Kontakte Festival 2015: Akademie der Künste, Berlin

September 25-27 was the 2015 Kontakte Festival of new classical electronic, electro-acoustic, and sound-installation music at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. The Berliner Lautsprecher Orchester started off the festival with a series of works composed directly for the space by student composers of the Festival Institute. This concert was (fittingly) called “Erstkontakt” [first contact]. A couple of pieces on this program stood out — Jonas Siepmann composed his piece Automatenmusik I for a machine consisting of four metallic elements. The program note is confusing, as it says “this is not a program note for Automatenmusik I because there isn’t a work. You will experience a unique and unrepeatable solo performance by one of my machines, which ad hoc composition, interpretation, sound production and sound design combines.” The composer also introduced the piece verbally, with the instructions that the audience should expect “Viel Spaß” or much fun. It was indeed a playfully irreverent performance, and quite fun to listen to as well.

In the “Sehnsuchtmaschine” [the longing machine] concert, the first piece (L’homme machine/Der Maschinenmench (1998) by Georg Katzer) really stood out. This piece, for solo speaking bass player and electronics, grew from Katzer’s chamber opera Einige Ansichen zum mechanischen Menchen, vortragen von Julien Offray de Lamettrie am 28 Oktober 1748 in Schloss Sans-souci im Beisein Majestät des Königs in Prußen (2000) [translation: A view of the machine-man performed by Lamettrie on 28th of October 1748 in Sans-Souci in the presence of the Kings in Prussia]. The opera (and subsequently this piece for solo speaking-bass player), are based on a text by Julien Offray de Lamettrie extending Descartes’ argument that animals were mere automatons or machines to human beings, thus denying the existence of the soul and distilling human life down to the existence of matter. The bass player reads (or speaks) excerpts from this text while playing the bass. While the piece gives the impression of an expansive improvisatory sequence, it is notated down to the finest detail. After a false start (technical difficulties), Matthias Bauer performed this piece incredibly well. His speaking was clear, his gestures sure, and his playing spectacularly well done. He handled the mix-up with the live-electronics with the utmost professionalism, and presented a breathtaking performance of L’homme machine/Der Maschinenmench.

Matthias Bauer

Matthias Bauer

At the DEGEM Konzert, I was excited to hear Matthias Bauer again after hearing him perform Katzer’s L’homme machine, and was not disappointed. His performance of Ralf Hoyer’s Studie 4 was also fantastic (and no technical issues this time!). Studie 4, for bass and tape, lasts about 16 minutes. In those 16 minutes, the bassist plays the bass normally, uses all sorts of fun techniques (col legno, sul ponticello, Bartok pizz., extreme high registers, etc), and eventually runs out of conventional things to do to/with the bass. At this point, the player lays the bass on the floor (very carefully!), and produces two timpani mallets and a second bow (!!). Possibilities for new sounds sufficiently widened, the piece explores not only what these sound like in real time, but also processes them live and adds layers of electronics to the performance.

French cellist Séverine Ballon did an excellent job performing Hans Tutchku’s Pressure – Divided for cello and live electronics. The two musicians have worked together before, and this piece grew out of some of their improvisation sessions over the course of their working friendship. The piece used scordatura (C string turned down to an F), and made great use of a spectral, ghost-like sound throughout most of the piece. Later on in the performance that particular sound combined with one of the more “traditional” melody-fragments, and created a soundscape reminiscent of Henry Cowell’s famous string-piano composition The Banshee (along with a direct on-pitch quote of the pizzicato in the Cowell).

The last piece on this program was Sin and Temper, a work for tape and live electronics, composed/improvised and performed by Marc Behrens. It was in essence a live DJ set with synthesizers and tapes (including 8-track and reel-to-reel), using mixed analog and digital media. Behrens hand-played many of the tapes, scratching and inching and creating sounds reminiscent of the Berlin underground techno club scene. This led into a “stream-of-consciousness singing and tape-drone” section  were the improvised text went something like this: “ooooooo … I want to have sex with you on the beach… ooooooo… until we collapse into a pool of our own blood… ooooo… ” (complete with wildly contemporary-rock-dance inspired drunken-karaoke styled movements and gestures) followed by the final section Temper Party, which once again took the audience into the staged-classical version of a Berlin techno club. This piece was probably intended as a serious commentary on or work incorporating serious new classical electro-acoustic music. However, it is also possible to view the performance as an extremely convincing (and downright genius) comedic portrayal of stereotypes of “popular” electronic music as used (or abused) by classical composers.

The late-night concerts took place in a variety of locations (indoor and outdoor), and featured a mix of acoustic performances with Raspberry Pi and mobile electronics. In Vincent Michalke’s Mikodin, for saxophone with mobile/android live-electronics, Dominik Löhrke wandered through the audience (standing in an outdoor courtyard) making key sounds, breathing noises, and producing multiphonics which were processed through RasPi and amplified by a mobile speaker in his back pocket.

Overall, the Kontakte festival seemed quite well received by the audience, which was a much wider range of people that I would have expected to see at such an event in the United States. It was wonderful to see such a large gathering of people all out to have a good time and hear some good new music and maybe meet some fun new people.