From new repertoire to do-it-yourself opera

Music communication in Switzerland is a broad field, well-funded and well-supported. But there are still times when it struggles to get recognition.

Rebekka Meyer - 2018-03-22
From new repertoire to do-it-yourself opera - Presentation of "Dragon camping", an opera created by children for children with the help of orchetra Musikkollegium Winterthur (2017)
Presentation of "Dragon camping", an opera created by children for children with the help of orchetra Musikkollegium Winterthur (2017)
From new repertoire to do-it-yourself opera - Philipp Bartels (left) and Simone Keller (right), aka the collective “ox&öl”, help to bring children and senior citizens into contact with contemporary music. © Sascha Erni 2012
Philipp Bartels (left) and Simone Keller (right), aka the collective “ox&öl”, help to bring children and senior citizens into contact with contemporary music. © Sascha Erni 2012

“My favourite sound is ghosts that go ‘Boo!’” says a little girl from Cademario in Canton Ticino. And a little boy from Therwil in Canton Basel Land offers his own commentary on the peaceful splashing of water in a fountain: “It was here that my sister was baptised, with normal water. Then we put flowers and little boats in the water”.  We are constantly surrounded by sounds that tell us stories: the sounds of nature, the sounds of civilisation, and the sounds of our own bodies. The aural impressions of these two children form part of an Auditory Map of Switzerland organised by the association “Zuhören Schweiz” (“Listening Switzerland”).

Created by children with the help of the association “Zuhören Schweiz”: an auditory map of Switzerland.


For several years now, classes of schoolchildren across Switzerland have been compiling “audio pieces” with musicians, about and with the sounds of their world. This project was initiated by the percussionist Sylwia Zytynska, and it encapsulates her approach to music pedagogy. Her starting point in all this, she says, is John Cage. “I would like children to experience the beauty of sounds. They don’t all have to play an instrument or go to concerts; but they should still learn to listen to the world”.  This in itself can help a child to develop a sensitivity that might well make of him a concert-goer at a later date.


Children’s concerts

Today, it’s not difficult to find concerts and music theatre performances designed especially for children and young people. They’ve become increasingly important in recent years, along with other assorted pedagogical offerings. There’s even a new genre that’s emerged from this: the contemporary children’s opera. Given the lack of suitable repertoire, opera houses have felt compelled to stage contemporary works in tandem with school projects, and as a result they’re bringing children into contact with a music that most of them won’t encounter in their everyday lives. This is also why opera houses are now commissioning lots of new works and giving many first performances.

Everyone’s talking about cultural education these days. It’s well funded, but also brings challenges with it. Music education projects for children and young people are often promoted as flagship projects, though they’re not always taken so seriously by the organisations actually responsible for them. Low ticket prices mean that these events don’t yield a profit, and the press doesn’t pay much attention to them. Sylwia Zytynska is always on the lookout for good projects for the long-running Gare des enfants series she organises in Basel, and she also has experience of this lack of honesty: “It’s easy to get funding for educational projects. Regrettably, this fact is often misused. In some cases, for example, the people involved don’t have any genuine artistic aspirations to create something primarily for children”.

Barbara Balba Weber, author of "The classics unbound. Opening borders with arts communication", at rehearsals for her children's and senior's project „Silberwellen im Röseligarten"


Classics unbound – and participation is best

Nevertheless, most projects are still sincere, and a product of real commitment. Such as the large-scale, three-part operatic project Winterthur writes an opera, organised by the Musikkollegium Winterthur. With professional help, schoolchildren are creating a whole opera by themselves, with everything that goes with it: from the music and the libretto to the sets and the costumes. In this field, the participation of small ensembles is also important, such as the Zurich collective “ox&öl”, which runs the Piccolo Concerto Grosso. This is a cross-generational project, in existence since 2013, that brings schoolchildren and senior citizens together to make music, to improvise and to compose – all culminating in a big, closing concert.


The broad base enjoyed by cultural education projects can be seen not just in terms of the institutions involved, but also in the journalistic and scholarly response to them. The music educator Barbara Balba Weber at the Bern University of the Arts HKB, for example, is currently writing a doctoral thesis about communicating new music. Her publications are helping to promote a broader discourse about cultural participation – such as her new book, due out in late March 2018, entitled Entfesselte Klassik. Grenzen öffnen mit künstlerischer Musikvermittlung (“The classics unbound. Opening borders with arts communication”).

What almost all the projects described here have in common is the act of participation, which remains the core means of mediating music. But it’s more difficult to establish participatory acts in music than it is in the other arts. And in classical music in particular, technical perfection and amazing virtuosity are still regarded as highly desirable qualities. New music can counter this tendency and promote creativity by getting children to find and invent new sounds, and to create moods by simple means. This is also why Sylwia Zytynska works almost exclusively with new music: “New music has the advantage that it is abstract, liberated, and free of forms, which means it offers innumerable opportunities when you’re working with children”. What’s most important is to find a balance between what they know and what’s new to them. Then they are willing to try things out without any preconceived notions, and give free rein to their imagination.