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Ostrava Days 2007: Institute and festival of new music.

An extraordinary biennial event, organised in the city of Ostrava but with an international dimension that goes far beyond the borders of the Czech Republic, will be taking place from the 13th of August to the 2nd of September 2007. The Ostrava Days combines international courses for young composers--the Ostrava Days Institute--with an attractive week-long festival that presents new and experimental music together with key, in a sense already "classic" avant-garde compositions of the second half of the 20th century. The main focus of both the festival and the composition courses is music for large symphony orchestra, and the festival programme will include not only top pieces in world repertoire but compositions by the students-residents of the Institute.

The first biennial Ostrava Days was organised in 2001, and the response in the Czech Republic and abroad has been considerable since then. The Ostrava Days Institute is attended by around 35 young musicians, mostly composers, from Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australian, who spend three weeks consulting and discussing questions of contemporary music with leading figures on the world new music scene (the principal lectors this year are the composers Beat Furrer, Petr Kotik, Alvin Lucier, Kaija Saariaho, Christian Wolff and the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams) and at the same time working under their guidance with the resident orchestras--traditionally the Ostrava Janacek Philharmonic, and more recently with the Ostravska Banda as well (more than twenty-member international ensemble consisting of mainly young musicians, formed specially for the needs of Ostrava Days 2005), and other invited ensembles: the Melos Ethos Ensemble (Slovakia), the Flux Quartet (New York), the choir Canticum Ostrava, and other ensembles and soloists. In the second week of the Institute, the participants will then rehearse their own pieces, which will be presented at the Ostrava Days Festival 2007.

The event will thus climax in the week of the festival with fifteen concerts. Highlights of the festival programme this year include Morton Feldman's opera Neither and a thematic concert devoted to music of the early 1960s in Prague with an accompanying panel discussion involving the protagonists of the time. The Fluxus concert with happenings will be another unusual experience. The festival concerts will present music by Muhal Richard Abrams, Pierre Boulez. Earl Brown, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Morton Feldman, Beat Furrer, Karel Goeyvaerts, RudKurt Weil, Christian Wolff, Stephan Wolpe, Iannis Xenakis, La Monte Young and other composers. As far as the guest performers are concerned, festival audiences are looking forward to appearances by the Flux Quartet from New York, the pianist Daan Vandewalle from Belgium, the American cellist Charles Curtis (in the Feldman concerto), the violinist Hana Kotkova (in the Ligeti Concerto) and the soprano Piia Komsi (in Feldman's opera Neither). The distinguished German conductors Roland Kluttig and Peter Rundel will also be making their debuts at the Ostrava Days. For detailed information about the Ostrava Days and the festival programme go to


To mark the forthcoming fourth Ostrava Days we are bringing an interview with its founder and artistic director, the composer and conductor Petr Kotik.

How much does Ostrava Days differ from other summer courses such as Darmstadt, Acanthes, Impuls, Royaumont and so on? What is so special about it?

Ostrava Days is quite a different project and for several reasons. First of all, it is one of the longest summer programs in existence, lasting three full weeks. Secondly, Ostrava Days focuses on working with orchestra. OD has two resident orchestras: our symphony orchestra the Janacek Philharmonic and the chamber orchestra Ostravska banda. We have of course plenty of solo and chamber music as well. Another exceptional aspect of the project is that it is conducted entirely in English. English has become the universal language of educated people (it may be similar to the use of Latin in the past). In Ostrava all communication is done in English, not only the lectures, seminars and organizational matters, but also the rehearsals, including communication with and among musicians. This creates a homogenous environment where everyone understands everything and people can freely communicate, whether they come from China, Brazil or Macedonia. This is one of the ways in which Ostrava Days differs from Darmstadt, for example, where communication involves translations into and from German. It might seem trivial, but it isn't. It connects all the participants in a spontaneous way, and very often people from various parts of the world form professional and personal bonds (OD has already been responsible for a few international marriages). Also, there is an advantage to not wasting time on translations. I believe that this kind of linguistically unified environment would not have been possible even just a decade ago. Another unique feature of the Ostrava Days Institute is its direct connection to the week-long festival held in the last seven days of the project, with 15 concerts, 3 of them symphonic and 5 involving the Ostravska Banda. The festival is linked to the Institute and to its residents/students, whose compositions are programmed on equal footing with works by established composers.

What should ideally, a young composer attending Ostrava Days get out of it?

