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Outsourced Music From Germany at Bowling Green New Music Festival

BGNMF-2013-logo-250wChicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente brought the controversial young German composer Johannes Kreidler to the 34th Annual Bowling Green New Music Festival, held October 16-19, 2013 in Bowling Green, Ohio. Dal Niente, the featured ensemble at this year’s festival, made Kreidler’s provocative work the centerpiece of their first of two concerts. This Thursday late evening concert was held at the Clazel Theatre in downtown Bowling Green. The converted movie theater provided an informal atmosphere with a full bar and an open dance floor where the audience congregated for the show.

Composer Johannes Kreidler (photo credit: kreidler-net.de)

Composer Johannes Kreidler (photo credit: kreidler-net.de)

Kreidler, whose visit to the United States and week-long residency with Dal Niente was sponsored by the Goethe-Institut Chicago, is as much a conceptual performance artist as he is a composer. His Charts Music (2009) is a pre-recorded electronic music video he created using composition software designed for amateurs to write pop music. The video display consisted of graphs of actual stock market quotes and other data, which were used as a sort of score for the composition of the music. The piece began with charts of stock market prices of firms like Lehman Brothers and Bank of America during the recent financial meltdown. Lilting electronic melodies reminiscent of cartoon soundtracks started with manic high register notes and descended into sad, low notes as each stock price shown bottomed out. It was all quite humorous as one poster-child-for-greed corporation after another took their musical slide. But then Kreidler delivered his sucker punch. As the audience laughed at the fate of villainous capital, the music shifted gears to ascending melodies over charts showing the rising deaths of US soldiers in the first few years of the Iraq war and the skyrocketing profits of the international munitions firm Heckler & Koch during that same period. Suddenly Kreidler’s little game wasn’t so much fun, and that was his point. His use of humor with abstract charts of stock prices as his score, suddenly turned to shock when he shifted to upbeat tunes to rising data that represented the deaths of real human beings and war profiteering. The palpable uneasiness in the audience generated by Charts Music was a fitting prelude to what came next.

Fremdarbeit (2009, U.S. premiere) is scored for flute, electronic keyboard, cello, and percussion, in three movements. The title translates as Outsourcing (literally: foreign labor). Kreidler lampoons globalized capitalism as he outsourced a $2,000 commission he received from the Klangwerkstatt Berlin contemporary music festival in order to create this music as cheaply as possible, thus leaving himself the most profit. Kreidler spoke from the stage intermittently as the piece unfolded to explain the composition process. For the first movement, he searched the internet for composers advertising work-for-hire and selected Chinese composer Xia Non Xiang who specializes in writing custom wedding and funeral music. Kreidler agreed to pay Xiang’s standard fee of $30 for him to create a work “in the style of Kreidler” and provided him with samples of his work to copy. For the second movement, Kreidler contracted Ramesh Murraybay, a software engineer in India with experience in programming for audio systems, again using the internet to find him. They agreed on a fee of $15 for Murraybay to produce music-generating software that would create scores “in the style of Kreidler.” Murraybay analyzed Kreidler’s music examples to determine the percentage composition of styles, dynamics, tempos, timbres, and such and wrote a computer program that creates scores matching that profile. Kreidler used that software to create the second movement. For the third movement, Kreidler contracted a collaboration whereby Xiang created another piece using Murraybay’s software, with the additional requirement that samples of ragtime music and Maria Callas singing be included. For this Kreidler paid an additional $45, bringing his total composition cost to $90.

Ensemble Dal Niente flutist Constance Volk (photo courtesy BGSU Marketing & Communications, all rights reserved)

Ensemble Dal Niente flutist Constance Volk (photo courtesy BGSU Marketing & Communications, all rights reserved)

The result from Kreidler’s industrialized composition process is indeed music: a prescribed series of notes was played by four musicians on stage. And pianist Mabel Kwan, percussionist Gregory Beyer, flutist Constance Volk, and cellist Chris Wild played with the same intense focus and commitment they bring to every performance. But it was unclear how much this music resembles Kreidler’s prior work or how much we are to take this as a serious musical endeavor. Readers can judge for themselves, thanks to this video about Fremdarbeit produced by the Klangwerkstatt Berlin festival.

Fremdarbeit – by Johannes Kreidler Doku

Kreidler the wry observer of Charts Music had morphed into Kreidler the global capitalist exploiter in Fremdarbeit. The audience was uncomfortable and uncertain about what they witnessed. We have to ask ourselves, if we cringe at having our music and art made this way, then why are we content to have our precious cars, smartphones, computers, fashions, and even musical instruments made in just this manner?

Dal Niente played two other pieces, Piano Hero #1 (2010) for solo piano by Stefan Prins and Marcos Balter’s Growth (2010) for guitar, piano, clarinet, saxophone, and string trio. Kwan took the stage for the Prins work to play electronic keyboard while a video projected behind her showed hands performing inside a piano. The piece was quite bizarre as it seemed that the piano in the video was being destroyed as a direct result of Kwan’s dramatic gestures at the keyboard onstage.

Balter remarked before his piece that Growth goes through many transformations, representing the creation of poetry as an organism becoming polluted. The work opened with delicate piano, joined by bass flute and shimmering strings, adding a pulse to the emerging life form. The reeds entered quietly and the tension gradually increased as the textures became more and more complex, an organic mechanism growing and replicating. Michael Lewansksi conducted Growth with grace and precision, moving his hands as if they were miniature dancers at the ends of his arms.

Percussionist Mark Cook (photo courtesy BGSU Marketing & Communications, all rights reserved)

Percussionist Mark Cook (photo courtesy BGSU Marketing & Communications, all rights reserved)

The opening set of the concert featured three works played by Bowling Green State University students. Apsis (2013) by Shai Cohen, featured Elise Roy on piccolo, Noa Even on baritone saxophone, and Mary MacKinnon on tuba. The trio rotated the lead and supporting roles in this lively and spirited work. Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra (1988), performed with rapt persistence by percussionist Mark Cook, was an aural treat. Cook repeatedly struck a triangle, moving around all its three sides while holding it in various ways. He produced a stunning array of tones, all the wile maintaining  a streetcar bell rhythm. Matthew Younglove on alto saxophone and Stephanie Titus on piano closed the first set with Girard Kratz’s Monster Studies (2011) in six movements. The duo weaved its way through lyrical melodies, slow contemplative moods, ragtime, and blues riffs with great aplomb, one more example of BGSU students playing at a very high level.