2016 / 08 / 25
New Vision Arts Festival 2016 Critics' Guide
The earliest and largest work on the programme of the Ensemble intercontemporain’s debut performance in Hong Kong is Arnold Schoenberg’s influential Kammersymphonie, or Chamber Symphony, of 1906. “[I]t presents a first attempt of creating a chamber orchestra,” the composer would reflect in 1949. “The advent of radio was perhaps already to be foreseen, and a chamber orchestra would then be capable of filling a living-room with a sufficient amount of sound.” One can only wonder if this work crossed philosopher Theodor Adorno’s mind when this devotee of Schoenberg and his school lamented in 1941 that, in a radio broadcast, “[w]hat is left of the [Beethovenian] symphony even in the ideal case of an adequate reproduction of sound colours is a mere chamber symphony”! At any rate, whether or not one takes into consideration the little-known coincidence that also composed in 1906 was another work with the novel title of Kammersymphonie, namely, that of Ernst Toch, another Viennese composer who would end up in California, the trend is clear that, from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards, the small ensemble would come to rival, indeed often be preferred to, the “symphony” orchestra as a medium for adventurous, ambitious works of music.
The reasons, of course, are not just technological. Although some works were to be written with instrumentation, duration or dramatic content specially geared to radio transmission, radio technologies were rightly thought to change fundamentally the future of music dissemination rather than of music composition. While the reasons radio stations would become the mightiest strongholds of new music are much more financial than aesthetic, the rise of the small ensemble for such music is equally attributable to both factors. In Schoenberg’s words, “one could rehearse a small group at lesser costs more thoroughly, avoiding the forbidding expenses of our mammoth orchestras”; it would be even more difficult, too, especially after the First World War, to find financial support for contemporary music not considered readily accessible. Another practical, logistic concern has to do with the need that new music has for specialised performers, since it often demands unconventional combinations of instruments, as well as extended performance techniques, of a relatively small number of musicians who are dedicated to exploring them.
The employment of small ensembles in modernist music was in part inspired by those used in popular entertainment, from French and German cabaret to American jazz, as exemplified by certain works of Schoenberg and Kurt Weill, respectively. Another influence came from music of the Baroque and Classical periods, as may be seen in the neoclassical works by composers ranging from Igor Stravinsky to Paul Hindemith to members of “Les Six”. These stylistic preferences represent a modernist reaction against such late-Romantic excess as deemed to be manifested in the ever-increasing size of the traditional orchestra: the ideal of sound that composers sought had shifted from the heavy and thick to the light and transparent. Rather than moving forwards by rejecting the past, modernists were probing the future by looking backwards; it is significant that such chamber groups formed in the 1920s as Manuel de Falla’s Orquesta Bética de Cámara and Paul Sacher’s Basler Kammerorchester performed both pre-Classical and contemporary music.
Indeed, on the programmes in the first seasons of the celebrated concert series in Paris that would come to be known as the Domaine musical, founded in 1954 by Pierre Boulez, that most militant of exponents of the musical avant-garde who had recently proclaimed that “SCHOENBERG IS DEAD”, were works by such composers as Johann Sebastian Bach, Claudio Monteverdi and Guillaume de Machaut. To be included, though, the works would need to “have a particular relevance for our own time,” according to a foreword by Boulez to the inaugural season. A great deal of music for small ensembles had been and were being written, and he had declared the previous year that it was time for his generation “to prove itself with a series of chamber concerts that would serve as a means of communication between the composers of our time and the public that is interested in its time.”
When he resigned from the Domaine in 1967, Boulez had gone into self-imposed exile from France in protest of his country’s musical life and policies. In a letter that had been sent to, and ignored by, André Malraux, then Minister of Cultural Affairs, he proposed that the capital’s five orchestras be divided into two large, flexible groups. His desire to make orchestras more pliant institutions than they were is also evidenced by his experiments at the New York Philharmonic, of which he became music director in 1971. Some concert programmes proper would be prefaced with music for chamber groups formed by orchestral members, and such groups would give concerts of exclusively new music at locations in Downtown Manhattan. Such practices, quite common today among estimable orchestras, proved insufficiently popular in New York to outlive his tenure, which ended in 1977.
That same year saw the opening in Paris of IRCAM, or the Institute for the Research and Coordination of Acoustics/Music, the amply-subsidised facility where collaboration among professionals in art, science and technology, Boulez believed, would advance the future of music itself. In order to lure him back to France, the Pompidou government had agreed not only to build this Institute, but also to furnish him with a permanent instrumental group, rather than another of such ad hoc ensembles as he had previously led, that would perform modern music in general and present to the public the results of the Institute’s research in particular.
This group, the Ensemble intercontemporain, had already been established the year before with the help of Secretary for Culture Michel Guy, a supporter of Boulez, and arts administrator Nicholas Snowman, who had in 1968 co-founded with David Atherton another contemporary music ensemble, the London Sinfonietta. More than a “house band” that showcases experimental works that harness technologies developed at the Institute, notably Boulez’s own Répons of 1981–85, for soloists, ensemble and live electronics, the Ensemble intercontemporain has since made a name for itself, through its many tours and recordings, as a preeminent group of virtuoso soloists capable of giving impeccable performances of the most challenging scores, and become a model for new music groups formed latterly across the globe.
One may very well feel in Schoenberg’s and Adorno’s remarks at the outset the tensions that the former’s Kammersymphonie embodies between, on the one hand, the public, communal quality associated with the symphony or the large-scale orchestral work, and, on the other, the private, individual character typical of chamber music. Over a century has passed, and it would be a good exercise for the Hong Kong audience at the Ensemble intercontemporain’s forthcoming concert to decide if such a dialectic still holds, whether as regards each of the works on the rich and varied programme or in respect to the highly flexible and versatile small ensemble itself. With these diverse works and this specialist group, the concert would at the very least be a fine occasion on which to assess the legacy of Schoenberg and Boulez, both giants in musical modernism.