Klangraum 2020

John Eyles By

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In 2020, the first week of Klangraum had particular significance as, for most participants and audience members, it was the first live music performances they had seen for several months because of the restrictions imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Antoine Beuger, Max Bober, René Holtcamp, Christoph Nicolaus, Normisa Pereira da Silva, Rasha Ragab, Sabine Schall, Els van Riel, Burkhard Wehner
Neuer Kunstraum / Jazzschmiede
Klangraum 2020
Dusseldorf, Germany
July 14-19, 2020

Every year, for two separate weeks in the summer—usually in July or August— Wandelweiser Managing Director Antoine Beuger organises gatherings of musicians who have releases on the Edition Wandelweiser label, those who aspire to do so, plus other interested parties from far and wide. These events go by the name Klangraum, a German word which translates as "sound space," fitting as Klangraum mainly happens in Dusseldorf's light, airy and spacious Kunstraum and a nearby space with a piano, Jazzschmiede.

In 2020, the first week of Klangraum had particular significance as, for most participants and audience members, it was the first live music performances they had seen for several months because of the restrictions imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19. In total, across six days, between twenty and thirty people attended, not enough to worry the powers that be or to breach social distancing rules. As always, each evening, at the café-bar adjoining Kunstraum, the day's participants sat down together at a long table, ate a communal vegetarian meal and chatted. As in past years, this Klangraum never felt crowded; as one habitual attendee quipped on the opening day, "Klangraum invented social distancing long ago. We have never got closer than two metres..."

Although Klangraum has plenty of performances for participants and visitors to attend, it is not a concert series, more like a workshop. Across five days, from Tuesday to Saturday, six different performances happen in a different time slot each day—11am, noon, 4pm, 7-30pm, 8-30pm and 9-30pm. This repetition, and programming at the different times, gives performers and/or composers opportunities to try out variations on different days, such variations also meaning that audiences experience fresh ideas not the same things at the same times for five days running. In addition, performances do not just feature music but may include aspects of other art forms, including film, theatre, movement, spoken word and visual art.

This year, one of the daily slots featured a short film about humankind's changing knowledge of light, Fugue, A Light's Travelogue, made by Belgium's Els van Riel, who had been part of a memorable multi-media performance at Klangraum 2019. Another slot focused on several hundred large abstract tempera paintings brought by their artist, Berlin-based Sabine Schall. In their sessions, both van Riel and Schall were very generous with their time, being prepared to answer questions honestly and have individual conversations about their work. In each case, these sessions were richly fascinating in their own right as well as contrasting with the music sessions.

A piece entitled "Expanding Time" was performed by the foursome of Christoph Nicolaus, his Egyptian-born partner Rasha Ragab, Brazilian-born Normisa Pereira da Silva, and Burkhard Wehner. Nicolaus played granite stone harps, made to resonate using moistened hands, thus producing sustained drones, as heard on the 2019 Wandelweiser CD Music for Stone Harps. Ragab made sounds by dripping water into a bowl and recited in Arabic. Pereira da Silva played bass flute and at times sang with the baritone vocalist Wehner, who sang Gregorian chants, sometimes accompanying himself on a shruti box. Disparate as those component parts may seem, together they gelled into an enthralling and mesmerising piece which never failed to enchant its audiences. As an endpiece to the fifth performance, Pereira da Silva and Wehner were joined by Antoine Beuger to sing a well-chosen fourteenth century chant pleading for relief from the plague.

In fact, Beuger felt ever-present at Klangraum. Since April 2020, he had been working with a group of university arts students, often electronically rather than face to face. One result of these students' work welcomed all who entered Kunstraum—an A1 poster by Angelina Simon, inspired by the texts of US writer and activist Rebecca Solnit, bearing the inspiring message, "THE TIME FOR HOPE IS ALWAYS."

As is customary at Klangraum, each afternoon at teatime, Beuger's partner Sylvia Alexandra Schimag publicly interviewed two of the performers. Schimag's knockabout interviewing style guarantees audiences entertainment and amusement, as do the antics of their dog, Simba. This year, Beuger himself was one of the interviewees, the session providing some fascinating insights into his childhood.

Beuger and Dutch guitarist René Holtcamp performed the Mark Hannesson composition "undeclared," three solo versions of which, by Beuger, Holtcamp and Hannesson himself, are on the 2019 Wandelweiser CD undeclared. The composition, written in memory of 68-70 Pakistani school children who were killed in a drone attack on October 20 2006, requires performers to make one (unspecified) sound for each of the victims. In one performance, Holtcamp appeared alone, making sounds not by plucking but by striking down on his acoustic guitar's strings, damping the other strings with his fingers; in a second performance, Beuger appeared alone, poignantly making sounds on a children's glockenspiel; in a third, Holtcamp and Beuger appeared together, the guitarist playing as before, with Beuger whistling the guitar's resulting overtones. Impressive.

In "Songs and silence," on his primary instrument, flute, Beuger gave short solo performances of Anastassis Philippakopoulos compositions, as heard on the 2014 Wandelweiser CD Songs and Piano Pieces. As is typical of Beuger's playing, his flute was quiet but true, often sounding small and vulnerable in the large Kunstraum. One day, in an ad hoc aside after a performance, Beuger shared his view of how a duo ought to sound: "The two instruments should sound like voices in a fog, trying to find one another... 'Where are you?' ... 'I'm here' ... 'Where?' ..."

Most years at Klangraum, there is at least one composition which encourages or welcomes everyone, including audience members, to join in. This year, a piece entitled "We Have Time" by the Argentine-born, Polish-resident violinist Max Bober fulfilled that function. Its score consists of fragments selected by Bober from Margaret Atwood's renowned novel The Handmaid's Tale, with occasional short snippets of music on some pages. The score's instructions say, "You may read the whole fragment, a phrase, a word, sometimes dwelling on some fragment that caught your attention...In some moment you could sing a note, a melody, or play a chord in any octave. Sometimes repeatedly... after reading your fragment to yourself silently and lingering on it for a while, we share it by reading to each other." Participants were sensitive enough to avoid speaking or playing over one another, so there were occasional pregnant pauses until someone felt the time was right to share their fragment. The entire piece had a kaleidoscopic quality but managed to capture the essence of the book, with the musical interjections complementing the voices well. Across the five days, Bober tried out various ways of performing the piece, for example sometimes performers were close together, other times more separated, sometimes static, other times free to wander about. Each time, it was a most enjoyable experience to be part of it.

Sunday at Klangraum is always different from the preceding five days. Instead of the six rotating slots, the music on Sunday is only heard once. This year, the day opened with all participants being involved in a performance of John Cage's 4' 33," led by Beuger. Eschewing the theatrics sometimes included in performances of the piece, but retaining its structure of three movements, Beuger asked participants to sit silently with their eyes closed for as long as they felt the first movement should last, then to briefly open their eyes before repeating the process for the second and third movements. In the event, well over half an hour had elapsed before all those present were sitting with their eyes open again, having spent that time as Cage intended, listening to the background sounds of the neighbourhood.

After 4' 33," the next Sunday slot featured compositions by Max Bober, played in a violin and guitar duo by Bober and Holtcamp, and also on piano by Beuger. The pieces reinforced the impression created by "We Have Time" that Bober has great potential; it felt as if he came of age as a composer at this Klangraum. We are sure to hear more of him in the not too distant future. Finally, Klangraum came to a close with Beuger's 2013 piece "We Are Voices" for two instruments.

Across its six days, Klangraum lived up to its usual high standards and was greatly enjoyed by all those who attended. Congratulations to all concerned.

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