Dossier :

Too many cooks make a better broth

Since 2011, a whole series of new music ensembles has sprung up in Basel. We look at what’s behind this trend, and what the consequences are.

Anja Wernicke - 2018-06-21
Too many cooks make a better broth - Too Hot To Hoot?
Too Hot To Hoot?
Too many cooks make a better broth - Ensemble This | Ensemble That
Ensemble This | Ensemble That
Too many cooks make a better broth - Ensemble Inverspace
Ensemble Inverspace
Too many cooks make a better broth - ensemble viceversa
ensemble viceversa
Too many cooks make a better broth - Ensemble Lemniscate
Ensemble Lemniscate
Too many cooks make a better broth - neuverBand
Too many cooks make a better broth - Eunoia Quintett
Eunoia Quintett

Basel is obviously fertile ground, because young contemporary music ensembles have been popping up there like mushrooms in recent years. The reason for this is the Master of Arts in Specialised Performance for Contemporary Music, which was initiated at the Basel School of Music in 2009. Its three supervisors, Jürg Henneberger, Mike Svoboda and Marcus Weiss, primarily work with their students in the field of chamber music. The results are then performed by the School’s own ensemble zone expérimentale.


The blessing and curse of the diverse Basel environment

Once the students have finished their Master, they soon want to put their experience into practice with an ensemble of their own. Some of them have fixed line-ups (such as the Eunoia Quintet and the “Ensemble This, Ensemble That”), while others are variable (Ensemble Lemniscate, neuverBand). Some are firmly rooted in Basel (such as the ensemble viceversa), while others are primarily active abroad (such as the Ensemble Inverspace). While the musicians engage intensively with each other, and several of them are active in several ensembles in parallel, each individual ensemble nevertheless has its own specific strategy and profile. Will there at some point simply be too many of them? Marcus Weiss sees an upside to it all: “Having so many in a small space means that more is demanded of them”. Which also has a positive impact on quality.


The first of these ensembles to establish itself was the Eunoia Quintet, which brought together almost everyone in the first year of their curriculum. They are one of the most active of these new ensembles, performing numerous concerts in the Gare du Nord in Basel, and they already have over 20 world premières behind them. They have primarily made a name for themselves with music theatre productions such as The Vacuum Pack by Carola Bauckholt and Dmitri Kourliansdski, and One Shot Train by François Sarhan. Right from the start, the ensemble was organised democratically.

The Vacuum Pack, A music theatre work by Carola Bauckholt and Dmitri Kourliandsky

But the fact that so many ensembles are now jostling in the market place is something that’s also viewed with a critical eye by Eunoia’s trombonist Stephen Menotti: “New ensembles are attractive to foundations and audiences. But it’s a shame if the large number of events on offer means that concerts clash with each other, as this reduces the potential audience. There should be more discussions between us all. But in general, the scene is harmonious and not especially competitive”.


Unity and diversity

With its line-up of soprano, trombone, piano, percussion and cello, the Eunoia Quintet is very close to the scoring of Pierrot lunaire, while other ensembles are obviously more exotic in their composition, such as the Too Hot To Hoot? ensemble, which features accordion, harp, saxophone and percussion, or the four percussionists of Ensemble This, Ensemble That (“ETIET” for short). The latter is among the most successful ensembles internationally, with performances at the Darmstadt Holiday Courses and the Heidelberg Spring. ETIET is notable for its incredible technical precision and its cleverly composed programmes, which often also incorporate light and other scenic elements.

trugschluss #7 nacherleben - Doku

Just like ETIET, the Ensemble Lemniscate wants to play curated programmes that incorporate conceptual reflection. To this end, they brought the composer Ricardo Eizirik into their team in 2017 as their artistic director. Eizirik already has experience in organising events, and sees himself as a curator who can help to design all the parameters of a concert. It was his idea to contact other ensembles through the project Swingers ∞ Club, and to exchange programme ideas with them. In the coming season, the Ensemble Zafraan from Berlin and the Ensemble hand werk from Cologne will each play Lemniscate programmes, and vice versa. Recently, the composer Andreas Eduardo Frank also came on board as a second artistic director.


Eizirik is insistent that the quality of instrumental playing isn’t going to take a back seat on account of the increasing importance of their conceptual considerations. This is also a reflection of his Basel training, as is obvious from our conversation with Marcus Weiss: “We place high technical demands on our instrumentalists, but we also orient ourselves on the aesthetics and methods of the new trend of the composer-performer model. This has emerged in the last ten years or so in contemporary music, and is characterised by an intensive multimedia approach and a certain do-it-yourself mentality”. So we can very much look forward, not just to the future projects of the existing ensembles, but to what is still going to emerge from the Basel landscape in the years to come.