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1st Forum for Young Composers by the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble

Contemporary music, obviously, does not have big audiences – not many voters I would say – and that is why it is important to have access to new music, which is created here and throughout the world. There is a lot of extremely varied new music, which in our small Lisbon environment would not be presented if not for such few projects as the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble, among others. And one does not mean pure snobbery. Music is merely a fundamental and constitutive element in constructing thought – any kind of thought. Therefore, not to have access to music created nowadays, is equivalent to not having access to new technology. It is as if leaving us in isolation, which recalls times, when other countries already had colour television, but we, in Portugal, had to wait. Proud and alone...

And so, the idea to launch an International Forum for Young Composers emerged. It is an initiative organized by the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble and Goethe Institute in Lisbon, which took place between May 18th and 20th and on the last day enabled us to listen to works by Abel Paúl, Ana Seara, Luc Doeberener, Gonçalo Gato and Igor Silva. They were followed by a collective work, “Cadavre Exquis”, composed of micro-pieces by Ângela Lopes, Bruno Gabirro, Isabel Pires, João Madureira, José Luís Ferreira, Patrícia Sucena de Almeida, Pedro Amaral, Ricardo Ribeiro, Sara Carvalho and Vasco Mendonça. The works were performed by the Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble conducted by Pedro Neves.

The stage devices – already prepared for the performance of the porgramme’s first piece, “Línea de Vacío” by Abel Paúl (a Spanish rooted in Germany) – were turned back to the audience, which in the critic’s mind immediately recalls “Catastrophe” by Samuel Beckett. In the play an unfortunate character is on stage, while a director and his assistant intend to leave him in the most catastrophic state. We see this scene from the backstage. Fortunately, for the audience, the following concert was way from being a catastrophe, in spite of the fact that, for the critic the pieces represented different levels – some of them being more outstanding than the others.

The author of “Línea de Vacío” explains us that the devices’ inversion reduces the public’s perceptibility, leaving the listener free to imagine how the materialization of certain timbres was created. Based on a pedal scheme, sometimes oscilliating, which dominates practically the whole work, it seems to refer to some main music currents from late seventies to eighties. The performance was impeccable and technically correct, but, as I perceived it, “Línea de Vacío” did not seem to encounter an original voice. And no matter how interesting its constitutive materials would be, the piece did not manage to develop them in an original way.

The case of “Pensamentos Perdidos” by Ana Seara is different. It does not seem to have as its only predecessor “classical” education in composition theory, which marks the majority of composers from the second half of the 20th century. Ana Seara is particularly interested in sound and articulation as a constitutive element of her work – sound, which seems to be evidence of music, but in reality is not. Let me recall the investigations made in the fifties of the previous century by Robert Francès, in which he shows that the identification of serial structures, just through simple listening, is highly improbable even for musicians with a lot of experience. Nowadays, as we know, composition depends on the relation, which a composer establishes with the computer – even when it is used in the framework of “real time” processing. Ana Seara’s beautiful work reminds, above all, that music can involve by being only a simpe “affaire of sounds”. And this fact, just for itself, is something magnificent. The critic hopes to get to know what kind of contribution can electronics give to these “Lost Thoughts” (“Pensamentos Perdidos”), already promised for the work’s next performance.

From an excellent idea to create a work in counterpoint with Karlheinz Sockhausen’s “Kontra-Punkte”, “P(S) alpha” – a piece by Luc Doeberners – begins precisely as an “electronic workshop” with a piano part of a rhapsodic character, yet without identifying, which path will the composer follow. It is when the quartet appears (violin, cello, flute and clarinet) that one discovers a double counterpoint game appointed by the author. He develops on the one hand, a counterpoint with “old” stockhausenian structures and on the other let’s us detect a second counterpoint in the spirit of unity / duplicity, an idea on which the work is based. This double unity is expressed in the precise and concise form of a most interesting quintet “+” (quintet and electronic device).

In presenting “Configurazioni” Gonçalo Gato made us a part of his attempt to interpret music in its morphological aspect – in other words, with character based more on the “sculptural” than on proper musical forms, including “space” and “transformation” – things that, per se, can be considered inherent, by all means, to the musical or sonorous phenomenon. And so the compositional idea’s connection with sculpture or art installation remained obscure. For the listener the work founds itself in a series of confused ideas, not encountering the “space” that it seems to be looking for. The electronics’ support, in this case, also remains reduced and only seems to function as a system of a resonance box. The work, as it appears to me, should be revised and reconsidered.

In a more glamorous and groovy register than the previous works, a flipbook, which the title of Igor Silva’s work evokes, can be imagined as a drawing of a firework, being formed page by page, drawing by drawing, in order to, later and adequately, take upon more “natural” fires. Perhaps in the work’s central part one feels lack of more variegated dynamics and of a less static material, of “spark” one wants to say, above all in the violinist discourse. Nevertheless, one more time Suzanna Lidegran gave proof of the highest interpretational level, as a matter of fact just as her other ensemble colleagues. The violin rapidly marks the return of the “artificial”, coming back to the register, in which the composer feels himself perfectly at ease; including the modes de jeu of the instrument itself, closing this way the circle, or the flipbook (in order to explain better). The piece leaves us with a pretty memory and a pleasant smile on face.

The organization of the pieces in “Cadavre Exquis” was quite interesting. Above all it was surprising to come to a conclusion, as far as micro-works of different character are concerned, that the problem of “language” appears as an (epi)centre of everything that makes a good part of contemporary music since the last decades. This “Cadavre Exquis” – at least organized in the way as one could hear at the Goethe Institute in Lisbon – confronted us with an apparently not resolved problem. It concerns the legitimization processes, which sometimes seem to worry composers more than the proper music results. Consequently, perhaps one had the sensation of unity, but felt a certain lack of “voices” and differentiated discourses, or at least discordance, while listening to the ten different composers. In defence one can imagine that this unification is a result of a timbric unity imposed by the quintet as well as by the selection and order chosen for the performance – this all would contribute to this language homogeneity. However it does not seem really convincing that this approach is the only concern. The critic hopes that the cadavre exquis exercise, composed of a series of micro-works ones following the others, would not serve as evidence of a possible saturation, due to production, which tends towards consent and standardization. For this could have as a result that, in short or medium term, there would be few voices, which would stand out. Notwithstanding the “Cadavre Exquis” remains positively exquis and we hope that the reflection on new music languages would cause that the composers would affirm their approach, so that in the following selection we would be confronted with an Exquis that would be absolutely Vivace.

To sum up, setting the bar high – as I understand it should be set, since it concerns real talents – the concert enabled to see (to hear, obviously) a fine “peak” of a compositional “iceberg” created by some young composers. Defenitely, they would deserve to participate in various forums of this sort in order to put in practice and confront their works with the reality of performance. This should happen with a lot more frequency than it is offered to them. Without any doubt, the extraordinary Sond’Ar-te Electric Ensemble and the Goethe Institute in Lisbon will see to that. We will be there once more. I hope that the Portuguese State will realize its responsibility towards supporting and developing cultural projects of this quality and rarity, helping to maintain the former and fight the latter.