Playing from the same songsheet

 

Every decision is a communal one for the self-governing Ensemble Modern. Michael Dervan meets members of Germany's leading new music group, who perform at the Living Music Festival.

When you look at Ensemble Modern, its activities and achievements, everything seems to be in order. Germany's top new music ensemble has 20 players, works with leading national and international composers and conductors, gives around 100 concerts a year on a budget of €5 million, and has around 50 CDs to its credit. There's an expanded group, the Ensemble Modern Orchestra, which has been brought together for specific projects since 1998. And an International Ensemble Modern Academy was founded in 2003 to pass on the group's expertise and accumulated knowledge to the younger generation.

Don't for a moment imagine that this has all happened because the might of the German musical establishment was brought to focus on the challenges of performing new music. Ensemble Modern was created in 1980 when members of the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie, a German youth orchestra, decided to form a group for the performance of 20th-century music. They founded the ensemble as a self-governing institution, initially working on just two projects a year. Although it has grown out of all recognition in the past quarter of a century, it still works without a formal artistic director. Key decisions are made on a communal basis. And while it offers its players a good living in return for a guaranteed 260 sessions per year, working in the ensemble doesn't offer the same benefits as a permanent, pensionable post in one of Germany's orchestras. There's no equivalent of the harpist or tuba player getting a salary for a limited amount of work. In Ensemble Modern the rule is, no play, no pay.

By comparison with its rivals in Britain and France, the ensemble is a relatively late arrival on the scene. The London Sinfonietta gave its first concert in 1968, and Ensemble Intercontemporain was formed in 1976. It's not quite clear why Germany should have lagged behind. It's not that there were no ensembles for new music before the creation of Ensemble Modern. But there were none of its size, prominence, or permanence.

The German musical establishment, of course, didn't ignore the new arrival in the early 1980s. "We had a lot of support from different German radio stations," explains Roland Diry, clarinettist-cum-managing-director, "particularly in the early years from the Deutschlandfunk, and also here in Frankfurt, where we are now based. Until 1985 that was a big help. Then for a number of years Ensemble Modern was the ensemble of the Gesellschaft für neuen Musik, the German section of the International Society for Contemporary Music. And those good connections remain."

It wasn't easy, he explains, trying to grow and develop without the benefit of a well-connected name, in whose shadow the group could have made its way. On top of that, decisions were often difficult to reach. The benefits, says one of the group's string players, violinist Jagdish Mistry, was that the members "spent a lot more time looking out on to the new music scene. And then they brought all that back into the forum." This, he suggests, heightened their chances of spotting outstanding figures that were being neglected, or identifying new and special voices.

The process remains. But for practical reasons, it's now curtailed. "We are much more reliant now on a manager to smell all these things out for us," says Mistry. "Of course the individual input is still important. There are many people who bring their own enthusiasms. Even people with less experience in new music, our newer members, are encouraged to bring their ideas." The long discussions, says Diry, were crucial in the early years, when the schedule was lighter, and, he suggests, they created an ethos of openness which remains to this day. Ensemble Modern, he says, is still open to crazy ideas. This characteristic, coupled with its speed of response to new developments and new ideas, is what makes it special.

"If it's a chamber symphony concert," says Mistry, "with works by Schoenberg, Webern, John Adams, Eisler, there wouldn't be too much discussion about that. If it was a new project of a very different nature from what we've done before, there's a lot of discussion." For example, part of the ensemble's celebration of the 70th birthday of German composer Helmut Lachenmann involves merging into a 120-strong orchestra for a programme of Lachenmann's Ausklang and Richard Strauss's Alpensinfonie. Discussing that, apparently, generated a lot of internal heat.

Mistry quotes one of his colleagues, who likes to point out that the result of the internal processes is that "in Ensemble Modern, we know why we are on the stage. We know why we are playing this particular programme. There's always a clearly-defined motivation to present a particular set of pieces, or particular music, or a particular composer." And, I was told, no one, whether they carry the title managing director or not, has a veto. Votes have been taken, and important issues decided by a majority of one.

Diry likes to think that Ensemble Modern can be distinguished from its rivals by the quality it brings to a wide range of projects. He gives a list, from music theatre such as Heiner Goebbels's Black on White (in which the musicians act and also have to play the wrong instruments), video opera such as Steve Reich's Three Tales, the early standards of the 20th-century repertoire (Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky), the big names of the 1950s and 1960s such as Boulez and Stockhausen, the newest composers, and crossover projects such as the ensemble's work with Fred Frith and Frank Zappa.

You don't have to look far these days to find a discussion about the health of contemporary music. The fragmentation of style that took place early in the 20th century has left us without even the lingua franca that was shared between the opposing followers of Brahms and Wagner in the 19th century. Audiences are wary, and many performers, too, shy away from the difficulties of new work. Can this be a healthy situation? Mistry sounds optimistic as he compares the scene to a noisy family. "There's a lot of energy," he says, "a lot of life. Each composer has his own language, his own church, his own set of followers. There are people with very defined tastes and others with very open tastes. In one sense it does feel that it's very healthy. On the other hand, there's another larger scene, where a lot of people feel contemporary music doesn't speak to them. It shuts them out. That's not so healthy. The funding is getting more and more limited. That is also informing the scene, informing what is going to be done and not done, and raising new challenges in terms of audience building and what audiences can demand. It's lively. It's in a state where you can't really assess it. That makes it interesting."

The future is obviously on the minds of a group like Ensemble Modern. Their collective view of where it lies might be gauged from the names of the 10 composers they commissioned jointly with the City of Frankfurt in a millennium project - Sandeep Bhagwati, Brett Dean, Markus Hechtle, Vadim Karassikov, Hilda Paredes, Enno Poppe, Rebecca Saunders, Charlotte Seither, Johannes Maria Staud, Sebastian Stier. Not many will be familiar to music lovers in Ireland, though at least three have had works performed here. The selection is as international as the make-up of Ensemble Modern itself, which embraces players from Argentina, Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Britain, India, Japan, Poland and Switzerland.

It's Diry who draws attention to the increasing importance of world music. Ensemble Modern doesn't just bring the work of the European tradition to far-flung places, but has also worked with Indian classical musicians, trying to see what's to be found in the intersection with Western music. They've commissioned Rabih Abou-Khalil, a Lebanese composer who lives in Germany, and a Bulgarian composer and folk musician, Georgi Andreev. Mistry describes these collaborations as "uncertain, unoriented, work in progress," literally a sounding-out whose results are anything but predictable. The Indian partnership was not so much crossover, one of the musicians said, as "comprovisation", composed improvisation.

Mistry, who was born in Bombay, trained at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, and is now making his living in Germany, makes a point about the unknowability of the future. "The Taj Mahal is the product of 400 years of interaction between the Hindu and Muslim culture. In the years before, they didn't know they were going to the Taj Mahal, as it were. It's when we look back that we can see it as the pinnacle of the fusion."

Ensemble Modern under Sian Edwards gives the première of Frank Corcoran's RTÉ commission, Quasi una Visione, at 8pm at The Helix tomorrow as part of the RTÉ Living Music Festival (www.rte.ie/music). The programme also includes Hans Werner Henze's L'heure bleu, Detlev Glanert's Geheimer Raum, and Wolfgang Rihm's Jagden und Formen. There's a performance workshop at 4 p.m., and a pre-concert talk by Frank Corcoran at 7.30 p.m. Hans Werner Henze has had to cancel his visit to Dublin this weekend due to ill-health