Festival Review

INTERNATIONAL GAUDEAMUS MUSIC WEEK Amsterdam, 31 August to 10 September 2000 (AW & PGW)

Tomoko plays Amsterdam x Tokyo The dwelling plane of the noises.

After a hectic journey from Spain to experience cutting-edge newest music in Amsterdam, the Sean&Heard team was late for our first event in the International Gaudeamus Music Week, a Digital PBX - Installation Recital on 1st September.

Without knowing what to expect (we'd been warned not to disturb the audience) we crept through a black curtain at the back of the Felix Meritis concert hall to find ourselves confronted by a most astonishing sight. Amidst a clangourous welter of piano tone, we joined a myriad of live goldfish dangling from the ceiling! Each was alone in its own water-filled pouch, these incorporated into long, semi-opaque plastic strips. Bright reflections from the water contrasted with the hazy views created by dulled plastic translucence.

All the seats had been removed, so listeners at this séance were seated on the hard floor (lucky ones with cushions) - those nearest could be perceived clearly through the plastic and goldfish bags, others farther away became progressively obscured through their multiplication, and looked like blurry blobs. In the midst of all this, one gradually made out the figure of the noted pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama.

see selection of other photographs

Well established in contemporary music circles, 'Tomoko' was playing works she had commissioned from composers based in Amsterdam and Tokyo. The visual scene was so arresting that it required a lot of discipline to focus on the interesting sounds emanating from the piano, and to appreciate the expertise of her playing. However, some of the 'noise music' featured, by Astuhiko Gondai and Masami Akita, was so deafeningly loud that we began to fear for the health of the goldfish. Whilst some of us were able to protect our ears with our hands, we felt a bit sorry that this option was not open to those creatures. To our relief, the fish continued to wriggle inside their restricted living quarters, seemingly unperturbed.

Digital PBX was responsible for bagging countless goldfish into something looking like intravenous drip-sacks, 'like pin-up girls in the concert hall'. Their literature, which we read afterwards, explained that the Installation aimed to combine the Western fixation with technology and the Eastern eroticism of breeding goldfish, in honour of the four centuries relationship between Holland and Japan which Gaudeamus Week was celebrating. S&H's representatives have to confess to not being erotically challenged by the sight of some 400 goldfish. Instead, more cerebral philosophical-aesthetic connections came to mind, rather than purely sensual ones.

The dwelling plane of the noises highlighted in a very immediate and accessible form some of the concerns expressed in the explanatory texts accompanying the individual compositions (not always worked out satisfactorily in the music itself), which recurred later in the week during some of the illuminating composers' seminars. Themes of isolation, of lack of contact, fears of not having (or losing) an identity were presented visually and intuitively through the music making within this installation.

Thus we had the isolation of the performer from audience, the installation tacitly acknowledging that there is little chance of a performer knowing, or being able to control, how his/her musical communication is received beyond a general sense of appreciation or the lack of it. The visual obstruction created by a haze of plastic is like an opaque film separating performer from audience and hindering communication.

The individual listeners are also isolated from each other. Silently we sat, like the goldfish unable to visually encompass with clarity the extent of the hall or the rest of the audience and, therefore, metaphorically, unable to be part of a whole. The layers of increasing or decreasing obfuscation through plastic could be read as layers of possible recognition and of musical understanding, or the lack of it, depending on personal perspectives.

The goldfish, locked into their individual bags could be seen as a metaphor for the composers' isolation. Like fish, each one suspended in a small tight space, looking out but having little chance of making an imprint or even connections with the culture at large.

Inversely, the uncomprehending goldfish could stand for the general public, which remains totally oblivious to, and disinterested in, what contemporary art music has to offer.

