In which we went looking for one thing and found another

The Darmstadt International Summer Course for New Music in Germany is, according to Alex Ross, “the principal showplace of the avant-garde” (2007/2009, p. 426). This piece is about exploration and play as forms of musical collaboration, challenging the received idea of the solitary compositional ‘genius’ that is celebrated at this institution. I made this by engaging in open-ended play with Lia Kohl and Owen Davis from Chicago-based contemporary music ensemble Mocrep. Together we used the occasion of the course to explore an abandoned building over nine days. We enjoyed ourselves and wanted to communicate that joy to other people through a performance by selecting things we had experienced that could be transferred to a concert hall. This video shows the outcome as a presentation performance.

The Darmstadt Summer Course is an institution famous for being a hotbed of High Modernist musical activity during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s with attendees exploring new musical territory. We used Scouting for Boys by Robert Baden-Powell (1908/2004) as an impetus to guide our exploratory activities, taking our logic from the term ‘avant-garde’:

“As Halévy intended it, the avant-garde was less about being a superior elite than a kind of scouting party, forging ahead, clearing the path, and heralding the battalions that were to follow.” (Barry, 2017, p. 131)

Our exploration was driven by performative concerns, focussed on play. We documented this work in photographs, audio recordings and video recordings and these documents were shared publicly on Twitter. We each kept journals to document our working process through writing and drawing, leading us to consider how descriptive information can be communicated as a musical experience. Our presentation performance is also about amplification and focus, amplifying things that we found and heard. We also amplify things using a car speaker system or by putting pellets in a tractor, or by focussing a camera on them.

We were trying to communicate joy in the face of a competitive and highly serious music institution:

“The reclaiming of fun as part of the serious business of human life is the most subversive and revolutionary aim of all.” (Small, 1987/1994, p. 382)

This is one of the emergent themes of my work, and I approach this by integrating enjoyment into the process of composition through performance. This is not to say that there is no joy in traditional composition, but rather that the possibilities for fun can be expanded.

This work was situated within an environment broadly supportive of experimental music. Because this was a ‘knowing audience’ of musicians, they recognised aspects of the performance as specifically musical, whereas a non-knowing audience might not have. Other members of the workshop group, as well as some audience members, decided to join in towards the end of the performance, which was an unexpected yet welcome surprise.

13 August 2016, Orangerie, Darmstadt