Spring has come to Geneva, and there’s a fresh wind blowing. The Festival Archipel took place there between 15 and 25 March, and even over two decades after it was founded, the Festival shows no signs of fatigue. This traditional Swiss festival for contemporary music might have had more expansive programmes in the past, but it still remains true to our deep human need to experience new things. And that’s something that you come across less often in the big cultural “supermarkets”, and are more likely to find in a meticulously designed shopfront window like Archipel.
The motto of this year’s Festival was “Ecce robo”. And perhaps unexpectedly, the content on the whole was faithful to what the label promised. This is primarily thanks to the clever, musically motivated programming of Marc Texier. The overarching topic was “man and machine”, and the Festival took upon itself to explore the ever-more transparent borders between the two, the significance of the computer in today’s music, the latest developments in robotics, and the influence of technology on the composer’s imagination.
Conflict and collaboration
The last of these aspects was explored by the French composer David Hudry in Machina Humana for 18-piece ensemble and live electronics, commissioned by the Lemanic Modern Ensemble and Archipel, and given its world première on the first weekend of the Festival. The sounds of machines recorded in the Arve Valley – the local “Silicon Valley” of the turned parts industry, stretching from Geneva to Chamonix – were juxtaposed with the natural sounds of the ensemble. With precise gestures, William Blank skilfully navigated his way through the melodically rather catchy, but rhythmically complex score. When the instrumental sounds were then transformed into electronic sounds in real time, the “human” sound-world merged with that of the machines with a dramatic, combined impact in the brittle acoustics of the Alhambra hall.
Cappriccio ostico by Stefano Gervasoni, which was given its first Swiss performance at the beginning of the same concert, is less rational, more sensitive and more subtle: this was a music that defies any straightforward attempt to interpret it, because technical and cognitive stumbling blocks have been incorporated in its very textures (Ital. ostico = hard, difficult, tough). The bizarrely beautiful instability of its sounds, and the surprising fractures in its form, nevertheless did not fail to have the desired effect.
New Swiss vocal music
The highpoints of the Festival included the concert of the Neue Vocalsolisten of Stuttgart in the Salle Trocmé, which only reopened eighteen months ago. Its excellent acoustics were ideal for the 40-minute-long excerpt from Katharina Rosenberger’s vocal performance piece Tempi agitati (2016). Vocal sounds, physical movements, spoken words (Petrarch) and stage performance, all with the rhythmic imprint of Rosenberger’s music, together provided an enthralling spatial polyphony in conjunction with musical fragments by the Franco-Flemish Renaissance master Adrian Willaert. It was as if history led straight to the present, which in turn opened up new perspectives on the past.
Meanwhile, Oscar Bianchi’s Ante Litteram led us into the linguistic worlds of David Foster Wallace, Friedrich Nietzsche and an age-old tantric text. We also witnessed the première of another section (“Book”) of Mischa Käser’s Präludien Cycle, in which he explores the expressive possibilities of the vocal ensemble and finds his way to a bizarre narration by means of easy-to-remember, repetitive elements and exotic vocal techniques.
At the close, the world première of Michael Pelzel’s Study book on “Diabelli” offered a foretaste of this work for the opera house that is still in progress. It will not be an opera in the usual sense, admitted the composer in the preceding “artist’s talk”, but itself a kind of etude. Rather like Hermann Burger’s grotesque novella Diabelli on which his work is based, this music points beyond itself – like a fragment of a hypothetical whole that still longs to be discovered.