Classical music
from Flanders

New music in Flanders in the world

A selective look at Flemish music abroad today

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When considering contemporary music in Flanders, one of our recurring conclusions is that our composers keep their finger on the pulse of many international trends. It is hard to think of a movement or a form of aesthetics without a Flemish composer riding its wave.

In this contribution, however, we would like to reverse the roles and look for Flemish trends that spark an interest abroad. What Flemish music attracts international interest? In what field might our artists even be considered trendsetters?

Obviously, there is no exhaustive answer to this question. There is great diversity within the

Flemish composing world. Some composers pursue access to international stages and find it eventually, while others thrive perfectly within the Flemish context. And also among organisers and performers internationalisation is not the norm (nor does it have to be). If we consider this diversity and look for the Flemish artistic creations that are well received abroad, we find that it are often those productions that can be called ‘transmedial’. In a broad sense, the term transmedia (multimedia and intermedia are related terms) means that different media are combined. It refers to works of art in which one art form cannot exist without the other, they are conceived as a unity from the start.

It should be clear that transmedia productions usually challenge the established conventions of the concert situation to a greater or lesser extent. Compositions (if more than one work is scheduled) are not just performed one after the other, but they are arranged in a sophisticated way and they are all connected. In addition to music, other art forms are often part of the equation, such as video, theatre, dance, and lighting. In many cases the staging is very elaborate, giving even so-called classical concerts a certain dramaturgical edge. Transmedia compositions are often close to music theatre or even opera (which might be the oldest example of transmedia art). If we look at the ‘export’ of Flemish music abroad, these kinds of performances play a big part.

On top of the combination of music, drama (dance) and staging, the ubiquity of technology is pretty much a given in the 21st century, and therefore this is especially true in transmedia productions. From simple pre-recorded samples to complex live-electronics and state-of-the-art methods (including live video), many Flemish composers are as skilled with laptops as they are on the violin or the guitar.

Often the dramaturgical side and the use of state-of-the-art electronic methods come together, such as in recent productions by Serge Verstockt and ChampdAction, but just as well in projects by Bl!ndman or in the works by Stefan Prins and Nadar Ensemble. Ictus, too, is like a fish in water when it comes to transmedia productions, such as ​ Avis de Tempête (Aperghis) and the so-called ​ Liquid Rooms that turn 19th century, still well-established classical concert conventions on their head.

Technology in Flanders

It is hard to pinpoint where exactly this fascination for new technologies, musical dramaturgy and integration of diverse media comes from. There is obviously the international trend of computers and other electronics logically enriching the array of classical instruments. Our composers and musicians have embraced this phenomenon, partly thanks to a long-standing tradition in Flanders and in Belgium.

One of the very first composers who saw the possibilities of purely electronic music was Karel Goeyvaerts. In the 1950s, as a small Fleming he was an important voice during the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, at the time a meeting place for the avant-garde. The extensive correspondence from Goeyvaerts to Stockhausen is a silent witness of Goeyvaerts passionately explaining his utopian vision of electronically generated sounds.

Other composers would go on to diligently explore these new features, and due to all kinds of circumstances (the availability of an electronic studio for example) they would develop them with even greater success than Goeyvaerts had. One only has to think of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono.

Later, various Flemish institutes – for some reason all based in Ghent, a coincidence? – would explore the possibilities of technology in music in their own manner. At IPEM, research was carried out into the interaction between music and the human body; and many composers were working there.

Up until today, the Logos Foundation of Godfried-Willem Raes continues to play an important role in the relentless search for technological innovation. In the past, Logos was the main reason for many international stars to travel to Belgium. Think of Conlon Nancarrow, Alvin Lucier, Gavin Bryars, Dick Raaijmakers, Cornelius Cardew, Phil Niblock. Serge Verstockt, art director at ChampdAction, describes it as follows: ​ “Anything that has meant anything for contemporary music made the rounds there.” 1 In addition to Logos, SEM (Studio for Experimental Music), and now ChampdAction, were also an important catalyst in this story.

It is hard to pinpoint where exactly this fascination for new technologies, musical dramaturgy and integration of diverse media comes from.

