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musikFabrik Interview

Posted on 23 September 2010. © Copyright 2004-2024 Composition:Today

C:T talks to Marco Blaauw, trumpet-player with Cologne-based new music ensemble musikFabrik

Marco Blaauw (© Jose Verhaegh).
musikFabrik (© Klaus Rudolph)
Tell us something about your background.

My name is Marco Blaauw, I am a Dutch trumpeter. I started my professional career in 1991, originally as an all-around trumpeter, playing musical gigs, orchestra gigs, a lot of baroque music on the natural trumpet. In the fall of 1991, I met Peter Eötvös in a project with the Asko Ensemble. From that moment on, playing his music, playing Stockhausen's music, conducted by him, I knew that I wanted to specialize on contemporary music. From that moment on, I stopped all the other activities and concentrated just on contemporary music studying with Pierre Thibaud in Paris and with Markus Stockhausen in Cologne. I worked on a lot of solo repertoire, and I started working with composers of our time and that way generated a lot of solo pieces, chamber music pieces.

In 1993, I was firstly invited by musikFabrik to play with them. I played music by Birtwistle and there was a very good feeling with the group. I have been a member of the group since 1994. In 1998 we had a revolution in the musikFabrik. We as musicians had the opportunity to take the artistic leadership of the ensemble, which we started doing with a lot of passion. This democratic way of running the ensemble was a very slow learning process, but inspired most of us so much, that we started identifying with the ensemble more and more.

All these years in my career I did a lot of work with musikFabrik, also with other ensembles of new music, but at the same time I did also a lot of solo projects and other kind of work, like pedagogical projects. And I think I am still working. I tried to shape my career, balancing between my own projects and musikFabrik, but more and more I notice that it starts overlapping. It's very hard for me nowadays to initiate new projects, without thinking about the musikFabrik, or without thinking the way we tried to shape projects in the musikFabrik.

Tell us a bit about musikFabrik.

The musikFabrik is a democratic ensemble, it has 16 members. And the democratic structure means that we are all responsible for the decision-taking on a business level and also on an artistic level.

The democratic structure was a very strong wish of the musicians; to be able to form the ensemble, form the repertoire, form our daily business. That way, being more and more engaged for the ensemble we're working for. Of course, in daily routines we have a wonderful office working for us, and we have a manager, Thomas Oesterdiekhoff. The democracy and daily business is a representative one. We choose a board of three musicians – each one of them stays on for three years. It's a rotating system.The idea is that everybody gets to take part in the board. This board is responsible for the dialogue: the daily dialogue with our manager Thomas Oesterdiekhoff, and with the whole ensemble. It has meetings almost every week, about decisions that have to be taken for projects, or other decisions on a business level. And the ensemble itself meets every month, or six weeks. In these meetings, it's very important for us to sit together and make decisions. However, a lot of the meeting is taken by reflecting on past projects. What did we like? What can be improved? How can we be more effective? What is it that we'd like to avoid? What is it that we'd like to see? And sometimes, we even manage to discuss future projects. Also, part of that is discussing with what kind of guests we'd like to work, what kind of soloists we'd like to invite, what kind of conductors we invite, because we do not have a chief conductor.

Does the group focus on playing specific types of music? Or is the group just specialized in contemporary music. What actually is contemporary music?

I think is a very wide area. Some people say it starts with the music of Arnold Schönberg and Charles Ives, in the beginning of the 20th century. Others say it starts after the Second World War. However, we do not limit ourselves in where it started. I think for us, it started in the beginning of the 20th century. But occasionally, we even play music that is at the end of the 19th century. Our main occupation though, is to work with living composers. We accumulate pieces.

Either we manage to commission composers, or we take part in networking and in co-producing, or we invite composers to work with us. We also have a small focus on music theater, which means that we try to integrate other disciplines, like art, choreography. Big examples of the past years were our production of Stockhausen's Michaels Reise, Arbeit Nahrung Wohnung, an opera by Enno Poppe or insideout, a production with Sasha Waltz. I cannot define any specific types of music, other than we play contemporary music.

The ensemble is set up as a democracy, what are the advantages and disadvantages of that as a system?

We are a democracy, that's right. The advantage is that musicians feel very, very engaged. Not only for the music we play, the concerts or the work on stage - the engagement is noticeable as soon as you enter the building. For musikFabrik as an, I would almost say institute, even it's not a real institute, it's almost a standard for the work that we like to present.

There is a disadvantage, yes. Democracy always has a disadvantage. The first one is that artistic decisions often cannot be made in a democratic way. I think that's a logical thing. Artistic work is work created by a spirit of one person and democracy would never let those decisions, it would make decision-making gray. So we try to avoid making decisions always in a democratic way. What we do then is we exchange our opinions, and we exchange and talk a lot. We are in a constant dialogue. We try to find out what is it that my colleague wants, what is it that this composer wants, what is it that this conductor wants. We try to filter the best way out of all these options.
So I've mentioned the other disadvantage: it involves a lot of effort and a lot of talking and a lot of willingness to communicate. Again, that is an advantage too, because the personal interests between colleagues are immense, and so the group is also a very tight social structure. This is also established by a yearly, or almost yearly, meeting that we do, which we call strategic meetings, but it's a wrong word. It's just two days where we sit together. We exchange visions, future visions. What is it that every person wants for his future? How does every person see his future? And how does he see the future of the musikFabrik? This can be a short term future, like two years or five years. It can also be long term future. What is it that I want in 10 years? Or what is it that I want when I'm turning 60? Do I still want to be traveling around and playing new music all over the world? Or is it other thing that I want in my life? And on those days we do not really decide on strategies or visions. We just exchange. But still, I think, a lot of the work that we do in those days are of very important meaning for our daily business.

