Leuk 2016: A 10-year spectacle of sound

ForumWallis 2016: Festival of New Music

By Peter Hulm

Concerts are no longer just about the music.

You might say that's nothing new.

True, in jazz clubs, the vision of Cecil Taylor's hands dancing over the keyboard was always a delight.

Aficionados also appreciated Thelonious Monk's fingers stabbing at the piano keys like a bird of prey. Or Ake Takase clambering inside her grand within a couple of minutes of starting a concert.

For classical music lovers there is still the delicious sight of Marthe Argerich wrestling Bach's even-tempered piano into sounds as passionate as Verdi's.

But the sight of their music-making was not essential to an appreciation of what was taking place.

poster for 2016

The joy of presence

In Leuk on 12 May for the opening in Leuk Castle of the 2016 New Music festival we had two concerts that required your presence to understand fully the virtuosity of the musicians.

First we had Christophe Fellay and Jill Richards' premiere of a piece entitled Equinox Gardens, a shimmering exploration of piano and percussion channelled through a laptop computer.

At times it reminded me of free jazz or the South African Chris McGregor's piano in the wilder parts of Brotherhood of Breath (Jill Richards is from SA). In other sections it was reminiscent of Varese's attempts to do stunningly melodic things with percussion.

And at every moment it was intense.

But how would you have taken part in that intensity if you weren't present? Pace Jacques Derrida's strictures on Western culture as privileging presence over all other qualities, it never felt less of a tyranny. Bassist Barry Guy, who appeared in Leuk on Whit Monday, has spoken of the euphoria which improvisation with others can engender in musicians, if it all works out right.

The Fellay-Richard duo took you along on their musical journey like botanists pointing out the beauties of the plants in the landscape that you had never noticed before.

But you had to see them to participate in the challenges of each moment as Richard and Fellay worked together or went off in separate directions (but always linked together by the line of the music).

What exactly Fellay was doing with his drums and cymbals proved consistently fascinating, while Richards made out of the piano at least five instruments by my count. The interest was not just in the sounds but how the musicians produced them. And that you had to see.

Georgian scrapbook

The second concert of the evening was Nicolas Vérin's "multimedia opera for five persons" (including three singers), Ushba and Tetnuld.

Created and recorded by Radio France in 2014, the "opera" is more a collection of fragments and a scrapbook in sound and vision exploring the myths that have grown up around two legendary mountains of the Georgian Caucasus.

Adapting pieces from local poets, Vérin used a backdrop by the French video pioneer Robert Cahen that plays with the conventions of the documentary film about life and customs of the region.

This description conveys nothing of the atmosphere of the concert, with dramatic presentations by the three singers, extraordinarily creative video manipulations and soundscapes.

Boiling landscape

One example gives an idea of the proceedings. The screen above the singers projected a peaceful mountain scene with a meadow and tree. Gradually the scenery started to boil and bubble. The tree and field turned into a Van Gogh, until the tree became a blotch of green.

At times there were enough multiple windows in the screen to make 24 jealous, and advancing on the TV series, the scenes switched from window to window.

But it was as important to follow what the singers were doing as to watch the screen. And one section had no visuals or singing at all, the representation of a windy spring rain beating down on a stable roof with cattle bellowing occasionally. And that seemed important to note, too.

Photographs, to repeat what Roland Barthes told us, always remind us of a time that has irretrievably gone. In his study of a society on the cusp between tradition and irresistable technological modernity, Vérin shows how music can do that, too, while preserving this world in its mysterious present.

The magnificent singers were Yaxiang Lu (baritone), Roula Safar (mezzo-soprano) and Javier Hagen (the festival organizer, tenor). Thibault Walter managed the live video and Thierry Maury was responsible for editing.

Eyes wider shut

The next day gave us music you can listen to with your eyes closed: Schönberg, Earle Brown, Cage and Feldmann, with two Swiss composers, Pierre Mariétan and Peter Streiff, who showed their deserved their place in this august company. The performers were Daniela Müler from Basle on violin and Anna D'Errico from Venice.

Before that, though, concertgoers were sent up and down the tower and rooms of the castle with FM-tuned headphones for a multimedia experience called "One Day on Earth" by Richard Jean and David Scrufari. Scrufari was credited with the electronics, while Jean was responsible for "electronics, objects, video and guitars".

