Dossier :

Swiss ensembles in pursuit of the new


Swiss contemporary music ensembles are lively communities formed by a common will. An expedition to the hotspots of a lively music scene.

Johannes Knapp - 2019-06-25
Swiss ensembles in pursuit of the new - No tailcoats here – this is a laboratory: the ensemble proton bern
No tailcoats here – this is a laboratory: the ensemble proton bern

If you want to achieve something that’s bigger than yourself, then you have to join together with others. Individuals can pool their abilities, their influence and resources in order to pursue overarching goals – in this case creating, performing and communicating contemporary music. The various ensembles that we shall visit here have all been created – more or less – from the bottom up. Their successes are derived in part from their ability to keep their common objectives in line with the interests of their respective members, at least to a certain extent. We can here observe a complex relationship between the individual and the collective, which is often summed up by the oxymoronic concept of the “ensemble of soloists”. 

Perhaps ironically, it is the biggest Swiss ensembles for contemporary music that have made this particular concept their own. The Ensemble Contrechamps was founded in Geneva in 1980 and today unites 20 individual musicians. Its brand-new website declares it to be an “ensemble of soloists specialised in the composition, development and dissemination of instrumental music of the 20th and 21st centuries”. The Collegium Novum Zürich (CNZ) is younger than Contrechamps by 13 years, but sounds a similar note in its own self-description: “This ensemble of soloists currently comprises 26 members. Thanks to its mobile structure, it is flexible and can offer any combination from solos to large-scale ensembles”. This means that they can design their programmes wholly according to their chosen content.


Getting out into society

When it actually comes to devising those programmes, these two flagships of the innovative Swiss music scene are both led by artistic directors. Just as in politics and in other fields, they have to achieve a highly delicate balance between the individual and the collective, and between unity and variety (two key concepts from the preamble to the Swiss federal constitution, as it happens). This balance has to be renewed constantly, and the identity of the two ensembles is in part a result of their endeavours to reconcile these different aspects. 


A frequent guest conductor at the CNZ: Heinz Holliger, whose 80th birthday the music world is celebrating in 2019.



Serge Vuille has been the artistic director of the Ensemble Contrechamps since April 2018. In the 2019/20 season – the very first for which he has been solely responsible – he is keen to establish a cooperative dialogue between the artists of the Ensemble and artists from fields outside it. He also wants to embark on multifarious collaborations with numerous other Genevan institutions and venues. His aim is to leave the ivory tower behind, and to go out into society. “Sympathetic resonances” is the motto Vuille has chosen (“Résonances par sympathie”), and it stands in gold lettering on the freshly printed programme for the 2019/20 season. This is in fact a physical phenomenon that we find in string instruments especially. It occurs when an open string vibrates in sympathy with one next to it that is bowed, plucked or struck. There is a playing technique often utilised in contemporary music that functions in a similar fashion: if you point the bell of a trumpet or trombone into the inside of a grand piano and play, certain strings will vibrate in sympathy when you press the piano’s sustaining pedal. 

The percussionist and composer Serge Vuille is already striking out on new paths in Geneva, while Zurich will be charting a new course as of autumn 2019. After nine years spent in charge of the artistic strategy of the CNZ, Jens Schubbe will be moving to the Dresden Philharmonic, which means a new artistic director will have to be chosen in Zurich. 

Zurich is indisputably a world city, but with its 430,000 inhabitants it is almost a village when compared to other international centres. Nevertheless, it is still the biggest city in Switzerland, and in the rankings issued by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network, Zurich is placed on a par with metropolises such as Barcelona, Washington D.C., Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and Vienna in the category “Alpha–”. Switzerland’s second-biggest city is Geneva, though its population is only half as big as that of Zurich. It is followed by Basel – a major centre for art – and then the federal capital of Bern. It is thus hardly surprising that Basel and Bern also have well-established new-music ensembles – not least because they too have important universities of music, just like Zurich and Geneva.


