Curating through research. MaerzMusik 2023

Monika Żyła / 3 cze 2023

Since 2015, research and theory have been increasingly present at Berlin’s MaerzMusik festival. Until last year, this was achieved through the daily discursive format known as Thinking Together. This year, the festival introduced a new format — the Library of MaerzMusik (depicted here in the photographs by Camille Blake) — an open space for exchange, encounters, and personal study. The library consisted of a curated collection of objects and materials (books, recordings, music scores) donated by festival artists. Together with reclaimed furniture and soft lighting, it created a unique environment for pause and reflection amidst the usual festival hustle. Even more needed as the last three pandemic years created a long line of overdue, not yet performed commissions and premiers that resulted in even more accumulation and overflow of festival programs worldwide. It became clear that the Library of MaerzMusik not only offered a refuge from information overload but also embodied the curatorial ideology of the festival, as envisioned by its new artistic director and curator, Kamila Metwaly. By incorporating the upper foyer of the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, the festival encouraged non-hierarchical engagement and socialization, enhancing accessibility, and participation and connecting theory with practice. Through diverse formats of events and social encounters including reading sessions, conversations, listening exercises, documentary screenings, and sound treatment sessions, MaerzMusik expanded its universe beyond the traditional concert format, championing accessibility and fostering a vibrant festival community. Library of MaerzMusik emerged as a much-needed festival hub, operating daily, and establishing its own identity within the festival program. I particularly appreciated how this space engendered a unique, more personal type of festival participation, engagement, and social interaction.

The efforts invested in transforming the headquarters of MaerzMusik into a lively, meaningful, and frequented festival community space were truly impressive. However, it was hard to overlook the perceptual, geographical, urban, and metaphorical detachment this safe oasis seemed to have from the rest of Berlin. I am still not certain whether the sparsely populated auditorium of the main stage during the program series named Grenzräum Hören, curated by Timo Krauser and Sophie Emilie Beha, was a result of this perceived distance or a lingering effect of the pandemic years. Fortunately, MaerzMusik continued to cultivate already established institutional partnerships with various art spaces throughout the city, such as Savvy Contemporary, Silent Green and Daadgalerie. As a result, this year, Savvy Contemporary in Wedding presented  an excellent parallel program realized in collaboration with MaerzMusik, featuring a diverse range of formats, including a listening exhibition titled Lakbayan. Voices of Resistance from the Philippines, curated exhibition tours, and active listening sessions. This institutional diversification of MaerzMusik, embracing various spaces associated with visual arts indicates a deeper commitment to interdisciplinary practices and movements within the contemporary music scene. It expanded the festival’s scope to include different genres, spaces, and discourses. And I cannot stress enough how important is this transdisciplinary approach to contemporary music curating.

The festival program’s narrative threads were intricately woven together with enhanced clarity and synthesis, thanks to the well-defined curatorial and programming strategy led by Kamila Metwaly, the festival’s new artistic director. Under the leadership of an Egyptian-Polish music writer and curator, we wittnessed a more balanced distribution of curatorial powers and responsibilities, with curators including Enno Poppe and Sonia Lescène being mentioned alongside Metwaly as part of the Library of Musik curatorial team. Collective curatorship was also indicated in the listening exhibition Lakbayan: Voices of Resistance from the Philippines at Savvy Contemporary, where the Dan A Dang Radio team curated the exhibition together, and without individual attribution1. Interestingly, the series Grenzräum Hören incorporated the role of the dramaturg (in German: dramaturgie), held by Sophie Emilie Beha, responsible for preparing the piece for the stage. It was exciting to see how these two, quite distinct even though sometimes confused, activities – music curating, and music dramaturgy – were articulated at the festival. Curating emerged as a distinctive form of knowledge production and transfer, while music dramaturgy worked from within the compositions themselves.

