Eye-Level Encounters

A Conversation about the International Ensemble Modern Academy’s Master Courses

In 2003, Ensemble Modern founded the International Ensemble Modern Academy (IEMA), its own education arm with various programmes in the field of current music, offering international master courses, seminars for composers and conductors, education projects and a master’s degree course in contemporary music, the latter in cooperation with the Academy of Music and Performing Arts (HfMDK) Frankfurt. In this and the following editions of the Magazine, interviews with Ensemble Modern members will illuminate the various IEMA formats and current challenges. For the first instalment, David Rittershaus met violinist Jagdish Mistry and bassoonist Johannes Schwarz to discuss IEMA’s international master courses.

David Rittershaus: IEMA offers different education formats. What importance and function does IEMA have for the Ensemble Modern? Which role do the master courses play, which we are here to discuss in particular today?

Johannes Schwarz: Within the IEMA framework, we offer very different master courses, for example, epoch_f, international courses, as for example in the past in Greece or at the festival Klangspuren Schwaz, or the Hans Zender Academy – these are all for young musicians. The Young Ensemble Academy is designed for ensembles which already exist. These are all education projects through which we want to establish direct communication with young people within society.

Jagdish Mistry: The courses are designed for different age groups with very different needs, which we try to meet. Regarding repertoire, we also have to consider again and again what current music is today.

JS: To us it’s important what comes back to us when we give courses. Teaching means that as an ensemble, we don’t only revolve in our own orbit. Via IEMA, we have an exchange of interests with the young generation: what’s happening in society, which issues are relevant? At the moment, for example, it’s finances, climate change, war, insecurities, the internet. It makes us aware of what makes the young generation tick, how they view the arts and culture. In this regard, every course is intriguing.

DR: The term master course evokes great masters to whom the students look up with reverence …

JS: In our case, this image is not correct. When we are on a course, we are at eye level, on a level of communication with the participants, and that is also how we teach. We see what they offer, and then we pick them up where they are.

JM: It’s a bit different for formats such as epoch_f. There, the participants are aged 17 to 20, and we have to introduce them to new music, because they have very little experience with it. We must try to convey not only the music itself to them, but also the ideas behind this music, and develop something from that. A few years ago, for example, we took a rhythm by Steve Reich – the very familiar one from ›Clapping Music‹ – and built a whole instrumental piece from this; sometimes the rhythm was slowed down, sometimes doubled, etc.

DR: You are both highly experienced musicians, but has there been a learning process for you in education work? What were your challenges, and what was the fascinating thing about this work?

JS: The fascinating thing is that every course is new for us, and one realizes that teaching is about more than being a versatile, good musician. You have to go into the courses prepared, and engage, bringing lots of time and your entire soul, in order to spark the participants’ enthusiasm and take them along. But it also makes us think more carefully about ourselves.

JM: We often have to teach pieces we have never played ourselves. Still, we have to study them and find out what they are about, so that we can convey that. That means we often deal with the unknown. But of course we also bring our experience to the table, and can pass on our way of thinking.

DR: There have been several master course formats in the history of IEMA, some of which have been discontinued, and now there are other formats instead, such as the Young Ensemble Academy, which does not address individual instrumentalists, but ensembles and groups. Amidst all the explorations of novelty and the unknown, have there also been constants?

JM: I think regarding repertoire, there are constants. Pieces which must be taught, in our opinion. For example from the Second Viennese School. I would say that if you don’t know that language, you have a harder time understanding the music that comes after, for example Elliott Carter, Harrison Birtwistle or George Benjamin, even though they all compose very differently. The freedom of their musical language, however, stems from what the Second Viennese School created. That is why certain beacons must be examined and studied.

JS: Which brings us to the Young Ensemble Academy. There, young ensembles come to us when they have had a few years of experience and are trying to find their language as a group. They bring their own thoughts, which they want to transport into new music. Some of them mix various genres, and do so very virtuosically. We are often perplexed at what we see there. We have to pay attention to how young people, 20 to 30 years younger than we are, think about their music, how they invent musical forms with young composers from their generation. We have to develop a completely new sense of what is good, what is bad, and that is really difficult.

DR: Why are you focusing more on this target group with the Young Ensemble Academy? Has it attained greater importance?

JS: At the moment, we are focusing on this, but we will certainly offer other courses again at other times. At the moment, we observe how many groups are forming at the academies and the master’s degree courses for contemporary music, groups that want to push things forward. That’s the point where we want to help them, to show them what we have been learning for 40, 45 years about how this field moves.

DR: Has the cultural field changed in the past years, so that graduates are pushing on to the market as collectives and not so much as individual musicians?

