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.
Surely Mister Cage himself would have appreciated this theatre, all of it in the name of potent sonic dispersal, against the growing laptop scuzz. Clicks, groans, howling wind, muttering, a metal whistle, and yes (!), a kazoo! Next time Friedl actually visits his piano, he strums inside, then crunches an apple, and deploys either a cheese grater or a pencil sharpener. Cage's voice itself is in the mix too, buried but discernible, and then Friedl shouts out a repeated phrase, his voice sometimes cracking high. This is abstract sound that surprises: it really ain't clear what might happen next, as the intensity grows. Dark, violent piano strikes are made on prepared guts, then Friedl's back at the microphone, resorting to suffocating heavy breathing, with Satanic power. A dark, bloody patch creeps down the video image of chess pieces, being as good as any way to conclude this tense improvisational theatre narrative.
The String Noise duo (violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris) were set to appear at the festival in several contrasting settings, none of them as scabrous as their collective name might suggest. Here, in the upstairs room at Hlubina, they played a set that alternated violin works with electronic pieces by Michal Rataj, the two factions combining at the conclusion. This presentation could have been in two separate parts, but there was a deliberate decision to sit the acoustic and electric sides at close quarters, shaping a setting that possessed unique qualities, each approach affecting the other, in its time-proximity. The speaker system was still only quad, but this still facilitated sufficient movement. "Fuga" (Georg Friedrich Haas) might even have been immediately sampled by Rataj, continuing its swirling around the room, regurgitated promptly as the violins finished. Even if this wasn't so, it sounded like it could have been the case. Some of Rataj's digital materials sound very descended from raw violin matter. Petr Bakla's "September" begins out of an extreme quietness, the barest sonic traceries, then inches up to a hovering mass of tonalities, eventually cycling back to its original sparseness. The concluding Rataj work ("The Long Sentence II") is newly completed in 2017, with bassy undercurrents and gently strafing sawings, pizzicato rompings suggesting a folksy origin, a kind of spring ecstasy rather than an autumnal gloom. Ultimately, though, after much bouncing from speaker-to-speaker, the frosty electronics set in, bringing down a morose pall.
The first Friday featured a substantial run of music, continuing with the veteran New York pianist Joseph Kubera delivering a mostly solo recital. Kubera has been a central figure on the NYC new music scene for at least the last three decades. He gave off the aura of mentally preparing, lurking around as a shadowy presence earlier, drinking in the music that preceded his set. Michael Byron's 2009 "Book Of Horizons" is like a runaway Conlon Nancarrow train tumble, a severe sort of boogie woogie, with dancing, locking, rolling patterns, clipped attacks, trilling scampers and a limping-then-skipping syncopation. Kubera sends fidgety droplets flying, as this ridiculously insistent pace is maintained. Christian Wolff's 1952 "For Piano I" is carefully measured, pausing, with isolated plinks and strikes, in a complete contrast to the preceding piece.
The pianist Muhal Richard Abrams
was to have appeared at Ostrava Days, but clearly, by this time, had become too ill to travel and perform. His "Then, Now And Forever" fuses isolated blows with progressing runs, uniting the divergent forms of the previous works, prancing at the high end, emphatic at the low. Violinist Conrad Harris joins Kubera for "Sonata #3," by Lejaren Hiller, from 1970. The piano adopts a highly aggressive persona, and the violin has a flying gypsy quality, with both artists striking glancing blows against each other, Kubera standing up to rumble a low bass line, as Harris makes isolated finger-plicks. Pounding relentlessly, Kubera climaxes by bringing out his big furry mallet, for a resounding finish.
Saturday began with a late afternoon/early evening double bill of good old-fashioned hardcore improvisation, although the gig was billed as a 'mini marathon of electronic music,' which was a tad misleading. Yes, there was amplification, and yes, a laptopper or two, but the pair of large ensembles were employing a broad array of instruments, engaged in improvisations fundamentally descended from the free jazz tradition. The setting was Ostrava's Gallery Of Fine Arts (we've decided not to attempt its Czech name), again utilising different rooms, to allow each band to set up their extensive spreads.