Grenzräum Hören, 19.03.2023, © Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

A notable example of how dramaturgy worked from within the music itself was the performance of Jakob Ullman’s durational nearly static compositions from the series Voice, Books, and FIRE by Ensemble Phønix16. Those rarely performed pieces entail a mystic and meditative exploration of music, language, text, and voice. The series Grenzräum Hören aimed to nuance and thematize the act of listening, a concept often explored in sound studies but not very prominent at contemporary music festivals. This form of enhanced listening, evoked by the series, reminded me of Sandeep Bhagwati’s description of concert halls as „machines built to produce an artificial silence”2.  In this case, the silence was generated through subtle musical utterances, whispered texts, border-level audible electronics, and their interaction with the acoustic resonance of the space. Despite the perceptually minimal level, it resulted in a powerful and rewarding experience that challenged the audience’s listening habits and demanded focused attention. The series also encompassed other events that encouraged active listening, revisiting major pieces like Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations and extending the experience through rituals, meditations, installations, and various other sonic-related actions.

This year, MaerzMusik has also placed a strong emphasis on researching and reintroducing the music of Lucia Dlugoszewski (1925-2000), a Polish-American composer, performer, instrument inventor, author, and choreographer, to the festival stages in Germany3.  As part of the initiative called Contemplations into the Radical Others, the festival collaborated with Ensemble Musikfabrik, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, pianist Agnese Toniutti, and others, to perform the composer’s music once again. (On a broader scope, the project involves the recreation of over 100 percussion instruments invented by Lucia Dlugoszewski). While a more encompassing retrospective is scheduled for the festival next year, even this year  we could hear three prominent and challenging compositions by Dlugoszewski; the festival centered the entire program of one of its strongest and most exciting concerts around her music. In the first part of the three-hour-long evening program titled Subtle Matters the Italian pianist and researcher, Agnese Toniutti, delivered a stunning solo piano recital that explored the sonic possibilities of the instrument „beyond its body” as described in the program. One of the highlights was Toniutti’s enthralling performance of Lucia Dlugoszewski’s four-part solo “timbre piano”4 composition, Exacerbated Subtlety Concert (Why Does a Woman Love a Man?) (1997/2000). This piece was juxtaposed with Tan Dun’s C-A-G-E, fingering for piano (1994), an homage to John Cage, and a selection of compositions for real and toy piano by the American composer Philip Corner. As in her solo album released in 2021 under the same title, Toniutti showed exceptional sensitivity and insight in her selection of the pieces. As a result, a fascinating dialogue emerged between Dlugoszewski and Dun’s compositions that further contextualized and situated Dlugoszewski’s music and aesthetics as part of the New York scene. It subtly referenced Dlugoszewski’s ambiguous and changing attitude towards John Cage as its most prominent and central figure which I read as a hint towards the question of why Cage’s silences were louder than the silences of others. Toniutti undertook an extensive body of research so that subtleties like this could surface and be signaled through music. Not to mention the amount of work she put into performing Dlugoszewski’s piece in the first place, despite the score being unavailable, as Toniutti explained in the program note.

