The platform for Belgium's international community

Search form

menu menu
  • Daily & Weekly newsletters
  • Buy & download The Bulletin
  • Comment on our articles

Ars Musica festival: Contemporary music explained

14:28 04/11/2014

Belgium is known as much for its music festivals as its beer and chocolate. This relatively small country famously hosts some of Europe’s biggest festivals. There’s Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop and Lokerse Feesten. Graspop, Tomorrowland and Couleur Café.

Then there’s Ars Musica: another kind of festival entirely. Spread out over a fortnight and across the city of Brussels, Ars Musica doesn’t showcase pop, rock or jazz but rather contemporary music.

As organisers and performers prepare for the 26th edition of Ars Musica, which encompasses some 50 concerts at 18 Brussels venues, we talk contemporary music with festival director Bruno Letort and composer/pianist Walter Hus (pictured), a member of the seminal Belgian group Maximalist!

Along with bandmates Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch, Hus helped articulate the Belgian answer to minimalism in the 1980s. The group is celebrated in this special Mini-Maxi edition of Ars Musica.

Contemporary music is a notoriously difficult genre to define, but Letort paints it with a broad brush. “It is the music of our times,” he says, “Music that explores new languages and new instrumental practices – that takes risks.”

If you find the abstract generality of the term “contemporary music” unsatisfying, you’re not alone. “I hate the term. It is probably the worst chosen label ever,” proclaims Hus. “‘Contemporary music’ just sounds like ‘music of today’. Of course classical-music insiders understand something altogether different, something like ‘music from the last 30 or 40 years written in the alignment and artistic tradition of classical music.’ And for people who are not specialised in the matter, it’s simply pretentious classical music that doesn’t sound quite right.”

Pushing at boundaries

“Contemporary music” is unquestionably a loaded descriptor, invested with the charge of its long and controversial history. The form was born in the last century when young, unestablished composers pioneered so many alternatives to the hegemony of classical beauty. 

It was the ancient Greeks who had laid down the law: only that which is harmonious is beautiful, and only that which is beautiful is good. In urban life, however, these modern composers found a new inspiration in the form of disorder and disharmony. They duly expanded their palette to include alien textures, harmonic tension, unconventional sound sources and brute, industrial cacophony.

There was something palpably revolutionary about it all. It could be atonal (as advocated by Luigi Russolo’s pioneering polemic The Art of Noises) or altogether anti-tonal (like John Cage’s epically silent 4’33”), but this modern music, if it was to assert itself, had to be sensationally novel.

Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring famously incited a riot at its premiere, while Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music is still regularly referenced as the worst pop album ever recorded.

But in the 21st century, “contemporary” music is neither chronologically new nor particularly unconventional. The shock of the new has faded. The early movement’s signature publicity stunts appear to have been co-opted by commercial culture.

Relieved of the obligation to be controversial, contemporary music has become more modest. Finally, in its maturity, it focuses squarely on its most substantive aspect: its meditation on the structures of music, the ways in which we experience it and its relation to other artistic media.

Enter the Belgians. By the 1980s, young local composers like De Mey and Jean-Paul Dessy had digested the sonic experiments undertaken decades earlier by American artists such as La Monte Young and Steve Reich; and they were ready to give it a go themselves.

A coincidental gathering

The impulse was particularly strong in Belgium, where the contemporary style came to define a variety of disciplines from film to theatre to design. Nowhere, however, did this new wave of local talent assert itself as spectacularly as in the world of dance – and this largely thanks to the influence of musical minimalism.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s 1982 breakthrough Fase, for example, was choreographed around a suite of Reich compositions that she discovered on a sojourn to New York. For the follow-up, Rosas Danst Rosas, De Keersmaeker would invite De Mey and his clarinet-playing counterpart Vermeersch to get minimal live on stage with her dancers.

Thus was born Maximalist! The core duo went on to augment the line-up with additional members like Dessy and Vermeersch’s erstwhile schoolmate Walter Hus. “It was a purely coincidental gathering of a bunch of very talented young guys but there was an immediate chemistry between us,” the Brussels-based pianist recalls.

The Maximalist! experience culminated at the end of the decade with Wim Vandekeybus’ milestone dance production What the Body Does Not Remember.

“It was great to travel all over Europe together and play these loud, amplified concerts with wild after-parties,” Hus says with a smile. “But after some years, I realised belonging to a group wasn’t really what I wanted. I was the first to quit the group to pursue my own career.”

Such restlessness is in fact a hallmark of contemporary music. It must constantly evolve to stay relevant and to avoid the trap of institutionalisation. In short, contemporary music risks becoming a victim of its own success, a slicker version of the same musical conventions against which the pioneers of the genre rebelled.

All of which casts the entire festival project in a dubious light. There’s no question that the music festival as a concept – with its schedules, its hierarchy, its corporate partners and its imperative to succeed financially – necessarily excludes much of the marginal but innovative experiments taking place underground. It’s a necessary evil, Letort admits.

“Contemporary music was never entirely anti-institutional,” he says. “Even early contemporary composers benefitted from ties to certain broadcast networks and academies. One has to recognise the necessity of such ‘institutional’ arrangements and yet negotiate them as creatively as possible. This must not become a culture industry as such.”

A big fish

Within the constraints of the festival format, then, Ars Musica is striving to remain fluid, to keep evolving. Hence its recent metamorphosis from an annual rite of spring to an autumn biennale. “This new format allows us to take the time to organise the best possible programme and present it at the height of the cultural season,” Letort explains.

The celebratory focus on Maximalist!, long dead and buried, might also be read as a regressive lapse, this time into nostalgia. Hus puts the tribute into perspective. “I’ve been surprised by comments from young people who seem to consider what we did as great,” he explains. “And every once in a while someone gets the idea to bring it up again, but I’m not very interested in nostalgia. I don’t like to look back. I want to advance. I still feel like an absolute beginner.”

As ever, the contemporary composer looks forward to the future, to the new works yet to be created, the new sounds yet to be produced. So Hus presents not one but two world premieres during Ars Musica’s opening-night extravaganza.

In collaboration with the Brussels Philharmonic, the former Maximalist! unveils his latest concerto Temesta Blues and Universal Nation, a tribute to the Belgian rave scene of the 1990s.

He’s also set to team up with fellow pianist Frederic Rzewski at Kaaitheater for an intense round of duelling pianos. Still more Hus compositions will be performed by other artists, including Spectra Ensemble. The Belgian group will interpret Hus’ 2012 multimedia concept piece Lint, which was inspired by the work of American graphic novelist Chris Ware and marries contemporary music with pop-art visual elements.

There’s much, much more besides on the programme of Ars Music. One of the highlights: Ars Musica and Ancienne Belgique (AB) partnered up this year to score one of the biggest gets in the festival’s storied history. In the relatively small pond of contemporary music, Kronos Quartet are among the bigger fish. The San Francisco-based group is recognised around the world, thanks in large part to a handful of Hollywood film soundtracks to which they’ve contributed, among them Heat and Requiem for a Dream.

Indeed, even if you’ve never heard the name Kronos Quartet, chances are you’ve heard their music. On 16 November, they perform works by Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson at AB.

Ars Musica’s pedagogic programme includes a master class led by Kronos Quartet as well as a range of conferences, workshops and a free all-star colloquium moderated by local composer Todor Todoroff and focused on musical innovation in theory and practice.

14-30 November at venues across Brussels

Written by Georgio Valentino for Flanders Today