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What's going on? (2): The Ligeti Academy

17 December 2009

Györgi Ligeti was famously difficult to work with. He used to say, "if only I were able to conduct myself... that would make things so much easier!"

With the Dutch Asko and Schönberg ensembles, however, he developed a special working relationship, resulting in the thirteen-volume Ligeti Collection. When the temperamented Hungarian composer died in 2006, there was an awareness with the ensemble that they had a first-hand knowledge of how the composer wanted his work to sound and of working with him like no one else had.

Now this is a special kind of knowledge. You can only have it in contemporary composed music, because in the classical repertoire the composer tends to be long dead. And it is specifically mandatory in the field of modern music because there is much more to explore: odd types of notation, new playing techniques, dispersed sound, chance elements, prepared piano, electro-acoustics, exotic and complicated rhythms, microtones. Moreover, the knowledge is largely tacit. This already goes for traditional music practice, where allegedly only 30% of the interpretation is in the notes directly (though this figure can only be spurious, because there is no 'measure' of interpretation). But here, it is also scarce; it is not taught at conservatoire; and it lies with a group rather than with an individual. And since Asko|Schönberg has three decades of experience at the cutting edge of modern ensemble music, the knowledge is also extensive: most of the living greats and the post-war avantgarde have worked with the ensemble. Worse, Ligeti is not the only one that died: since then, Kagel and Stockhausen, two other longtime friends, have elapsed, and many more are grey. And it's not just about preservation: Asko|Schönberg has a whole network of composers and conductors who could also transmit that knowledge on a group of students, and give workshops when they were in Amsterdam to work with the ensemble. If only there were such a group.

So Asko|Schönberg conceived of the Ligeti Academy. When the idea came up with oboist Marieke Schut, Asko and Schönberg were still two ensembles working closely together; but by the time of the pilot year (2008) they had undergone a forced merger. That year, they did an intensive pilot for three months with 15 students, before starting with a full year programme in September. The concept of the programme is to have a full modern ensemble, with each instrument represented by one student, and a student composer, conductor and singer as part of the group.

"To be honest, the concept was stolen from the Ensemble Modern", Marieke Schut admits. The Frankfurt-based ensemble has been running an international academy since 2003, establishing an MA program at the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Frankfurt am Main in 2006. The Ligeti Academy, so far, has been extracurricular, though there are plans for founding an MA program for modern music practice in the future. The pool consists of students from the Amsterdam Conservatoire and Royal Conservatoire, The Hague; they get 15 ECTS and have to do a separate audition for the academy. For many of them, it is their first serious immersion into new music; if it were not for the Ligeti Academy, modern music at both conservatoires would be largely restricted to the composition class. I asked Gea Plantinga, the academy's daily coordinator, which percentage of Dutch music students engaged in new music they represent. "Well, I don't know - but as far as they're at the Amsterdam and The Hague conservatoires: all."

The ensemble has its offices at the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, and often performs there, so I had half expected the workshops with the Ligeti Academy to take place there as well. This is not the case. They take place in a storage space in industrial suburbia, which doubles as the ensemble's rehearsal space and store for instruments. The contrast with the Muziekgebouw, a glass-and-steel wonder overseeing the IJ river and one of the leading venues for modern music in the world, couldn't have been greater. And it's very practical for the workshops to be where they are, because this is where the instruments are. The Muziekgebouw, like any concert hall, has its own piano and that's about it. Now anyone who has been at a few modern music concerts knows the immense sets of plates, gongs, marimbas, staves, and bells that are lined up as 'percussion' - and these have to stay somewhere. Not to mention the "rain piano" - that's what you get from working with composers like Martijn Padding. In this setting, rehearsing in a free space in a room full of instruments, it seems as if the roles are reversed, and the musicians are performing for an audience of instruments.

"Don't let the notes get in the way of the music". In this workshop, conductor Etienne Siebens is rehearsing work by Padding and Willem Jeths with the students. While his advice is mainly for student conductor Gregory Charette, it is very much about how the conductor can be part of the ensemble, and the roles that the different instruments can play. Different arrangements are tried out. "Now imagine that this piece is a small opera", Etienne tells Gregory. "What role would each of the instruments play?"

"Well, I guess that the saxophone would be the soprano. The other instruments would be chattering and closing in on her, gradually becoming louder."

"You see? Now you have changed the piece for the performers too."

"Rehearsal time is very expensive", Etienne teaches Gregory. "Imagine that you have only one hour before the performance. What would you rehearse? Be very precise in what you want."

Six students from last year's group have stayed together to form the Zephyrus ensemble, now renamed as the Amstel ensemble because it turned out that there was an ensemble by that name already. Remko Edelaar, who plays bassoon in Asko|Schönberg, emphasizes the importance of training in ensembles. "Fortunately the conservatoire is now starting to do more about it. But still, the instruments are worlds apart. If a bassoon student and a piano student would sit opposite to each other, the most likely thing you would get is dead silence."

"To start an ensemble you really need to know each other and have played together", Gea adds. "You can't sit in your study and decide: I want to start a wind quintet. And that's why it's so marvellous that this sextet came out of the previous group."

The Ligeti Academy, for all students, comes extra. And that has two consequences. First, it means that you have to respect the bond of trust between a student and his/her tutor at conservatoire, and to some extent you can't "tell them how to play" - even though modern repertoire places some rather extreme demands on technique. In some piece by Ligeti you'll see six p's, eight p's, two p's. And pp already means very soft. And that's where you have to pull a switch and persuade the student that yes, it can be done. But you don't meddle with the core technique - that's between the student and the teacher.

The other consequence is that it means a lot of extra work. "Well you only need seven hours of sleep", Remko says. "It's a hard world. If you want to stop studying after five you won't make it. Most students won't find a job as a musician when they're done at 23 - though maybe at 27 or 28 they will." And in the meantime, they'll have to find gigs and funds to continue studying.

Funding is a problem for the Ligeti Academy too. "We fall somewhere in between the categories 'educational' and 'artistic'," Marieke Schut explains. Fortunately, there is no lack of voluntary teachers. Whenever composers come over because Asko|Schönberg is performing their work, they will be asked to give a workshop with the students too, and they seldom say no. Indeed, why would they?

http://www.askoschoenberg.nl/index.php?page=ligety&changelanguage=1;&changelanguage=1;


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