This summer I have been invited to take part in the OPUS XXI International Summer Academy for Contemporary Music. From 21st to 30th August, a group of 37 musicians, composers, teachers and organizers spent an intensive time at the beautiful La Chartreuse in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, an old Carthusian monastery dating back from 14th century. A special thing about this academy is that the 14 participating musicians – mostly young professionals – were working with the same number of teachers and lecturers, plus there were six composers (four of which had pieces performed by the participants and teachers) and a team of four organizers and technicians. In ensemble rehearsals, the participants from France, Germany, Austria, the United States, Turkey, Chile, Belgium and Denmark mixed with the teachers of Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin (KNM). Hereby we all worked at eye level since most of the participants were well experienced in playing contemporary music, while KNM members also could jump in quickly with advice when needed.
Each day started with an improvising session at 9 am. In some of our sessions we made use of the monastery’s vast buildings and corridors, such as the old church ruin in which a couple pidgeons joined our improvisation (and went bananas on it!) or the cloister which turned out to be an ideal space for one of James Tenney’s postcard pieces. Since the weather was great throughout the time, I enjoyed our outside improvising sessions even more.
Two hours of chamber music rehearsals followed, and after the splendid lunch in the wonderful garden restaurant at La Chartreuse, a daily lecture was offered. The lectures were about audience development; the connection of composition and improvisation; musical edition; analysis; presentations of the residing composers.
From there we went directly to the afternoon rehearsals for the next two hours, until we had the possibility to hear another lecture – e.g. a fundraising workshop, artistic research – then go to the bar for an aperitivo and enjoying ourselves at dinner in the garden restaurant again.
As for the four hours of rehearsals, not everyone played in every piece, so for most of us there was some time off between rehearsals or time to practice.
I myself was playing in French composer Philippe Leroux’s piece VOI (REX) from 2002. Leroux was this year’s composer in residence but unfortunately was not able to come because he fell sick a few days before the academy. His composition, however, involves a female singer and electronics plus percussion, flute, clarinet, piano, violin, and cello.
Other pieces rehearsed were Naomi Pinnock’s ukuðr and Matthias Kranebitter’s Denudationen 1-118, as well as two commissions composed by Benjamin Scheuer (Germany) – the piece that features the nice rubber piggies in the picture above the text – and Jérôme Bertholon (France).
At the end of the week we had two concerts, both on the same evening. The first concert was mainly performances of the teachers: Vocalist Donatienne Michel-Dansac presented several short solo pieces by Georges Aperghis who is known for his compositional treatment of the voice; pianist / improviser Henry Fourès and percussionist Thibaud Weber gave an intense performance of Luc Ferrari’s A la recherche du rhythm perdu (1978) for piano, percussion and tape.
The second concert featured the chamber music pieces we had been rehearsing. In both concerts, ″improvisations″ were added which our teachers had made up for us in class. From my point of view, this was a too much restricted way of improvising which was narrowed down to three preassigned noises per musician that were to be played at strictly determined moments. The core of im-pro-visation, the unforeseeable, was eliminated from those performances, making it more a ″provisation″, a foreseeable performance. The main problem I see here is that the lack of spontaneity for sure affected our attitude on stage. The feedback we got from several people in the audience was that the performance was lacking tension and awareness. In my opinion, it is okay to play structured improvisations with some kind of ″schedule″ or ″score″, but there should always be space for spontaneous ideas. Improvising is much more interesting when one decides to trust in colleagues and students and to rely on their ability to create and react in an inspriring way that allows moments of unforeseen charm and beauty (or ugliness).
After this intense week of lectures, rehearsals and sunshine, I was happy to spend a day in the medieval town Avignon before heading back home to Germany.