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Ostrava Days 2017

Martin Longley By

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Ostrava Days
Various Venues
Ostrava
Czech Republic
August 24-30, 2017

A newer breed of industrially-attuned tourism is evident in the city of Ostrava, in the north-east of the Czech Republic, and very close to Poland's border. One of its biggest attractions is the relatively recently retired coal mining and blast furnace complex, which unusually combined the entire digging, coking and ore-ing activities, all in the same area. Since closing down, it's now preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was founded in 1843, and retired in 1993.

During visits to this hardcore zone, the ears were confronted with almost as much stimuli as the peepers, which is highly appropriate whilst attending the Ostrava Days festival. This is a biennial affair, spreading across a 10-day period, and mostly featuring two or three concerts on each date, sometimes more, and sometimes less. The thrust of the festival (governed by its guiding force, composer and conductor Petr Kotik) is modern composition, but using the foundation attitudes of composers such as John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Toru Takemitsu, Morton Feldman and Philip Glass, frequently extending into the realms of improvisation, jazz, electronics, rock, 'noise,' exotica and electroacoustic, now that most younger composers are more likely to have been sprouted in an omnivorous environment.

Had the evening performances sensitised the ears to low rumbles, groans, clangs and distressed scrapings? Or are attendees of Ostrava Days more inclined towards hearing the 'outside' world's surroundings as a cauldron for potential musicality? For the festival's opening gig, on the Thursday evening, the Provoz Hlubina venue happened to be right on the edge of the old industrial zone, another one of these wonderfully converted interiors, all brick, girders and piping, for seducing we iron age fetishists. This makes a difference. In this setting, modern composition could be absorbed in a more casual environment, with flexible seating, cup of beer in hand, offering the opportunity to wander around the walls, seeking out different sonic spaces. Members of Ostravská Banda provided the personnel for various works, your scribe only arriving, unfresh from the airport, in time for the second half of this concert.

All the works here were penned in 2016. Timothy Page's duo piece "Hypha" has interior piano strikes, growling at the low end, violin skimming, its bow making glancing blows, creating a capering, rhythmic tumble. Theresa Salomon's sustained violin tones supported Alexandr Starý's scattered, luminous piano phrases. Another duo piece, Jacek Sotomski's "Accordion Go," had the composer supplying electronics, the work also featuring somewhat kitschy collage visuals, which tend to distract from the music. Rafal Luc's sparse, shadowy accordion fingerings have flicks that trigger textures, and as the composition climaxes, the now-improved visuals involve crash test vehicles running into giant accordions. "Kvarteto" (by Adrián Democ) has a dense quartet development (highlighting the Hungarian cimbalom), layered with swaying string figures, its second part unusually sparse, with a slow-flowing, inverted climax.

As a complete contrast, the evening's second concert was given in the city centre's Saint Wenceslas Church, with the solo viola of Nikolaus Schlierf, playing Boris Guckelsberger's "Requiem," from back in 2001. Lines are amassed with rhythmic strokes, steadily thickening, weaving bass patterns, and adding vivid decorations. There was a pause, as the second phase built up another escalation from scratch, returning to similar levels. Straight away, on this first night, the festival's canny strategy of placing diverse musical types in well-suited environments is revealed.

The second evening returned to Provoz Hlubina, using its various spaces, and beginning with "Cage Chess Show," performed by the Opening Performance Orchestra, with guesting pianist Reinhold Friedl. OPO are an all-laptop foursome, lined up in a row, their manifesto including the call-to-arms of 'no melody-no rhythm-no harmony.' Quadrophonic speakers lend some degree of spatial character, whilst Friedl is not chiefly a pianist, but spends a lot of time sitting at his table, which is littered with close-miked objects. He has glasses of water, with a pair of straws, sipping from each in turn, surely with some sort of adhered microphone on his throat. The Orchestra samples, and he glugs, then strolls over to the piano. An intense low hum pervades, as tentative keyboard shapes appear, and Friedl wanders over to crouch by his metal percussion, opens a packet of pretzels, munching up a forest of molar crunch, then begins playing a game of chess with himself.

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