The Prague Improvisers Orchestra are too fucking loud! Your scribe enjoys extreme amplification, and never, ever, inserts aural-condoms, but for the size of the relatively small gallery, and the proximity to the audience, the PIO assault is painfully physical, and possibly not fully intended. Actually, the PIO aren't purely improvising, it seems, as a score leads them for some of the way, perhaps leaving very open spaces for spontaneity. Their line-up includes drums, bass, electric guitar, keyboards, trombone, strings, vocals, zither (or dulcimer), trumpet and baritone saxophone. A too-jokey intoned vocal is answered by instrumental mimicry, and one of the female singers leads a scatting scrabble, with drums, violin, guitar, electronics and baritone saxophone. Then the team lined up along the other wall (this is a way of dividing up the ensemble) respond with their own atmosphere construct, both teams uniting for a sudden finish, as they hit a concise 40 minute mark.
As they started late, this sharp end might have been influenced by the next set's live radio broadcasting. The Kraków Improvisors Orchestra established a completely different mood, keeping events to a subtly environmental slow evolution, led by a governing laptop soundscape. The line-up has paired drums, violins and guitars, bassoon (with pedals), and alto saxophone. The aura must be described as cosmic, with the laptop parts acting as a prompt for sections of increased activity, the procession of sound handled very sensitively. One of the drummers starts working very delicately on cymbals, as a repeating hi-hat egg-fry intensifies, triggering thoughts of The Necks, as a cycling hum increases. Even though this appeared to be almost completely improvised (aside from the laptop guide-contents), it emanated a quality of tightly controlled progression, resulting in an extremely evocative sonic wide-canvas.
Still in the gallery, the String Noise twosome completely inhabited another room upstairs, interpreting Alvin Lucier's "Love Song," a recent piece (composed specifically for them) that involves detailed cross-hatching of percussive, minimalist, steadily sawing string parts, the players slowly moving around, changing their relationship to each other, and the tightly gathered audience.
Sunday saw the Ostrava New Orchestra make its debut, at the Triple Hall Karolina, a flexible performance space in another converted factory building. On this evening, it embraced the large-sized orchestral combinations required for some of the programme, but on subsequent nights, the area could be shrunk, also utilised to welcome a smaller grouping. Combining younger European and American players, the ONO has an 85-strong potential membership, and surely most of these must have been onstage for the world premiere of NYC composer Phill Niblock's "#9.7."
Mostly, Niblock is known for his electronic and visual works, usually involving slowscapes of ambient drone, or extremely gradual environmental movement. Here, some of this nature finds a fresh habitation, within an acoustic, traditional instrument array. Niblock translates a suspended drone from the electroacoustic universe, gradually coercing it to lean askew, shifting its tone. The almost never-heard-before combination of massed orchestral instrumentation, producing such a glacial sonic weight, has an unnervingly vocal effect, making the collective players sound like a choir, as the resonances between their parts shift and vibrate. Perhaps even Niblock himself couldn't imagine exactly how this might sound, in advance of this interpretation, in this hall. The massed strings (and others) reflect the character of ritualistic chanting, and it's not clear whether the slow-rising waves are physically created, or an illusion of layering, manufactured by the human ears-and-brain. Niblock leads an en masse deceleration of strings, low horns feeding in a periodic slow-sludge fanfare. Intoxication takes hold via a measured process, and this new work is destined to be one of the festival's most striking.
Anything that followed Niblock was set to be a striking shift, and Devin Maxwell's "Six Short Pieces" (another world premiere) highlights the microphoned set-up for the entire orchestra, even if these are placed at a discreet distance. The six pieces take up around 12 minutes, with concise stabs, rationed percussion, powerful micro-solos for piano and harp, the penultimate segment being notably compressed, featuring swift exchanges of brass, vibraphone and string-swoops.
Salvatore Sciarrino's "Giorno Velato Presso Il Lago Nero" opens with a mournful violin solo by Hana Kotovká, and she remains framed in activity for virtually the entire 25 minute duration, firstly against vestigial string section birdsong, and then opening up into a dialogue with the whole orchestra's gigantic flourishes. A shimmering metal sheet and a delicately stroked bass drum add to the massed invocation.
Following the intermission, a reduced size sub-division tackled "Holography," by Idin Samimi Mofakham. Keiko Shichijo begins with interior piano, then bangs boldly at both extreme ends of the keyboard. Citrusy streaks seep from the strings (the line-up is simply piano and strings), calling up impressions of Ligeti, with a tightly coiled spring of dynamism between conductor and Shichijo.