The second part of the evening program Space is Diamond, featured Ensemble Musikfabrik and marked the highlight of the Dlugoszewski showcase. It culminated with the grandiose Tender Theater Flight Nageire, one of Dlugoszewski’s more renowned ensemble compositions for brass quintet and extended percussion instrumentation, meticulously crafted by instrument maker Thomas Meixner. Ensemble Musikfabrik had previously commissioned Beixner to create replicas of Harry Partch’s original instrumentation. Now, commissioned by the ensemble once again, Beixner brought to life the wide range of creative instruments invented by Dlugoszewski, based on her sketches and archival documentation. Before the performance, we could listen to another significant and visionary piece by Dlugoszewski, Space is Diamond for a trumpet solo, performed by Marco Blaauw. Dlugoszewski’s music was programmed alongside pieces by a generation of composers born after 1990, including Jin Wang, Tamara Miller, and Mazyar Kashian. The program also featured two compositions for various uncommon brass instruments, including alphorns, by German autodidact composer Hans-Joachim Hespos (1938-2022). During the evening, Dlugoszewski’s instruments and music made a lasting impression, and the remarkable interpretation by the Ensemble Musikfabrik demonstrated that her compositions were anything but dated or anachronistic. This further confirms that Dlugoszewski’s music and her individual sonic imagination remain relevant, ambitious, consistent and contemporary, despite being largely unknown to both European and US-American audiences. Her work eagerly awaits encounters with new generations of listeners who will appreciate her incredibly rich, intense and nuanced sonic universe. Thoughtfully conceived program of this concert at MaerzMusik provided an all-encompassing, comprehensive contextualisation of her music, creating a timely and genuine dialogue with contemporary compositions written after 2016. Despite the concert’s lengthy duration, Dlugoszewski’s music (infused with feminist thought and philosophy of the 1960s, on which will elaborate more extensively elsewhere), resonated with me, asserting its rightful place within contemporary music stages. Her music has the potential to inspire and stir new creative impulses and perspectives in listeners, performers, and composers alike.

„Contemplations into the Radical Others”: Dlugoszewski / Dun / Corner / Toniutti / Wang / Miller / Hespos / Kashian / Ensemble Musikfabrik, © Fabian Schellhorn / Berliner Festspiele

The topic of complex, migrant identities emerged as one of the underlying themes of this year’s festival. I was pleased to observe substantial enhancements in MaerzMusik’s program, particularly in the inclusion of music by Polish and East German composers, and the more encompassing showcasing of their music during the festival. It’s great to finally witness the reflection of Berlin’s multicultural demographic (past and present) in the MaerzMusik program. Especially that over the past decades, Berlin, and Germany in general, has become a popular destination for Polish composers who choose to work and live here. The presentation of Wojtek Blecharz’s sound treatments in a separate daily ongoing series for one listener FIELD 5. Aura (as part of the Library of Music), and the concert by the ensemble Spółdzielnia Muzyczna from Kraków marked a much-welcomed shift. The concert featured an exciting all-Polish program that included works by younger composers like Monika Szpyrka, Martyna Kosecka, and Paweł Malinowski, as well as a performative composition called Haphephobia by Rafał Ryterski, with Aleksander Wnuk as a drummer and performer.

The theme of complex identities was also obviously reflected in the festival’s focus on Dlugoszewski. The presence of her music in the festival’s program effectively challenged and complicated the traditional singular notion of national identity, particularly in the light of our current post-migrant, pluralistic societies. The intricacies of modern identities were explored even further through the music of composers from former Eastern Germany. Significantly, Jakob Ullmann’s compositional series Voice, Books, and FIRE were given substantial focus through an extensive monographic presentation. This gesture could be interpreted as a symbolic nod towards the East German origins of MaerzMusik, particularly considering the recent neglect and ongoing systematic erasure of the cultural legacy of the German Democratic Republic, as increasingly seen in the dismantling of East German art institutions and neglecting its cultural legacy.

