EXCLUSIVE: Students, Teaching - Kurt Gottschalk at Ostrava Days 2015 [REVIEW]
Besides being a festival of contemporary composition the likes of which isn't often seen this side of the Atlantic, the Czech Republic's biennial Ostrava Days plays host to a two-week institute for composers and performers, where students get the opportunity to workshop with and have their works reviewed by some of the the major figures invited to the nine days of concerts, which follow on the heels of the institute. But once the festival proper is underway, such hierarchies evaporate, as students perform with and have their work presented alongside the headliners.
Jacek Sotomski was one such student given star treatment. His beautiful to me, ah--centered around Milan Osadský's accordion, flanked by two dozen strings--was played on opening night, along with works by Cage, Stockhausen, Phill Niblock and festival founder and director Petr Kotik. Osadský and accordion climbed, with what seemed like a struggle, a series of ascending lines, while the strings choked and clucked in support of the staccato static that would echo them. The electronic noise was beguilingly out of place, emanating from a laptop at the center of the audience.
Hasty assumptions shouldn't be made about what constitutes a "student" at the institute. While many of the residents are young artists at the beginning of their careers, there are also working composers and performers who return every other year for the classroom and concert experiences. The Czech musicians Ian Mikyska and Lucie Vítková, Iranian Idin Samimi Mofakham, Vancouver-based Rita Ueda and Americans James Ilgenfritz and Ben Richter (the latter currently living in Berlin) were all repeat enrollees in the 2015 intensive.
Mikyska played a piece of abstract, improvised sound and spoken word using text from Václav Havel during a day-long marathon of electro-acoustic works. In a later concert, he borrowed from an old British mortality ballad, "Bury Me Beneath the Willow," staggering the count and breaking lines midstream, while singers Vítková and James Falzone captured the performance on handheld cassette recorders and played it back in fragments. Mikyska has shown himself to be good with concept over the last few editions, although the shoveling of dirt in this case just proved a distraction.
Vítková presented a powerful piece for orchestra and rock drummer for the 2013 festival, but the two records she's released since then come off as tentative, almost fragile by design. She was a strong presence in the 2015 festival: providing sound design and electronics for other composers, singing in student works, presenting her own work. Her Gap for two voices, using text from a play by Saara Wallraf, didn't have the same falling-together, falling-apart quality. Yet, it was still delicate, with near-repeating lines in both the voices and the sometimes dissonant violin and accordion accompaniment. If there was a downside, it was in that so much varying repetition had already been heard by that point; the upside, it showed that it was possible to still use that strategy effectively.
Mofakham made a lasting impression in 2013 with his Mirage for Water and String Trio. This year's Ludus Consonos X worked in sustained tones--a recurring theme at the festival--with the Steinway concert grand used to fantastically dramatic effect.
Ilgenfritz, a dogged concert organizer on top of being a talented bassist and composer in New York City, is likewise a lover of concept. In I Kiss the So-Called Dawn, he similarly found a new way of dealing with an old song form. While the text the two singers delivered came from his beloved William S. Burroughs, the feel was of an old art song, augmented by two percussionists rhythmically slapping the singers' backs to break the vocal lines
Richter's Rivulose, featured on the final night's concert, cycled muted horns, rolling percussion and repeated notes from the harp, then set a motif and moved it gracefully across the piano and flutes, before dropping an unexpected (and fairly remarkable) piano sonata smack dab in the middle of the slow undulations. The piece concluded with bows bouncing on strings like fireflies.
Rita Ueda composed Hummingbird Suite as a double sonata for the stellar violin duo String Noise (the members of which, Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris, also belong to the fest's Ostravská banda and Kotik's New York-based SEM Ensemble). Ueda cast the two violins as the hummingbirds and the banda as their garden, adding surprising gong and percussion crashes. If we were able to hear the hummingbirds, it seemed every other sound in the yard had to be magnified, as well. This was not a love song, no, not in a human sense at least. Or if it was, it was set in the flitting activity and fast metabolisms of her subjects.
Ostravská banda also played the Polish resident Kamil Kruk's Septenarium, an interesting percussion piece made surprisingly full by the arrival of the rest of the ensemble halfway through. American Devin Maxwell called upon the farmland of America's most densely populated state for his Chester, New Jersey--which, itself, recalled Stravinsky (The Rite of the Turnpike, perhaps?) with an effective, alternating bass drum and chime offsetting the repeated, massive orchestral swells.
As is often the lot at Ostrava, Mikołaj Laskowski's Dzięcielina Pała fell in a program between Helmut Oehring and Alvin Lucier. Still, the work wedged its way in well, a sort of round of drones and difference tones.
One concert, however, was devoted entirely to student works. Held in the Janáček Conservatory, the matinée gave institute residents, as well as the audience, a chance to hear their works played by some of the fine musicians performing throughout the festival. Andrew Watts' Negative Seven Degrees put the wonderful soprano Dominika Dominga on one side of the small hall, the exceptional percussionist Chris Nappi on the other, for a striking piece that could have kept company with the Viennese school of the last century.
Meanwhile, Gilberto Agostinho presented quite a nice cello quartet, entitled Deviation, which set up another round of pizzicato lines. His counterpoint would eventually break its own rules, dissolving into patterns of rain on the roof, before easily regaining its focus.
With his score stretched across six music stands, Bálint Laczkó found a different way to deal with canon structure in The Sphinx. Opening with the clarinetist moving across the stage, closely followed by a flute with an electronic echo, the sight did draw laughs, but the piece would hold its own.
Performed in the 14th-century St. Wenceslaus Church, Ján Podracký's Pro / Pre / For / Für Anet I for recorder and soprano proved to be one of the highlights of the student compositions. In both Czech and Slovak, a brief text asked questions about beauty. With the recorder player singing those Slovak lines, and occasionally playing two recorders at once, it could have also served as a prelude to Kotik's one-act opera Master-Pieces, which was performed the following night. Taking a typically circuitous Gertrude Stein lecture and diary for a libretto, Kotik's, like Podracký's piece, considered the nature of great art: a question not easily answered, even when surrounded by it, as one is at the ever-challenging Ostrava Days.