The bombastic conclusion of the concert invited a mixture of responses. The 1980 Iannis Xenakis work "Ais" has a potent scale, colossal in its intensity, and dominated by an extreme percussion battalion of aggression and virtuosity, including a clashing and sizzling trio of cymbal specialists. It's a violently exciting work, barely separating the wolves from the lambs. However, solo singer Holger Falk is an operatic baritone with a pomp problem, mired in that conservative form, and difficult to take seriously, as he comes across as the victim of a severe tickling session, an unintended self-parody. For any beings who don't appreciate such a manifestation of the human voice (your scribe dwells down at the Howlin' Wolf, Diamanda Galas, Captain Beefheart, Billie Holiday, Tom Waits end of the alleyway), this was an unfortunate marring of a musically colossal work.
Monday might have had the surface look of a light night, but its early-starting six o'clock gig in Triple Hall Karolina had two intervals, and a wealth of music to move through. The smaller Ostravská Banda returned, to appear in multiple permutations, according to the needs of each composition. Christian Wolff's new "5 Songs" (receiving its European premiere) featured vocalist Thomas Buckner, another mainstay of the NYC scene, particularly at the Roulette venue. It was atypical compared to most of Wolff's work, and didn't possess many of his usual individualist sonic explorations, being a more conventional piece. Klaus Lang's "Weissfarben" featured French horn, accordion, bass flute, gong, large cowbells and tubular bells, opening with a deep gong shimmer, notes sustained, but with measured breath rather than constant, level droning. Resting with lone gong bass bellclouds, the piece begins circulating again, tentatively developing a hymnal quality, as the trombone becomes more prominent, violin scrawling above in spidery form.
Marc Sabat's "Lying In The Grass" (the composer is a Canadian living in Berlin) uses piano, keyboards and tuba to form misty curlicues, making a slithery motion, clouds billowing, with gongs and a fractured, ongoing piano solo by Daan Vandewalle. It has a cautious nature, with flamboyantly clipped piano notes, sounding like an exotic 1950s South East Asian evocation, post-Lou Donaldson, and also reminiscent of Gavin Bryars, making a steady Titanic-sinking descent, slurred and bathyspheric, with seeping low tones, keys and gongs decaying. All the elements eventually become aligned, making up one of the best works performed at this festival.
Muhal Richard Abrams had to cancel his attendance, but his fellow Chicagoans saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell
and trombonist/laptopper George Lewis
made it across the Atlantic, to perform and present their own compositions. Another European premiere came from the pen of Mitchell, his "Distant Radio Transmission" also being a festival high point. He played sopranino, and the piece also featured vocalist Buckner and James Fei on modular synthesiser. The latter makes a significantly cosmic impact on the proceedings, sometime pushing up to the Sun Ra system, using wah-wah techniques, making disciplined sweeps and blips, in turn with flourishes from the entire ensemble. Prominent piano and straight drumkit also shunt the sound towards that of a jazz group conception. Buckner sounds like he's been given the freedom to improvise, making sounds like the fragmented Japanese Dada poet of our dreams. Mitchell issues a splintered glass noodle solo spiral, then a drum punctuation opens up a surprisingly lyrical orchestral response. Mitchell, Buckner and Fei navigate their own section, with drums and strings entering for the final thrust.
This is chased by "Anthem," a 2011 Lewis work, but now only just receiving its European premiere. Kate Soper represents a more acceptable face of soprano singing, fronting a stripped-down line-up of piano, drumkit, violin, flute, laptop keyboards and tenor saxophone. Soper dashes off into an odd zone of Ella Fitzgerald woofing, the piece having the feel of a John Zorn
kartoon kut-up, harnessing the tense benefits of improvisation. The concert has already been lengthy, but Richard Ayres lightens the mood with "No. 36 Nonconcerto For Horn," which makes heavy demands on French horn soloist Daniel Costello, being a complete showcase for a.) his playing and b.) his ability to deal with the stamina requirements of running from one side of the front-stage platform, as each fast-switching section demands. He also has to work with a free-standing wooden doorframe, through which he enters and leaves, banished as demanded. The ensemble includes a pair of harps, and doubled bass flutes. Theatrical though the work is, this becomes integrated with the music rather than a distraction, and the physicality actually controls the sonic events, to a large extent.
