Gaudemus Muziekweek 2018: Male hegemony unmasked
Composer and writer Rose Dodd plunged into Gaudeamus Muziekweek 2018. Re-newing, re-visualizing, re-situating, re-freshing, re-visiting are some of the ‘mots juste’ for contemporary music. Gaudeamus offers it all and lays bare the skeleton of contemporary composition. Gaudeamus matters but still fails on gender equality. A concern shared by her male peers.
The Gaudeamus composer’s competition is considered one of the benchmarks whereby any young composer can be judged at an international level to see if they’re working with appropriate quality and an evolving original musical syntax in ‘hedendaagse compositie’.
If one is hopeful of being taken seriously in the contemporary music world some believe it to be well worth entering and striving to compete and achieve in. The track record of composers winning the Gaudeamus Award and proceeding in making artistically significant careers is impressive.
What makes Gaudeamus such an exciting prospect is the display of composers forming raw, fresh, inspiring new approaches, framed in one concentrated single week. No wonder then Utrecht becomes a nexus for so many involved in the contemporary music world each autumn.
A bustling music market displaying aesthetic wares with sharp business skills akin to Dutch merchants trading in a bygone era on the Oudegracht. Walter Maas’ original intention of contributing to the cultural renovation of the Netherlands post-war has more than overly been fulfilled.
Coolly steered in recent years by Henk Heuvelmans back to Utrecht, near its birthplace in Bilthoven, Gaudeamus Muziekweek in its current form is a bold and striking achievement. Walter Maas originally held Bilthoven and surroundings in his mind’s eye when altruistically beginning the Gaudeamus project.
The extent of its reach and influence when founding this noble venture, he could not have imagined. Tentative new young voices first heard under these Dutch skies have matured and gone on to be played in concert halls internationally, becoming enmeshed in the musical firmament. Gaudeamus matters. It counts. It has achieved for its young composers, not just in Bilthoven. It pursues a convincing and evolving story in the twenty-first century.
Particularly testament to the trajectory of its development in the last few years, new young composers are presented alongside laureates of previous competitions. These performances are punctuated by substantial evening presentations of new works by major and breakthrough voices, some also previous winners.
A story turning full circle.
Richard Ayres (Gaudeamus Award, 1994) premiered ‘The Garden’ on the opening night, for ensemble and bass baritone, with drawn animation and text by Martha Colburn, commissioned by AskoSchönberg/London Sinfonietta.
Originally from Cornwall, Ayres’ is a unique and expressive voice. Slickly, he handles all his musical materials and compositional voicings with a deft grip. Programme notes locating Ayres’ approach to musical writing, refer to an interview given in 2003 in which he crisply defines his approach,
‘One day all sorts of supposedly sacred truths seemed to me quite ridiculous: ‘thou shalt be original, thou shalt never repeat thyself, though shalt write no consonances, though shalt, though shalt…’ I am able to employ consonances, dissonances, melodies, textures, elephants, clouds, snowballs or whatever, where and when I want. The only limits on me are the boundaries of my own imagination.’
‘I rearrange things that have often been around for a long time. I feel myself attracted to sounds and musical gestures that many actually banish from their music. It’s the awkward, scorned, lost things that concern me.’ Ayres experiments with formal approaches, outlining his compositional intentions variously as ‘imaginary theatre… annotated concert … a sort of cinema between the ears.’ Ayres makes an illusionary overlay with cinéma sonore, more usually associated with electronic music, but also seems to be looking outwards.
He applies this knowingness to how he works materials and how he deploys his players and media in ‘The Garden’.
Technically dextrous Hague school influenced ensemble writing generates a ground bass solidity underpinning the other interloping narratives as they come and go. Ensemble and electronic writing, with audience focus directed to quirky visuals, reminiscent of an earlier simplicity.
Instrumental and electronic voicings are at points indistinguishable. Interchanging flexibly, the voices found in both languages are sympathetic to one another and truly cohesive. Of all technical facility, this was quietly the most admirable. Combining these many elements was sleek, with a variety of musical genres nodded to, within the vast fifty-minute expanse in which Ayres is simply playing.
Jouissance. A simple fun and light musical fantasy, with psychedelic overtones.Textual, visual and musical narrative perfectly pitched, mutually complementing one another, with bass/baritone foregrounding a vocal narrative either as punctuation point, or counterpoint. Inhabiting a variety of vocal personalities, Joshua Bloom poured so much fun into the role, even at one point I thought Gene Wilder flashed before our ears.
Gaming machines samples (barely distinguishable from electronic music practices of GMEB, Groupes de Musique expérimentale de Bourges), kitsch synths, and a retro aesthetic from a simpler time, references perhaps to Wallace and Gromit, or at least a sense of English irony in these last days of Brexit-mania.