In a broader context, the festival’s emphasis on theory and research became visible not only in the way it was curated, programmed, and publicity mediated. The growing significance of research (both archival and artistic) became also increasingly evident as paramount for recent compositional practice. It is a topic of debate to what extent the presence of artistic research in the contemporary music world becomes a deliberate strategy for legitimizing artistic work, especially in times of precarity and economic crises. The music theatre Songs for Captured Voices by Laurie M. Hiendl, Phila Bergman, Thea Reifler, and Göksu Kunak, was centered around the audio recordings, kept in the Lautarchiv of the Berlin Humboldt University, from German prisoner-of-war camps during both the First and Second World Wars. The recordings were listed in the program note as an initial creative impuls for the piece, even though they were not reproduced on stage at all. The recordings were interestingly contextualis as an inaudible point of departure for sketching a more contemporary stories of the realities of migrants and asylum seekers. The underlying story of the eponymous captured voices became the pretext to develop a narrative critical to the political instrumentalization of the medium of sound recording, collecting, and archiving, and the complicity of scientific and documentary methods in depravation of the imprisoned subjects of their subjectivity and humanity. Archival knowledge and the practice of archiving became one of the central themes of the piece with one of the songs (no  6) even bearing the name: The Song of the Archival Knowledge Production. Intriguing and reserved musically, brilliantly delivered by Elaine Mitchener and the musicians of the KNM Ensemble, and with beautiful stage design, the piece lacked some dramaturgical depth that would validate its realization on stage. The artistic reasoning behind turning this piece into a music theatre, rather than presenting it as a stage concert, or within a more installative context, was unclear to me. Spatial, visual and sonic reversal of the positions of instruments, which created a certain re- or disorientation of the audience regarding the presence of the musicians did not vindicate such decision. Nor was it justified by musician’s choreography, which mainly limited somewhat their actions, as it  included, for example, not being able to look up or straight ahead. Perhaps, it was also the libretto, consisting oftentimes of repetitively uttered slogans like „Free speech”, „Say their names” or „Nobody is illegal”, as well as fragments of scattered phrases, strongly imbued with guilt and academic jargon, that flattened the intended strong social and political overtone of the entire production.


On the contrary, Plans for Future Operas composed by Øyvind Torvund became a compelling and hilarious speculation on impossible and absurd future operas. Behind its lightness and dry humor laid a deep social and institutional criticism directly directed towards the neoliberal mechanisms of cultural institutions that need to be constantly fed with new ideas and projects. The gorgeous performance by Juliet Fraser (soprano) and Mark Knoop (piano) came as close to a stand-up comedy show as contemporary music performance ever could. It uncovered a brutal and bitter disillusion of the need for constant growth that came to define also the world of contemporary music. But the show’s humor, unexpected scope of themes, and absurd parallels, together  with funny pencil drawings projected on screen worked perfectly to disarm the heaviness of the topic. As a result, it created a sense of detachment that took away the underlying weight of the deeper diagnosis that Torvund made in the piece. The excellent vocal performance not only critically inquires into the future of contemporary opera. It also delivers answers. The future of opera lies in artistic collaboration, friendships, and ongoing conversations between composer and performer who dare to laugh and dream together.

„Plans for Future Operas”, © Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

Looking back at the festival’s program, one might ask what type of knowledge it produced, what kind of spaces and social connections it enabled, and how the listeners absorbed and engaged with the program throughout the festival. At this year’s MaerzMusik festival, the efforts and dedication to delineating new ways of framing, contextualizing, and presenting recent contemporary music as well as historical, 20th-century avantgardes were unmatched. How MaerzMusik unearthed the oeuvre of Lucia Dlugoszewski could serve as a model of how to mobilize resources and use them through collaboration and archival research. Hopefully, Kamila Metwaly and her team will further build upon and refine this curatorial approach in the upcoming years.

„Library of MaerzMusik” , © Camille Blake / Berliner Festspiele

  1. See also  

  2. Sandeep Bhagwati, Curating Musicking as a Mode of Wakefulness in Interesting Times, presented at the Symposium Curating Diversity – Decolonizing Contemporary Music, Berlin, September 25, 2020,  

  3. It’s worth mentioning here that before the pandemic, Hashtag Ensemble together with dancer Marta Kosieradzka premiered two pieces by Dlugoszewski: Tight Rope (1968) and Openings of the (Eye) (1951) at the festival Sacrum Profanum in Cracow. The concert took place on 2 November 2019 in Cricoteca.   

  4. “Timbre piano” refers to Lucia Dlugoszewski’s invention of the extended piano, incorporating fixed and mobile preparations, internal piano techniques, resonances, and pedal techniques, as pianist Katharina Bleier puts it, see