quartet Torso (2011-12), played by the OBSQ (Ostrava Banda String Quartet), opened in lovely unison then pushed into quick density then pulled back the fast lines and crossfaded into another elegiac passage, with brisk arpeggios occasionally returning ever so quietly in the violin. Krulik also played institute resident Kristina Wolfe’s Planctus that same night, a dense and lovely six minutes of incongruous lines and scratchy cello that at some points felt quite formal and at others left the impression of turntable mixing.
Kotik was represented once again during the festival in Bernhard Lang’s 2011 work Monadologie XVII [SheWasOne – For Petr Kotik] played by the resident chamber ensemble Ostravská Banda conducted by the dedicatee. Kotik introduced it by repeating a segment from his Many Many Women, which was the basis of Lang’s piece. Monadologie echoed the Kotik-by-way-of-Stein overlaid phrases with 13 musicians, including Kubera on piano and synthesizer, but perhaps this time with a stammer: muted piano strings struggled against the violin, viola, cello, and bass, locked in a loop while insistent rhythms were set by percussion and reeds. Lang’s Monadologie XX … For Franz was played the following night by the German ensemble elole-Klaviertrio. It was a mechanistic re-envisioning of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E Flat Major, op. 100. Despite the conceit, and even with the use of extended technique to create a sort of fractal echoing, powerful feelings of urgency and, later, lament came through.
The stellar elole also played Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s ghostly Trio No. 2 (1987), with whispering strings bowed on the bridge, the piano sounding only several minutes. While it was hushed, it wasn’t all so quiet; and for hushed music, it was quite fast and full. Sciarrino clearly loves and fully inhabits his sound world, but a lot of things happen there even if he tends to stay within his own boundaries. Such is the case with his 1984 Lohengrin Azione invisible for soloist, instruments, and voices—an hour-long “short story” (based on the Wagner opera, though Sciarrino himself avoids the word “opera”) which, for me, was far and away the highpoint of the festival. Scripted from the point of view of Elsa, Lohengrin’s bride, who is accused of losing her virginity before the wedding, the operetta was performed by the Ostravská Banda under Roland Klutting and sung with an elusive pathos by Marianne Pousseur (who was anchored to a sort of tombstone podium). Pousseur played the part as a child in a wedding gown, a large balloon above her head. The ensemble, which included three male singers who accompanied her vocal lines—which combined singing, guttural whispers, gnashing, crying, exaggerated exhalations, and chomping of teeth—was never more than incidental and yet supremely dramatic.
Although not present at the festival, Sciarrino tied Kotik for most-played composer after the last-minute addition of his brief Capriccio No. 4 (1975-6) by the staggering violinist Hana Kotková. Sciarrino may also be the Ostrava patron saint of hushed tones: light bowing and blowing was pervasive, especially among student pieces, so much so that it almost came to feel like it was a given. That said, when Daniel Lo Ting-cheung’s nine-minute Rude Awakening for an 80-piece orchestra built to an onslaught of five percussionists hitting hard with the full contingent punctuating, it was truly exciting. The Iranian composer Idin Samimi Mofakham’s Mirage nicely melded the near silent strings with Chris Nappi playing percussion on the surface of a container of water (even if it seemed less cunning during the second half of its 25 minutes, making it one of the longer student pieces played).
Also before the titular “Opening Night” was a concert of improvisations and small ensemble compositions at an old coal mine which featured works by Alvin Lucier, Christian Wolff, and Jon Gibson, whose Down the Road (played by Joseph Kubera on piano and Chris Nappi on percussion) was the standout, with Gibson’s spirited soprano saxophone injecting an energy into the tightly constructed yet lightly swinging piece. The evening also included a spirited improvisation by Gibson and Wolff with past and present institute students.
The final events before the proper opening on August 25 were an homage to Luigi Russolo (author of The Art of Noise and arguably the first person to build something with no function other than to make “nonmusical” noise) followed by a concert by the New York violin duo String Noise, both held in an institutional building converted into an art gallery. Highlights of the afternoon noise fest included a set by vocalist Amelia Cuni (whose interpretation of Cage’s ragas, the Solo for Voice No. 58 from his Songbooks released on CD by Other Minds is well worth seeking out) and instrumentalist Werner Durand. Acoustic sound samples emanating from (and being molded by) the electronics were pitted against some unusual vocal techniques such as singing into a pie tin (which resembles the sound of radio interference) and more often using a megaphone than a microphone. While employing reeds and a variety of tubes, Durand also pushed electronics waves of tambura into the wash. Also of interest was Pavel Z. and the Opening Performance Orchestra, who collaged train sounds and video with four laptops, three of Russolo’s intonarumori, and narrator. String Noise played a bold set of duets composed for them and, in the case of Robert Constable’s Vicious Cycles, the pair with backing tape. The set culminated in a matrimonial humoresque by Eric Lyon entitled The Book of Strange Positions, and they encored with Lyon’s arrangement of L.A. punk band the Germs’ “Lexicon Devil.” It was not just a nicely irreverent program during a fairly formal festival; it proved to be a formidable display of virtuosity.
