The most entertaining event at Forum Wallis 2023 was ‘Adventurous Sounds’, a concert billed as being “New Music for and with children” as part of a project aimed at introducing contemporary music to young people, which also extends to in-school activities. One of the most hilarious compositions i’ve ever heard, Motoharu Kawashima‘s Das Lachenmann, which i’d seen Javier Hagen and Ulrike Mayer-Spohn perform at Forum Wallis back in 2019, began the concert, preceded on this occasion by an equally funny session where the audience was taught to sing several isolated bars from the score, which were projected onto the wall. It was fantastic to see an audience of predominately young people engaging with new music as both listeners and, briefly, performers, and clearly having an absolute blast.
The majority of the concert involved students from the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich, all playing various recorders, who took part in a number of pieces alongside Hagen, Mayer-Spohn and members of the dissonArt ensemble. Particularly effective was Agnes Dorwarth‘s Nachtvögel; Gezwitscher; Nachtkrapp, a textural work made up of birdsong-like behaviours, concluding in a lovely chorus of modulating pitches. Dorwarth’s Kopfnuss-Trio was an even stronger, the three players using their headjoints to create something akin to a tribal chant, in a close unison peppered with rhythmic cries and glissandi.
Two of the students turned Franz Müller-Busch‘s Der Streit into a brief but compelling argument, while another student, Sara Weinmann, gave a strong performance of Dorwarth’s Artikulator 1, channelling a range of emotions into sound in different ways, from disruptions and interruptions to the work’s flow to violent vocal eruptions, in a nicely-controlled melding of musical, non-musical and meta-musical ideas. The concert ended with an expanded version of Sancho’s Dream by UMS ‘n JIP (Hagen and Mayer-Spohn’s joint nom de guerre), the original of which was part of the duo’s opera Sancho, which i experienced in 2020. In this new form it was utterly mesmerising, living up to its title by creating a dreamy, soft texture environment developing into what seemed to be accelerating Shepard tones.
That evening, dissonArt returned to give a concert featuring another (very welcome) opportunity to hear Ulrike Mayer-Spohn‘s fKFW, premièred at the 2020 festival. Earlier in the day i’d hiked across the valley to the Bhutan Bridge, a narrow suspension bridge running over the (at the time completely dry) river Illbach. Each side of the bridge is festooned with Buddhist prayer flags, and Mayer-Spohn’s music brought to mind the gentle, undulating rippling that these flags created. Always moving, always something happening, sometimes emerging as short-term moments of excitement and busyness, yet fKFK ultimately creates a stillness, a placidity, perhaps even a diffidence. Three years ago i likened the effect to a “sum total of a myriad superimposed ideas”; i wonder if it’s a actually a zero-sum situation, that sum total cancelling out into a silence. Either way, it was just as mesmerically wonderful as before. dissonArt followed this with, if anything, an even more extreme kind of inverted music, Christoph Herndler‘s Vom Festen, Das Weiche. Unsounding pitches lost in a lack of bow pressure, harmonic overtones, faint breaths, it wasn’t clear whether these emanated from a quartet of separate or connected parts. The combined effect was like a gate moving or a wheel turning in the wind, producing sporadic friction sounds. Some modestly violent accents were nothing more than a flash in the pan, yielding to small glissandi. Its inscrutability only made it more beautiful.
The concert concluded with the première of Javier Hagen‘s 4 Kafka-Erzählungen [4 Kafka Stories]. It might seem like a problem when i say that the main question i kept pondering throughout the performance was whether or not the music meaningfully reflected the words. Yet that uncertain relationship seemed entirely suitable, creating not so much an accompaniment for the text (sung by Hagen himself) but a surreal, fantastical space in which disparate elements collided. Electronic blips and glitches sat beside curiously retro synth patterns, languid trip hop beats, tolling bells and birdsong, these elements sometimes only appearing for the briefest moment before vanishing again. The vocal line moved through all this with an imperturbable serenity, eventually arriving at a place of peaceful resolution that, though it seemed incredible, made total sense. The more i hear of Javier Hagen’s music the more entranced i am by its wonderfully weird, leftfield approach to appropriation and juxtaposition.
UMS ‘n JIP‘s latest large-scale work im störgarten, an 80-minute song cycle for voice, recorder and live electronics setting a collection of 25 poems by Swiss poet Rolf Hermann, was premièred on the second evening of the festival. Even now, over a fortnight later, i’ve been finding myself remembering and reflecting upon this piece, which spoke with a very direct emotional weight. Hermann’s heartfelt texts are both a celebration of a natural environment (specifically Leukerfeld) with which he has a long history, and a lament about the way it has been transformed into a place of modern industry and enterprise. (From Hermann’s notes: “Fields and meadows have given way to commercial and industrial zones, a golf course and a motorway.”) The poems convey a strong sense of continuity and interconnection, and this was reflected in the music, seamlessly moving through the texts such that im störgarten effectively became a single, large, composite song. For what felt like the longest time everything indicated hushed reverence: soft drones and whispers, the gentlest of pulses, some electronic pitch and noise tracery.
What was being established here was a sonic sacred space, a hallowed musical habitat into which, around halfway through, suddenly, absurdly, there came beats. The juxtaposition was utmost startling, ancient meeting modern, smooth timelessness suddenly confronted by hard-edged transience, as if the mellifluous contours of plainchant were being articulated as rap. As in the words, so in the music: nothing was the same after this. Hitherto focused and cohesive, the second half of im störgarten was a tense mixture of twin strands – sacred and secular, to continue the analogy – speaking in parallel, and the sense of a single, increasingly fragmented and halting attempt to navigate through the familiar turned foreign. The fact that the work managed to arrive at a similar musical point to where it began seemed to suggest not so much resolution as retreat, figuratively – the penultimate poem includes the words, “I hover quietly, completely absorbed in myself” – visually – the final poem speaks of how “we change over into the redeeming night” and literally, returning from whence we came. Simultaneously simple, subtle and strange, reinforced by occasional projected images of landscape and industrial development, im störgarten is the most powerful work by UMS ‘n JIP that i’ve yet experienced, testifying to the deep wounds that can be caused by the inevitable, unstoppable, march of progress.