Alternativa and Contempuls

Report from Two Festivals of New Music
by Ewelina Chiu

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If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience. – John Cage

 

To someone acquainted with John Cage’s body of work, the above quote will likely prompt the question: What are musical sounds? After all, Cage is perhaps best known for his incorporation of silence into his compositions and the frustration of audience expectations this element inevitably brings to those attending.  Perhaps what Cage is saying here is that the development of an ear for musical sounds is wholly dependent on one’s openness to perceiving most anything, even silence, as music. However, once one develops such an ear, the criteria for deciding what is and is not a musical experience may become unclear. Nevertheless, this ear does favor anything as simple as a genre or style, but its choices rather depend on an inexplicable mode of perception based on extended experience. 

Luckily for us, Prague features a variety of festivals whose programs provide an opportunity to hone our perception and extend our experience, developing an ear for our personal “musical” sounds. November offers two music festivals: Alternativa and Contempuls. While the two differ significantly in terms of the type of sound they offer, both veer off the beaten track. Alternativa, first launched in 1993, featured four days of concerts (8-12.11) ranging from jazz to post-rock to noise. In addition, the festival presented new Czech bands via the special platform of Malá Alternativa. With events hosted in the trendy Klub FAMU, the clandestine Čítárna, Unijazz’s Kaštan, the punk cellar Café v Lese and a score of others, Alternativa gave concert-goers an impressive range of compelling places to visit.  Because of its indifference focusing on a single genre coupled with a concentrated effort to present what is alternative, Alternativa’s program, rather uniquely, allowed for a truly broad selection of alluring projects and the possibility of discovering something new.

This year Contempuls is celebrating its eighth year with seven world premieres, a record for the contemporary classical music festival. The premieres will feature five pieces from Czech composers. These include Jan Trojan (11.11), Luboš Mrkvička (15.11), Jakub Rataj (21.11), Jan Ryant Dřízal (21.11), and Jiři Kadeřábek (25.11). The remaining two world premieres will come from the Irish, though South African born, composer Kevin Volans, who will perform his new work with the Swedish percussionist Jonny Axelsson on 25.11. As if seven completely new pieces weren’t enough, Contempuls is bringing contemporary classical Danish music to Prague with the renowned Hans Abrahamsen, whose piece Schnee (Snow) has been discussed as one of the most significant musical advances of the 21st century. 

For the first time, Contempuls will feature Contempuls Lab, a platform for young ensembles and projects. The first group to perform here will be Ensemble Terrible, made up of students from HAMU under the direction of Marek Šedivý. The ensemble will premiere the works of Jakub Rataj and Jan Ryant Dřízal on 21.11, along with Bent Sørensen’s Sirenengesang (1994) and Olga Neuwrith’s torsion:transparent variation (2001). This last piece was written for the extraordinary bassoon player Pascal Gallois, who will also perform during the Contempuls Lab night. 

Contempuls explores what it means to play “classical” music in the “contemporary” age. From the very beginning, the genre contemporary classic seems rife with contradiction. Yet it is precisely this contradiction that makes it so interesting. Alongside those mentioned above, performances by Prague Philharmonia (CZ), Ian Pace (UK), ensemble recherché (D), Prague Modern (CZ), Frode Andersen, Frode Haltli (DK) and Torben Snekkestad (N) illustrate a diverse program opening a dialogue between contemporary classical composers from the Czech Republic and abroad. All concerts will take place on the La Fabrika premises. 

Ensemble Terrible. Photo: Bětka Kopecká Ensemble Recherche. photo: M. Korbel Jan Trojan Jexper Holmen Prague Philharmonia. photo: Pavel Hejný Oort Cloud Sketch from DaCapo Jonny Axelsson Prague Modern. photo: Jan Kozák