There is a narrow rosy strip between the black skies and the houses in the distance. Soft clouds of sound can be heard emanating from the other side of the field: bell-like pulses, spreading their waves across the awakening landscape at regular intervals. It only drizzled briefly in this August night, but it was still enough to freeze your feet between your bed and your blanket. Every fibre of your body cries out to get moving. But the sleepers who have spent this night lined up on their camp beds are only gradually getting up. Something in them seems to want to keep things as they are a little longer.
“Of course it’s not nice to be freezing like that”, says Sylwia Zytynska, looking back on the 2016 edition of the Rümlingen Festival. She’s a percussionist and has been a member of the festival’s programme committee for the past 26 years. “But it helped my body and me to attain a very different kind of perception. I had heard Tom Johnson’s Nine Bells several times before, but I had never felt the work in that way”.
A child of Rümlingen
It’s unrepeatable, often borderline experiences like this that have been bringing the curious to this area near Basel each summer for nearly three decades now. In the late 1990s, Mario Pagliarani was one of them – a composer from Canton Ticino and now a festival director himself. “La Via Lattea is perhaps a child of Rümlingen. For me, it was essential to go there. I don’t like normal concerts of contemporary music. I often find them very boring. So I thought to myself: I have to do something for my own music so that this doesn’t happen”.
But it took until 2004 before his own festival saw the light of day. One reason for that might well have been the sober, almost scrupulous manner in which Pagliarani programmes the events at La Via Lattea. As he himself puts it: “It’s a pilgrimage composed into the score of the landscape”.
A state of contemplation is a constant at La Via Lattea. The visitors explore the area around Pagliarani’s home town of Mendrisio by boat or bus (though mostly on foot), often without uttering a word, just listening to their surroundings instead. In August 2017, the figures encountered by pilgrims on this path would have included an Orpheus in a hoodie on a glacial erratic in a mountain stream, singing of the death of his Eurydice. And they would have been greeted by a women’s chorus in a tunnel singing Beat Furrer’s shimmering a sei voci, a new composition based on Alessandro Striggio’s text for the lost Coro delle Baccanti from Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo (1607).
Beyond cantonal and country borders
In November 2017, La Via Lattea is expanding its radius to Italy. As an epilogue to the Festival, a sei voci and compositions by Claire-Mélanie Sinnhuber, Erik Oña and Mario Pagliarani will be performed in Venice. Under the title Il cammino d’Orfeo, RSI Radiotelevisione Svizzera will make recordings of these performances and join them with recordings from the summer festival itself in order to create a radio opera.
However, this will not be the first time that the Festival has ventured beyond the borders of Canton Ticino. In 2013 it was the starting point of Ton&Tal, a collaborative project together with the Rümlingen Festival, Alpentöne Altdorf and Klangspuren Schwaz. Works by composers such as Annette Schmucki, Urban Mäder, Daniel Ott and Heinz Holliger were performed at numerous places from Airolo to Rümlingen and as far away as the Tyrol.
Would it be possible to organise another such collaboration between La Via Lattea and the Rümlingen Festival? “It’s a great dream of ours to create a festival one day that stretches from Chiasso to Basel”, says Sylwia Zytynska. “What unites us is our work with the audience. When I played last summer at La Via Lattea, it felt like it does in Rümlingen. Suddenly, all these people came with their hiking sticks – they hadn’t prepared themselves for a concert, but for a country walk. And they weren’t just people from the surrounding region – they came from everywhere. What I find incredible about these hikes is what you experience together. You know the audience, and you walk a part of the way with them. That’s different from in a concert hall”. And yet it’s not every year that Rümlingen is a festival that leads its audience by the hand – or, rather, by their ears – through the Basel countryside.
A landscape opera for Rümlingen
The Rümlingen programme committee now has six members, comprising composers, performers, dramaturges and journalists. Their roles alternate: “One person has an idea for the festival. Then we sit down together and think out loud about it. This thinking process results in two artistic directors who take over the idea and expand on it. We all have our preferences. Christian Diersteinand Marcus Weiss are responsible for the indoor concerts”, explains Zytynska.
For 2018, however, another “landscape opera” is being planned. Under the artistic direction of Zytynska and Daniel Ott, world premières of works by seven composers will be performed in the area around Rümlingen. These seven are already well known at the Festival. When asked whether the increasing presence of Swiss composers on the Rümlingenprogramme is because you need a knowledge of the landscape to be able to compose for it, Zytynska says: “In Rümlingen, we act a little according to the principle of the Singing snail. That’s a piece by Hans Wütrich with the subtitle Instructions for imaginary hearing. It was performed at the very first Rümlingen Festival, back in 1990, and I always think that this Singing snail has stayed with us as a kind of motto. So our motto comes from a Swiss composer. Hearing music in these different ways is something that occupies an above-average number of composers here.”
Just like at the Rümlingen Festival, different artistic fields come together at La Via Lattea too, from literature to architecture to acoustic game forms. “The big difference is that we present music from all epochs. That’s my idea, because I am very curious about old music – and also about very, very old music” explains Pagliarani. But it’s also important to our audience. Fourteen years ago, it would have been impossible here to have a programme like that of Rümlingen. Perhaps it would be possible today”.
More contemporary music at La Via Lattea
This year at La Via Lattea, there was an unusually high number of world premières. This is a trend that should be given more space in the future, says Pagliarani, even though he knows it is difficult in economic terms. “I think it’s important that La Via Lattea is also a musical workshop. There are naturally also financial reasons for programming Swiss composers. It would be far more difficult otherwise to get as much support from funding bodies. All the same, I would like to work with composers from all over the world. I don’t want to talk too much about the future, but we are planning a big project with Gérard Pesson, for example. He’s a composer I like a lot, but he isn’t Swiss”.