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Gaudeamus Music Week: the squeak-grunt definitively over?

The Gaudeamus Music Week seems to have definitely left behind the stage of thoughtful but audience-unfriendly 'bleep-grunt'. The renowned festival of new music presents 129 compositions from 32 countries over five days. Asko|Schönberg and Cappella Amsterdam kicked off Wednesday 6 September with a motley variety of styles. Thus, the opening concert was a gauge of what modern music lovers can expect through Sunday.

Gaudeamus Award nominee Sky Macklay paints in White/Waves with murmurs and hisses an imposing image of mighty ocean waves. Jan-Peter de Graaff hooks in Ripples for cello and ensemble to traditional harmonies and melodies. Russian Alexander Khubeev, on the other hand, chooses in The Codex of Thoughtcrimes just for the other extreme. He won the Gaudeamus Award 2015 with the equally contrarian Ghost of Dystopia.

Bas Wiegers conducts Asko|Schönberg & Cappella Amsterdan in The Codex of Thoughtcrimes. TivoliVredenburg 6-9-2017

Almost no instrument sounds like what we are used to, and the singers express their "thoughts perceived as crimes by others" through toilet rolls. The distorted moans and squeaks sound a bit like the way whales communicate with each other. Gradually, you start to yearn for a 'normal' tone. Musically, this Russian Carnaval des animaux perhaps not entirely convincing, but witty and appealing it is.

Timbre and simplicity

Prior to this concert, I spoke to the five nominees, Sky MacKlay; Ethan Braun; Ivan Vukosavljevic; Aart Strootman and Chaz Underriner. Despite their differences, there are common ground between the young music pioneers. They share a fascination with timbre and enjoy working with a minimum of material.

In Brauns Discipline produce four guitars in the same, different tuning, a complex fabric of overtones. Vukosavljevic builds in Atlas Slave a hypnotic world of sound from a guitar played with a bow. MacKlay presents in Many Many Cadences for string quartet a series of cadences gradually breaking down into glissandi.

Gaudeamus 6-9-2017 Ivan Vukosavljevic - Aart Strootman - Chaz Underriner - Thea Derks - Ethan Braun - Sky MacKlay (c) Herre Vermeer

Re-evaluating music tradition

The concerts by cellist Alistair Sung and the IEMA Ensemble - which otherwise lacked the work of the nominees - showed how much young composers are embracing the music tradition again. American Caroline Shaw based In manus tuas for cello solo to Thomas Tallis' motet of the same name. She organically interweaves sonorous snatches of early music with modern, more industrial sounds. The piece received a stylish performance by Sung.

Japan's Yukiko Watanabe deconstructs Bach's Goldberg Variations at Nue for piano and ensemble. The pianist interprets - jolting and bumping - the original, as a ghost followed by a koto and a clarinetist seated under the grand piano. A percussionist plays a flowerpot and projects yellowed holiday snapshots. - A beautiful allusion to our slowly fading memories, not only of Bach's music but also of our own past.

Scotland's Genevieve Murphy herself figured as a narrator cum singer in Squeeze Machine, inspired by the life of her autistic brother. In this theatrical piece, she debunks surreal texts about 'Artuur' tormented by fear and loneliness with a straight face.

Its introspective character is regularly startled by noisy recordings from a crowded pub, where accordion and bagpipe music is played. The entertaining piece was performed perfectly and in supreme concentration by the IEMA Ensemble, an academy for young musicians of Ensemble Modern.

Genevieve Murphy performing 'Squeeze Machine' with IEMA Ensemble, Theater Kikker 7-9-2017

Apocalyptic pleas

Thursday's highlight was the world premiere of Lacrimosa for seven violins by Ukrainian-Dutch composer Maxim Shalygin. He had always wondered why the traditional Requiem contains only one lacrimosa, the supplication of sinners for compassion and eternal rest. 'In my experience, this section is the magical focal point where all the main ideas converge,' he writes in a commentary of his own. 'Perhaps that is why it is invariably also the most beautiful part: full of feelings of pain and catharsis.' This is why he decided to compose himself 'a kind of requiem.'

That became Lacrimosa, or 13 Magic Songs. Shalygin himself conducted the seven violinists of the ensemble Shapeshift, which he co-founded. Light-footed, intimately entwining motifs ('Light'), ominous humming ('Insects') and arpeggios swirling frantically across the strings ('Stream') are interspersed with moments of pure, ethereal beauty ('Lullaby'), drifting pizzicati ('Rain'), screeching glissandi ('Sirens') and furious gun clanging ('Prayers').

Shalygin takes us through a range of emotions, with the emphasis, however, on feelings of despair, fear and anger; the apocalypse is never far away. The barefoot musicians, with their wildly moving bodies and arms, sometimes seemed to collapse under their heavy task. But thanks to their total abandonment, they contributed greatly to an enervating listening experience.

Lacrimosa was composed on behalf of the Gaudeamus Music Week. In recent years, the festival has shifted its emphasis to communicative music. This has made it noticeably more connected to a general audience; concerts by Sung and IEMA were (largely) sold out. Or with Shalygin's intense, heartfelt Lacrimosa will be put to bed for good, it remains to be seen, but the die has been cast.

After the concert, the audience was asked to buy a CD release of Lacrimosa help realise it through Fordekunst. My advice: do it!

 info and maps:



Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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