Ensemble Contrechamps performs «Top» by Genoël von Lilienstern



Theatre and transit

In the beginning was … a request from the Basel Theatre, the biggest theatre in Switzerland that caters for opera, ballet and spoken drama in a single house. In 1996, Christoph Marthaler was in the midst of preparing for his production The unanswered question, a music theatre work that was a satirical, parodistic, subtle spoof. It turned out to be more or less what triggered the founding of the Ensemble Phoenix Basel. Marthaler’s production drew on the title of Charles Ives’s orchestral piece of the same name, and he used the work itself as a kind of hinge between two sections of his programme. But he also wanted to incorporate a performance of György Kurtág’s cycle Messages from the late Miss R.V. Troussova. The set designer Anna Viebrock and the conductor Jürg Henneberger were on board from the very start. Henneberger was using a conventional orchestra for Ives’s piece: the Basel Symphony Orchestra. In 1997, when Marthaler’s project saw its first performance, this orchestra had only just undergone a controversial merger with the Basel Radio Symphony Orchestra. Performing Ives with the Symphony Orchestra was fine; but Henneberger was convinced that he needed specialists to perform the Kurtág. So without further ado, they invited the loosely organised ensemble of the Basel Society for New Music to play, and they named it the “Kurtág Ensemble” in the programme for the evening. Further engagements at the theatre followed for these musicians, such as for Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s epoch-making opera Die Soldaten. There was soon no more denying that it made sense for them to band together properly. And so the founding concert of the Ensemble Phoenix Basel took place in 1998 – in the Basel Theatre, of course (where else!). Today, the Ensemble also runs its own concert series in the Gare du Nord, the heritage site that was once the station restaurant of the Badischer Bahnhof. Other cities can only dream of such a venue. 


Travel diary of the West Coast tour in March 2018 by the ensemble proton bern.


“What’s special about new music is its willingness to risk form for the sake of content, the beautiful for the sake of the interesting, and the habitual for the sake of experiment. It’s about taking a wager on something other than Wagner”. This is the credo of the ensemble proton bern, and is an accurate reflection of its desire to communicate – something that is evident, too, in its concerts. This ensemble was only founded in 2010, and it’s organised according to the principles of grassroots democracy. It is conducted by Matthias Kuhn, and comprises a core of nine musicians whose number can be expanded when and where necessary. One speciality of the ensemble is world premières; another is its unusual stock of instruments, which includes the highly rare lupophone (a bass oboe) and the contraforte (a kind of contrabassoon). The ensemble proton also understands the advantages offered by the Internet, as is proven by its YouTube channel with its high number of page views. It has its own, well-established series of concerts in the Dampfzentrale Bern – a former steam power plant that was converted into an alternative cultural centre by several arts groups back in the 1980s, against the wishes of the authorities who had wanted to tear it down. This ensemble also enjoys travelling, and today frequents a number of venues outside Bern, both in Switzerland and abroad. 

A big-city phenomenon?

Ensembles for contemporary music are largely located in urban areas – in Switzerland, that means Zurich, Geneva, Basel and Bern – and we see a similar picture if we look beyond our borders. It’s not surprising that London (a metropolis in the “Alpha++” category) is home to one of the world’s biggest, most important ensembles for new music: the London Sinfonietta. The second-biggest metropolitan area in Europe is Paris, where Pierre Boulez founded the Ensemble intercontemporain in 1976. Cologne (Ensemble Musikfabrik, founded in 1990) is Germany’s fourth-biggest city; Frankfurt (Ensemble Modern, set up in 1980) is both an international banking centre and in geographical terms Europe’s transport nexus; then there is Vienna (Klangforum, founded in 1985 by the Swiss composer Beat Furrer), one of the European cultural centres with the richest traditions. 

If we take a closer look at the Swiss map, however, we can even find ensembles where we might least expect them. Such as in Chur, for example, which is the capital of Canton Graubünden. It lies 600 metres above sea level, and has a population that barely reaches 40,000. It’s not far from the source of the Rhine – that river that is itself the source of so many mediaeval myths and legends. The violinist and composer David Sontòn Caflisch was born in Basel but grew up in Chur, and when he was still at high school he founded a string orchestra whose programmes gradually began to feature modern music. Caflisch later decided to create an ensemble that would be exclusively devoted to playing contemporary music. Its name is simply “Ensemble ö!” (the exclamation mark is part and parcel of it). That was back in 2002. Caflisch himself wasn’t yet 30 years old, and when he went knocking on the door of the city authorities to try and get an official subsidy, the response he got was the same experienced by many of his peers elsewhere in the same situation: “no”. Local officialdom was certain that contemporary music was simply incompatible with life in the provinces. But Caflisch was of a different opinion, and was determined to prove them wrong. And he did, too. “Today, Chur has an established, educated, curious audience. Our vision has paid off”. Their recipe for success includes theme-based, diverse programmes conceived in a rigorous, self-critical spirit that also feature extra-musical points of reference (architecture, literature, painting, physics, philosophy). “I am less interested in new concert forms than I am in broadening our content”, says Caflisch. “Other disciplines can sometimes be a great help in getting people to understand works. Obviously Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is hardly a musical topic, but sometimes there are interconnections”. The Ensemble ö! today gives some 30 concerts each year. Besides its work in Chur, it also has its own concert series in Basel, the city where its founder was born.


