Surrogate Cities at the KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen

An Interview with Ingo Metzmacher

The orchestra cycle ›Surrogate Cities‹ by Heiner Goebbels, which has been successfully performed all over the world since its premiere in 1994, offers the musical portrait of an imaginary metropolis. The work derives its impulses from texts, drawings and structures of city maps, using sounds from Berlin and New York, Tokyo and St. Petersburg, and unexpectedly hitting upon historical-musical fragments and finds. As a digital repository of these acoustic materials, the sampler plays a central role. On May 21, 2017, ›Surrogate Cities‹ will be performed at the KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen by the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, which for the first time brings together Ensemble Modern, musicians of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and the International Ensemble Modern Academy for this project. Vocalist David Moss and jazz singer Jocelyn B. Smith lend their voices to the narrative parts. Ensemble Modern spoke to Ingo Metzmacher, artistic director of the KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen and conductor of this production, about the idea for the project, the unusual performance venue and his connection with Ensemble Modern.

Ensemble Modern: How did the idea for ›Surrogate Cities‹ at the 2017 KunstFestSpiele come about?
Ingo Metzmacher: Ever since I became artistic director of the KunstFestSpiele, I have been searching for larger spaces, industrial buildings in Hanover, attempting to counterbalance the baroque performance venues in Herrenhausen. I was told to go look at the factory where Volkswagen builds its commercial vehicles in Hanover. It is a huge complex, where more than 13,000 people work. They have a hall where they regularly hold their general assemblies of about 5,000 employees. It can be transformed in no time. Fortunately, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles was very interested in hosting something completely different there. My dramaturge Stephan Buchberger, who worked for Ensemble Modern and with Heiner Goebbels for many years, immediately thought of ›Surrogate Cities‹. There are many reasons for this: we did not want to present a concert in the conventional sense, but a piece in which the sound matches the surroundings, as is the case in ›Surrogate Cities‹. Here, the sampler which stores concrete sounds plays a major role, and the orchestra is electronically amplified. Thematically, the factory – a »city within a city« – is also very appropriate for ›Surrogate Cities‹. We are in the midst of one! Next to us, a freight train is parked, and you see auto body parts on a conveyor belt and in containers. I like such environments. For us it is very interesting to go from Herrenhausen to a place which is totally different.

EM: So the reason was not a concrete theme of your festival in 2017, but rather a general desire to take the festival in new directions?
IM: Every year, we want to do something big, speaking to Hanover as a whole. In the first year, 2016, we did the ›Gurre-Lieder‹, setting the city in motion. For the second year, ›Surrogate Cities‹ seems just the thing to us.

EM: ›Surrogate Cities‹ is a collage of urban elements, texts, classic and electronic sounds. How much of the intriguing element is due to this very concrete situation within this factory building, set amidst production machinery?
IM: Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles will not interrupt production for us, but we are allowed to enter this area of the factory in the production pause between Friday evening and Monday morning. There has never been anything like it there: in mid-production process, another »team« will enter the hall, also »constructing« something: a piece which will be performed there. Of course the montage-like nature of the music helps matters considerably. The fact that ›Surrogate Cities‹ unites so many elements makes it a good fit for our festival in general. We try to bring things together, to seek out connections and create combinations which one is unlikely to see and hear elsewhere.

EM: Is that a core characteristic you have chosen for the Metzmacher tenure in Herrenhausen? Or are there further key areas which are important to you?
IM: Both of us – Stephan Buchberger and I – have our roots in music. We look at everything from the musical perspective, even as we search for connections in all other art genres as well. During recent years, it has become very clear that the boundaries between these genres are disappearing more and more. I always resisted the fact that music, which is needed everywhere – in film, theatre, dance and performance – is considered merely a necessary side attraction. For me, music is very meaningful and important in its content. So we start with music and branch out into these other areas. That is the central idea. ›Surrogate Cities‹ also turns from music to other areas of texts, to areas of urban interpretation. To me, »musical« might also mean that there is no sound at all. There are performances that require special timing, where something intensifies, becomes dense like music, although no music is heard. Or performances in which music is used only sparingly, but plays a very important role. Last year, for example, we presented ›Singspiele‹ by Maguy Marin, in which a performer changes faces and clothes for an hour, humming a Schubert song. Yet it might also be an evening of dance in which music plays a very inspiring role, instead of merely being random music one can dance to. It might be an installation within which one moves around, surrounded by music. Last year we did a night concert, opening the doors afterwards and sending people out into the morning as the birds were singing.

EM: Are these cornerstones due to the tandem Metzmacher/Buchberger or does the region of Hanover also play a role in this direction you are taking?
IM: I think that the region has room for all kinds of things. We have two spaces in Herrenhausen: one with a highly historic context, the other a functional theatre space. Neither of them is very large. If you want to do something larger, you have to look outside Herrenhausen. Furthermore, we need a counterweight for the historic surroundings of Herrenhausen if we really want to affect the city. However, taking music as a point of departure is due to this tandem indeed.

EM: Both at the festival and specifically with ›Surrogate Cities‹, you have e double role as presenter and artistic leader of the production. How does that feel?
IM: It feels good! I want people to be able to hear and experience me within the festival. In 2017 I will even conduct two projects. It would be a bit odd if I had no presence as a conductor at the festival.

EM: Definitely. But might it also create tension – whether stimulating or perhaps stressful?
IM: You are even closer to the process. You initiate something and it is actually implemented. In other places, once you are engaged, you usually have to compromise, and you’re not fully in charge of things. Therefore, I like this situation. It is not stressful, since I have an outstanding team covering my back.

EM: Why is an orchestra like the Ensemble Modern Orchestra particularly suited to such a production?
IM: Apart from its experience with Heiner Goebbels’ music, it brings to the table the curiosity and willingness to perform a work in such a place. It is an adventure which has never been undertaken in Hanover in this form.

EM: Surely, another special feature is that we have the experienced Ensemble Modern members on the one hand and the current and former fellows of the International Ensemble Modern Academy and members of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie on the other. We will be working at different rehearsal speeds, holding pre-rehearsals to quickly integrate the young musicians into the overall picture. How does such a constellation affect your work?
IM: This too is a continuation of what we did in the first year. We brought together the NDR Radio Philharmonic and the orchestra of the Hanover Music Academy. That worked very well. Of course I rehearsed more with the students, and the professional orchestra took the time to lead the students in sectionals and partial rehearsals. It is a good process in which experience joins youthful enthusiasm and curiosity.

EM: In addition, it is surely noteworthy that you also have a close relationship with the »factory« on Schwedlerstraße, where both Ensemble Modern and the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie are headquartered.
IM: Ensemble Modern is my musical home. And one of the first large orchestra projects I did involved the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie. My roots and theirs are closely connected: Ensemble Modern was a place where young musicians met in the 1980s, eager to tread a different path, and that was of essential importance for my musical life. I dare not imagine what my trajectory might have been if Ensemble Modern had not existed. The fact that I took my first steps as a conductor with Ensemble Modern has influenced me essentially. We already opened last year’s KunstFestSpiele with Ensemble Modern. I am delighted to continue this now on this larger scale.

EM: We are also very happy – including about the idea of bringing together all the institutions at home at the »factory« in Frankfurt, which we developed jointly. Thank you for this initiative, and for our conversation.

Ingo Metzmacher spoke to Christian Fausch, Artistic and General Manager, Ensemble Modern.