After an hour the concertgoers were sent outside into the historic streets of Leuk, where young people wandered with bookboxes each playing a single electronic note from CDs in a work by La Monte Young, the first minimalist composer and pioneer of Western drone music. It sounded eery and transformative for a town that could be a suburb from the cult Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.

Looking back and forward

Saturday took the audience back over 10 years of the Forum since its launch under a different name in 2006.

Boasting more than 250 premieres and works by 25 Valaisan composers, the festival has been organized since 2011 by the International Society of Contemporary Music. Since 1213 the 11th-century Leuk Castle — refurbished in contemporary style by Swiss architect Mario Botta — has been its host.

10 years of posters

ForumWallis's international reach has brought a top Egyptian popstar to the Valais to sing traditional folk songs. It led to music by a young composer from nearby Saas-Fee, Andreas Zurbriggen, to be featured in a blockbuster Korean film: a world-class South Korean a cappella group gave his piece its premiere at the festival and liked it so much they took it back home with them, where it became part of the film soundtrack.

The historical overview, illustrated by videos and excerpts from various performances — including Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet in 2015 — became a performance in itself. The excerpts ranged from Alpine songs orchestrated into ultramodern form by Heinz Holliger to a traditional band performance in a local village and mesmerizing jazz by a group (Le Pot) who came together for the first time to play in Leuk.

Work in process

Festival organizer Javier Hagen then took his place behind a mike to give his four-octave vocal range to a work in progress explained by Keitaro Takahashi.

Listeners heard four variations of a piece entitled Surge as Takahashi developed it with Hagen and Ulrike Mayer-Spohn playing a mammoth recorder. What started as an acoustic work that called up various natural sounds — of bamboo, waves, wind and traffic — developed into an electronically amplified and then computer-distorted transformation, though the musical score looked very much the same.

Takahashi then invited comments from the composers (such as Mariétain) and others in the audience, including André Richard, the recording virtuoso reponsible for managing the sounds of the Helicopter Quartet at the 2015 Forum Wallis.

It proved an object lesson in acoustics. Richard singled out that newly Swiss pop diva Tina Turner — not the most obvious choice in a classical music context — for her skill in handling a mike to control the quality of her amplified voice.

Now for the science bit

The audience was also made aware of the problems of sound projection in modern music, particularly that in comparison with loudspeakers, instruments have a much wider and complexer range and broadcast angle for sound.

In between the two presentations listeners were invited to try a new Valaisan wine from a local vinter that is made from young vines from a grape that is unusually resistant to fungi  i.e. not requiring frequent spraying with pesticides and fungicides. Ah, the happy sound of glasses clinking: the joy of presents.

Friday and Saturday also presented 28 works, chosen from 289 entries, in the festival's ars electronica section for "acousmatic works".

Lungs at at work

Whit Sunday boasted the showstopper of this year's festival inside Leuk Church: Pendulum Choir — nine men singing a cappella while fixed to a hydraulic construction that pivoted them back and forth on 18 metal pistons. See songs for swinging singers, literally.

Pendulum Choir has been featured in Huffpost (plus video), and falsely identified as Swedish. I guess the contributor just couldn't imagine such po-faced humour and originality from the Swiss. The critic asked web visitors whether it might "remind you of a warped sci-fi movie you never want to watch again"

The Leuk performance, by the Jeune Opéra Companie from La Chaux-de-Fonds in the Swiss Jura, was suspenseful (no pun), moody, haunting and utterly original — even without knowing the technical wizardry behind it or the intended narrative.

Rests and silence

The American composer John Cage was notorious for not thinking music, image and movement need to combine with each other to produce a satisfying concert. And in Variations II (1961), he created a piece for "any number of players and any sound producing means".

UMS'nJIP, the stage name of Ulrike Mayer-Spohn and Javier Hagen, presented this rarely performed piece in the Leuk Castle basement to a video backdrop of organically flashing marine-like organisms and pulsing jellyfish swimming across the ancient walls from the installation by Richard Jean.

In Variations III Cage abandoned the demand for musical instruments, but for this exploration in musical abstraction, UMS'nJIP deployed their regular instruments, a recorder and Hagen's amazing four-octave voice, plus a mono loudspeaker and electronics.

Read the plastic

Variations II calls for 11 pieces of transparent plastic with varying numbers of dots of different sizes and random configurations of five lines to determine what is played and how.