A “promenade concert” of the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain in the Centre Dürrenmatt. © Pablo Fernandez



La Chaux-de-Fonds lies not far from the French border and has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Chur. At almost 1,000 m. above sea level it is also one of the highest cities in Europe. A few years ago, UNESCO awarded it World Heritage status. Up here, unemployment is higher than elsewhere in Switzerland, yet culture isn’t something “nice to have”, but a staple of life. The city boasts several important museums, theatres, Le Corbusier’s first-ever architectural office, and his famous “Maison blanche”, the villa he built for his parents. La Chaux-de-Fonds also has a concert hall with almost 1,200 seats: the Salle de Musique, built in the 1950s, whose acoustic has been lauded by everyone from Maurizio Pollini to Claudio Arrau and many other luminaries, and is accordingly often used as a recording studio. (see also the article " The music room at La Chaux-de-Fonds") The city’s music scene would today be unthinkable without its Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain, founded in 1994 and today directed by the pianist Antoine Françoise. Unlike a good many other such ensembles, its 20 musicians don’t go in for jet-set cosmopolitanism, even though it has since toured China, Ireland, Rumania and many other countries as musical ambassadors of Canton Neuchâtel. “We are a group of friends – a big family – and our first priority is our fantastic audience here in our own town”, says Françoise. The family metaphor is apt. Four of its founding members are still with the Ensemble, and three other current members also joined early on. “Above and beyond this, we are simply keen to invite the world of contemporary music to come to us”. The Ensemble achieves this not least through the biennial festival that it co-founded in 2003, Les Amplitudes, which has since achieved international recognition. Each festival is devoted to a single composer; those featured thus far include Salvatore Sciarrino, Georges Aperghis, Rebecca Saunders and Mauro Lanza.


A laboratory for the avant-garde

Now that we have zoomed in on a selection of several Swiss ensembles, let’s take a moment to attempt a kind of classification.

For one thing, we can see here a conscious move away from the large-scale symphony orchestra. This is something that Arnold Schoenberg was the first to undertake, and he can rightly be regarded as a spiritual ancestor of today’s new-music ensembles. That was in 1906 when Schoenberg wrote his First Chamber Symphony opus 9, for which he reduced his ensemble down to five solo strings and ten wind instruments. He eschewed late-Romantic masses of sound in favour of clear structures and a greater degree of concentration and density, and yet he still achieved an abundance of colour. When Igor Stravinsky composed his A Soldier’s Tale in Swiss exile in 1918, his aims were not dissimilar, though the results were very different. Even though Switzerland remained untouched by the First World War, the big symphony orchestras needed for works such as his Rite of Spring were having a difficult time of it. Some of them had to halt work, while others were shut down. So the composer instead went for a minimal line-up in which every instrument group is nevertheless represented (strings, woodwind, brass and percussion). Stravinsky’s ascetic decision to restrict himself to the essentials was also a result of his plan to take his burlesque work on tour through Canton Vaud as a kind of travelling theatre, but it enabled him to discover a world of new forms and colours. From now on, ensemble music would be the prime field of endeavour for the musical avant-garde. Instead of ponderous, hierarchically organised orchestral forces, smaller, agile collectives were now in demand.

The Lemanic Modern Ensemble was founded in 2007, and today it plays a considerable role on the French-Swiss musical landscape. It recently gave the world première in Geneva’s Victoria Hall of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in a reduced instrumentation by the Swiss composer Nicolas Bolens. The introduction to the Ensemble’s current annual programme clearly distinguishes it from the symphony orchestra as an institution of the musical establishment. International music life, says the Ensemble, is characterised by resorting to prestigious performers who as a rule restrict themselves to the traditional repertoire. The world of contemporary music stands in contrast to this; it possesses limited resources and has thus never really been in a position to assert itself in the world of “great music”. The Ensemble here confirms in sober words what Arthur Honegger once said in the early 1940s: “Once people have understood that orchestras need to be subsidised so that they can play a few hours of other works apart from the famous classics, wouldn’t it then also be fair to support a chamber music ensemble in the same manner if it tried to advocate contemporary music? Even if it is just an ‘ensemble’, we shouldn’t deny it what is given to an orchestra”. There is really nothing more to add to that. 