Both audience and performers might be feeling weary by this time, but one more item remains: an improvised piece, fronted by Mitchell, Buckner, Lewis, Kubera, and some extra Banda members who must be particularly sympathetic to spontaneous composition. It has its group-connecting instances, but for much of its unfolding, it sounds like many of the players are navigating their own determined path, without noticeably listening to each other. Kubera in particular appeared to be carrying on regardless, with his flighty note spillage. It was time to retire, following a massive amount of new music, most of it being highly rewarding.
As your scribe neared his departure date, with two more days of the festival to follow, after leaving the city, his final evening was well spent in Ostrava's more grandiose, old-fashioned Antonin Dvorák Theatre, with a 'greatest hits' concert of 20th Century music. Earlier, though, at 5pm, there was a final gig in the Triple Hall, played by New York's Momenta Quartet, with Kubera guesting on one of the pieces. An even smaller section of the hall was used, cordoned off into intimacy. Alex Mincek's "String Quartet No. 3" has glancing string blows, ranging around the players, oddly softened, but with an aggressive attack. Grainy strokes and rounded tones abound, stalking with a sudden alertness. The four are called to be constantly hyperactive, as they swerve, pick, swoop, saw and soar, cascading their roles in a staggered sequence.
There's a degree of irritation during "Rhapsodie Of 132," by Bálint Laczkó, as the players are required to call out phrases that are doubtless meant to be radical interruptions, but just sound like tired attempts to be rebellious. 'One more time,' they shout out, or 'once,' 'twice,' etc, amid much rapping of their wooden bodies. Petr Bakla's "Major Thirds" invited Kubera to join in its lyrical flow, strings singing, bolstered by the piano. A stately progress is elaborated, with pizzicato figures dancing around the piano pool. Rebecca Bruton's "Major Thirds" has a placid beginning, with sliding phrases and a moaning vibrato, Michael Haas dragging his bow to shape a deeply resonant cello part. Festival director Petr Kotik's "Torso" provides a substantial 22 minute closer, making a calm start, picking up into some furious bowing at searing speed. There's a brief solo for Stephanie Griffin's viola, and then her three partners dive back in, hurtling with propulsive energy. There's a return to stateliness, but a rogue violin is trying to bring back the flying speed, a frayed abrasiveness rising up out of a largely tranquil and translucent work. All except the cello shift to side seats, and the viola persists with outbreaks of rapid soloing, amidst a glade of delicate plucking.
The Dvorák Theatre concert was broadcast live on the radio, with its works interspersed by an ongoing interview with Kotik, who became increasingly impatient with talk, eager to get the music in motion as the minutes ticked down to the end of the programme. The Ostrava New Orchestra was expanded even further, with guest players for most of the works, according to their individual requirements.
The programme was named The Radical Past, beginning with Charles Ives ("Central Park In The Dark," 1906), a swirling mist anticipating jazz age vocabularies, exploding into a chaotic rush, before spreading its calm once more. Morton Feldman's "Structures" is followed by Kotik's "Music For 3," one of his earliest works, from 1964, a trio for viola, cello and double bass, full of isolated raps, strikes and scrapes, making their circular movement. For "Olympia," by Rudolf Komorous, 1964, Christopher Butterfield and Owen Underhill sit at either side of a small table, taking their time to rummage through melodica, bells, low harmonica and bird whistles, keenly aware of pausing time, and equally viewable as performance artists. Already, experimentation is increasing, and a rare bout of systems music is presented here, with the early Philip Glass work "Two Pages," finding him at his gristly beginning, a hardcore repeater of raw matter. The John Cage finale combined three of his works, played simultaneously, with Kubera on piano, engaging in almost-boogie woogie runs, flicking across his keys with knuckle-blooding force, before picking amongst his tray of small percussion items. Here were the developing roots of evolving experimentation, over a hundred years or so, the ancestors of all that Ostrava Days stands for, becoming nostalgic history, but interpreted in the vibrant moment by this vital in-house orchestra.
Photo Credit: Martin Popelar/Ostrava Days