JS: Yes, at the moment, at the academies you can feel – I hesitate to call it fear, but a distanced view of whether it’s even possible to be an independent musician. I think 20, 25, 30 years ago, people were much more open and positive in this regard. Today, they are more careful. I think that this leads to smaller ensembles, which are very flexible, bringing together various ideas and trying to support each other and implement larger projects together with other partners.

JM: What has become more difficult for us, in my opinion, is that today, music is expected to convey far more issues that are not musical. A good 40 years ago, when we started, that was not the case. Issues such as gender, climate, racism, music from other countries, from the global south – all that has been added to music. The exchange, however, is very fruitful for us, because we see how people react to a changed situation today.

DR: That means that on the one hand there are different demands of education regarding the professional field, which also have to do with insecurities, and on the other hand a different attitude regarding topics which are not really musical? Are there connections between the two?

JS: The insecurities have certainly grown. Financial means are tighter, and one has to work much harder to secure them, in order to survive and achieve things. As an ensemble, we are increasingly asked to demonstrate how to organize an existence in contemporary music. How does one deal with composers? How does one treat other art forms and styles? How does one encounter artists with whom one wants to pursue joint projects?

DR: Are these issues now becoming more important for instrumentalists?

JM: Larger ensembles of the young generation today often have one or two, sometimes even three composers in the ensemble who often determine the direction they go in, and are attuned to these issues.

JS: That’s an interesting point. When I see how efficiently young ensembles who have »regular« composers as members deal with music, i.e. their »building blocks«, and with their profession, I also note how quickly they then leave this compositional thinking entirely to the composers. I, on the other hand, am proud of the fact that Ensemble Modern must think and decide for itself. As musicians, it’s us who stand on stage and have to determine together with the audience: is what I am playing good or bad? And am I the last decider for the audience? For myself, I would say yes. When it comes to an ensemble’s character, I would never leave that to the composers.

JM: The problem is that these socially relevant issues cannot just be transferred to music. At the moment, finding that balance is a major task. However, it’s probably too early to say which direction it’s developing in.

DR: I would like to revert one more time to the Young Ensemble Academy. Apart from the issues and questions you mentioned, what exactly happens there?

JS: We work on several levels. We make various ensembles of different sizes communicate. We organize a place for encounters! This year, it’s five ensembles, and they all come together here for nine days at the Factory, the home of the German Ensemble Academy, where Ensemble Modern and IEMA have their headquarters. Every day, there are rehearsals, auditions, workshops etc. We share meals, and there is a lounge area where they can meet each other and us when they are on breaks. They have their own rehearsal space where we teach them and listen to their pieces. The interesting thing is that we don’t know about 80 percent of the pieces.

JM: Often the pieces were written for these groups.

JS: Sometimes it astounds us what this generation considers music. However, the encounters also help them discuss whether that is enough. What exactly is it they are doing there? We try not to judge this, in the sense of a master course, but to discuss with them: what is music, what defines it today? How do you engage with the audience?

JM: Every ensemble has to find its own path today. That will not be the path that Ensemble Modern took, which was a pioneer 44 years ago in Germany. Today, there are many other ensembles which have already found their niche. But how to move forward with this niche, that is an important question for them. So before all else, we have them tell us their career so far, and then we discuss jointly what their next steps might be.

DR: Is this mutually beneficial?

JS: Yes, in terms of content, of business, how do you have discussions within an ensemble? That also has to be organized. On this subject, we have workshops with our artistic manager and managing director Christian Fausch. We also invite guests. Louwrens Langevoort, the artistic director of Cologne’s Philharmonie, advised each ensemble in the last course from the presenter’s point of view.

DR: Is there anything from the first Young Ensemble Academy of 2022 that you are taking to the second one, that you want to do differently?

JS: I find the format so intriguing because it depends on the groups that apply. I am interested to see how the classical piano trio with the canonical compositions will stand up to another trio which does »wild« experiments with performance. That’s part of the concept and helps break things up.

JM: The main thing we offer is an open mind. We will also have two concerts this year, one in Offenbach and the big final concert at the Alte Seilerei in Frankfurt.

JS: The Alte Seilerei is the ideal location for the concert. One spends the entire day there, rehearsing with all the ensembles together, in a huge space where one can stay. It feels comfortable – it’s half out of Frankfurt, but still within.

JM: There is also a world premiere by the American composer Katherine Balch for an unspecified array of instruments, which has been conceived especially so that all the participating ensembles and the entire Ensemble Modern can participate. A great piece. Great shared music-making.