An eclectic programme explores the role of the musician as actor
For several decades now, ensembles from the Kronos Quartet to Absolute Ensemble to Eighth Blackbird have been challenging the notion of sit-down formalism in classical music performance. This past week in Berlin, the chamber string group Soloistenensemble Kaleidoskop presented an “installation concert” that extended that challenge.
Under the title "184.108.40.206.4 - a Metapraxis", the intensely physical and eclectic programme explored the role of the musician as actor, both in the context of solo performance and ensemble participation. The programme was seen here at the sleek arts center Radialsystem V. The programme travels tonight (Friday March 11) to the Salzburg Biennale. Next week, it will be seen again at the Operadhoy festival in Madrid (March 18-9).
While it offered no clear conclusions, the occasion certainly provided plenty of food for thought, as well as sonic and visual delights. If it was difficult to see how the programme’s various components fit together, there was also enough kinesis to make one stop caring. Throughout the production, the heightened theatricality seemed to be the main constraint and lent a technical, even artificial, feel to the proceedings.
Some strategies were more successful than others. An oft-quoted Kafka text seemed to befuddle rather than unify, and the use of a Jani Christou quote as a theoretical basis for the event seemed a superfluous and slightly pretentious touch.
Ultimately it came down to the music and the staging of that music.
The design of the evening was indeed baroque. Or maybe more accurately baroque meets a 1920s Berlin salon. The staid formalism of the entire outfit brought to mind the vacant denizens shuffling through the forebodingly opulent hotel in Last Year at Marienbad.
Lisa Bielawa’s Ghosts (2001-03) for violin demands that the soloist play (by rough plucking of the strings) and sing at the same time. The discovery was in seeing how soloist Daniella Strasfogel was both exposed and emboldened by the challenge.
Another highlight was John Cage’s Altas Eclipticalis (1961-62), whose musical staves are superimposed over star charts in a Czech astronomer’s atlas. The brightness of stars determines the amplitude of the notes. Tempo is left to the conductor to determine by simple (stark) vertical arm motions, which makes for a blend of ordered and uncertain variables. The most visually engaging segment was La Monte Young’s Poem for Chairs, Table, Benches, etc. (1960), in which the musicians drag various items of furniture in predetermined rhythms.
The evening crescendoed (both audibly and metaphorically) with Jani Christou’s Praxis for 12, a thrilling work exploring unity and disintegration in a performance for 11 soloists responding to the improvisations of a pianist/conductor.
The juxtapositions between musical styles were striking, but more often than not the baroque and classical offerings seemed a tranquil antidote from modern madness. Furthermore, the playing for these pieces was strident and a bit sharply tuned, tendencies exhibited most strongly in the evening’s final piece, CPE Bach’s Symphony in B Minor.
In striving for an integrated musical-theatrical experience, Kaleidoskop makes a valuable contribution with “Metapraxis,” combining musical seriousness with a striking visual sense and merry pranksterish attitude. Amid the applause that greeted the musicians at the end of the 75-minute programme, one had the distinct impression that what one had just seen was less a result and more an ongoing exploration.
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based contributor to Gramophone. His articles on classical music have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, WSJ Europe, Opera News Magazine and the Forward.