Contempuls Festival brings art music world to Prague

The Contempuls Festival aims to give Prague a musical event that discerning viewers following the international arts scene have lacked

Arts & Leisure
Guest Writer | 01.11.2011
Portuguese actor, composer and poet Miguel Azguime performing the electronic chamber opera Itineráio do Sal – to which an entire night of the festival is devoted

Petr Bakla is feeling more relaxed, which is good news for fans of modern music — he’s the dramaturgist for Contempuls, the contemporary music festival that opens its fourth season at La Fabrika on Nov. 4. A composer himself, Bakla felt obligated during the first three years of the festival to program as many pieces as possible by composers whose work went unheard in the Czech Republic during the dark days of communism.

“There were so many essential pieces that were never done here, I felt I had to get them all on the program,” Bakla told Czech Position. “Now, I feel like some cornerstones have been laid, and Iʼm not afraid to dedicate an entire evening to one or two longer, more substantial works.” ‘We really needed to bring in some fresh air, so we neglected the local composers.’

That means pieces 30 minutes and longer this year, like Helmut Lachenmannʼs Allegro sostenuto and Peter Ablingerʼs Voices and Piano. And an entire night devoted to Itineráio do Sal, an electronic chamber opera performed by Portuguese actor, composer and poet Miguel Azguime. And more works by Czech composers, who got squeezed in the past by their foreign counterparts. “We really needed to bring in some fresh air, so we neglected the local composers,” Bakla admits. “There are a lot more Czech names this year.”

The local talent includes Miroslav Srnka, a rising star on the European scene, whose Engrams will be given its Czech premiere by the French string quartet Quatuor Diotima. Contempuls also commissioned two new works from Czech composers that will be premiered at this yearʼs festival: Pavel Zemekʼs Trio No. 2 – Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross, and Tomáš Pálkaʼs Silence dʼun Coeur (Silence of the Heart).

©vimeo Eric Wubbels peforms a piece from Voices and Piano with the Wet Ink Ensemble

The festival opens with American pianist and composer Eric Wubbels performing Ablingerʼs Voices and Piano, which Bakla describes as “very sophisticated, yet very simple and elegant.” The composer took voice recordings of famous people ranging from Billie Holiday to Bertolt Brecht and wrote solo piano accompaniment for them. ‘There is no standard set – the performer selects a group of “voices” from the catalog.’ The piece is a work in progress; Ablinger has written nearly 40 such segments, and continues to add more. Wubbels will be premiering a new one featuring contemporary composer Alvin Lucier.

“There is no standard set – the performer selects a group of ʻvoicesʼ from the catalog,” Wubbels says. “In Prague Iʼll be playing nine selections, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Hanna Schygulla, Morton Feldman, Cecil Taylor, Slovak poet Mila Haugová and Valentina Tereshkova, the first female cosmonaut.”

The piano parts range from “very simple” to “extraordinarily virtuostic, to the point of impossibility,” according to Wubbels, who nonetheless finds them all fascinating.

ensemble recherche

“Theyʼre beautiful, original and captivating as pieces of music, yet they have all these other resonances, based on whoʼs speaking and what theyʼre saying,” he says. “Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, there is an extremely unusual aspect to them that I would call ʻscientific,ʼ in that you come to understand something that you hadnʼt understood before. While it seems obvious on some level, the comparison between speech and music in these pieces is executed with tremendous imagination, conceptual rigor and human feeling.”

Germanyʼs ensemble recherche takes the stage for the second half of opening night to play Lachenmannʼs Allegro sostenuto and the new work by Zamek. “Even though itʼs more than 20 years old, the Lachenmann piece is so influential – you can hear dozens of imitations at European festivals – that I felt we had to include it,” Bakla says.

Itineráio do Sal

“And Pavel Zamek is, in my opinion, one of the most original Czech composers. A lot of his works have Biblical titles, but theyʼre not church music. Theyʼre tonal music as youʼve never heard it before, very radical and fiendishly difficult to play,” he adds.

The second night of the festival is devoted to Itineráio do Sal (Salt Itinerary), which leaves Bakla at a rare loss for words. “Itʼs...itʼs...itʼs a kind of physical poetry,” he says. “You really have to see it.”

Azguime serves up a one-man meditation on the creative process amid a barrage of lights, sounds, images and electronics that blur the traditional boundaries between music and theater. Video clips of the piece are riveting, but the logistics of the production are quite complicated – especially in Prague, where other performances scheduled at La Fabrika mean that Itineráio do Sal will have to be set up, performed and torn down in a single day. “Weʼll start at 6 a.m., and hopefully everything will be ready by 8 p.m.,” Bakla says. “Even the seating has to be customized.”

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