„Coraggio“: The Feeling of ADEvantgarde

The relevancy of new music festivals as vehicles of change and ideology is something that always seems to be a goal among artists, but seldom a success story. This isn’t due to a lack of ambition or dedication on the parts of composers, performers, and organizers, but rather a lack of cohesion with regards to what it means to embrace ideology and innovation. Because of the politics and funding required to meld together a festival, oftentimes genre and compositional practice are prioritized for the sake of academic cohesion; by appealing to a certain demographic, compartmentalizing panels and presentations into a common theme, the gist of what any given festival means can often be summed into a predictable pattern.


This seems like a petty detail to harp on—of course, festivals can manifest in a variety of ways and there is no objective way to organize and fund a series of performances and workshops. However, as I write this on a Flixbus to attend the 2017 ADEvantgarde festival (full disclosure: for which I have a piece premiering by the NAMES Ensemble), I can only remember how vitalized I felt when I attended my first ADEvantgarde in Munich, Germany in 2015.

I was vitalized by the music, sure, but mostly the overall atmosphere, one which didn’t necessarily share a strict musical cohesion more than an ideological one: to present honest, interesting music that was not afraid to cross boundaries. Having grown up mainly raised in more underground, DIY, and punk-oriented music scenes, this sense of community within a universe I previously considered to have a predisposed etiquette was particularly eye-opening. To see groups like the Breakout Ensemble present a unique mixture of theater and musicianship (on top of an already diverse program comprising their “Young Lions Reloaded” concert) alongside multimedia world premieres (the “Spinnen!” concert) and a variety of other topics didn’t just overwhelm me with the musical juxtapositions, but energized me to feel a unity in attitude. This was something I hadn’t previously experienced in new music: a conglomerate of composers and performers who shared a spirit before a musical practice.

The impression this experience left with me only makes sense, though, when you consider the initial purpose of the ADEvantgarde festival. Started by a group of young German composers in the late 1980s (most prominently associated with Sandeep Bhagwati and Moritz Eggert), the festival was meant to be a conscious breakaway from more traditional, academic, and serialist types of new music that were prevalent in the mid-20th century. Instead, they chose to focus on music that is without dogmaticism and constraints (an aspect that is still emphasized in the work of Bhagwati and Eggert to this day). Although there is always some sort of theme unifying the festival, the topics chosen are almost always amusical and set the stage to continue the attitudes that built its foundation.

All of these reasons make up why I am particularly enthused to have a premiere of mine included in the 2017 program, curated by the composers Alexander Strauch and Samuel Penderbayne. The theme for the year is “courage”, specifically in the Italian spelling of “coraggio”. Pulling from a diverse set of composers and ensembles ranging from Katharina Susanne Müller to Jennifer Walshe to the Verworner-Krause-Kammerorchester (VKKO), the unifying word is less of a theme and more of a prescriptive feeling. And, in the context of the specific perspective the festival was founded on, having courage be the leading gesture of the festival seems most appropriate.

For me, my take on courage manifested itself in my piece How My Heart Feels Sometimes, written for the NAMES Ensemble (specifically for flute, clarinet, cello, and solo vocalist). I didn’t view courage as a motivator to write a certain type of music, but rather as a reason to begin publishing thoughts I have already been developing for the past few years. In this case, my piece represents my first public foray into my ideas on what I refer to as “actionist music” (the foundation for which will be published later this year)—this is not meant to refer to a manifesto or specific performance practice, but rather a series of extended techniques I have focused on regarding the perception of sound as influenced by certain actions (differentiated from performance art by the primary product being sound).

Though it is something we frequently take for granted, altering one’s state of mind (without the use of substances or technology) can also create a unique musical experience, allowing composers to write pieces in which the performer is hearing something entirely different than the audience while still technically hearing the same physical sound. To connect this idea to tradition, in avant-garde music, typically the act of a performer drinking from a glass of water is used to incorporate the sound of drinking water as part of a composition. In contrast, I am speaking about how your ears (specifically eustachian tubes) create a “popping” sound when you swallow while drinking water, producing a different musical rhythm that can become a part of the piece itself.

Although these ideas are typically rooted in my experiences with manic states and trauma (when under stress the human mind perceives sound differently, which can be—safely—harnessed later as a compositional tool), How My Heart Feels Sometimes makes use of this in two main ways: the first being the rhythms given to the performers, which are not dictated by the sheet music but rather by breathing patterns.

The instrumentalists are instructed to coordinate their strokes with their breath, inhaling slowly and exhaling until unable to continue, then pushing beyond that (within the personal boundaries of the performers, of course) to induce a brief feeling of breathlessness, after which they gasp and inhale once again. The mental stress this induces not only changes the consistency of the note (among other things), but also changes the way the performer hears the notes, making it difficult for their minds to concentrate on certain aspects of the music. The vocalist does a similar gesture while forcefully dragging a red marker (i.e. Sharpie) across their skin, adding to their perception through aleatoric sounds and a more physical iteration of the aforementioned mental effect.

This is then complimented by an optional audience handout which features typed-out gestures that resemble sounds almost every adult who has stepped foot in a city has heard, such as a car starting up. They are instructed to read this to themselves in chronological order at their own pace while the performance is taking place, inserting an internalized piece of musique concrete into the mix while also alluding to Plato’s chair metaphor (the sound I think of for a car starting up is different than yours, but we label them similarly).

These approaches to influencing one’s perception of sound as a compositional tool only scratch the surface of my interest in the topic—but that’s the thing; although I might have struggled in the past with finding a place to speak about these ideas, the context of the ADEvantgarde festival, the composers, and performers bringing unique approaches to music and performance instills a sense of community that is less cliquely and more open-minded…and that is something that I think should not just be recognized, but cherished.

The 14th bi-annual ADEvantgarde Festival begins tonight at 19Uhr with the “Aufbruch 1” concert featuring the Landesjugendensemble Neue Musik Berlin at the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste, Max-Joseph-Platz 3 in München.

 “How My Heart Feels Sometimes” can be heard on the NAMES Ensemble concert this coming Thursday (25. Mai) at the “Aufbruch 2” concert at the Black Box, Rosenheimer Straße 5 in München.

Composer and Arranger, Violist, Music Producer

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