(c) Mirjam Devriendt
(c) Mirjam Devriendt

Some important players

Contemporary music exists in a widespread network of composers, performers, programmers (who both organise existing productions and commission new works), production companies, audiences, and schools. We will highlight some of the key players without the ambition to be exhaustive. Our selection is based on the international response, without wanting to express a value judgement.

The aforementioned ChampdAction is a clear example of how not only the concert context is redefined, but even the ensemble concept is reimagined. Part of its mission is highlighting the music by Karel Goeyvaerts. ChampdAction entered the 21st century as an ensemble, but slowly (and under the impulse of Serge Verstockt, the driving force) evolved into a type of laboratory (a true ‘field of action’ as the name says) for composers and performers. The transmedia aspect of their productions is expressed through a dramaturgical component and an extensive use of new technology combined with classical instruments. Most likely, the intense collaboration between Serge Verstockt and visual artist/performer Jan Fabre (Requiem für eine Metamorphose) has played a big part in this.

Even though ChampdAction has remained at the front of musical developments up until today, Ictus’s international impact is bigger. Transmedia plays a big part here as well. Ictus is a Brussels-based ensemble that has created an alliance with Rosas, the dance company built around Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. The ensemble was born out of the sextet Maximalist! and was named Ictus in 1994. Georges-Elie Octors was the art director from the start, and was later succeeded by Jean-Luc Plouvier and Tom Pauwels. In the same year of 1994, the ensemble already collaborated with the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. Many other international names came next (Francesconi, Oehring, Ferneyhough, Lindberg, Jonathan Harvey, Steve Reich, Aperghis) and Ictus soon found its way to the big international venues. The 2017 agenda includes performances in Lille, Brussels, Paris, Luxembourg, but also in New York (MoMA) and Tokyo. In any case, Ictus is a much sought-after guest at cutting-edge festivals, even outside of the field of ‘new music’.
It is clear that Maximalist! contained a lot of potential because of the other ensemble that also evolved into a varied ensemble/production company. Bl!ndman was a saxophone quartet first, but later evolved into a welcoming space for young quartets (saxophone, strings, percussion and voice) and in the last couple of years it has brought us more and more productions with different art forms enriching one another. One example is the trilogy Kwadratur (Globe/Transfo/Cube), which brings various compositions together in a location project with all members of the Bl!ndman collective.

Over the last few years, we are seeing an increasing number of co-productions in which big Flemish players collaborate with leading forums for new music, and this way they provide a strong contribution to the international positioning of Flemish creators.

Bl!ndman often also takes part in other productions, including projects with LOD (cf. infra). The Spectra and Hermes ensembles also often end up in foreign venues. In addition to these ensembles, we will mention another remarkable player in the field. Nadar Ensemble celebrated its tenth birthday in 2016, and even though the ensemble is still often announced as a ‘young collective’ or ‘up-and-coming’, their international calendar clearly shows they are a mature representative of Flemish music abroad. Their name refers to Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, who was a great supporter of the multidisciplinary approach under the pseudonym ‘Nadar’. He himself was an illustrator, a photographer, a writer and a journalist, but also a balloonist. This latter aspect inspired the composer Michaël Maierhof to write a composition for four hot-air balloons and an ensemble, performed in Darmstadt no less, the epicenter of musical modernism since the 1950s (cf. supra). The hot-air balloons of the 21st century are drones, which were used very effectively by Stefan Prins, one of the core figures and co-art director (with Pieter Matthynssens) of the Nadar Ensemble. After a period in the United States, Stefan Prins, who by the way grew up amid the ChampdAction equipment, now commutes between Belgium and Berlin. As a performer and a composer he is everywhere in the international music scene. His works almost always contain a theatrical component and a boundless fascination for the newest technologies.

Music theatre in Flanders

Not only ensembles play a role in this story. Flanders also boasts various esteemed production companies that, over the last years, have given a great boost to (young) creators delving into music theatre.