It should, of course, go without saying that a part of such a festival is (or had better be) musicianship at an absolutely stellar level, and yet letting it go at “it goes without saying” would seem a shame. An evening under the banner “Into the Night” included a remarkable succession of string solos, which began with Hana Kotková’s aforementioned delivery of the Sciarrino capriccio. Niolaus Schlierf then deftly played Berio’s 1967 solo viola workout Sequenza VI followed by Conrad Harris effortlessly tackling the first four of Cage’s infamously difficult Freeman Etudes. Harris also gave a staggering reading of Iannis Xenakis’s 1991 Dox-Orkh for orchestra and soloist. Opening with a strangely dissonant fanfare of reeds and horn and an off-kilter violin, the full regimen then came in in profoundly out-of-time unison figures, all doing a wonderful job—ironically perhaps—at sounding as though the whole thing were poorly performed except for the violin soloist who was put in the best possible light. It was in that sense almost funny but it was also breathtaking, its dissonance coming to feel, over 20 minutes’ time, like the way of the world. The full outfit of strings sounded like a very old organ that was panting for breath. Harris, on the other hand, was lithe and on task, coming off as more precise against the orchestrated quagmire. It was, in short, fascinating, and ultimately resolved with the orchestra fully in time and on cue.
Later in the evening of solo string pieces, Pauline Kim Harris approached John Zorn’s 2011 solo Passagen (a work which she premiered and recorded) with supreme confidence. Joseph Kubera, a fixture of the festival, beautifully played Julius Eastman’s 1986 Piano 2, an unusually lovely and nebulous solo. And Kotková boldly shone again in Kaija Saariaho’s 1994 Graal théâtre on the opening night with the Janáčkova filharmonie Ostrava. Its eerie themes and amazing soloing darted about underneath the orchestral blanket which at the same time worked a stereo field between the piano and the bass viols at the opposite end of the assembly.
The opening night proper, then, at Philharmonic Hall, featured an orchestra of more than 50 players, including five contrabasses and a harp. Carola Bauckholt’s Helicopter, written in 2001-02 for the amazing vocal interpreter Jaap Blonk was built from, very literally, the sounds of a helicopter. But unlike a helicopter, it was fairly quiet and traveled over the course of its 20 minutes from something fairly soft to begin with into a pronounced whisper from Blonk as well as the strings: It never took off, but doing so didn’t seem the point. Christian Wolff’s half-hour individuals, collective received its European premiere on the opening night, following its world premiere at Kotik’s Beyond Cage festival in New York last year. It was an amalgam of starts and fits in small groupings across the orchestra with complimentary sections seemingly placed end-to-end and interspersed with occasional fragmented fanfares. As the piece built, the voices found congruity with each other, a mysterious commonality as the groupings—and what they voiced—never seemed to repeat. It was at once akin to and very different from Bauckholt’s Helicopter, which was more unified but also refused to build to a conclusion. It was full of anticipation, a dynamic in which Wolff excels. The following night featured Wolff’s 2012 work Trust (played by the Ostravská Banda). Immediately before conducting the piece, Kotik remarked that it was “very similar” to individuals, collective. It was much smaller, employing only nine instruments and lasting just ten minutes, but it too dealt in parsed phrases and toyed with resolution. Sandwiched between the Bauckholt and the Wolff was an enticing work by institute resident Ravi Kittappa titled exordium, four minutes of pulse and counterpoint moving extremely quickly like flies on a pond surface, one ripple starting as the last died off.
Charlemagne Palestine was not unannounced but was still a surprise guest at the festival, his long, improvised meditations being a bit out of step with the composed orchestral works that usually dominate the programs here. But he played a wonderful piece to which he gave the title Schlingen Schängen for Ostrava. It opened, as per his usual, with the placement of teddy bears around the piano and organ and the ringing of a brandy snifter. He then took a seat at the piano and began a repeated figure over a drone provided by James Ilgenfritz’s bass and Lucie Vitková’s accordion. They were soon joined by Renāte Stivriņa at Philharmonic Hall’s massive pipe organ. Stivriņa put weights on keys and primarily played the stops, avoiding the bass pedals until 20 minutes in. One huge, snowballing chord drenched the room. After closing the long arc of the piece, Palestine said to institute resident Rita Ueda, “Come play the bells – hard.”
A concert at the 13th-century St. Wenceslas Church included a gorgeous performance of Feldman’s Rothko Chapel featuring vocalists Kamala Sankaram and Silvie Jensen which filled the sunlit chapel. Belgian pianist Daan Vanderwalle, another Ostrava Days virtuoso cornerstone, performed Galina Ustvolskaya’s Composition No. 2 “Dies Irae” (1972-73) with S.E.M. Ensemble. It is a pounding lament, quite literally, with the heavy piano lines abetted by an octet of basses and a wooden box being hammered away at by Chris Nappi. Those two works, plus a number of student pieces, somehow made a perfect frame for Ligeti’s 1982 Trio played by Vanderwalle, Conrad Harris, and Daniel Costello on French horn. There is probably no context where Ligeti isn’t refreshing—amidst minimalists, after a car chase, during a break in the evening news. His music is fresh, thoughtful, and digestible, and his compelling trio made for an enjoyable respite during the intensity of the church concert; it seemed like a reward after hard work until it grew fragmented. Short lyrical lines began to discontinue, shared statements fell apart, the equanimity among the three began to unravel and each guarded his own corner, only to go positively baroque, then thoughtful, then profound. It ultimately made for an unerring joy ride.
