. Postmodern studies: Music: The End of Instruments

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Leuk 2014: The end of the instrument

ForumWallis: Festival of New Music

By Peter Hulm

Once you've killed off tunes as not challenging enough to your creativity (Leuk 2013), where do you go next? The 2014 ForumWallis, an international festival of new music, pointed the way to an answer: take on the instruments.

If you no longer treat your instruments and their traditional sonorities as sacred, you can take advantage of any of the sounds they produce.

And once you have taken that step, any object can become a musical instrument.

And virtually any experience can become material for a composition.

A study in inebriation

At ForumWallis 2014, offering 100 premieres over five days, the nearest any performance came to programme music was a Japanese piece that illustrated the various kinds of drunkenness produced by the rice wine sake when drunk at various temperatures. It underlined my conviction that the Japanese in general have a terrific sense of humour.

The piece was played by the Curious Chamber Players of Stockholm in their first tour of Switzerland.

One piece did present the keyboarder playing a toy piano at breakneck speed. But it was designed to show as much what unusual sounds and patterns you could produce with this instrument as to suggest that it was a neglected element of the orchestra.

Flowerpots and electronics

More adventurously, the ensemble played flowerpots and electronic recordings of ambient sound, and the violinist Karen Hellqvist demonstrated her virtuosity with a piece that used recordings of all the sounds in the process of making a violin, from tree felling to soundboard shaping. It became a duet between a player and the history of her instrument.

Even the opening piece at their Monday concert brought the five women members before us playing their instruments with equal virtuosity in unusual ways.

The director Malin Bång describes herself as playing "objects".

When I told a friend I was astounded by the virtuosity of such young players, he pointed out that many virtuosi are young. True, but they usually take the "easy" path of showing their skills on recognized masterpieces rather than playing compositions hardly anyone will hear.

Going huge

Contra, by contrast, a middle-aged trio from Basle playing with local genius HansPeter Pfammatter (no exaggeration) on Saturday, challenged conventonal ideas of horn instruments by bringing onstage outsized wind instruments (the smallest was a tuba) for a concert where we didn't hear one oompah, and hardly any notes produced through standard fingering. Pfammatter himself was busy most of the time messing about inside the piano to produce some ethereal sounds with wires and other objects.

The caricatural size combined with the unconventional sounds produced a concert that managed to be both funny and moving (Katharina Rosenbergers's Tinguely Machine 3.0), and kept at least three kids fixed in their seats for 40 minutes: I bet more successfully than most television cartoons. I hope it opened their minds to all the unexplored possibilities of sound awaiting them in the future.

Leuk's international network

ForumWallis this year had a more international flavour than last year's, a result of director Javier Hagen's efforts to build up a network with contemporary composers and musicians in Turkey, Greece, Russia, Austria and Japan. Audiences were not large, often mostly the other performers and some children. But the relaxed atmosphere and the chance to connect with likeminded creative artists in the idyllic surroundings of Leuk Castle gives this festival a cachet of its own -- as the performers noted.

Hagen himself is a composer and singer. One CD on sale offered his wild orchestrations of traditional Swiss-German folk songs. I can't wait to hear it.