A visceral Beckett reimagining and the dizzying whirl of life lived online kick off hcmf//2015.
This year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival marks the start of a two-year focus upon new music from Poland: among the most exciting voices to emerge from the country in recent times are composer-singer Agata Zubel and composer Jagoda Szmytka, who feature respectively in concerts by Klangforum Wien and The Riot Ensemble on the festival’s opening night.
In terms of glib categorisation, Zubel and Szmytka are both young, female and Polish, but musically they’re two very distinct creators. What they do share, however, is a boldness, an ease with mixing artforms and a refusal to be defined by traditional notions of where composer ends and performer begins.
Hailing from Wroclaw in western Poland, Zubel is both composer and singer (and one half of the ElettroVoce Duo), with a soprano voice and a mastery of extended techniques. For her, working on both sides of the score brings a deeper interpretive understanding of a piece.
“As a composer, I write for living musicians – not only for paper, but for people who have to play or sing it,” she says. “This is important, because the music should be alive and not just on the paper. As performers, we have to try to find out what the composer wanted to say, what’s behind the score.”
Zubel specialised in percussion at music school – “You don’t have well-tempered scales all of the time, but lots of very small, different instruments which are sonoristic in some ways. Now I think of that as very important in my musical education” – and only started singing seriously when her own composition Parlando required an end-of-term performance. Soon, other people started writing for her voice, bringing new opportunities to explore its scope.
“If I have a new score for a premiere, I have to find the proper technique for that particular piece, because composers often try to invent something new,” she says. “As a performer, I have to try to find the proper voice, sometimes even a particular one for that piece. I try to keep my voice as an instrument, to be able to sing everything that I want.”
Performed at hcmf// in collaboration with Klangforum Wein, for whom she is also currently writing an opera, Bildbeschreibung, Zubel’s Not I reimagines Samuel Beckett’s notoriously demanding 1972 monologue of the same name, in which a stream of words and images burst forth from the lips of a traumatised, previously mute elderly woman. In Zubel’s hands the text becomes a visceral lieder, to which she adds a prologue of guttural, wordless sounds.
“I started thinking about the situation in the text, how it would be if you’re 60 or 70 and have never spoken, but suddenly start to speak,” she says. “For me, it was very important that her voice is born. It’s the first sound that comes from her mouth in her life; you feel your body resonating before you start to speak.”
Pushing musicians to the limits of performance is familiar territory to Jagoda Szmytka, too; yet this daughter of Silesia, currently based in Frankfurt, also thrives on different kinds of tension.
For her 2014 suite Limbo Lander, the resistance she faced when shaping the work through online collaboration with Ensemble Interface became the heart of Quizzle Translate, a gameshow-like performance in which the musicians are made to read out extracts from emails they exchanged during the piece’s awkward gestation. “Somehow it’s easy for musicians to hide and to say, it was just a rule or that I didn’t say this, and not take real responsibility for what they do,” she explains. “I wanted them to say what they really think, and it was difficult.”“In a sense, we all are the robots somehow… Where is our freedom in all this?”
The networks between real and online life, interaction and art become infinitely more tangled in Szmytka’s newest work, Lost, a dizzying mix of images, Facebook posts, music theatre, short films and semi-fictionalised celebrity avatars currently flickering into life on a screen near you. “Limbo Lander was a piece about social media; Lost is a piece that happens in social media.”
“I like building up a tension in a project and you get it when no-one knows what’s going on,” she admits. “Everyone gets stressed at the end of the end; it’s a little bit chaotic, but then everyone becomes intensified and thinks faster. Because normally when you meet within a stable, safe framework, nothing happens and then everyone goes home.”
Such an approach reflects the restless dynamism of Syzmytka’s life: like many musicians and composers today, her existence is nomadic and fragmented: moving between cities, collaborating across time zones, with multiple selves playing out online.
“I just live there all the time. Social media is such a natural environment for me that I thought, sooner or later I have to turn my attention to this. Also, as an expat, I’ve been travelling around for 12 years now and there are so many weird things that accompany this living mode.”
As is common in such a situation, face-to-face relationships have been replaced by email, messaging and Skype, a mode of communication which forms the basis of sky-me, type-me, one of three of Szmytka works featured in The Riot Ensemble’s concert.
In it, four megaphone-wielding vocalists bring to life the rhythms of typing, the glitch-ridden approximations of human speech, the erratic flow of a dropped connection, the simplification of sentiment when emoticons are more convenient than words. “What is nice is when people perform or listen to this piece and recognise a little piece of the reality they live in,” she says.
For Szmytka, the 2011 work marked a shift of focus away from work in which she tested musicians’ limits through ‘physical composing’ to exploring the virtual landscapes of social media. She went on to explore the darker implications of lives shaped by drop-down menus in empty music: against a backdrop of videogame characters, garish graphics and glowing programming menus, a disembodied ‘composer’ voice directs puppet-like musicians who play between MIDI versions of the music.
“It’s a little bit ironic; I’m laughing at myself as it’s nice to have this control,” she says, “but at the same time everyone wants to defend their own circle of freedom somehow. When you open a new account, you define yourself only by the available tools that are in the system.
“In a sense, we all are the robots somehow. I was thinking about living in a mixed media reality. Where is our freedom in all this?”
The answer suggested by the concert’s newest work, GAMEBOY might be that we at least have the freedom to be famous. Weaving a densely referential audiovisual web from the disparate lives of Liberace, Joseph Beuys and Szmytka’s friend Sebastian Berweck, it links the internet’s democratisation of creativity back to Beuys’ concept of ‘social sculpture’ and fuses footage of Liberace preparing for a show with the chirps and buzzes of 8-bit gaming. The red cross stitched onto Beuys’ Infiltration for Piano becomes confused with the control button from Nintendo’s Game Boy console; Liberace’s name is interchangeable with liberty but his charisma has a dangerous power.
“I like to work with visual symbols and I found it hilarious to bring together the cross of saving people by Beuys with the cross of control by Game Boy,” Szmytka explains. “GAMEBOY is also about playing games. I had a personal game with Sebastian Berweck. There’s the layer of samples sounding like a Game Boy. Then there’s the skill and showmanship, the question of whether art is onstage or offstage and why you are really doing this.”
Is the purpose of art to entertain, control, to save? “There are all these questions and I don’t know the answers, so I just try to connect things that are related.