In the context of such thoughts the 'goldfish concert' was pivotal to the music making in the rest of the festival and to the very appropriate concerns voiced by the composers in their works and in discussion. If they too feel like isolated goldfish, then they are lucky that Gaudeamus provided them with a bigger pond where fellowship, fun and a sense of purpose could be nurtured. (Alexa Woolf)


Amsterdam is an invigorating young people's city, dominated by water, marvellous buildings, old and not so old, and a constant traffic of bicycles - cars are dissuaded by high parking costs and good public transport. The Gaudeamus Foundation Contemporary Music Centre is a powerhouse of enterprise and information, with an astonishing collection of composers' files, scores and recordings. Located by the Amstel River and closely associated with the Ysbreker nearby, a cafe/concert hall which features contemporary music throughout the year, the Foundation has many activities and initiates links with other organisations and their websites, with thematic festivals and a Gaudeamus Contemporary Music Interpreters Competition (for soloists and ensembles) held in Rotterdam every February, which has many features in common with Britain's Park Lane Group week held each January. I am assured the standard is very high, and that was born out by hearing several former prizewinners in the Gaudeamus Music Week.

Full audiences came to all the events we sampled, in eight locations; knowledgeable musicians and music lovers, predominantly thirtyish, keen to keep up to date. Conversation flowed in several languages, English predominating - the Dutch accept that their language is not one which visitors can be expected to attempt.

The musical programmes during our days in Amsterdam centred upon the annual Gaudeamus Prize for young composers. The concert programmes were by no means restricted to the short-listed works, which were mainly for chamber instrumental ensembles, although the eventual prize-winner was for a vocal work, given after we had departed, by the Cypriot composer Yannis Kyriakides, who was brought up in England, studied at York University, and now lives in Amsterdam. His 'conspiracy cantata' Spi shared an evening with L'opera desnuda by Maria de los Angeles Esteves, an Argentinean now resident in the Netherlands, described as 'neither an opera nor a traditional music theatre piece' - about 'the impossibility of real communication, empty gestures, isolation, the fear of freedom'.

It must be emphasised that this S&H report can be of no more than a sampling of a heavy ten-day programme. The programme notes (in English as well as Dutch) seemed to reveal a preoccupation and concern with identity and difficulties of communication, belied by the open, relaxed atmosphere we enjoyed. The seminars and café meetings offered support for gifted, creative young people who, nonetheless, had great anxiety about how and whether their music, in today's unfettered freedom of idiom, could communicate. They recognised that many works might achieve only a single performance, so that recordings of those performances, often unlikely to reach the commercial CD market, were important for keeping their visions alive and available for like-minded people to hear. Seen&Heard hopes to be able to make a contribution to this changing scene by sharing information about the existence of some of those recordings so that people can approach the musicians directly.

A very pleasant event was the concert which brought together the Gaudeamus Week Composers Competition and the Kirill Kondrashin Conductors Masterclass and Competition in contemporary music, under the tuition of Peter Eötvös. The Radio Chamber Orchestra gave 5 new works under the batons of a procession of six able young conductors. The complexity of Quebecois Yannick Plamodon's Fil retors was self-defeating. I was assured that it had made perfect sense whilst the strings and winds were being rehearsed separately, no longer so when it was all combined into an inchoate Ivesian collage, but without the popular hymn tunes to help you find your bearings. Most interesting and successful was Apparition for string orchestra by the Swedish composer Mika Pelo, one of the short-listed works for the prestigious Prize and 30,000 Guilder commission for the next year's Gaudeamus week. This was given twice with different conductors who had tied in the selection process, Silke Leur & Kiyotaka Taraoke, both of whom showed good communicative skills and the promise of successful careers in a tough, competitive world. In a seminar afterwards at the Gaudeamus Foundation there was an interesting discussion about the need or not to avoid tonality (which varied with the experience of the participants) and the powerful emotional communication of Pelo's music, something to be welcomed, or deplored as too close to the 'traditional'.

The most substantial work, by Jo Kondo, a member of the Gaudeamus Jury, who also led the seminars, was also the easiest for listeners to grasp. Having in the past found Kondo, an important figure in Japan's contemporary music, rather dry and too minimalist for my taste, it was a pleasure to encounter his When wind blew, which dates back to 1979. It is a meditative, linear composition, built upon a single melodic line, shared amongst the instruments of a small orchestra, beginning rather like Webern's treatment of Bach, but gradually flowering with fuller chords, always unpredictably. Without raising its voice it holds the attention easily for its 20 minute span.

