The third programming block of the 2021 Biennale (Continuum No. 3 – Le sacre de l'été, 15–17 July) also includes two programs by the Decoder Ensemble from Hamburg, both taking place on 16 July at the Jedinstvo Plant. The recorded performances of the thesis compositions by the students in the PhD program at Stanford University – Davor Branimir Vincze, Julie Herndon and Chris Lortie – will be presented first, and then, in the evening slot, the Ensemble will, together with the soprano Jessica Aszodi, perform pieces by Leopold Hurt, Sara Glojnarić, Sara Nemtsov, Marko Ciciliani, Andrej Koroliov and Alexander Schubert (Hurt, Koroliov and Schubert are also members of the Ensemble; more details on the Ensemble and the works they perform can be found below).
Every year the Stanford University Department of Music invites selected ensembles to workshop and perform new works by graduate composers. This year, a collaboration with Decoder Ensemble was to feature three one-act operas presented both at Stanford and the Music Biennale Zagreb, curated by Margareta Ferek Petrić. Due to covid-19, an in-person residency presented logistical challenges and so the project pivoted to virtual operas, which were produced this March in Berlin with Heinrich Horwitz as creative director.
They add: We are extremely proud to have made a connection between Stanford University Department of Music's Composer's Advisory Council and Music Biennale in Zagreb, one of the top European festivals for contemporary music.
Vincze: XinSheng, Ansambl Decoder ©H. Horwitz
Demimonde, refreshments and microllage
PhD students of composition from Stanford sent us the program notes for the compositions which the Decoder Ensemble recorded in March and which can be seen and heard at the Jedinstvo on 16 July at 6 PM.
Davor Branimir Vincze (Zagreb, 1983) wrote:
“XinSheng is the title of my opera for singers, chamber ensemble and electronics. The story is about a couple that runs a business with an illegal and a, presumably, legal strand. First, as boxing managers, the couple lures young aspiring boxers into signing a contract with their company by promising to train them for the Olympics. However, their real agenda remains hidden: exhaust boxers with each subsequent tournament, harvest their living organs, and sell them on the black market. Second, their company produces a refreshing drink called XinSheng. In stronger dosages, XinSheng boosts a sportsman’s stamina and rejuvenates, but prolonged usage causes inner organ failure. This dark side of the seemingly legal business is just another way of creating demand for the couple’s organ trafficking activity.
Vincze: XinSheng, Ansambl Decoder ©H. Horwitz
The theatrical set-up should continuously flip between real (live stage performance) and allegedly real events (pre-recorded content). Since live performance is not viable at the moment, I will replace it with a documentation video, and superimpose pre-recorded content about main characters like newspaper clips, photos, candid camera shots, Whatsapp chat, etc. This is where microllage comes into play, as it musically expresses the notion of hidden meaning and story within the story. The interplay between live instruments and electronics will also emphasize the dichotomy between real and virtual. It is thus up to the audience to construct its own version of what really happened in the opera.
At That Time, Ansambl Decoder ©H. Horwitz
A Reminder of the Inequalities
The American composer Julie Herndon described her opera as well:
“At That Time is a 20-minute chamber opera about a romance of advocacy and exploitation. The text by Gertrude Stein records her own life through the eyes of her partner, Alice B. Toklas. The libretto focuses on the imbalance between these two lovers and writers, one who speaks for the other on a global stage. Jessica Aszodi is Gertrude, a vocal and empowered character; Carola Schaal is Alice, quiet, seen but not heard.
The opera is in five short mini-scenes. It begins with Alice standing alone in a pool of light. Gertrude speaks from offstage, narrating her story. In the second scene, Alice is at her typewriter. “I was not doing any writing,” she says, listing the household chores that fill her time instead. The following scene is Gertrude’s big day in which she attends a premiere with Alice in support. They celebrate and enjoy her success, sharing a duet in which they sound together, symbolizing their love as they return home.
The piece does not attempt to make right the inequality of their relationship. By telling the story of two people who love one another, but whose voice, power, and self-advocacy are unevenly shared, I hope it will serve as a reminder of the inequalities that exist in our historical and even our personal relationships. We want to believe our acts of love are selfless...”
