On Hypocrisy and Insularity in New Music
The Ostrava Days 2017 festival was pervaded by an atmosphere of such overbearing toxic masculinity that I could barely hear the music. The festival lasted 10 days and served as a gathering place for avant-gardists and “risk-takers.” Of the 33 composition residents, 27 were men, and 23 were white cis men; despite the festival’s international aspirations, about a third of these men hailed from Brooklyn, Boston, or New Haven. The festival, Petr Kotik’s biennial brainchild now in its ninth iteration, had invited more white male composers with degrees from Yale than women of color.
Why do I emphasize these statistics if the horrendous lack of diversity in classical music is already well known? Because the personal is political. A festival that “just happens” to consist of people incredibly similar to one another is a textbook example of systemic bias. The “Ostrava aesthetic” is a controlled and focused musical style, but also its own little world: undeniably white, male, and academic. Multiple composition residents at the festival introduced themselves as “assholes.” “Oh, hi, I’m just another asshole,” they liked to say. (“Nice to meet you.”) Was this tongue-in-cheek, or a superficial attempt to preemptively excuse any legitimately bad behavior? Either way, its repetition showed the cliquishness of the festival, and it wore me down. After all, I was expected to listen to every single one of the compositions by these “assholes.”
The “combrosers” at Ostrava Days advocate for women or people of color or trans people on social media. Yet a composition resident I hooked up with at the festival didn’t think twice about saying “hearing you talk is making my cock shrivel up” to me behind closed doors. This statement, which I hesitate to flesh out with context for fear of outing the speaker, was not merely an isolated incident or evidence of the awkwardness of hookup culture. These words carry more than a deepset objectification of women; they sting with the Joss Whedon-esque betrayal of a pseudo-liberal individual being “found out” as just another disrespectful white man who knows he doesn’t have to practice what he preaches. While it is undoubtedly unprofessional and ethically questionable to engage in romantic or sexual relationships with a journalistic “subject,” I am admitting that I did so in order to paint a broader and more anecdotal picture of the state of the new music scene. Whatever their public rhetoric, deep down, these composers know they don’t actually need to respect women or the marginalized.
Trumpian “locker room talk” echoed through the festival, but is indicative of a larger problem that extends far beyond Ostrava Days. When I confessed to a woman in new music that a white male composer had told me, while we were hanging out one-on-one a few weeks ago, that he wanted to “fuck the shit out of me,” she was not surprised. “Oh, he’s just another one of those pseudo-woke combrosers....They have no idea and no respect.” Other women in new music have swarmed my inbox over the past few weeks with similar sentiments and anonymous anecdotes about other male composers: “Watch out for him; he’s such a lech.” “He’s definitely number one on the new music misogynist shit list.” “I hear a lot of proclaiming, not enough listening....They’re quick to do this with women but not other marginalized racial groups, which to me shows they don’t really respect us. Labeling themselves feminist: that’s more about showing off than it is about supporting.”
After a woman of color called out a white man for making a sexist remark, he refused to back down, taking to Facebook to defend himself; the woman felt humiliated and frustrated: “He’s such a self righteous asshole, trying to throw [marginalization and racism] back in our faces....Like he’s so woke.” Indeed, calling out “assholes” in new music rarely ends with the sort of critical thinking one might hope for from a self-proclaimed feminist. Men can refer to themselves as assholes but women cannot call them out for being assholes, whether in public or private. (At one point during Ostrava Days, I straight-facedly agreed with a man who introduced himself as an asshole that he was behaving like an asshole. Later I was told by a different white male composer that I needed to calm down and stop “exploding.”) The things these men said were uttered outside the professional sphere of the concert hall, but they should still matter: not for the sake of calling out or embarrassing particular individuals, but in service of matching the rhetoric of the new music scene with reality.
I still built relationships, romantic and otherwise, at Ostrava Days, even though the built-in support networks for composers and musicians did not always carry over to writers. Spending time with musicians whose craft I have come to admire over the years was invaluable, and the festival organizers were incredible. (Full disclosure: my flight and accommodations were paid for.) Unlike the composers and musicians, I traveled to the Czech Republic not to learn or perform, but rather to provide insight and constructive criticism. It is not easy to write words—as I’m sure they will not be easy to read—that might come across as ungrateful or harsh. But the atmosphere in Ostrava was representative of the new music scene in the United States, where it often appears that the style or content of a composer’s music is not as important as whether you know the right people or live in the right place or go to the right school. “[Ostrava Days] is like family,” one Brooklyn-based musician told me. “Every other summer it’s like a reunion.” Which begs the question: why fly to the Czech Republic for a “reunion” when you could see many of these people in Brooklyn any night of the year?
At the Ostrava Days, classics by Stockhausen, Cage, and Feldman were interspersed with the music of a much younger generation of composers, the residents of the Ostrava Institute. Many pieces drew from these classics while winnowing their focus to a single musical or organological idea. The “Ostrava aesthetic” encompasses the long, gradually shifting tones of Feldman, Alvin Lucier, Phill Niblock, and their protégés: music so carefully controlled that even the most minuscule gesture towards change feels like a revolution. These pieces were often enjoyable in themselves, but taken as a composite they began to grow taxing. 10 days of roughly six hours of live music per day engineered a tiresome musical experience that insisted upon its own aesthetic homogeneity. This included, for instance, a 22-minute-long string quartet that could have been seven minutes long. The composer was so convinced of his right to make sound that his music ended up repeating itself unnecessarily, blathering on in vaguely connected strains when succinctness would have made a much stronger impression.
