Let’s Play! – Judit Varga tells us about the Transparent Sound New Music Festival

Several theories are there to explain the eternal human desire for playing. Dutch historian Jan Huizinga says it has always been around in human actions in civilisation, and M. J. Ellis argues for the importance of compensation: games fulfill psychological needs that work cannot fulfill or even evoke. We can also agree with Elemér Hankiss, according to whom playing can be the strongest antidote to fears in this dangerous, unpredictable world. Game and new music is in the focus of the 8. Transparent Sound New Music Festival; we talked to composer and lecturer Judit Varga about it, as she is also curator and member of the advisory board.

What is new music?

‘Neue Musik’ is a genre category which has avant-garde, Bartók, Schönberg as predecessors, as they used this expression for their own music. One of the biggest exercises of contemporary composers and this festival is to redefine this over and over again. It is not easy, as new music is a much wider and more exclusive than others, like ‘contemporary music’ or ‘modern music’. The most important is that this is not an aesthetic definition, and this kind of music does not come from the academic milieu. It is music that is created these days.

How does it differ from contemporary music?

I don’t like to use the expression ‘contemporary music’, because it has a lot of connotations already; people expect contemporary pieces to be like, for instance, dissonant, and coming from the academic circles. ‘New music’ is more like an empty sheet, a rather unused expression, and a new approach can be very good for this genre.

How did you get in touch with this festival?

I have known about its existence from the very beginning, as Samu Gryllus, a dear colleague of mine, has told me a lot. He started this work with Balázs Horváth, they worked on it for many years. I got closer to the festival when I was invited in 2016 with my piece, music for the silent film Mr West. Then last year I attended several concerts as an invited composer and also wrote music especially for the Festival. My activities at three concerts made me involved more than ever before. This last year, the seventh, brought the festival to the point to launch an advisory board to help their manifold and complex work. It is there since July 2020 and I am one of the members. It is an important task for me and I feel even more attached to the Festival, as now I am officially in.

What are your exact tasks that the organisers ask from the board?

The board is diverse: composers, music experts, concert organisers, theatres, institutions are present. We have therefore different intensities of work, it is actually a volunteer work that we do when we have time and possibility. We can always join the process with constructive ideas, and with offering our time and resources. It is just like a community relationship as it is between the Festival and the audience. Free and communal. This year’s Festival, organised under these special circumstances, has two events that I organise: one is my own project, and the other is one I also know well.

Your own project is the Next Generation series of programmes, launched in 2019. What does it include?

I teach at the University of Music Vienna, and I used to teach at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music Budapest. There, I saw how great pieces are written by students, despite all their tight curricula, and how many of them should be heard even outside the university walls. I collected the best of these students and this will be presented to the audience. It will be a bit like peeking in a room that includes great future composers. The programme went with great success in the Fuga, and now it can be followed online, with Munich students joining the Viennese and Budapest ones. The concerts will be recorded at various places due to the pandemic. We will also take video footage with every composer talking about their piece.

What is the main aim of this series?

The main strength of the Transparent Sound Festival is the community that is present around the programme and is stronger each year. A main goal is to bring this music closer to the audience, and this is where the ‘blank sheet’ concept can help: there are no previous stereotypes, expectations. Also, the audience can join several interactive programmes, and there will be the chance to ask questions and talk to the artists.

Do you need any former studies to understand the new music pieces?

One only has to go around with open ears and heart, and it will be more than enough. The many interactive programmes, initiations, presentations are there to support the audience and give them a key to the musical pieces: how they should be listened to.

What were the challenges related to the pandemic?

2020 was a horrible year for concert and festival organisation. Situation and circumstances changed all the time. There are long-term goals and plans, but the deadline for new regulations to respond to the newest infection data was often very short. This is death to concert organisation which is a terribly slow process anyway: from the birth of an idea until the finalised concert, it can take 1,5 or even 2 years. This could not work with the space that changed from day to day during the pandemic. Covid made the first part of the festival truly special and much shorter than usual. We have to be flexible, and if that works well, then we can acknowledge that the pandemic also brings good things: the Festival can be present in the cultural space for the rest of the year.

What will happen to the programmes that are postponed? Do you all hope to involve a physically present audience again?

Originally, we created a traditional festival programme based on a 1,5-2-week-long personal attendance. Then we realised it cannot work out, as the audience still cannot come. We had to decide what parts of the original programme can work in the online space and which concerts can work as online streams with no audience present. However, a huge part of the Festival requires an offline presence, so these concerts are postponed.

How did you choose the artists? Was it application- or invitation-based?

Both works. The more famous and acknowledged the Festival is, the more artists and concert organisers come to take part. But sometimes it is us who invite people. This year’s topic, which is supposed to bring artists and programmes together, is ‘Let’s play!’. It was chosen before the pandemic, anyway.

Why was it chosen and how does it appear in the various programmes?

New music can be a game on many levels. We can show a side of contemporary classical music which is anything but serious. But in fact playing is also serious! A lot of intriguing things happen at the Festival in relation to that. The idea came after a concert by Christoph Ressi and Szilárd Benes called Game over – it was a very exciting existence and concept for a composer. It was actually a video game written for a solo clarinet, with a motion sensor to involve physical and musical movements of the clarinet player in a virtual reality.

Springtime with the lockdown brought us to understand how important it is for humans to play. There will be a game at the Next Generation concert as well! The piece 13 by Munich student Fabian Blum is a board game. Musicians play on stage with a game master in the leading role, and this game determines the musical actions. Nikolais Gerszewski’s More Songs on Nothing brings even more game. It is an open composition, with ten separate pages for piano and singing voice. Musicians determine the order and the text is chosen free, but it is recommended for the singer to sing in a language unknown to them. Therefore, words lose their meanings, contexts, some parts of them are even deleted if it is what the musical action requires.

Will there be online games as well? Seems to be so obvious…

Yes, we also plan such things, these will be available on the website soon. There will be a memory-style game, a creation of Krisztián Kertész and many composers from the previous years, where one has to pair a few seconds of the same melody sequence. There is also the ‘muvid-19’ programme that started at the Freiburg University of Music at the first lockdown in spring. One had to submit 19-second videos that feature a speaker or a speaker grille. We invited the organisers of the Festival and many who are interested to join this game, and we have already received a lot of interesting materials. Another initiative was the Art of Virus (see our previous interview for the details). Organiser Kornél Fekete-Kovács had to realise that this process cannot be stopped – the piece is still written and was transferred to 42 countries of the world, with more than 300 composers working on it. It lives on the internet, thanks to PhonicChat.

Will there be children’s programmes?

Children might be those who lost the most with all those restrictions of the cultural sphere, and when we hear ‘Let’s play!’, we immediately think of them. Cultural programmes that are usually designed for them are the most interactive, so they are very hard to realise in the online space. The Festival even tries that, however; there will be an interactive Zoom event called Soharóza Kiskomp, which will result in common composing and improvisation, making a kind of a playground from music.

What do you wish for the new year for the classical music scene, still suffering from the pandemic?

We learned a lot from this year 2020, and this applies to concert experiences, too. I wish us all to have something from this online stream world to stay and be part of future concerts, but of course, I hope very much to get back to live concerts soon. We should use the advantages of the online streams in the post-pandemic world, like letting people from all around the world listen to concerts, with less costs, sometimes even for free or for a small amount of money. Even such people can attend online concert who are not in the life situation to get to a real one. Also, streams can show such details that we usually cannot see from the rows. I think that physical cultural spaces extended by the virtual space can be a good way to reach out to more people.

Interview: Anna Rácz

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek