›contempo primo‹

An interview with Jens Cording, Prof. Rolf Beck and Kasper de Roo

Under the name ›contempo primo‹, the Ensemble Modern (EM), the Siemens Foundation and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing jointly offered master classes in contemporary ensemble playing. Together with the guest conductor Kasper de Roo, the EM musicians as tutors taught Chinese instrumentalists in several working phases between August2010 and May 2011, with the aim of creating the first ensemble for contemporary music in China. Following its successful inaugural concert in May 2011, the newly founded Ensemble ConTempo has now been invited to play at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival (SHMF) which this year is focusing on China to mark the Year of Chinese Culture in Germany. The SHMF offers an extensive programme on 11th and 12th August 2012 in Lübeck and Hamburg with Ensemble Modern and Ensemble ConTempo: In the first part of the concert the Ensemble Con- Tempo will focus on New Music in China and will premiere the three award-winning compositions from the Chinese-German composition competition ›ConTempo‹. The winner of the 1st prize is also awarded the 2012 Paul Hindemith Prize. As a counterpoint to this first part, afterwards music from the U.S. will be hard. Initially, in the second part, both Ensembles will play John Cage’s ›Atlas Eclipticalis‹, and finally, the EM will perform further pieces by the American composers John Adams and Steve Reich. The EM spoke to the initiator of the ›contempo primo‹ project, Jens Cording, from the Siemens Foundation, Prof. Rolf Beck, director of the SHMF, and Kasper de Roo about the situation of New Music in China and the beginnings of the ›contempo primo‹ project.

Interview with Jens Cording (JC), Siemens Foundation

EM: Jens, your first visit to China was quite some time ago. What was your impression then of the situation of New Music in China?

JC: About eight years ago I was asked to give some thought to the idea of possible music projects in China. I did some research, listened to works by Chinese composers and tried to find musicians to work with; but, to tell the truth, I ran aground because there were no real points of contact to our main focus of contemporary music. Even during my research trip to China my impression was confirmed that contemporary music is hardly played there. Nor do they play very much chamber music or amateur music – and when they do, it’s traditional Chinese music but not Western classical. If you learn to play an instrument or study music in China, then it’s with one specific goal, namely to pursue a big solo career. The training courses are designed accordingly. Of course, such motives are not unknown to European musicians, but in Europe people are more aware of other options, such as orchestras or chamber music or working as a music teacher. This idea is not necessarily very common in China.

EM: Why did you decide to do something in China and where did the idea of the ›contempo primo‹ project come from?

JC: I listened to some chamber music classes in the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. There were very few classes in chamber music at that time; I think each student only had about one hour’s tuition throughout their entire course. One particularly memorable experience was a teaching unit in which they were working on Mozart’s ›Kegelstatt Trio‹. Each individual played superbly but they were often out of time with one another and hardly ever corrected themselves. It seemed to me that the only aim of the session was to start and finish together. That’s why the Goethe-Institut and the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation began organising courses in chamber music, culminating in concerts given by course participants and always with the plea to try out a piece of contemporary music. The chamber music courses came to an end and my intrinsic desire was to really promote contemporary music in China. The Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and the Siemens Foundation then started planning the establishment of the first ensemble for contemporary music in China.

EM: Did the initiative come from the Foundation or from the Conservatory?

JC: The wish basically came from the Chinese Conservatory itself. They said they would like to have such an ensemble and that they would be delighted if we were to pass on the know-how that we have in Europe about founding an ensemble. I think the desire stemmed from the fact that the composition teacher Jia Guoping was training composers at the Conservatory but no one could perform their works. They were destined to end up on the shelf. Another problem was that there is no real format for a soloistic ensemble formation with around 20 musicians in China: On the one hand there are huge concert halls where famous soloists appear with symphony orchestras and on the other, little tea houses where traditional Chinese music is played; but there are no venues or traditions for concerts by ensembles. But now I think that as a result of the work we have done together, we have triggered off a process that is not finished by a long chalk.

EM: How did the project go from your point of view, how has it developed?

JC: Founding an ensemble in China was only possible in connection with a training programme which we called ›contempo primo‹: primo for first, and contempo for contemporary. It wasn’t just the vast teaching experience of the EM, gained in their master classes in Greece, Japan and Europe, that made us turn to you, but also because the EM had given a concert in China in 2006 where they played works by important Chinese composers so that they were already known as a big name in contemporary music. In the first four working phases, each lasting one week, about 95 Chinese musicians worked with the EM and the conductor Kasper de Roo at a very high level and came into contact with contemporary music; 40 of these musicians performed at the inaugural concert. Another positive factor of the project is that these instrumentalists passed on and developed their experience, acting as multipliers elsewhere. So there’s not just one individual little light burning, but this flame has inspired many other people in Beijing and beyond – in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, for example.

EM: And where do you go from here?

JC: The inaugural concert took place on 14th May, 2011 in a sold-out Beijing Concert Hall, in front of an audience of 1000 enthusiastic young people including lots of students. They were amazingly alert and open to this demanding concert programme. It is a happy coincidence that the SHMF has shown an interest in the ensemble so that there will be follow-up concerts in 2012 in Germany as part of the Year of Chinese Culture. The Chinese Ministry of Culture had already been following the programme with curiosity and increasing alertness and giving it their friendly support. The Ensemble ConTempo Beijing will first appear at the SHMF and then in October at the ›TonLagen‹ Festival in Dresden. Other institutions are also interested in working with the ensemble.

EM: Have you noticed – thanks to your contacts – any changes in the Conservatory?

JC: People have developed a greater openness and awareness of contemporary music and the word »chamber music« can now be heard everywhere. A lot of music students take more courses in chamber music, there are professors of chamber music and a stronger link between the department of contemporary music, the library and the orchestra department; there are stronger ties which are supported by the Conservatory management.

EM: And the professors, the teachers?

JC: In this respect the situation is similar to that at German universities and conservatories; the majority of professors are not particularly interested in contemporary music and it’s not much different in China. There are a lot of people who would like to tackle the field but do not know how to teach contemporary music; that would be another area we could work on.

EM: But one could say that people’s consciousness has changed?

JC: Yes. And it was interesting to observe the change during the course: at the beginning slowly feeling their way, advancing step by step and there were also battles to be fought in their minds. You have to remember that frontal teaching in China today is the same as it was in Germany in the 1950s. The teacher is sacred, almighty, even beyond the course itself. So I see it as a positive sign that so many students took part.

EM: And how do people in China approach Western culture?

JC: The Chinese are discovering their own Chinese tradition in parallel with Western music – whereas Mozart is as equally known or unknown as Stockhausen. The meeting of different cultures – that is what the Chinese seem to love so much. I have the impression that they are very interested in connecting with the rest of the world, in cultural fields, too. And the peculiarity of playing in an ensemble – the fact that when individuals play together in a small team the result is more than just the total of the individual input – can be clearly felt.

Interview with Prof. Rolf Beck (RB), Director of the SHMF

EM: Mr Beck, what impressions did you gather during your travels in China regarding chamber music and ensemble playing in this country?

RB: It took some time before I learned that the Chinese mentality and chamber music do not really fit together very well. People strive for a great soloist career, but playing in an ensemble is a discipline that still has to be developed in China. The aspect of interpretation is sadly missing, which is why I believe that the young Chinese musicians will benefit a lot from their stay here.

EM: It is interesting that you are emphasising on the reverse aspect and talking about the impressions Chinese musicians will gain here and take back to China, on the kind of approach to work here and what such a festival offers.

RB: Yes, and that is why I hope that in the future – irrespective of the Festival focus – we will still have the opportunity to keep in touch with the Beijing or also Shanghai conservatories, to invite musicians and teachers to get things moving over there.

EM: Do you expect that the reception of New Music in China will see a positive development as a result of this cooperation?

RB: Yes, above all because they are aware of the fact that the teachers have to be trained in the first place. There is a huge willingness to open up because they are very keen to have fast progress. You can feel that everywhere, not only in commerce, but also in culture.

EM: Four musicians from an ensemble with traditional Chinese instruments will also take part in the newly composed pieces that were commissioned for the ›ConTempo‹ composition competition and will be world-premiered at the SHMF. Do you think adding the sounds of typical Chinese instruments to Western classical ones is an interesting approach?

RB: Yes, I am a fervent supporter of this idea because it sows seeds on both sides and helps to initiate new developments. I think we can observe a great interest in China, partly also due to the fact that they are now aware that their own musical culture is not inferior, but just different. Bringing all this together is something I find very interesting. And we think it is great that the same people who play contemporary music also play traditional music. Where can you find that here?

EM: What do you expect for your Festival from this special concert situation – the big concert with Ensemble ConTempo and Ensemble Modern – when it comes to communicating with the Chinese ensemble and the audience?

RB: It is a very complex project with unique features. We have chosen this combination because we hope that we can – through the EM – stimulate the very same audience’s interest in what the Chinese have learned and the level they have reached. And we are delighted to present the Ensemble ConTempo with its first concert out of China here at our festival.

Interview with Kasper de Roo (KdR), conductor

EM: Kasper, how did you perceive the working phases in China and how does the educational environment there differ from ours?

KdR: This was, of course, an extraordinarily interesting experience. In the first phase we had some really good instrumentalists, but they had a totally different, more traditional approach to music. They didn’t want to apply themselves to anything new and unknown and disappeared after a while; others carried on, so we had a kind of natural selection.

EM: How would you describe the open-mindedness toward New Music and the related repertoire?

KdR: They were extremely open-minded. It was noticeable, however, that longer rehearsals led to poor concentration, since the students over there are not used to working with this intensity. An added difficulty, of course, was the unfamiliar material. Their knowledge of repertoire had a lot of gaps, many things are new for them, such as the Second Viennese School or – surprisingly – the music composed by Steve Reich. We delved into the orchestra pieces by Arnold Schoenberg in the version for chamber musicians, for example, which was a good thing to do. But it was evident that – as soon as we got down to the subtleties – their ears were not yet well enough developed. This is presumably because chamber music is not practised intensively. The work on intonation is very important, not only for smaller chamber music ensembles but also in pieces for larger ensembles. It turned out, however, that in the end a great deal can be achieved. As far as technical playing is concerned, some of the instrumentalists are superbly trained and cope with the most demanding passages.

EM: How do the Chinese musicians deal in particular with notation, rhythm or playing techniques in New Music?

KdR: As far as notation is concerned, there were certainly a lot of new things to explore. We rehearsed ›Plekto‹ by Xenakis, among others; we virtually disassembled the whole piece and afterwards put it together again, and yet they showed the necessary concentration and calm. So we managed to put on a good performance. And this is the great thing: once they decide to get completely into it, they really do it wholeheartedly, even embracing unfamiliar thoughts. As far as rhythm is concerned, there are certain problems, above all with complex rhythms. It is obvious that »listening for- each-other« still has to be established and developed. There’s a lot of catching up to be done in the area of playing techniques, too. Yet, in this aspect, quite a lot has been achieved in a very short period of time thanks to the wonderfully professional work of the EM tutors; and after the successful closing concert I am sure that we are making progress, that the compositional branch will also boom and people will be free to work in the way that the latest developments require.

EM: Can you draw any conclusions about the teachers from the participants’ training level?

KdR: There are very good teachers; most of them have studied in America and Europe for some time but have not yet had any contact with New Music. New Music is a partially unknown territory and what was unknown was the fact that there could be anything so interesting there – namely the connection to one’s own era. The graduates, too, are making efforts to grapple with New Music from Europe. This is also due to the fact that dealing with this kind of music implicates a certain feeling of freedom, self-reliance and liberality; and this is exactly what it is about in China at the moment.

EM: What do you think about the idea of adding traditional Chinese instruments to the instruments of a regular contemporary ensemble?

KdR: This is really exciting, and we have manifold possibilities waiting to be activated here. It has been done in the ›ConTempo‹ composition competition, for example, where tradition is linked to contemporary methods in a meaningful way and not only as a kind of »crossover« that attracts large audiences. Jia Guoping, for example, has written a contemporary piece for traditional instruments. He tries to build bridges and develop a new combination of tradition and New Music. Such a piece can, needless to say, also enrich our cultural life here!

EM: Did you personally benefit from this project?

KdR: Yes, I did, especially in human terms. It was really great to work with the Chinese students, it was much fun, and apart from concentration and seriousness there was ample opportunity to laugh, which inspires and stimulates the working process.