At That Time, Ansambl Decoder ©H. Horwitz
Composer Chris Lortie (1993) gave a short description of his project:
"Symptom of Expression is a short film based on Eric Shirlot's poem of the same title that explores the topic of emotional projection and simulation. Visually and sonically, the act of transposing one's self onto another is on display here, asking to what extent we owe our selfhood to one another, and at what cost. Music composed by Chris Lortie. Original poetry by Eric Shirlot. Narrated by Jessica Aszodi. Directed and choreographed by Heinrich Horwitz. Edited by Lara Rodríguez Cruz. Performed by the Decoder Ensemble.
Automatic Text Generation
After the presentation of the virtual operas, on the same day, the Decoder Ensemble will perform live (we hope), at the Jedinstvo Plant, presenting another set of exciting new pieces.
The first of those is Dissociated Press – Final by Leopold Hurt (Regensburg, 1979) one of the three members of Decoder who are also the ensemble’s resident composers.
Dissociated Press is a series of compositions by Leopold Hurt continuously added to as a work-in-progress since 2017. The instrumentation ranges from solo pieces featuring electronics through to a septet – specially conceived for the characteristic line-up of Decoder Ensemble. As explained by the composer, “the term Dissociated Press refers to an Internet algorithm for the automatic generation of texts on the basis of language patterns. Derived from this, the cycle unites different approaches to the ‘remix’ principle, a genre term that is the defining term for art in the digital age.
This principle is applied both on the language- and the musical level, as a constant interplay between the original, the copy and the ‘fake’. Each individual composition is paired with electronic audio and video feeds that create multimedia references to the algorithms and uninterrupted data flows. The individual parts can be played in any desired order one after each other or simultaneously.”
Starting Point: Drums
Sara Glojnarić (Zagreb, 1991) has written a series of works that all bear the same title as well, Artefacts. Decoder Ensemble will perform Artefacts #2, for soprano, drum-set and tape, from 2019. The composer has written the following program note:
“Artefacts #2 represents a crossover between two conceptual pools I have been generating compositional materials from – the sugarcoating series, which deals with parametrical aspects of pop music (reduction and homogenization of pitch, rhythm and texture, repetitions) and the Artefacts series, that plays with immediate and secondary nostalgia that pop music evokes. This performatively demanding piece builds itself upon a list of Top 20 Drum Intros, mostly taken from famous 80’s and 90’s rock songs, from bands/performers such as The Police, Nirvana, U2, Iggy Pop, Toto etc. All pieces in the Artefacts series are accompanied by a Spotify playlist (titled Artefacts Playlists) which can be expanded by other users and their nostalgic references.”
The Pain and the Power of Femininity
Sarah Nemtsov (Oldenburg, 1980) wrote her work Seven Thoughts, for a speaking pianist, in 2018, as a kind of reaction to her earlier work, Seven Colours, for ensemble. “It was the first composition I wrote after the death of my mother, the painter Elisabeth Naomi Reuter.” Nemtsov continues: “That work bears musical approaches to certain colours that were important to my mother. It’s about mourning, grief and (at least I tried:) comfort, solace.
The solo Seven Thoughts was created at the suggestion of pianist Gwen Rouger. The keyboard - with 49 keys and 49 samples - picks up some of the samples from Seven Colours, but also the recorded sounds of the ensemble from my composition (I then manipulated the sounds electronically), as well as completely new sounds. Also new is the format, the duct (the composition), as well as the introduction of the voice – intimate – the performer uses it for her*himself, hums, croaks, breathes – and there is kind of a new context (or maybe a context that was hidden before in the ensemble piece). The voice of Anne Sexton appears: she reads her poem Her Kind – I have additionally alienated her reading: ‘historicized’ with vinyl crackling and tape noise, and inserted pauses. The keyboardist* speaks the text almost in sync with, or after her, as if he*she is the one reading the text.
It is also a poem about the pain and the power of femininity.”
