#epoch_f goes Europe

Lucas Vis and Johannes Schwarz in Conversation

For the tenth time, in the autumn of 2017, the International Ensemble Modern Academy (IEMA) presents the master course epoch_f for young instrumentalists. This year the course is extended internationally: #epoch_f goes Europe. Participation is open to winners of the federal round of the German competition »Jugend musiziert« and an equal number of winners of comparable foreign competitions. The foreign participants are selected via EMCY, a network of national and international youth music competitions all over Europe, whose mission is subsequent support for winners by securing concert engagements, master courses and workshops. For the first time, the results of the master course epoch_f are presented not only in Germany, but also on tour in Aarhus (Denmark) and Bratislava (Slovakia). During the epoch_f course from August 25 to September 1, 2017, more than 20 young musicians aged 14 to 20 try their hand at works of the 21st and 20th centuries, guided by five Ensemble Modern members as docents and a renowned guest conductor at the State Music Academy in Wolfenbüttel. Together, they decode unfamiliar New Music scores, experiment with playing techniques and create new sound experiences in individual, group and tutti rehearsals. Lucas Vis accompanies the course as a guest conductor for the third time. IEMA spoke to him and to bassoonist Johannes Schwarz, who has been a docent at epoch_f for many years, about working with young instrumentalists, the various course formats and its extension to the international level.

IEMA: Unlike master classes for students at the academy level, the instrumental abilities and the ages of the epoch_f participants vary greatly. What makes programming the course works special?

Johannes Schwarz: It is difficult to confront the students with works that demand »classical« playing techniques, because then they remain stuck in their conventional education mode and fall back onto their classical musicality; in these cases, there is little room for development. The students react more quickly when they are forced to learn new playing techniques on their instrument, going beyond what is »normal«. Unlike academy students, these students have little experience with New Music, or none at all, but they are intuitively able to grasp new sounds, to adopt and implement them in a very short period of time. They are much more open to the fun inherent in making an instrument crunch and squeak, in leaving classical playing techniques behind.

Lucas Vis: It is important to work on pieces which open the possibility of experiencing the sound world of this New Music in collaboration, without losing too much time over problems of rhythm or instrumental technique.

IEMA: What is the atmosphere like at the beginning of the course? Do the participants bring musical ideas with them, or are they afraid of New Music?

LV: First of all, people have to get to know each other, it is like a game. Slowly, self-confidence increases, and we can begin to make music. When rehearsing older music, one has often already heard the works and is familiar with the musical material. For New Music pieces, however, there are often no recordings for reference. For the first time, the students have to play something they have never heard; that is a huge task for them. Therefore, the first two days pass very slowly. Only when the participants discover that they have this ability does the developmental curve rise very quickly.

JS: In the beginning, the participants are often very reticent, without voluntarily offering any musicality for New Music. They only play the notes – mostly as if they were ashamed. During these first ensemble rehearsals, we have to show the students that it is fun to put New Music on stage. That it is a new experience for a conductor and the docents as well – the manner in which we sit for a certain piece, how we listen to each other. We have to convey this flexibility without giving the students a sense of insecurity. That is why the individual lessons with the participants are very important, since they allow us to clarify concretely what is missing, what is already secure and how this security can be supported.

IEMA: Every year, about five docents devote themselves intensely to teaching the course. How do they work together?

LV: The situation is, of course, ideal. Everyone is full of energy 24 hours per day, everyone works and laughs all the time – it would be hard to imagine a better setup!

IEMA: In addition, the participants perform their concerts with Ensemble Modern musicians, sitting next to them on stage. How important is this experience for the students?

LV: It is enormously important. During the rehearsals, everyone is seeking solutions for their problems; then the Ensemble Modern musicians join the group, and suddenly, everything becomes clear. Without words, the students immediately sense how to play together. In addition, the professional also add an incredible calm to any performance. For me, working with young people is no different than working with adults. You start where the musicians are, and try to achieve more. That is how the EM members also work: with love, precision and of course musicality.