Earlier that day, at the Stedlijk Museum, patience had been stretched by another linear exercise from Japan, A sense of line, a 20 minute work for unaccompanied double bass by Taizo Hida, also shortlisted for the prize. An evolving, repetitive melody, often using open strings, was counterpointed by continual harmonics and it was hard to judge if their instability was intended, whether the requirements were impossible, or whether Jos Tieman was not the best bass player in the world, which Hida appeared to need if any sense was to be made of his long line.

That concert had consisted of three solo instrumental pieces, followed by a MIDI composition Polymorphic Variations II, 'extremely fast and loud', by Cody Robertson from Arizona, who displayed an artless naivety in his CV and explanation that he had aimed to test limits and push his computer to the fastest speed it could manage. For speed it had nothing on Conlon Nancarrow's punched player-piano rolls, and for loudness, it was thankfully transmitted at a very comfortable dynamic level; nothing to scare those who had survived the barrage of decibels inflicted on listeners and goldfish by Merzbow/Gondai's Black Mass the day before!

Before it there was an original and enjoyable percussion piece Trois Tourbillons by Michael Heeneman, based on 'funk & jungle music, with cowbells deputising for the high-hat & snare drum, and gran cassa & crotals for bass drum & cymbals', played with engaging flair & precision by Bart de Vrees; well worth exploring by other percussionists. Most satisfying was a guitar solo by Florian Maier Crystal Vermin which was given with winning conviction by Diangelo Cicilia, an enlarged image of whose hands were projected on a screen behind him, disconcertingly rotated by about 45º. This contender for the prize incorporated 'six new techniques for classical guitar', which he explained at a morning seminar later, and was allegedly about 'transformation of dead matter from insect food to petrifaction in the bowels of the earth'! Amongst other pieces to which S&H is not drawing attention there were several in which more imagination appeared to have been expended upon the programme notes than on the musical composition!

The multi-national Amsterdam-based Zephyr Quartet brought the Irish composer David Fennessey's Graft into contention for the Gaudeamus Prize, and served the composer well. Nearly 20 mins long, Graft is a striking and accessible piece which had already been favourably reviewed by S&H at Manchester (QuartetFest January 2000), and was the strongest of those heard during a concert shared with the Ensemble Nomad from Japan. Of the Japanese compositions, Kumiko Omura, a previous winner of the Gaudeamus Prize, tackled the pervasive concern about identity expressed by several of the young composers. HerWinter Constellations distributed the seven players around the hall, distanced from each other to maintain their individuality, but also 'harmonizing the space as a whole', instrumental combinations changing moment by moment 'like the movement of constellations'.

The Nomads also played Quadrvial by the Dutch winner of last year's Prize, Michel van der Aa, whose CV included study of 'musical engineering'! This involved an elaborately prepared piano, presided over by a puppet-master pianist/conductor who kept his musicians on their toes with a game of false cues which were to be ignored, an ingenious reference to the problems of interpreting non-verbal cues in daily life. In their sec ond concert the Nomads provided a welcome opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the distinctive voice of Misato Mochizuki, Paris based and now well established in Europe, whose solo oboe piece had so impressed me at Stuttgart (Eclat Festival review, February 2000). Her All that is including me for violin, clarinet & bass flute confirmed my good impression of her imaginative assimilation of oriental roots into a contemporary language. This piece was triggered by reading about the spiritual experiences of American astronauts and built upon a 'rotation system full of fluctuations', each instrument with its own velocity and tempo, the shifts producing expansion and contraction of time and 'shadows and changing light patterns'. The unique instrumental combination proved strikingly fruitful and both those pieces merit urgent presentation in UK.

Ralph van Raat is a new name to remember in the world of contemporary pianists. Still a student in Amsterdam, winner of the 1999 Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition, he is a phenomenon to be compared with the UK's Rolf Hind, who was also still a student when I reviewed him as a pianist of exceptional promise. [Pict von Raat]Van Raat introduced his programme with relaxed aplomb and, without prior warning, prevailed upon three composers present to come down to the Ysbreker platform and talk about their pieces.

