Ostrava Days 2011

Frank Kuznik interviews Salome Kammer ahead of this adventurous modern music festival

Ostrava Days (Ostravské dny), the biennial gathering of modern music composers, students and performers in northern Moravia, gets the concert part of its schedule underway on Friday, August 26 with a multimedia program in, appropriately, a refurbished coal mining factory.

The venue is by no means unusual for a festival that pushes the envelope in every direction. Even in the esoteric world of modern music, Ostrava Days is a unique event, a three-week institute where aspiring young composers learn from masters of the trade, a group that this year includes Bernhard Lang, Phill Niblock, Rolf Riehm, Martin Smolka, Carola Bauckholt and the founder and artistic director of Ostrava Days, Petr Kotík.

The institute concludes this year with nine consecutive nights of modern music by Xenakis, Cage, Ligeti, Feldman, Stockhausen, Rihm and a raft of lesser-known composers, along with more than 20 commissioned works and world premieres. The performers include vocalists Salome Kammer and Katalin Károlyi, the JACK Quartet from New York, Quasars Ensemble from Bratislava, conductors Johannes Kalitzke and Roland Kluttig, and resident orchestras Ostravská banda and the Janáček Philharmonic.

That's a lot of star power, even if Kotík is reluctant to admit it.

"We're not really a star-oriented event," he says. “We don't like to put anybody in the limelight, which would automatically put others in shadow. There is no distinction between the students and the instructors at Ostrava Days -- everybody looks the same, and speaks the same. As for the performers, I would be at a loss to highlight someone."

Then we will gladly do it for him. Kammer is a major star in Germany, where she is a noted actress and singer who specializes in modern music. At the Friday concert in Coal Mine Michal, she will be performing Ursonate, a sound poem by Kurt Schwitters. In an e-mail interview, Kammer spoke about that and other pieces she will be singing at Ostrava Days.

How are you feeling about going to an obscure industrial city in the Czech Republic to perform at a modern music festival?

The invitation to Ostrava Days came because I was asked to perform the piece Emil will nicht schlafen by Carola Bauckholt. This made me happy, because I love that piece and want it to be heard as often as possible. I have never been to places in the Czech Republic other than Prague, and I am curious about Ostrava and the surrounding area.

What exactly do you like about the Bauckholt piece?

I've been working with Carola Bauckholt for more than 12 years, and I love her imagination, sense of humor and musical language. Emil will nicht schlafen came after the solo voice piece Emil, which she wrote for me in 2002. That was an aria of a baby, with all its sudden changes in mood. Emil will nicht schlafen is an orchestra piece that I sang for the first time in October 2010. You can hear the fight between mother and child before the baby falls asleep, an archetypal situation understandable in every country of the world.

How will you approach the Schwitters piece, which gives the performer a great deal of interpretive freedom?

The Ursonate is written as lyrics -- no music, no rhythm, no words, no meaning or sense, just letters. That means the interpreter is in a way the composer, deciding how to pronounce and give rhythm to the syllables. I have heard many performances of this piece, and it is fascinating how different the versions are. While I was searching for my personal solution to this challenge, I tried a lot of special effects with my voice. So my Ursonate is quite virtuoso.

You will also perform John Cage's Aria with Solos and Fontana Mix, another complicated work.

It's not complicated, but just a play for which Cage suggested the rules. In the score, you find spontaneous lines drawn in different colors that the singer should sing in different styles – for example, blues-style, or operatic or chanson. The interpretation is absolutely free, and there is no right or wrong in the play. The only thing you must do is decide what you will do when you are onstage. And that can be difficult.

What do you hope that audiences will take from your performances? And what do you hope to experience at Ostrava Days?

My task as an interpreter of contemporary music is the role of mediator between the composer and the audience; I become a mouthpiece for the inventor of the music. With my voice and my body, the idea of the music starts to live. The clearer I speak that language, the better the listener understands. And of course I hope to meet people that love this language.

• For more on Ostrava Days and a complete schedule, see the Ostravské centrum nové hudby (Ostrava Center for New Music) website

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