Jean-Luc Plouvier und Gerd Van Looy of Ictus ensemble © Frédéric Pauwels
Jean-Luc Plouvier und Gerd Van Looy of Ictus ensemble © Frédéric Pauwels

Gerd van Looy — The Observer as Part of the Experience (A Short Self Portrait)

Ictus as an ensemble performing recently composed music, acts in the shadow of the classical music scene. Today however, we find ourselves in a situation where the modes of production prevailing in this sector are increasingly in conflict with our artistic ambitions. The given infrastructure, the related economy, the political and artistic agenda of the venues we work with, often hinder our need for an alternative work process that can result in unpredictable formats, carefully tuned communication, and/or a particular way the public can engage.

Since the beginning of the 21st century and – together with the rise of internet, peer to peer and sharing culture – ‘new music’ entered a new time zone. We can say that, until then, it was still operating within the well-defined roles for the composer, musician, the audience, the soloist or conductor, as it has been for a century or two. Certainly, the ensembles became specialized, more flexible to different ways of working, playing and presenting (illustrated by words as participation and outreach, transcultural or thematic, with nice ideas as a DJ at 11pm and a smartphone to intervene) – but the hierarchy, the work organization, the artistic responsibilities of the work that was presented, flourishes in the same spectrum of the classical music and canonic art since the 19th century. Modern versus classical, original or old fashioned, vulgar versus inspired and excellent, the high culture is incorporating its own never-ending play of polarizing terms.

As this division of tasks goes hand in hand with a complete ‘ecosystem’ of rules and limitations, more and more ‘new music’ seemed obliged to adapt or to migrate to pop up in different venues or a handful of twisted festivals. The freedom it experiences there, the openness of the audiences, the technical possibilities for amplifying, lighting, the attention to non-evident content and its communication, or the evidence of longer work processes, have created a new music ‘scène’ that is disconnected from the realm of classical music.

And so, our programmes are more calibrated for our brothers in arms of the performing and visual arts, and explored in specific festivals, but they are oh so hard to transpose within the ‘modus operandi’ of our classical music venues. It seems still awkward to admit that music is (also) a performing art as this simple fact comes apparently with too many consequences. It is en vogue to present dance with live music, but it is still too problematic in many music venues to present music within a dance piece or – even worse – with moving musicians.

This change is extensively described (in different and sometimes conflicting ways) by theoretical contributions on the role of new music in society and the role of the performer/composer/author (see the works of Harry Lehman, Alessandro Barrico, Jennifer Walshe, Paul Craenen, Micha Hamel, etc). So let’s try to explain how this resonates with our daily experience – how it connects with our daily practice.

A three-stranded knot

It’s delicate: we cannot deny the creative efforts of today’s composers, especially in a musical world where so many «non-writable objects» apply for the status of musical objects — noises, electronic sounds, spoken voices, wild instruments — making of «written music» a new game without rules, or a new game searching for its own rules. We do not want to deny, just emphasize a new «knot» or interlaced situation where the art of «making new music» is redistributed a different way, the new practices of each partner changing the practices of the complete field.

a. COMPOSERS — The composers, at least an important part of them, have started a transitional process where «writing a piece» is replaced by «scoring a musical situation» — this word of «situation» involving space, visuals, conceptual concerns, social practices and even, why not, making up a budget. And exactly to realize these ‘situations’, other production formats were adopted.

For a thematic “ars subtilior” evening, we commissioned Christophe Guiraud who composed in close collaboration with us a piece for three stages : string trio, flute trio, synthesizer space are conceived from the very start of the process as fully polyphonic, poly-rhythmical and… poly-topic.
In Donaueschingen, last year, Martin Schüttler invited us to an experience even more radical: from the first interviews he realized with the musicians, until their exhibition in strange peep-show frontages on the day of the concert, the complete working process has been integrally scored, even if the music was partially improvised.

b. AUDIENCE — The new music audience is almost dead; the “alternative music” audience, in quest of new forms of musical or sonic beauty, is growing. This audience, so heterogeneous, appreciates – without any diffidence – a large and diverse range of listening practices: structural attention, immersive deep listening, floating attention to improvised textures, a physical experience, a museum in-and-out attitude, and so on. Their mental space is now «out of center» and is changing the global conception of musical space.

With the multi-staged space of the Liquid Rooms, Ictus is exploring for more than 10 years, this new imaginary space of perception. Unintentionally entering the space codes of a rock concert, a scenographic language more common in performance art, a concert that becomes also a sort of minifestival.

c. PERFORMERS — The musicians-performers feel more and more comfortable to escape from the status of an highly skilled executor in a «mini-orchestra», he is more than ever dealing with new situations: negotiating with the sound engineers and computer engineers, even participating in their tasks — reading the new music masterworks with an historical and sometimes creative approach — questioning the way they are rehearsing, the way they are staged, the way they are occupying the concert space. De-specializing is a keyword: performers are engaging – with all the musical experience they have – in new fields of playing, controlling, moving, inventing beyond the areas of the instrument they know.

For a new project with Ictus, Kasper Toeplitz has warned us already that the score he is preparing does not request specific instruments. “That’s your problem, like choosing the colour of your socks”, he said. Opportunity for the cellist to study Max, for the pianist to buy a Lyra, and so on.

We are considering these three topics: ‘composers facing the score in a new way’ + ‘audience experiencing new space’ + ‘musicians experiencing new tasks’, not like three parallel matters of facts, but like a powerful knot full of unexpected interactions. A knot we could name a «new paradigm»: the escape from the modern space and the end of the curve of written music as we have known it. At this point we could say that new music has stopped to be modern and is entering its «contemporary age».

But – and that’s what is so fascinating – this knot invites us inevitably again to reconnect with our historical roots: and we admit that «scoring a situation» is also totally in phase with the musical concepts of Wagner and Cage; «experiencing the music as a complex space» resonates with Nono’s and Stockhausen’s musical ideas; «de-specializing the artist» is in phase with all fields of modernity – theater, cinema, visual arts – except for music, so far. It means that escaping from modernity could be said in other terms: it is realizing modernity, reconnecting our practices into a challenging new dynamic. And this is an exciting paradox – a field of new opportunities for Ictus and partners in crime – without knowing exactly where they will bring us, an open field we have just started to explore, a playground that yet has to discover its full potential.
—Gerd Van Looy, 2018

Gerd Van Looy is General Manager of Ictus Ensemble Brussels. Being involved in multiple producing, programming and coordinating tasks he is active both in established institutions as well as in events and dance companies (Bozar Brussels, Bruges Cultural Capital of Europe, Dance Compagnie Ultima Vez, Les Ballets C de la B among others).

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