New, different, without boundaries

It is clear that these ensembles can be seen as a reaction against the traditional model of the symphony orchestra that was a child of the 19th century. On the other hand, however, some ensembles have recently been set up in Switzerland that keep their distance from those already mentioned. And they certainly don’t want anything to do with the orchestras. They tend to avoid having any “bosses” (neither music directors nor artistic directors), and they try out things that you don’t always grasp straightaway – improvising, casting out all classical notions of “the work”, incorporating other forms of expression, and repeatedly questioning everything in a radical manner, including themselves. Today, one has the impression that existential problems don’t have to suffocate artistic vision, but can actually further fan the flames of creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention – at least to a certain extent.

There is a long list of ensembles that you can’t properly pigeon-hole. One of the more prominent is Steamboat Switzerland, founded in 1995, and more of a band than an ensemble. If you listen to Dominik Blum (Hammond organ), Marino Pliakas (bass) and Lucas Niggli (drums), then you might start asking yourself whether you’re in Donaueschingen, at a rock festival, at a jazz concert or in a noise club. These three musicians recently played in the pit in the Basel Theatre for the opera Diodati. Unendlich by Michael Wertmüller, in a collaboration with the Basel Symphony Orchestra.

The Ensemble Vide is something very different. Its name says it all (from the French “vide” = “empty”). Apart from a small team of musicians who are busy with artistic coordination, administration, fundraising and communication, you’ll look in vain on their website for the names of any permanent members of the Ensemble. They repeatedly invite musicians and personalities from all kinds of fields to participate in their interdisciplinary projects. They’re not interested in delivering a ready-made product. Every one of their projects is conceived on a white sheet of paper, with the venue in question playing a crucial role right from the start. Their absolute favourite venue is the Arcoop. This is an industrial building that was erected in Carouge in the late 1950s and was intended to provide spaces for craftsmen and small businesses. Inside, you can look out from every floor across the inner courtyard into the opposite side, as well as up and down. That enables you to perceive what is offered from very different perspectives.


More refreshing than a cocktail: the Ensemble Batida


The Ensemble Batida is also based in Geneva. Its five young members – four of them women – comprise three percussionists and two pianists, and they engage with composed contemporary music, improvisation, installations, acts of fusion with other arts, and much more besides. Their name is taken from a Portuguese word for a refreshing, alcoholic cocktail: “Batida is an explosive mixture; it’s about the stability of the bass lines and the harmonic buzz of the material as its vibrations spread out”, says their homepage. The Mycelium Collective is another very recent example of a Swiss “ensemble” that ticks differently. Its projects are situated somewhere between music, art and science, without however extinguishing the autonomy of the individual disciplines. Their starting point is often a social question. They can create new points of access to these topics in an intuitive, emotional manner that goes beyond language. Many of these new ensembles see the Ensemble Vortex as their role model. Since it was founded in 2005 by a group of young composers from Switzerland, the rest of Europe and Latin America, Vortex has never yet played any music by dead composers. They engage more with innovative compositional styles than with anything already established, and they link these with electro-acoustics, digital technologies, scenic settings, improvisation, dance, theatre, installations … and the list goes on.

Switzerland is at present in the midst of a veritable boom when it comes to setting up new ensembles (see also the article “Too many cooks make a better broth”). At a time when utopias are mocked for being a privilege of daydreamers, the protagonists of these innovative music ensembles offer proof that we should never give up our utopian ideals. They are there to be realised. There are no boundaries placed on our imagination. The present article, however, isn’t so lucky. For now, we have to bring things to a close. The abovementioned ensembles – and especially those we haven’t mentioned – will hopefully be the subject of a more intensive investigation on this portal, in the very near future. 


Our author, Johannes Knapp, has just been appointed the artistic director of the Collegium Novum Zürich. He was originally intended to have editorial responsibility for this whole dossier, and to coordinate its articles. However, in order to remain faithful to our journalistic principles, we swiftly reached the mutual conclusion that this dossier now has to be assigned to someone else. We should like to thank Johannes Knapp for working with us.