Muziektheater Transparant and LOD are probably the most important ones, and both are players on the international market. In order to achieve this, they invest in co-productions, which make bigger concepts financially achievable, but also allow for productions to be performed in different countries. We will provide an example of each production company. The production Kings of War, a compilation of three history plays by Shakespeare, blended into one story by the director Ivo van Hove, is a play by Toneelgroep Amsterdam in co-production with Muziektheater Transparant, BL!NDMAN, Holland Festival, The Barbican, Théâtre National de Chaillot and Wiener Festwochen. At the moment of writing fifteen performances are scheduled in Amsterdam and Brooklyn (NY).

Last season, LOD created the opera Bosch Beach with a libretto by Dimitri Verhulst, incollaboration with the following partners: Concertgebouw Brugge, A Two Dogs Company(Brussels), Jheronimus Bosch 500 Foundation, House on Fire, Teatro Maria Matos (Lisbon), Kaaitheater (Brussels), Asko|Schönberg (Amsterdam), Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (Lisbon), Theater Mousonturm Frankfurt, Frankfurter Buchmesse 2016 and Klarafestival, with the support of the Cultural Programme of the European Union and the Eduard van Beinum Foundation. There were performances in Bruges, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Den Bosch and Brussels.

In addition to these production companies, which often have a wider aesthetic profile than the ensembles or performers, the organisers obviously have an important role to play. The collaboration between deSingel and the Flemish Opera led to Opera XXI, a music festival centred around contemporary music theatre, which brought productions from LOD and Muziektheater Transparant to the traditional opera houses. ​ For an elaborate article about music theatre in Flanders and the role of the different agents in the field, we refer to Maarten Beirens’s contribution to the World New Music Magazine vol. 22 of 2012.

(c) Mirjam Devriendt
(c) Mirjam Devriendt

What about the composers themselves?

Many composers within the contemporary music scene are closely involved with the performance of their oeuvre. Only a small minority can count on the solid framework of a publisher. Wim Henderickx’s agreement with Norsk Musikforlag is a nice exception to the rule, and in the last few years Donemus has also been focussing on the publishing of Belgian/Flemish music, including work by Brewaeys and Goeyvaerts. The presence of Flemish composers on international stages is closely related to the programming of the ensembles who take on certain composers, but also to possible co-productions between Flemish organisers and foreign colleagues. This way of working also opens doors for (young) Flemish composers and musicians such as Annelies Van Parys, Daan Janssens, Frederik Neyrinck, and others. They are offered a forum that was much less developed at a time when the previous generation of internationally-oriented top composers started to emerge. We can even say that the international impact of this new generation within the art music scene is bigger than that of established names such as Karel Goeyvaerts or Luc Brewaeys. Over the last few years, we are seeing an increasing number of co-productions in which big Flemish players collaborate with leading forums for new music, and this way they provide a strong contribution to the international positioning of Flemish creators. For a few years now, TRANSIT has been in touch with November Music and Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. De Bijloke has co-produced various transmedia productions, including Nadar productions with the Berlin Maerzmusik, the Donaueschinger Musiktage and Mousonturm Frankfurt. And Concertgebouw Brugge and deSingel don’t shy away from co-productions either, especially when it involves big pieces. The aforementioned examples of music theatre productions belong to the most extreme examples when it comes to the number of partners involved, but we see that almost every transmedia production (from opera to more classical concerts) are achievable thanks to collaborations between cultural agents, nationally and/or internationally. In addition to the fact that Flemish music theatre productions and other transmedia productions offer international quality, the financial need to find partners for large-scale productions also leads to more international distribution. Last but not least, the travel subsidies provided by the Flemish Community are an extra stimulus for younger ensembles to find the way to less obvious venues (e.g. in Russia or Argentina).

(c) Mirjam Devriendt
(c) Mirjam Devriendt

(1) Serge Verstockt’s expression of support on the website of the Logos Foundation
Maarten Quanten & Klaas Coulembier
Maarten Quanten is programmer contemporary music at De Bijloke in Ghent. Klaas Coulembier is a member of the Department of Musicology at KU Leuven University. He is the author of several articles and book chapters, among other subjects on contemporary music analysis.
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