Kotik, who was born in the Czech Republic, is based in New York; his “summer reunions” essentially transplant one of his worlds (the world of NYC, FOMO, YOLO, SEM—the pathbreaking ensemble of which he is founder and artistic director) into the quieter world of his roots. Ostrava, long known as a quiet coal mining town, is endeavoring to rebrand itself as an Eastern European cultural center. The nine journalists invited to the festival (of whom I was the only woman, and of whom there were no people of color) were given a glimpse of Ostrava minus the Days: we toured the Landek Park coal mines and the Gallery of Fine Arts, took a bus out to Janáček’s birthplace, wandered around the Hukvaldy Castle. The locals we encountered were mostly amused, rather than enthused, by the festival; one German journalist tried to convince our tour guide to attend one of the shorter concerts, the one-hour piano solo “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” to no avail.
Kotik’s biennial is one of the primary initiatives in the city of Ostrava’s rebranding effort; perhaps further outreach will bolster attendance among the locals. Not only did the festival import an array of Brooklyn’s finest; the Ostrava-based musicians of the brand new ONO (the Ostrava New Orchestra) performed several concerts, and avant-garde music enthusiasts attended the performances at local venues ranging from the cavernous Triple Hall Karolina to the more traditionally majestic Dvořák Theater, to hipster venues like Provoz Hlubina (“Coalmine Bathrooms”) or Cooltour (where audience members sipped beer as they listened inside and took smoke breaks on the stairs outside, arranging themselves like dominoes on the wooden steps). Yet I was struck by the attitude of our tour guide and other locals, which seemed to assume a “separateness” from the festival: this is for you, not for us.
The concerts were packed not with locals or out-of-town tourists but rather the resident composers, performers, and fellows who attended the full range of festival offerings. You can’t half-ass Ostrava Days. This is the sort of family reunion with no pauses, no overlapping events, no breaking down into smaller groups, no “down time.” A concert at the St. Wenceslas Church ran over time; afterwards a herd of musicians, composers, journalists, and music enthusiasts flocked across the town to Cooltour for a performance that started shortly after we had all arrived, assuming there was no other audience that expected it to start on time. Listening to so much music was exciting at first, but quickly became exhausting and demoralizing. How can the other listeners stay so focused? I found myself wondering as I succumbed to a debilitating case of imposter syndrome.
There were standout performances. Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” was highly anticipated, and managed to live up to the expectations. After many hours of self-indulgent art that didn’t seem to have a firm impetus for existing other than the composition residency requirement, it was refreshing to hear an unabashedly political work, in which Rzewski gives pianistic voice to political protesters chanting Ortega’s protest song in the aftermath of the 1973 Chilean coup d’état, and then spins it into 36 variations. Pianist Daan Vandewalle delivered an impassioned yet precise performance (and two encores—one by Rzewski, one by Alvin Curran—to boot). By the end of the hourlong piece, the “theme” of resistance was hammering across my consciousness even as the 36 variations sent it spiraling into a multitude of clamoring voices and sensations.
Early on in the festival, Kate Soper’s opera “Here Be Sirens” was a delightful dive into the everyday life of three Homeric sirens. Soper deftly deconstructs gendered notions of voice and identity, even while her witty libretto—in which her own authorial voice mingles with those of Homer, Sappho, Dante, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others—causes audience members to dissolve into laughter. The final showstopper over a week later was Olga Neuwirth’s “Trurliade—Zone Zero.” Neuwirth’s musical language is as funny and smart as it is intricately beautiful. For over half an hour we were surrounded by knots of sound that at various points were teased out, untangled, tightened. This was not music existing for the sake of itself, but music whose author had something to say, and who had to toil long and hard in order to make herself heard.
Between Soper and Neuwirth we were regaled with the sounds and textures of Jennifer Walshe, whose haunting “Zusammen I” entailed silence, sounds, voices, and movement. Musicians swayed and stumbled around the audience seated on the floor and along the walls of the Gallery of Fine Arts in an unsettling display of careful choreography. Kaija Saariaho’s “Folia” brought out the beauty and impossible physicality of the double bass, and Rebecca Bruton’s “Evening Cream,” skillfully brought to our ears by the inimitable Momenta Quartet, was another highlight. Out of the 104 musical works performed over the course of the festival, 13 were composed by women. When I first tallied up the gender breakdown, I was elated at such a high level of representation, but over the course of the festival, my killjoy instincts kicked in. If one eighth representation felt so exciting, what would one half feel like? Did women have to be eight times as good as men to find their way onto these concert programs?
These questions appear meaningless to the family Kotik and his collaborators have nurtured in Ostrava over the past couple of decades. The tight-knit structures of Ostrava Days foster togetherness, but not egalitarianism. These men are too convinced of their own fragile greatness: a greatness they would never dare scrutinize, because that might entail questioning the sorts of structures that engendered their elevation in the first place. For a feminist music critic to get plopped into this homogeneous solution felt like being a drop of vinegar landing in oil. In Brooklyn, I see many of these same “assholes” and listen to their music, but afterwards I can leave the venues of avant-garde elitism and decompress elsewhere, among faces and voices that don’t make me feel objectified or shrill or betrayed. In Ostrava, this dysfunctional family became my entire world for 10 days, and it was a world so shadowed by self-obsession and misogyny that I departed with no inclination to return. But of course deep down I knew: as soon as I stepped foot in Brooklyn, I would already be back. ¶