Theo Loevendie had composed his in tribute to a remarkable growing talent before the young pianist had won that prestigious prize, a short structure with segments growing in length on repetition and afterwards decreasing in turn; its title Dome had no connection with the notorious Greenwich Dome. Another Dutch composer, Sander Germanus described his 7-year-old piece as typical of Holland in the '90s, the problem of choice in a throwaway society when everything has seemingly become possible. He combined a multitude of brief impressions, organising the potential chaos by ordering of the sections, and ending with 'a song for ten fast fingers', which he assured us Ralph van Raat possessed. The recital included music by internationally renowned composers, Conte by Kaipinen, influenced by French pianism, with superimposed whole-tone scales, a Castiglioni work of 40 years ago, in three tone-rows and often four staves to be read simultaneously. Its complexity was intended to attract attention at Darmstadt, now it is 'rather accessible', said von Raat, though not played as often as it merits. There were also two Rain Tree Sketches by Takemitsu, 'the first Japanese composer to cross the comprehension barrier for international audiences'. Most of this daunting music was played by memory in this sensational recital, with complete pianistic command and apparently plenty in reserve.

The International Gaudeamus Music Week pursued its theme of celebrating the 400th anniversary of relationships between Japan & The Netherlands by including in the last concert we attended four pieces by young Japanese composers, given by the Nieuw Ensemble, whose collaboration with Chinese composers had made a great impression at the last Huddersfield Festival. Many of those Japanese students included Darmstadt in their CVs, this too often seeming to contribute to an anonymous Western contemporary music style. Not so with Junko Ueda who has stayed close to her roots and delighted with the subtlety and precision of her Buddhist chanting and accompaniment of violinist Angel Gimeno on the biwa, in a duo composition The Valley of Káto Zákros. Keiko Harada told me that she hoped that her Sonora Distancia II was 'more Japanese than Darmstadt' and she distributed her string and wind players alternately in the 12 player line up (including a guitar) for a striking piece which was mainly static, occasionally frenetic, with sonorities which maintained a distinctly oriental feel. Leilei Tan from China, who has studied in Sweden and now lives in France, showed a delicate individuality in her Wu, a short and mainly pp score which brought to mind Webern in its economy - an oriental Sciarrino, maybe? There were some pentatonic phrases from the piano, ironic I thought, which were 'screeched down' in angry outbursts from the ensemble before the piece came to its quiet ending.

The Nieuw Ensemble is scheduled to return to Huddersfield in November with a portrait concert of the Dutch composer Theo Loevendie, whose music they have already recorded for Etcetera (KTC 1097 * * * *). That was given to me in a generous batch of CDs of Dutch compositions by contemporary composers of earlier generations by MGN/Donemus, publisher of scores and CD recordings of music by numerous composers, who must have cause for gratitude that their country can support so extensive an enterprise. First impressions are that that there is much to explore amongst these relatively unfamiliar names.

For starters and first recommendations, amongst those whose names were completely new to me, I have been impressed by the music of Willem Jeths (b. 1959),which relates directly to some artists featured in the Gaudeamus Week. Tomoko Mukaiyama can be heard in Fas/Nefas, a remarkable work for piano & orchestra, on a two-CD compilation of Jeths' larger scale music (Donemus Composers' Voice Portrait CV88/89 *****  Donemus) Nefas means 'unauthorised'; the first version of this work treats the harp like a Japanese koto - after the 'goldfish concert', you will not be surprised that the piano reworking for Mukaiyama has a prepared piano and extensive percussion, with which Jeths produces a luxuriant and exotic sound world. The Zephyr Quartet has just released an auspicious first CD, devoted to his two string quartets with other chamber works (MGN NM Classics 92110 ****).

For further background information and future events, do visit the websites of Gaudeamus www.gaudeamus.nl Donemus www.muziekgroep.nl and the Icebreaker www.ysbreker.nl Seen&Heard is grateful for the support and assistance received from the staff of all those three organisations, which combine to make contemporary music in Amsterdam so powerful a force.

Peter Grahame Woolf


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