I am sure that everyone benefits in a different way. The experience itself, a three-week residence and the participation in Ostrava Days benefits everyone on some level. We can see that from the reaction of those who came to OD in the past: many students want to come year after year and every one of the artists enjoyed being part of Ostrava Days. Still, it would be hard to generalize about this experience.

In a way, there is an extraordinary environment at Ostrava Days. Not only because of what is going on in the Festival itself, but also because of our purpose and methods. Our aim is to create an informal working community, and that can only be done in an environment with a sufficient duration. The idea of organizing OD for three weeks came from my past participation in summer programs, which were usually week-long affairs. These programs always ended just at the moment when we started to know each other and could begin to do something meaningful. It is the same in Ostrava: the program starts to unfold full speed really after the first week, and there is enough time and opportunities to create a tight community where all relationships produce valuable experiences.


Another important aspect, especially for the students, is our focus on orchestra. For many of them, Ostrava Days represents the first chance to work with an orchestra. This goes not only for the students, whose music we perform, but also for their colleagues, who can closely observe the work and participate in preparations, rehearsals etc. They all get the sense of the real situation that exists outside of the academic environment. Music schools have a handicap in their isolation from reality. In Ostrava we work with professional musicians who react in many different ways to the music they are asked to perform--the reaction is not always positive, and we have to struggle with these sometime negative attitudes. This is what every composer faces after he or she leaves school. To observe the struggle and the progression from an uncertain situation to a successful realization is an invaluable experience one cannot get anywhere else.

One aspect of Ostrava Days that is also important to point out is the limited number of participants. We keep the number of students to about 35, with five or six lecturers along with guests and guest performers. This is a relatively small group, and so over three weeks the relationships develop on a fairly intense and personal level. Our residents have the unique chance to work with leading figures in contemporary music, not just on the level of the classroom, but also at individual meetings and encounters. This would be impossible with a large number of participants. In Darmstadt for example, there are about 150 students. That's a totally different situation. Imagine, that you come to Ostrava, where for the price of an inexpensive vacation trip, you get the chance to work personally with people like (among others) Christian Wolff, Louis Andriessen, Kaija Saariaho, Tristan Murail, Alvin Lucier, or Rebecca Saunders, not to mention several leading performers, from the Arditti Quartet to Joseph Kubera, Charles Curtis and Roland Kluttig.

Does the program of Ostrava Days Festival have any objective? What are you aiming for? What do you do to have such well known musicians participate?

It is difficult to explain what we are aiming for, or whether we have any goal when we design the program for each Ostrava Days Festival, other than our desire to create an efficient working environment--but that is too broad to be called a goal. To some extent, the Festival draws from the program of the Institute. For example, it is a given that we would perform works by the lecturers. When we work on the festival's program--and it's a lot of work, as you can imagine--we don't think about or even discuss such issues as a particular goal, or aim. Although it might seem, in hindsight, that we have some exact purpose, but that is not the case. The program simply evolves organically. I personally am not goal-oriented. To set priorities and goals is completely against my way of thinking. In fact, I believe that this focus on goals that young people are continually advised to have, is a grave mistake. But that is different question altogether.


What I am trying to do is to bring to Ostrava Days the most interesting lively events, pieces and musician, given our limited resources. The result, of course, reflects my own views. I don't have a Czech or European perspective--that's probably the least of my concerns. I look at things globally. There are no rules in choosing individual pieces, composers, guests and performers. There may be in the end a specific reason for every choice, but often these reasons greatly differ. I simply keep my eyes and ears open and when I see an opportunity, I go for it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. There is a great deal of responsibility in creating a program such as OD Festival, and it doesn't happen without a lot of pain. Sometimes I use my personal contacts and they are renewed: for example, I haven't seen Andriessen since the 1960s. Other times I use ongoing contacts or make new ones. In each case there is a mutual understanding about what we are trying to do and a real interest to participate in such a project. It's clear that no one comes to Ostrava Days for the money.

On the other hand, there are a few events been programmed for a reason. We may consider, for example, an idea and deliberate how would it fit in the context of the music scene in the Czech Republic. Is it something that has never been done here before? This may decide whether we go ahead with the idea or not, but again it's not a principle that we go by. The "New Music in Prague 1959-1964" roundtable and the inclusion of pieces from the 1950s and 1960s on the OD 2007 program was inspired by misconceptions and sometimes outright false information about this period that is being disseminated in this country (unfortunately, we are substituting here work that the musicologists and historians here should be doing, but the sorry state of both disciplines in the Czech Republic is a whole other chapter). This roundtable will be conducted by those who participated in the early 60s Prague new music scene, so we can try to avoid opinions and concentrate on facts.

