Ostrava Days, Ostrava, Czech Republic, August 20–21, 2021
Ostrava Days is a biennial new-music festival founded, and still helmed, by the longtime New Yorker, flutist, and composer Petr Kotík, who was born in Prague. The festival’s structure tends to be repeated every two years, but a recent program addition from 2019 made its successful return. On the second day, August 20, The Long Night began at 5 p.m. and continued unbroken until almost noon on Sunday, the 21st, the festival’s third day. Your scribe had already experienced an ultra-challenging day’s travel-hell on the 19th, thereby arriving too late for the opening performances in the former Hlubina Coal Mine’s, Brickhouse. The Long Night was a perfect way to recuperate!
Alvin Curran led a gratis outdoor performance in Ostrava’s Masaryk Square, presenting his revised 1984 work Era Ora (On Wheels). It was a spatial wander, with marching horns and strolling samba percussionists steadily altering their locations, using the square’s surrounding buildings as a massive reverberation chamber. Pianos sat on wooden platforms, slowly perambulating on wheels. Drum blows simulated another echo, as positions changed, and a crazed-looking dude strode through the ranks, shouting and waving his hands. This turned out to be Curran himself. Eventually the groupings clarified themselves into static states, and a kind of ragtag systems construction grew, with youngsters holding up instruction cards for the players. Even the regular spurts of the square’s fountain became part of the piece’s flow. Being an unusual work, as well as featuring a jazzy clap-along climax, this was a cheery way to involve random public passers-by, as well as the festival-dedicated.
The parking lot of the Cathedral of the Divine Savior was the next stop, with percussionist Chris Nappi performing James Tenney’s Having Never Written A Note For Percussion (1971). Nappi sat before a large gong, just outside the front doors, timed to accompany the gloriously ringing bells, setting up a subliminal shimmer that gradually became more audible as the Cathedral tintinnabulum steadily waned in volume. Once the big bells fell silent, Nappi’s gong sounded anticlimactic, as the composition eventually withered into nothingness. Nappi gestured in thanks to the audience, and to his gong, but not, sadly, to the bells above.
The bulk of the 18-hour program took place inside the Jiří Myron Theatre, split between its foyer and main stage. Kotík’s new Three-In-One (2020–21) for trombones, tuba, percussion, violin, and flute paid careful attention to positioning, with violinist Hana Kotková standing on a frontal box platform, and the horns in two groups to the rear. Hard, angry bass drum and bongos palpitated, as the tuba walked tall, then the second phase had one of the two percussionists switch to trombone, the newfound pair probing their highest baby elephant ranges, Kotík adding his flute. Our ears found fresh frequencies, as drums vibrated like reeds. Kotík played a completely solo stretch of absolute tranquility, joined by the violin for a combined traipse. Such absolute contrasts became the core of this work, the movement from one realm to the other being precisely poised. Muted ’bones broke into the peace, squalling, while the flute uncompromisingly remained soft. A hammered gong on a metal plate signaled another breed of softness, as the mutes arrived at their conclusion.
Bassist Frantiek Výrostko is a regular member of this festival’s house collective, Ostravská Banda, and hailing from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He brought along his BraCk Players for an orgy of rugged, harshly amplified and bowed string pieces by Pauline Kim, Matej Sloboda, and James Ilgenfritz, all penned during the last two years. The fierce focus of the players burnt through Kim’s glass lens, dramatic and raunchy. Výrostko played bass out front, supported by cello, viola, and two violins, but the music sounded way more aggressive than this would suggest, loaded with harshly dragged bows and expressing rawness. Ilgenfritz’s Real and Unreal Irreversibilities (2020) welcomed the darkest bass sound of all, a primordial dread spreading, contemplating the horror. Inner fear was bowed out, sobbing, as others sneakily encroached, lightly active, textures paramount. Flaying swipes led to pizzicato stalking, like Iannis Herrmann in a barren skate park. Sloboda’s piece operated around very slow resonances, with thin violin details emanating a white hot fury.
Morton In The Morning repeated last year’s awakening set with a 10 a.m.-ish reading of Feldman’s 1978 Why Patterns? Kotík’s flute joined by Ivo Kahánek’s piano and Chris Nappi’s percussion. The three faced each other, inwards, becoming entwined in a circular ebb and flow, a swelling of emphasis on a particular instrument passing intangibly from one to another, phrases often picked up and continuing their life through the next player. The 40-minute duration swept by, subjectively quickened by experiencing this realization of slow passage. These contemplative Feldman conclusions to The Long Night look set to become a tradition.
Only a few hours later, at 4 p.m., the Minimarathon Of Electronic Music was underway at the Gallery of Fine Arts, a more conventional setting after 2019’s Michal Coal mine location. This was a mere seven hours in duration, and had its eye on the electronic transformation of acoustic foundations for much of the time.
Jan Duek and Pavel Duda played their digital keyboards, with quarter-tone tuned piano sounds, revisiting innovative works from the period between 1924 and ’34, by Charles Ives, Karel Ančerl, and Ivan Wyschnegradski. These were technically interesting for a short spell, but eventually produced a queasy state of frustration, leading to your scribe actually taking his leave before the finish. He prefers his micro-tonalism when found in the more organic, spontaneous form of Western free improvisation or Eastern traditional note hovering. These piano works were too close to what many ears have been forced to expect, so close that they sounded “wrong,” lacking the full non-mathematical roaming of free or folk.
The following set held a contrasting character of energized ecstasy. Steve Reich’s Violin Phase(1967) and Piano Phase (1967) preceded a masterful realization of Different Trains(1988), with two more digital pianists (Michal Nejtek, Roman Pallas), violinist David Danel, and the Fama Q string quartet. The small seated-or-standing audience was crammed into the small upper gallery, creating the lightning-crackle of a rock gig, as the hiked-volume train-and-voice snatches filled the space, the strings offering up a manic, strafing intensity, the grim narrative of the work fully communicated in a fashion that seemed genuinely and starkly unfamiliar, as if it was created this year, rather than back in 1988.