JS: I can see several advantages. By playing with the Ensemble Modern members, of course the level of quality rises. By teaching individually, one creates a certain level, but together with the professionals, one can ask more of the ensemble as a whole, e.g. playing techniques, tempo, etc. And then there is the passing on of tricks: how do you listen in a certain situation? How to find your way through fast rhythms? How to breeze through extremely fast notes? In 2016, when we were playing Michael Jarrell’s ›La Chambre aux Échos‹, that was certainly one of the main questions. The piece is technically extremely demanding, and its difficulty surely marks the upper extreme of what can be done in the course. However, side by side with the professionals, it could be done – at a level where the students truly experienced and implemented Michael Jarrell’s musicality for themselves. To them, the most valuable element is sitting next to the professionals, working at eye level. As musicians, the students must be accorded the same respect as the professionals.

IEMA: But are there also difficulties within the course?

LV: Of course occasionally I notice that a student has difficulties with a certain passage within the ensemble. For example, a pianist once had problems in a piece by Anton Webern. I advised him to play his part with wrong notes, but with the right timing. He was initially astonished, but after two or three days, it worked, even with the right notes! A trombone player once had rhythmical trouble: he was supposed to play five quarter-notes in a 4/4 measure, something he considered impossible. On a blackboard, I »translated« the four quarter notes into the 4/4 measure for him, using slurs. In addition, I asked him to go outside and count to five while taking four steps. After two days, he came up to me and said: »I can do it!«

IEMA: In order to try out complicated rhythms, every course features a workshop in rhythm and improvisation...

JS: Yes, the daily rhythm workshop is an essential ingredient of this course. Rhythms that don’t work in the ensemble rehearsals are repeated in the rhythm workshop, using a playful approach, for example with ball games and logical puzzles. All this aids ensemble playing in an abstract manner.

IEMA: The format epoch_f has been continuously expanding internationally. During recent years, in addition to »Jugend musiziert« winners, the course has also accepted winners of foreign musical competitions; in 2017 almost half of the participants are international. What effect does this have on the course?

JS: The international provenance of the participants shows mainly that New Music does not exist for German students alone, but is internationally important and has achieved a certain status. Among the participants, the working process also brings palpable interest in other people’s cultural backgrounds, and English automatically becomes the working language.

IEMA: Can you discern differences in motivation or preparation?

LV: I have the impression that the young German musicians are quite self-confident. The foreign participants, on the other hand, are more insecure, hoping that they have the right level of competence and doing their best to keep up. When the foreign participants then play well, this makes the Germans more self-critical.

JS: I would also say that the foreign students are extremely well-prepared. From the very beginning, they feel tense, and they ask the most questions. There is also a short workshop during which the students can introduce or play their own compositions – here, the foreign participants are also the most active. One reason for this high level of engagement and the great interest from the foreign participants is surely that in their home countries, possibilities to learn New Music are often even more limited than in Germany.

IEMA: Another format is the moderators’ workshop, which prepares the participants to introduce the works presented at the concerts before performing them.

JS: The moderators demonstrate that New Music is always current, and that it requires joyful experimentation to implement it. The artist must be able to make the audience care about the piece – not just by playing, but also by explaining. It is important to understand this.

LV: The students must think very carefully about what to present to the audience, and how. When speaking to an audience, phrasing, volume and timing must be considered. It is like making music: you have to make what you say, or play, comprehensible.

IEMA: Do you, Mr. Vis, know of comparable formats?

LV: I have never heard of any. I can only hope that the course becomes known worldwide. This educational work is a very important experience for Ensemble Modern and its docents, and it also contributes to Ensemble Modern’s own quality. After all, every teacher is constantly learning.

IEMA: Thank you very much for this conversation. We look forward to this year’s course and the joint concert tour to Aarhus and Bratislava.

Christiane Engelbrecht, General Manager of the International Ensemble Modern Academy, conducted the interview.

The Master Course epoch_f is organised by the International Ensemble Modern Academy (IEMA) on behalf of the Landesmusikrat Niedersachsen, in cooperation with the State Music Council for Lower Saxony, the European Union of Music Competitions for Youth (EMCY) and the Foundation “Jugend musiziert Niedersachsen”, made possible by the Lower Saxony Foundation, the Allianz Cultural Foundation, the Goethe-Institute and Musikfonds. The course is one of the training programmes of the Federal competition “Jugend musiziert”.