Sometimes we also program historical music, but only in the context of what is going on today. You will probably also find a great deal of American music in Ostrava. This is not only because I happen to live in New York, but also because we believe that in the last sixty years or so, the American contribution to new music has been one of the most interesting and vibrant, and definitely the most surprising. This is a view that not many people share, especially European institutions, so our program might look quite unusual in comparison.

The chamber orchestra Ostravska banda, all young musicians, came to existence in the framework of Ostrava Days 2005. What has the Ostravska Banda done since and what are its future plans?

Ostravska banda was formed out of practical necessity. Initially, we wanted to invite a well-known chamber orchestra from Germany but when we realized that this idea was beyond our means, we decided to form our own group. You can see how one thing leads to another and before you know it, you are in an entirely new situation. At first, we planned for Ostravska Banda to be the resident chamber orchestra at Ostrava Days only. That was in 2005. But when we witnessed the banda's success, how quickly this diverse group of musicians who came from North America, West, Central and East Europe formed a tight group and how well they worked together, we started to plan events beyond Ostrava Days. Last year the Ostrava Center For New Music organized a three-week European tour, including workshops, recordings and concerts in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and France. On May 21, 2007, Ostravska banda will receive its American debut with an appearance in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. The Ostrava Center for New Music just committed the banda for a major concert at Prague Spring 2008 festival and there are plans for more touring. Obviously, the main function of Ostravska banda is its residence at Ostrava Days and we are now working out details for the two-and-a-half-week residency in Ostrava in August 2007.

Besides organising Ostrava Days, what is the function and the mission of the Ostrava Center For New Music?

The mission of the Ostrava Centre For New Music (OCNM) has evolved since its inception in 2001 and is still in the evolutionary process. The organization was formed to produce the biennial Ostrava Days. It's like buying an automobile to commute to work: once you have it, you also use it for other purposes. The Ostrava Center office activities have crossed over into other areas, even though the most important task is and will be producing Ostrava Days. For example, the Ostrava Center is responsible for the management of the Ostravska banda. Another task is maintaining and expanding a very interesting library, which is open to the public. Ostrava Center is also planning publications and is engaged in organizing concerts outside Ostrava Days. These concerts are not only with Ostravska banda, but often also involve a co-operation with other institutions like the Janacek Philharmonic in Ostrava and the Prague Spring festival.

I should add that the Ostrava Days didn't just drop from the sky. The artistic concepts are just a part of the process of producing this event. As Antonin Dvorak said, working as a composer consists of 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. It's the same here--95% of the success of Ostrava Days is the result of the intensive and selfless work of the team in the Ostrava office and the support of the Ostrava public, both the general public and the wide range of public figures, from government officials to business people. The participation of individual supporters is not unusual; what is so surprising to me is that we have a wide audience here, who so enthusiastically to our concerts (it's not unusual to have a full concert hall for a three-hour concert ending at midnight). If it were not for all that, Ostrava Days would have remained just a utopia. This enlightened environment puts Ostrava on a different level from similar places in the Czech Republic and Europe, including Prague and other big cities.

What about your own current work as a composer and the activities of the S.E.M. Ensemble?

My composing has been suffering a lot recently. After Ostrava Days 2007 I intend to put this right (I hope this isn't a utopia). I have several pieces I am working on now, that I don't want to talk about, because I am a little superstitious. I am also correcting older works, pieces I am preparing for upcoming concerts. For example, I found to my surprise that in 1966 I made a new version of my 1962 piece, Counterpoint II. I looked at it and found that the new version is really better. So my next task is to use the outline from this corrected score and make a final notation of the piece. It has to be done by hand, because the piece uses notation that cannot be computer-generated.

On the other hand, the S.E.M. Ensemble's work has not suffered. Our work in New York has been continuing at the same tempo at in the past, thanks, above all, to the very efficient SEM office that not only looks after the S.E.M. Ensemble, but also functions as an offshoot for the Ostrava Center. I find it a little funny, but it pleases me very much that the Ostrava Center for New Music has a branch in New York City. In fact, the S.E.M. Ensemble has had very few seasons that are more active than the present one.
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Title Annotation:event
Author:Bakla, Petr
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Interview
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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