i’ve often likened going to a music festival to an act of pilgrimage, and that feels especially true of Forum Wallis. The two-and-a-half hour train journey from Geneva, edging round the lake before passing by Montreux and on into the heart of the Swiss Alps, feels akin to leaving behind the real world and heading out into a landscape of ever-decreasing populace and ever-increasing enormity. Arriving in Leuk, you don’t merely realise how far you’ve come, but also how small you are, enclosed on both sides of the valley by impossibly towering mountain peaks. A short way up the side of one of these mountains brings you to the ancient mediaeval town of Leuk-Stadt, the beautifully restored castle of which has been the focus of the Forum Wallis festival for most of its 14-year existence. Pilgrimages should be special, heightened experiences, and at the current time travelling outside the UK certainly felt like that; just being in airports again seemed almost uncanny, a mixture of excitement, anxiety and not a little disbelief.
Indeed, it’s impressive that Forum Wallis has been able to happen at all. Across Europe, festival after festival has been cancelled (or, in some cases, reduced to unsatisfying ‘virtual’ attempts online) due to the pandemic, so the decision by festival director Javier Hagen to postpone Forum Wallis by a few months rather than cancelling it outright was a gamble that fortunately paid off. And perhaps only just: like many countries Switzerland has recently been experiencing a small rise in new infections so it may turn out that the festival managed to find a window of opportunity in the midst of impossibility. The fact that Forum Wallis is a relatively small festival – remote location, modest audience sizes – is perhaps an important factor in enabling it to go ahead. Even so, the festival was reduced in scale, from five days to three, and a number of the events were either dropped from the programme or conflated into a more manageable size. But despite being a pocket-size festival, it was absolutely thrilling to be back at a live concert again (my first since late February); i’ve remarked previously on the importance and value of Forum Wallis, and that really took on a whole new significance at this particular time.
Last year was my first experience of the festival, and there were numerous times when i had found myself more than usually discombobulated. All good contemporary music festivals take risks, but some of what i experienced last year left me wondering – in a highly stimulating and often wildly entertaining way – what on earth to make of it all. That sense of wide-eyed bogglement happened again this year at a performance of Sancho, an ‘electropop opera’ devised by UMS ‘n JIP (the collaborative duo of Javier Hagen and Ulrike Mayer-Spohn) inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote. To be honest, i’m still trying to get my head around it. A mix of social commentary, satirical symbolism and sheer unhinged entertainment, in which Cervantes’ words were preceded and contextualised by Kafka’s short text The Truth About Sancho Panza, the work rather nicely shifted attention away from Quixote in order to focus entirely on his sidekick. Hagen by turns portrayed Sancho, the narrator and various other occasional characters, the latter of whom appeared either on a TV or a large screen at the back of the stage, while Mayer-Spohn played Sancho’s wife Teresa.
The bizarre twists and turns of Sancho’s exploits were presented in a way that veered between high camp and surprising solemnity. The former erupted in abrupt arias coated in pop sugar which turned out to be strangely fitting for both the earnestness and downright silliness of some of Sancho’s outbursts. The latter were more telling and more memorable, manifesting most prominently in two lengthy sequences where the work almost came to a halt, entering a kind of suspended animation. They came as such a contrast to the surrounding high jinks that the effect was not only mesmeric but also unexpectedly moving, revealing a deep seriousness in Sancho just as important as the more apparent merriment. Both my understanding and my enjoyment of the piece were enhanced by subsequent conversations with Hagen (particularly about certain aspects of symbolism, which were lost on me during the performance) and by re-reading Cervantes, suggesting the work benefits from both a bit of preliminary research and by more than just a single encounter with it.
Like last year, the evenings ended with concerts of improvisation, both featuring quartets. These turned out to be disappointing for a number of reasons, partly because they were once again male-only events – are there no women improvisers to be found in Switzerland? – and several of the performers were the same as in 2019. But far more problematic was the fundamental nature of these performances, given by, respectively, Hans Koch, Hans-Peter Pfammatter, Patrice Moret and Julian Sartorius on Tuesday, and Manuel Mengis, Rudi Mahall, Florian Stoffner and David Meier on Wednesday, bringing the festival to a close. For the most part, and there really is no other way to put it, they were astonishingly rubbish. i’ll try to articulate why, as the problems exhibited here are very, very far from being unique to Forum Wallis.
