The 20th edition of the Ultraschall Berlin Festival for New Music took place from 17 to 21 January 2018. It’s organised each year jointly by the cultural programmes of the radio stations Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb) and Deutschlandfunk Kultur. In an endeavour to trace current developments in contemporary music, this year’s festival also focussed on instruments that until now had no firm place in new music.
New works for new instruments
There’s booming, wheezing, croaking and clicking to be heard in the studio hall of the Hanns Eisler University of Music in Berlin. Martin Bliggenstorfer and Elise Jacoberger from Bern – who together form the Duo LuKo – have taken to the podium and are presenting no less than seven world premières. Composition students have written works for them for the Lupophone and the Kontraforte – two relatively young bass variations on the instruments oboe and bassoon. Their broad spectrum of sounds and their immense tessitura impress everyone present on this afternoon. The Lupophone with its spheroid bell sounds at times like an oboe, at other times like a clarinet or even a saxophone. And the Kontraforte booms away with bass notes you can really feel – it’s like a jackhammer at work. By the time Martin Bliggenstorfer lets out a bloodcurdling, incredibly realistic wolf’s howl in Dustin Zorn’s Gegenwolf (“Counter-wolf”), it becomes clear that their multitude of sonic possibilities will ensure that the Lupophone and Kontraforte will in future be more frequent guests on the contemporary music scene.
An archaeology of a popular tune
A broad spectrum of middle-register instrumental sounds was the focus of the concert given by the Trio Catch. In her Sounds-Archaeologies, a work written especially for this festival, Isabel Mundry engaged with the warm, “raw” sound of the basset horn in combination with the keener sound of the clarinet. This was a fragmentary, enigmatic music in which notes were repeatedly sounded and left to echo in the hall in a constant switching between the clarinet and the basset horn, masterfully managed by the clarinettist Boglárka Pecze.
The composer Barblina Meierhans from Zurich also focussed on the basset horn in her composition In Serie 11 – though she did so in a very subjective fashion. Taking Beethoven’s Piano Trio op. 11 as her starting point – the so-called Gassenhauer Trio (“Popular tune trio”) – she here composed out her own highly personal impressions of hearing that famous work. It’s a subtle, multifaceted piece. At the beginning, Meierhans lets the basset horn rise up gently, softly, out of its bottom register, and more or less quotes the opening of the Gassenhauer Trio; but otherwise, the work proceeds across diffuse musical landscapes in which the buzzing basset horn time and again coalesces with the low notes of the cello to form a sonorous, warmly billowing soundscape and at the close ebbs away in a wisp of sounds.
Finally, on Saturday, the Ensemble Nikel cast a whole new light on the classical ensemble structure. With electric guitar, saxophone, drums and piano, this young Israeli-Swiss quartet brings an electrically amplified sound to contemporary chamber music, giving it a downright energy boost in the process. Enno Poppe took this combination of a rock band’s energy and “classical” conceptual structures as the initial idea for his work Fleisch (“Flesh”) – an intense, powerful composition that is situated stylistically somewhere between abstract contemporary music, free jazz and John Zorn.
Equally enthralling was the “profound boredom” composed by Yair Klartag, a guest from the Berlin artists’ programme of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). His starting point was a concept of Heidegger, who defined “profound boredom” as an existential state. This young Israeli composer accordingly conceived his Fragments of Profound Boredom as an atmospherically dense soundscape that compelled you to listen while holding your breath from start to finish – without ever getting the slightest bit “bored”, despite the title.