A new choreography by Daniel Squire for Cage’s Concert for Orchestra (e.g. a piano-less performance of his Concert for Piano and Orchestra), Aria, and Fontana Mix (played concurrently, naturally) was presented at the large Jiří Myron Theater. It was impossible not to think of Merce Cunningham during all of this, especially since Squire’s approach was not entirely dissimilar: dancers existed in their own cells but occasionally moved with a common physical language. Eventually the company of close to 20 took the stage en masse and spun their way off again. Sankaram gave the vocal solo an animated read. She was jazzy at times but more often slid between operatic vibrato and childlike, gleeful yells. The electronics of Fontana Mix were slow to come, but eventually overtook the room.
The final day included a matinee of resident compositions followed by an evening that proved a perfect finale for a headspinning couple of weeks. Highlights from the afternoon concert included New Yorker James Ilgenfritz’s Burnham’s Folly, a piece inspired by the famous Flatiron Building in Midtown Manhattan. It started with a jazzy chaos then found a peace, then bits of quiet noise, and ended in an unexpected congruity—perhaps like traffic patterns on 23rd Street. Michal Indrák’s Standing Wave was a hypnotic piece of counterpoint between wind and mixed ensemble. While it wore its structure on its sleeve (the two sections grew slower and increasingly out of sync with each other), it was great to hear the process work its way through and to contemplate just how slow it might get, which by the end was nearly a snail’s BPM. Nissim Schaul’s Hell Study for two percussionists, blocky prepared piano, bowed violin, cello, flute, and trombone came off as cinematic, but there were several movies playing at the same time. The work was actually rooted in Schaul’s impressions of Bosch and in the sound of the hurdy gurdy, although there wasn’t one present. Instead, cello and bass clarinet swapped off providing drones and the impression of keyed strings. Lörinc Muntag’s 18,8, scored for piano, cello, and two percussionists, began with several minutes of beautiful stillness, nothing but sustained muted cello notes, before the other instruments entered making the cello seem like a clothesline onto which sounds were very occasionally hung. The music’s approach to space would have made Feldman proud.
The final concert featured orchestral works by two more institute residents (both from New York) and one esteemed recent graduate, as well as two remarkable works by composers outside the institute. The first half was quite daring, with three similar pieces—or at least three similar concepts—executed rather differently. Jack Callahan’s If You Cannot Ignore the Response – Delay It was one of the more successful of several exercises in sustained tone over the course of the festival, moving pulses held for 5 to 15 seconds across the orchestra, each one varied by shape and attack. Other events were gradually introduced, at the forefront a very quiet bass drum in uneven time and eventually breaking down into individual tones guided by the oboe.
Lucie Vitková, a 2009 institute graduate, presented her master’s degree project, bearing the not falsely modest title MAsterpiece. Vitková sat in the reed section playing harmonica alongside accordion and melodica, with an orchestra further complemented by Diale Mabitsela on electric guitar and Callahan on a less-than-subtle snare drum. Vitková also found her way through the problem of static music. Percussion popped around the perimeter of the room and while many of the sounded notes lasted between one and three seconds, the overall effect was of a serpentine drone. Ben Richter’s Farther Reaches was perhaps the most “listenable” of the three. A low tone pervaded with bows rolled on the backs of violins, sounding something like the crackling of a fire until gong rolls and muted piano strings broke the stasis. Still, it was barely an arc.
The second half tore it up with two Czech premieres composed 90 years apart. Helmet Oehring’s Die vier Jahreszeiten (e.g. “The Four Seasons”) with 15 strings (the sole bassist doubling on harmonica) quoting and vivisecting Vivaldi with, again, sustained tones and intermittent pulses. But vertigo-inducing unison lines in arco and pizzicato dominated the piece as soloist Pauline Kim Harris slowly became apparent, before dropping back into the ensemble and then rising even more boldly a few minutes later. It often seemed like a solo blown up to the size of a string orchestra, or a violin duo between one player and fifteen players. But their numbers were made apparent when the ensemble was led to make staccato vocal utterances introduced by Harris, percussiveooh ooh uh soh oh suh toh kinds of things. Later passages of paper tearing or bow whispering were quickly, almost immediately, interrupted by more unison strings. One would be forgiven for counting at least six or seven seasons, but in any event it ended with a surprisingly sweet melody, a solstice snowfall, complete with softly ringing bells.
The final piece made for a rather perfect ten-minute festival finale. Is it possible that in 1921 Edgard Varèse touched on everything heard over two weeks in 2013 with his Offrandes? Well, no, but with the expansiveness of the orchestra and given enormous voice by soprano Sandra Rosales, it still seemed to presage in reverse everything heard in Ostrava Days 2013—if not in stasis, at least in velocity.