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Maerzmusik: Liquid Ictus

Maerzmusik (Mar 20-29), the avant-classical festival featuring cutting-edge concerts, films, and multi-disciplinary performances, returns this Fri. Ensemble Ictus opens with their multi-stage "Liquid Room" show at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.

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Contemporary music in a rock festival setting: Liquid Room, the blockbuster concert series by Ensemble Ictus, comes to Berlin to open the MaerzMusik Festival.

In residence at the Opéra de Lille since 2004, Brussels-based contemporary music ensemble Ictus has always played with the concert format, introducing ‘mini’ or ‘maxi’ concerts, running commentary, choreography and more. Nowhere has this been more successful than in their Liquid Room performances, which let the audience experience a programme of contemporary music while roaming around multiple stages. Guitarist and artistic leader Tom Pauwels has been part of the project from the beginning.

By creating the Liquid Room format, did you want to attract new audiences to contemporary music concerts?

Not really. It started with our ongoing frustration concerning podium changes. You know, this cliché of contemporary music concerts when you have different works lasting between five and 15 minutes, alternated with breaks and podium changes. We tried to find a way to hide this activity from the stage.

So you created concerts that operate more like rock festivals, where the audience can wander from stage to stage, or even outside to the bar…

Yes. This idea came from my own frustration: sometimes, for specific kinds of music that require more physical contact, I cannot be close enough; other times I want to take some distance and have a peripheral view of the situation. This is important – we don’t force the listening perspective on the audience, and we offer an excess of material so that each listener can compose his or her own concert.

And how does the audience react? Well, the experience proved people don’t really use that freedom we are offering them – the bar hasn’t been such a busy place. People are free to go, so they don’t go, as if they were afraid to move or bother other people. The level of concentration is very high during the whole concert, partly because people can choose where they are, I guess. For this Liquid Room we’ve tried to come up with some strategies to oblige the audience to stand up, go, discover other parts of the space.

What are those strategies?

We make use of the big distances that are available at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele: for the first hour, we will play only on three stages, and from one podium you won’t be able to see very well what is happening on the others – so hopefully it will make people move. We also try to surprise the audience in the way we amplify sound, to let people ask themselves: where is the sound coming from? Is it coming from the front, from the back, from everywhere? Listening perspectives are very important to us – we play with them in order to initiate an audience’s move toward the source, to have them search for a confrontation or a more global, atmospheric way of listening.

The concert features a huge variety of guests – is there anyone you’re especially thrilled to present to Berlin?

I am very excited that we will introduce Cédric Dambrain. He is a young musician composer from Belgium who builds his own electronic instruments. He’ll be presenting one of his new prototypes, a controller that lets him modulate and filter electronic sound with his hands. Next to this interface, he has his feet free to manipulate a kind of organlike pedal structure. So it’s a very physical way to deal with electronics, very far from what we were used to in the 1990s – musicians being very immobile behind computers. It’s also something that uses a lot of tuning, that’s very peculiar – it’s very interesting to witness from up close.

You’ve also invited Bruce McClure from New York.

Yes, he will come with his 16mm projectors with which he sends images as well as sound. He’s prepared the mechanics of the projectors like a musician might prepare a piano: he’s amplifying the inside of it, and he is manipulating it himself onstage. This complex set-up wouldn’t be easy to integrate in a normal concert space. It needs to be close enough; the 16mm doesn’t project so far.

All in all, quite a few performative pieces.

Yes, we like to integrate works where the performer’s body becomes vulnerable. This time one of our musician is doing a work by François Sarhan, a French composer. He’s there naked, sitting on a chair, just speaking and making all kinds of gesture choreography. The speech and the direct physical contact with the performer whose muscles are at work are important elements to us.

Electronic music plays an important role in those concerts – why?

I think we could perfectly do without it, but at the same time, today’s ensemble musicians are very much dealing with amplified music. The new generation of musicians tends to connect with the experience of playing in rock bands, dealing with filtering or electronic modulation of sounds, so that’s something we’re very interested in: how would you take that responsibility onstage and take it away from an anonymous sound engineer, bring it back to the stage and look for interfaces? That’s what Dambrain and McClure are doing, or what we are doing when presenting a work by Marko Ciciliani for two electric guitars manipulated by four musicians.

In the Liquid Room programme for Berlin there are a few German names – is it important for you to connect the programme to the place you are playing?

Each Liquid Room is a result of a very intense collaboration with the curator. This time we’re performing with Ensemble Mosaïk and they bring their own repertoire: it was very interesting for me to dig into it and really come up with things I love. I’m very excited to finally hear live works like Rad by Enno Poppe, one of Mosaïk’s “blockbusters”.

How does the Liquid Room experience affect your relation to “normal” concerts?

I’ve become more and more critical when I see other people playing: now I’m allergic to podium changes. I can no longer endure technicians coming on stage, taking away chairs, putting up stands… it really puts me off! 

Liquid Room VI March 20, 20:00 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Wilmersdorf, U-Bhf Spichernstr.

MaerzMusik: Our picks

This year’s festival focuses on Greek composer Georges Aperghis: five concerts and projections explore his particular approach to musical theatre, in particular the largescale instrumental work Situations, performed on Mar 25 by 23 soloists from the Klangforum Wien. Eva Reiter and Cédric Dambrain, who will be part of Liquid Room on Mar 20, can also be heard as a duo a few days later (on Mar 23) performing among others the famous Seascape by Fausto Romitelli, now a classical piece for Paetzold contrabass recorder. The festival will end with The Long Now at Kraftwerk Berlin, in which popular Berliners like Phill Niblock, the quartet KNM Berlin and the ensemble Adapter will perform non-stop for over 24 hours! Full programme at Berliner Festspiele

Originally published in issue #136, March 2015