‘The Garden’ is a romp. Fun. An antidote, an ode to all overly serious concert hall music. Ayres’work is quietly as anarchic within the music domain, as La Fura dels Baus is to theatre in its more overtly confrontational theatre of cruelty.
The 2018 Gaudeamus composer’s competition was heralded by urban myths attending variously the story of a jury member’s early departure and replacement, and following disclosures precipitated by UK Journal TEMPO, surrounding the scrutiny of anonymised score submissions (336) to quota of female selection (precisely not a single one). Editor and composer Christopher Fox commented in his subsequent Editorial that it is, ‘important to emphasise that this is not a problem particular to Gaudeamus, nor is it just to do with the way particular sorts of selection process discriminate in favour of the familiar. More important is to ask why men are four times more likely than women to submit a score to a composition competition, more likely to study for a postgraduate qualification in composition, more likely to submit articles about new music to TEMPO and, when they do, more likely to write about male composers.’
‘I think this has a lot to do with old-fashioned ideas about masculinity. Ostentatious male display has a long history, as evident in musical life as in any other field of human activity, and, although I don’t subscribe to the more simplistic analogies between musical forms and gender and sexuality offered by some New Musicologists, there is a particular way of inhabiting musical space and time that does seem to carry at least some connotations of aggressively mannish behaviour.’
With these questions being raised I determined to follow the young composer thread through the week, particularly as the shortlist was exclusively male.
Music organisations rewriting and re-determining their boundaries, this is a watershed moment. New kid Bergen-based Borealis Festival, founded in 2004, was awarded a gender equality prize by the Norwegian Society of Composers for in 2017 already achieving 50% equality in acts that were booked.
Curator Peter Meanwell quotes feminist theorist Donna Haraway saying ’the spell can not only be written, it has to be cast’, continuing, ‘basically we have to stop talking, and start doing something. The composers and artists and performers exist, so there is no problem in finding great people to programme. What takes time and energy is first to question your own motivations, biases and privileges; and then to actively combat the infrastructural bias in the music industry that has presented male artists as the only option for so long. It takes a bit more time, to read, to research, to listen, but increasingly there are more and more resources to help people think more broadly in their programming.’
Meanwell cites Balansekunst a Norwegian organisation committed to increasing more balance in arts programming as helpful in achieving this. Similar is also the PRS Keychange initiative to which more than 100 European based arts organisations have committed to ‘be working towards 50/50 gender equality by 2020’.
It is however depressing to realise that the more forward thinking and socially responsive Norwegian based Borealis will have reached this point a full five years earlier, with no particular outside impetus necessary, just through gradual organic development and inclusion. More a process of logical deduction perhaps.
It is fair to say that in the climate of #metoo, Gaudeamus acknowledges as an organisation it ‘misspoke’ in the announcement of the so-called six ‘Young Music Pioneers’. Language, surely emotive, with association to similar overtones of the ‘Grand Masters’overly populating the majority male heritage surrounding the ancient and mysterious art of musical composition. Echoes of masculine pursuits comparable to the likes of explorers Columbus, Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hilary all pitting themselves against nature in pioneering expeditions staking out and asserting control, ownership of and conquering virgin geological territories. With overtones similar to Fox’s assertion of ‘a particular way of inhabiting musical space and time that does seem to carry at least some connotations of aggressively mannish behaviour’.
Slagwerk Den Haag
Anthony Vine (Gaudeamus Award, 2016) premiered his commissioned ‘dreamscape’ for three string quartets in the Geertekerk, alongside nominee William Dougherty’s ‘Three Formants‘ for five trombones. Both works premise being to combine spatialisation of musical material with distinctive and singular narrative approaches. Architecture of the musical spheres in a sense. This Bozzini lead concert was of the highest order, each piece equally as tautly and aesthetically constructed as the other; instrumental materials similarly pitched, also as if a tightrope was being walked somehow.
Sebastian Hilli, Matthias Krüger, and William Dougherty (all nominees) all made unique and the fullest use of Slagwerk Den Haag. Wandelweiser influenced sonorities and aesthetics were explored, in bespoke and diligent arrays of hand-made and found instruments. Krüger’s work evoked composer Mauricio Kagel’s work, but it could easily have been a theatre work which happened to take place using music as a medium for theatrical end.
Slagwerk’s percussionists displayed athleticism in attending to and performing their instruments in the Krüger piece akin to physical theatre troupes. Their work in bringing this piece to life was exceptional. In presenting these works, alongside other recent refreshing approaches to repertoire, Slagwerk Den Haag is well situated within conductor Bas Wieger’s recent polemic titled ‘some thoughts about diversity and character’ posted on Klangforum Wien’s site, incoming with his role as Principal Guest Conductor, ‘ensembles (and orchestras!) need to keep refreshing their urgency, their necessity, if they still want to be of importance to a future audience and a future generation of composers. Otherwise, sooner or later, their relevance will dry up.’
