Ensemble musikFabrik, the contemporary music ensemble based in Cologne, Germany, is used to new territory — since its founding in 1991, the group has debuted more than 50 pieces.
But on Saturday, the Ensemble will do a first-time residency at Harvard University, where they’ll work with six composers who are graduate students and members of Harvard’s Group for New Music, to perform their latest works. And on Sunday the Ensemble will perform two of those works, among others, in their debut at the Experimental Media and Performance Arts Center.
The Ensemble is flying from Europe just for this weekend.
“We’re used to travel,” said Thomas Oesterdiekhoff, the “boss” of Ensemble, a founding member who until a few years ago was one of the group’s percussionists. “More than 50 percent of our concerts are abroad.”
WHERE: EMPAC, 110 8th St., Troy
WHEN: Sunday 6 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 276-3921, empac.rpi.edu
While the group can expand up to 50 players, for this trip it will bring eight or nine, including flute, clarinet, French horn, trombone, violin, cello, percussion, piano and conductor Yordan Kamdzhalov. The six Harvard composers are Edgar Barroso (Mexico), Sabrina Schroeder (Canada), Siran Cohen-Elias (Israel), and Ian Power, Tim McCormack and Justin Hoke, all from the United States.
Besides choosing two from this group, Ensemble will perform John Cage’s Concert for Orchestra (1957-58), British composer Richard Barrett’s “Interference” (1996-2000) for bass clarinet and kick drum, and Canadian composer Claude Vivier’s “Paramirabo” (1978) for flute, violin, cello and piano.
Choosing a composition
What makes for a great piece?
“There are different aspects: surprise, research, effort, quality,” Oesterdiekhoff said. “Whether it’s entertaining or complex is not an issue. It must have a chance. Each piece has the right to its own life. Judgment [of whether it’s good] will be not only in years but also from the critics and the public.”
Ensemble does have its favorites and no two programs will be typical, he said, but of the 50 works it has commissioned, only two were bad.
“We have to trust the composer and take a chance that it will be a good piece. But if it fails, it fails,” he said. “The work must have a connection to a specific number of players and there must be an inner context to the piece.”
Once they’ve read the work, they then determine who would want to hear it and whether they like the piece. Surprise or if the composer writes something musically unexpected is always an appealing factor, he said. What is of greater consequence, especially when it comes to funding, is that the climate for new music has changed.
“You won’t get a Beethoven or Mozart anymore,” Oesterdiekhoff said. “The big figures on the composition scene like Stockhausen or Boulez are dinosaurs.”
Europe has traditionally been more open to new music, and other contemporary music groups have said there is a “buzz” in this country but only in New York City.
“It’s just not focused,” he said. “There are so many different forms of expression, and [some say] if a composer doesn’t hurt the audience’s ears, they might be more successful.”
It’s also hard to predict what an audience might like. The concert might fall dead at a venue where the group expected an appreciative audience, while another in an exotic location like Hanoi will attract a 600-seat sold-out crowd that will be totally into the performance.
“It’s always an experience,” Oesterdiekhoff said.
Performing 100 percent contemporary music is why Ensemble was founded. Twenty years ago, western Germany was in an economic slump, especially in the industrial areas around Cologne, which Oesterdiekhoff said was similar to Pittsburgh. Officials felt that the key to changing the decline and mood was to develop the culture.
More than 20 musicians with a few conductors got together to discuss the possibility of forming a group to perform the works of composers from that area of Germany. Payment then, as now, was based per project. The state supplied 20 percent of the funds, the rest would have to come from tickets, foundations and supporters.
Initially the group called itself the Ensemble for New Music. This was eventually changed to Ensemble musikFabrik, or music factory, which better explained its purpose: to perform music that was newly created. But the musicians decided after six years that they wanted to have more say in what music they performed.
“We had a mini-revolution,” Oesterdiekhoff said. “Since 1997, I’ve run Ensemble and am its employee.”
Ensemble began to expand into international venues, festivals, radio broadcasts and music series at specific halls, which all attracted more support. It took them 10 years to become famous, he said. Nowadays, their schedule includes more than 100 concerts annually, many with interdisciplinary programs with dance, theater, film and literature; a regular series on German radio; and a steady recording schedule.
One thing Ensemble asks composers to consider is using the vast collection of unusual instruments that the musicians have collected over the years. Besides employing microtonal systems or the occasional electronic effects for the regular instruments, Ensemble loves to play on some of their different kinds of flutes, the interesting percussion instruments they’ve discovered in their travels or the double bell trumpets that their trumpeters have invented, which all come with different kinds of mutes. One of their current projects is to rebuild composer Harry Partch’s (1901-1974) instruments, which he created to play his 43-tone scale based on levels of the human voice.
To balance the 21st century idiom, most of the musicians, who are all conservatory trained, play other styles. For instance, the flutist is into Indian ragas, the pianist plays jazz, but only the trombonist plays in a classical orchestra, Oesterdiekhoff said with a laugh. They don’t get much time to experience this, though, because for most of the year they’re tied up with Ensemble business.
Range of duties
His job is constant. Not only does he oversee the Ensemble’s operation, and its upcoming tours in 2013 of South America and Australia, he must deal with Studio musikFabrik.
This is an ensemble of about 16 players between ages 14 and 21, who play the same repertoire as the adults. Competitions are held to choose the young musicians, who will soon be touring Southeast Asia. Ensemble is also building its own record label, “Wergo,” with its own studio.
If that’s not enough, Oesterdiekhoff has a dream to build a similar facility to EMPAC in Cologne.
“I talked to Johannes Goebel [EMPAC’s director] when he came here for a conference,” he said. “It would take 10 years to build.”