At new music improvisation concerts i often feel like i become a kind of ‘sonic anthropologist’, analysing group behaviour and dynamics. This isn’t because it’s the default way in which i listen to improvisation (or any music for that matter), but because it seems to have become the predominant aspect projected in these performances. In other words, it’s not the details that matter, the actual content (which for the most part lacks distinctive qualities in and of itself), but the manner in which that content is conveyed. In this respect, almost without exception they seem to be governed by a herd mentality: all of the players attempting to be in sympathy with and closely following each other, while simultaneously almost never wanting to fall silent: tutti in extremis. This results in a total behavioural homogeneity. It begs so many questions: Who decided that where one player goes, the rest must follow? that the actions of one should be unequivocally upheld, confirmed and supported by the rest? Is there no room, no scope, no inclination, no desire for dissent? disagreement? counterpoint? resistance? rebellion? Furthermore, why can’t material have any intrinsic value? Why must it always be subject to broader behavioural concerns? And if there has to be behavioural agreement, why can’t that extend to material agreement? It’s like they want to eat their cake and have it too: a masquerade of individual ‘freedom’ within a straight-jacket of consensus and conformity. Considering how overwhelmingly obvious a semblance of conflict and volatility are exhibited outwardly in these performances, it’s staggering to behold such a complete lack of it inwardly. It seems like such a wrong word for music that tries so hard to be otherwise, but it’s all so damn polite. i know there are exceptions – some of the most stunning in recent memory took place at Only Connect 2019 – but i so desperately wish i encountered them more often at new music festivals. There are just far too many variations on the same old tired behavioural theme. For me, i’ve really had all i can stomach of listening to a bunch of (usually) blokes agreeing and complying with each other at great length in varying degrees of excitement. It’s unimaginative, predictable, complacent, timid, self-congratulatory, creatively moribund, and utterly, utterly boring. i want something genuinely new.
Returning specifically to Forum Wallis, despite the issues i’ve just described there were nonetheless times in the Koch-Moret-Pfammatter-Sartorius concert when the music did manage to engage. One of the best results from this kind of group compliance is cohesion, and the first of their two improvs cohered in a very impressive way, making it difficult to separate the players from their place within a single ‘voice’. The piece was sufficiently long that they weren’t able to maintain this over time – perhaps it would have been better in short segments rather than a large, unwieldy splurge – but at its best it was quite absorbing, particularly when the quartet pulled back to more intricate textures, where thought and clarity were most apparent. Moreover, again from a quasi-anthropological perspective, the way the quartet gradually modulated between modes of behaviour was highly effective. None of this applies to the Mahall-Mengis-Stoffner-Meier performance, which exhibited not only everything i’ve decried above but every other cliché under the sun. Presented in an arbitrary, seemingly never-ending sequence of short but increasingly insufferable segments that weren’t so much pieces as ‘retches’, i began to feel as if i was going through the stages of grief in the wake of the death of music. It was an absolute car crash, like watching a cluster of drunken idiots all trying to outdo each other again and again and again. One of the most egregiously contemptible and worthless performances i have ever witnessed.
One of the most interesting parts of Forum Wallis is Ars Electronica, the festival’s annual competition for electronic music. The jury is deliberately far-flung – its members located in Peru, Turkey, New Zealand and Japan, plus Javier Hagen – in an attempt to obviate an overall aesthetic preference. A small number of the submissions are selected as winners, with a larger number ‘highly commended’. Last year the winning pieces were performed in three concerts alongside works by renowned figures of contemporary music; this year they were presented in a non-stop loop during Tuesday afternoon. This was the only event not to take place in the Castle, being located in the adjacent Spritzuhüs – not ideal due to its proximity to the road through the town (traffic noise was a recurring problem) but all the same a beautiful place to hear electronic music.
While it would be wrong to say that this year’s winners were aesthetically similar, they nonetheless shared a inclination towards understatement. Not that there weren’t climaxes; Konstantinos Karathanasis‘ Ode to the Kitchen, a piece seemingly all about the moment rather than a broader musical canvas, transcended its shapelessness in a dense, resonant climax that came as a huge relief. But none of the works really set out to overwhelm or flood the space with sound, generally opting instead for delicate sounds and worlds. In the case of both Alyssa Aska‘s Eleison and James O ‘Callaghan‘s If (and only if) I am among the results were frustrating, proving to be pretentious and impenetrable respectively. More immersive was Torturing Piano, in which Sangwon Lee seemed to transport us inside the instrument, huge grindings conveying a tangibly close physicality. Mariam Gviniashvili‘s Allotropy was subtler, her soundworld an abstract mix of light, intangible noises, dry impacts and more potentially dangerous resonant accents. The combination served to put us on high alert, eased later when floating pitches emerged at the periphery. Similarly abstract was Offshore by David Berezan, in which pitch was largely absent within its light, atmospheric textures. Spending time within such a deliberately narrow, restrained piece that showed real imagination throughout was a deeply satisfying experience. Best of all, though, was Louise Rossiter‘s Neuronen, a genuinely unpredictable, shape-shifting work that beautifully melded real-world sound references (including some nice mechanical objects) with noises that were altogether more vague and obscure. Though generally quite a subdued piece, there was the sense of a locked-away power or potential that lent to the music a distinct muscularity.