Re-newing, re-visualizing, re-situating, re-freshing, re-visiting are some of the ‘mots juste’ for contemporary music.
Post-concert coffee meet-ups, talks in the bar, late night snack bars – attention often turned to the elephant in the room. Where ever you had studied, whatever your role in music, equality, aspiration within inequality was being openly discussed. Keenly. Male contributors feeling equally as strong and as involved in the issue.
There is not one single answer or approach to this. It is a political issue entrenched through every facet of musical life; from education, stereotyping of instrument uptake; who sets curricula in schools and universities; who conducts the orchestra; what the orchestra plays; who teaches music, at which level; how is their authority constructed; who runs music policy nationally, internationally; publication about music; who writes about music; what is written about; how music history and legacy is formed, with an air of falsehood; subliminally constructed within an existing and predetermined order. That there is a predetermined hegemony has been unmasked. A hegemony and set of practices underpinning our day to day lives as musicians. Affecting everyone.
Re-thinking, re-vising, re-envisioning, re-franchising, re-visualising.
How we earn money, gain security within our profession; how professional advancement is gained; how survival is meted out essentially hinges on this. Financial, aesthetic survival. Whether as creative beings we can dare to stake out our own unique imagined place, our own room, in the musical firmament, freely and unfettered.
Surely this is for the music – all of this?
Doesn’t music miss out if not all those available, willing, gifted and driven are taking part, honing and shaping its future?
Music with both genders involved in equal part.
The 2018 Gaudeamus edition was hot. The overall impression was that the music was brilliantly conceived, with appropriately highly pitched displays of dextrousness. There were quiet, less showy moments, moments where more subtle musical elements were given voice.
Hot also because the skeleton of the compositional terrain had been finally laid bare. Social media discussed that more feminine presence was to be heard at the edges of the edition, in the more intangible processes of improvisation. There were plenty of powerful performers visible across the musical landscape throughout the week.
This Gaudeamus marked a watershed moment.
Underneath the hegemony
This got me to reflecting on a piece I wrote while a student in the 1990s. Crude and raw in its innocent language, but guttural in exploring then what I perceived; serious girl who viewed herself as a composer, exploring the duality of what I felt confronted with. What follows is a creative exploration of how the world felt laid out before me then, Farben (1993).
This year has demonstrated that these issues of duality are in sharper focus. How hegemonic expectation is reinforced in compositional expectation and tradition is perhaps less obscure now. But when trying to establish oneself, isn’t it a certain mini-death to ignore expectations set before us. This counterbalances against one’s own creative mini-death as a practitioner if unable to follow a creative inclination uninhibited.
Ayres’ work is viewed by some as less serious than some of his contemporaries, as his work is so overtly whimsical. Unique voices, daring to speak freely aren’t immediately understood. Is Ayres already pitched on the front foot breaking away from hegemonic expectation within the concert hall, evolving a syntax and performance practice, free and unfettered?
The level of brilliant work, pitched so dextrously; performance and compositional expressive intent and achievement all so extremely ably executed. For this, Gaudeamus Muziekweek should, of course, be lauded. The pitch of what takes place each Autumn now, where a quiet lowly objective was set out quite humble and aspirationally by Maas in those first few post-war years is truly remarkable.
Bas Wiegers again asserts a simple idea to capture this moment in time and suggest how we should negotiate it saying, ‘Composers can be ‘monogamous’ in their love, in their choices. But performing musicians and programmers need to be polyamorous and versatile. We need to develop ways of dealing with that complexity and to share these loves with the audience, in the hope that some of our own bewilderment and fascination will transfer to them. Every step we take in that direction is one that makes the world more complete, more understanding, better.’
It is wearisome to see spread before you a constant dazzling array of taut showmanship, in whatever form. An abiding moment of ‘otherness’ for me, a song from elsewhere, was nominee Lawrence Dunn’s (aptly titled) ‘While we are both’ with soprano Natascha Young’s haunting refrain, an echo of distant emotion, looking back elsewhere to a time when the heart was more entwined within a work’s arc. Less cerebrum, more heart. Music with simplicity, and pure evocative expressive soul.
Based in the Netherlands, Rose Dodd is a composer of instrumental/electronic music; as well as a freelance writer and reviewer about contemporary and experimental music. Initially studying at Dartington College of Arts; she continued composition studies at the Koninklijk Conservatorium, Den Haag with Diderik Wagenaar and completed her Ph.D. in 2006, with Christopher Fox.
Images: Herre Vermeer