Cage was able to make silence as important as sound in his composition, and this piece was no exception. Cage himself spoke of "constellation" and "aggregate" in the structure of events in his music of that time (James Pritchett is my source). As the first performance showed, "the system is so complex that its behaviour can never be totally predicted."

One of Cage's most famous sayings is that the function of art is to "imitate nature in her manner of operation" (a citation from an Eastern mystic).

You may not be able to guess what the pattern is, but there is one, no matter how much it may run up against chance events that alter its form. Far from aleatory, Cage's compositions — music seems not what he was aiming for — are very strictly controlled.

But Cage also said: "I don't like being pushed while I'm listening. I like music that lets me do my own listening."

The hour-long performance gave the audience plenty of time to do its own listening. But it's only a problem if you are continually asking yourself or someone: "What does Cage want me to be listening to now?"

And as Pritchett observes, the piece can be considered to belong as much to the performer as to the composer, an idea which Cage himself would have surely approved with his notion that music is "purposeless play" and "a way of waking up to the very life we are living".

Music in exile

In a festival of new experimental music, a day of politically focused concerts might seem unappealing. Wrong. Don't expect anything conventional from Forum Wallis.

The sunshine might have kept some concertgoers away from the Zafraan Ensemble's 2pm medley of international compositions, but they missed an adventurous compilation of music by exiles or from crisis regions.

Zafraan ensemble

What does exile mean for a composer? It almost destroyed Erich Korngold in Hollywood and silenced Béla Bartók for a while after he arrived in the United States.

The music played by the Berlin group of young musicians was not as bleak. The concert opened with Milica Djordjevic's Do you know how to bark?, performed on double bass by Beltaane Ruiz in which she had to all but dismantle the instrument.

Sorry, but I think it really opened with a soundless video of people's feet, seen from above, as they danced to an unheard tune, then continued with a tambourine, other instruments and objects rolling through various landscapes, short of Berlin from the side mirror of motor vehicles, and a bunch of young women in high-heels stamping their stilettos into soft felt as they danced on a flat rooftop.

The video was by Nevin Aladag. The composers ranged from an Israeli Palestinian Samir Odeh-Tamimi to Cheng-Wen Chen from Taiwan. Their normal repertoire runs from Berio to Zappa and unites dance, performance, poetry and painting in their concerts. The music is always inventive and the young musicians top-notch.


The 4pm concert wasn't political in inspiration, but it featured Barry Guy, a virtuoso British bassist who has made no secret of his concern with the social and political issues of his day from a humanitarian perspective.

Wikipedia says accurately of this baroque classicist and free-jazz composer: "Guy's jazz work is characterised by free improvisation, using a range of unusual playing methods: bowed and pizzicato sounds beneath the bass's bridge; plucking the strings above the left hand; beating the strings with percussion instrument mallets; and 'preparing' the instrument with sticks and other implements inserted between the strings and fingerboard. His improvisations are often percussive and unpredictable, inhabiting no discernible harmonic territory and pushing into unknown regions. However, they can also be melodious and tender with due regard for harmonic integration with other players, and at times he will even play with a straight jazz swing feel."

The Leuk concert gave its audience a taste of all these aspects of Guy's virtuosity, and they forced the group to give us an encore that went even further into the wild(er)ness of improvisation and precision, ending with an ecstatic flourish between Guy and percussionist Lucas Niggli that had them all grinning.

Since Guy is now based in Switzerland this can be counted as a new Swiss group — the latest constellation around Valais trumpeter Manuel Mengis, described by Javier Hagen as one of the major Swiss jazz artists of our day. The astounding Zurich guitarist Flo Stoffner is the fourth member of Mengis/Stoffner/Guy/Niggli. Mengis's website has videos, soundtracks and information about his regular collaborations with Stoffner and percussionist Tobias Schramm. Typically, they each add "effects, toys" to the instruments they play.

Tibetan-Swiss rock

porok karpo

The closing concert was overtly political: a giant of the Tibetan exiles' struggle against Chinese domination of the Himalayan country, Loten Namling. In Porok Karpo the veteran activist has founded a Tibetan-Swiss rock band whose music he describes as "both raw and filigree". See Tibetan peace warrior turns to pop.

Music in exile does not always lead to silence.

P.S. For those who want more from their festivals, Forum Wallis in 2016 as before had a running exhibition of contemporary works by Valais artists.