„I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.“
(Anne Sexton – excerpt from „Her Kind“, 1966)
Talk Show Hell
The evening program of the Decoder Ensemble also features a work by a well-known Biennale guest, Marko Ciciliani (Zagreb, 1970). Ciciliani has written the following about this composition, Going to Hell, from 2009:
“Going to Hell is part of the Suicidal Self Portraits. All these pieces are exploring fetishizations of media that result in some sort of re-start of a person's life, be it through revelations of inner truths and secrets or indulgences in obsessions. The reference to 'suicide' in the title is therefore not to be understood as a termination of someone's life but rather as the reinvention of a person. The individual pieces are bridged with short video interludes that function as commercial spots. (…)
The composition Going to Hell artistically explores the dichotomy of inner intimacy and public exposure through the use of the voice. Texts that stem from websites where people published secret confessions, alike to those that have often been exposed in talk shows, are providing the verbal material. The composition explores the sound-ambiences of talk shows, private homes and the human body. The latter is explored by scrubbing contact microphones over the skin, using the body percussively or by exposing the act of breathing. The alienation of the voice is carried on by processings like vocoding or extensions by computer-generated voices. The world of TV shows and the sounds of private living-room situations provide concrete material for the instrumental parts and also include interruptions by compositionally integrated TV commercial breaks.
In ‘Going to Hell’ these three levels – body, home and TV show – are presented in successive and simultaneous manners. A sort of ‘schizo-sonic’ environment is created by constantly switching place of reference.”
Musicalizing and Politicizing
Andrej Koroliov (Hamburg, 1982), a member of this ensemble, sent us the following comment on his piece, Resist Mix:
“Resist Mix for percussion and tape is playing with reality and fake. It reflects political realities and turns them into music, trying to musicalize politics and to politicize music in a way. The percussionist is balancing between lie and truth, live music and samples, anger and resignation as a kind of one-man-band.”
Sex, Cats and Sampling
Alexander Schubert (Bremen, 1979) is a Decoder member as well; one of his works was also on the MBZ program of the Black Page Orchestra in April, and in this concert, the Ensemble will perform his work Sensate Focus, for electric guitar, bass clarinet, percussion, violin, live electronics and animated light, written for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and the PlusMinus ensemble in 2014.
Schubert wrote the following note:
“Abstract: Cats were reared in a light-tight box in which the only source of illumination was a 9-psec strobe flash every 2 sec. This allowed them to experience visual form but they did not experience visual movement. Most sampled signals are not simply stored and reconstructed. But the fidelity of a theoretical reconstruction is a customary measure of the effectiveness of sampling. Sensate focusing is a term usually associated with a set of specific sexual exercises for couples or for individuals. Each participant is encouraged to focus on their own varied sense experience, rather than to see orgasm as the sole goal of sex.”
The Decoder Ensemble, founded in Hamburg in 2011, considers itself a “band” for contemporary music and is one of the most innovative and unpredictable young ensembles on the new music scene. Their fresh and energetic sound, stemming from their distinct combination of electric and acoustic instruments and voice, sets them apart from conventional contemporary chamber music ensembles. Surprising collaborations, experimental instrumental music, multimedia elements and conceptual performance art all play a large role in Decoder’s programming.
Decoder greatly stresses the contemporary format in the presentation of their concerts, incorporating carefully selected performance venues and an over-arching dramaturgy. One of the main focuses of the ensemble is the collaboration with young composers and providing them with a platform to realize their works at the highest level. All of the members of Decoder specialize in the performance of contemporary music, with 3 members doubling as the resident composers. This constellation, together with the extensive communication between the composers and interpreters in the development of the works, allows for the creation of unique and authentic performances.
The Ensemble performs internationally at festivals of contemporary music on a regular basis. In 2014 Decoder’s self-titled debut CD on Ahornfelder Records was produced in cooperation with German Radio Cologne. Since 2017 Decoder have been presenting their own concert series at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. In 2019 Decoder’s second CD was released by the label Wergo.
Leopold Hurt, (e-)zither, conducting, composition
Andrej Koroliov, piano, keyboards, composition
Carola Schaal, clarinet, bass clarinet
Sonja Lena Schmid, cello
Alexander Schubert, electronics, sound projection, composition
Jonathan Shapiro, drums, percussion