The group is based in Germany. But many of its members play regularly around the world. How would you characterize the new music scene in Germany as compared with other countries?

I think, or I know that Germany has an immense tradition in Western classical music, there are numerous examples for that. So there's not much, I think, I need to say about music culture in Germany. It's amazingly big, and Germany also is very serious in subsidizing the music. It has a significant importance in the society.

I'm a Dutch trumpet player. I'm a Dutch musician. And I love to work in Germany because I feel that the work that we do is taken very seriously. And I also see that it can contribute to the society. In a lot of other countries, I think, it's taken differently. In Holland, for example, music is very important. But what is the economic effect of music? It's measured more in numbers, in how it sells. What does it exactly mean for people? So I think it's taken less seriously.

I don't know what it is like for other countries. I've worked a lot in Spain, in Italy, in England, in Poland and I think in all these countries music is very, very significant. But willingness to support contemporary music, to support living composers is much smaller than in Germany. So for us to be based in Cologne / Germany is an excellent thing.

How do you go about programming your concerts?

I like that question. I don't think there is a method for programming concerts. I talked about our manager, Thomas Oesterdiekhoff, before and our board of three ensemble members. They discuss a lot about programming. There are all kinds of invitations, which we get of concert organizers. They, of course, want us to play certain repertoire. In those cases there is very little programming to do. Maybe we fill up the programming with one or two of the pieces. But not so much work to be done with programming.

Programming is more interesting in the case of our concert series that we have in Cologne in the WDR broadcasting here. We have a full carte blanche. We play five concerts a year in a beautiful concert hall. The concerts are always live recorded. And since a year, we started bringing out CDs, with the main works from this series. It's a wonderful series of CDs now.

There are many things to consider when programming our concert series. First of all, there are the individual wishes of every ensemble member: "I would like to play this. I want to play this. This would be so great for the brass. This would be so great for the wind players. This is important for the strings." etc. That's obviously a discussion amongst the members.There's also the wish of working with the big composers of our time. We did a lot of work with Mauricio Kagel which is really wonderful. We worked with Helmut Lachenmann, Hans Zender, Harrison Birtwistle. These are all very important projects for our development. We also commission important composers just for one piece. We invite them to play one piece. And then we combine the music with other pieces of the same composer. Or we invite them to think with us, discuss with us the rest of the program. And by that we get input from composers.

Sometimes we get input from conductors that we like to work with. And sometimes it's just somebody walking into the office having a great idea. And in one-to-one, we have a new program. It's nothing to be discussed, just one of the programs we play. So I suppose there is no real method in programming. It's just a result of the daily occupation with contemporary music.

Tell us about the importance of interdisciplinary work in your performances.

I suppose that interdisciplinary work means the collaboration that we do with other artists that are not musicians or composers. I think it's of an immense importance to widen horizon all the time. And working with other artists, of course, is a beautiful way to do that.

I remember a huge project we did with Sasha Waltz - insideout. And working with her as a choreographer was for us a fantastic way of getting other ideas about stage performance. Working with her dancers was learning a lot about daily discipline, routine, constantly improving yourself. Very inspiring work, indeed. And I think we have many examples of that in our past, where we worked with an artist and triggered a lot of new ideas and wishes within the group.

We had a wonderful cooperation two years ago with the group La Fura dels Baus from Barcelona in a piece by Stockhausen. And to see these artists of this group working together, whom, coming from street theater, gradually grew into opera staging. It was wonderful to see how unlimited big a person can think and what he wants to achieve. I suppose we get constant inspiration from a lot of people around us all the time.

How do you respond to unsolicited work- do you give feedback? Do you ever commission new work yourself?

I already talked about the question of commissioning new works. Yes, we commission a work for every concert that we do in our series in WDR. Sometimes we even manage to commission works outside of this series. Sometimes we commission works for the full ensemble, sometimes for a solo piece or chamber music. So, yes, we commission new work. Although I think commissioning new work is not a very nice way to put it. It's more we collaborate with composers all the time. The results are new pieces.

Concerning your question of unsolicited work: If that means the scores we get sent, or the CDs, of for us unknown composers, or unknown pieces. In our daily routine, it's very difficult to take the whole amounts of scores, materials, that gets to us pretty seriously. Sometimes, we divide the tasks among all the musicians. And we listen to tapes, we read scores, we exchange opinions. But then, how to give a judgment? Sometimes, especially to young composers, we like to respond with an encouragement like "Yes, we like the music. Yes, we think it's good." The frustrating part about that is that often these scores are sent in with a certain kind of expectation: please play my music. And this is impossible, with the amount of scores that we get sent. It's not so easy to build all the scores that we get automatically into our programs. It has to fit in. And to fit in, a work has to fulfill many criteria, and only being a good piece of music is often not the only criteria. We take the information and we give some kind of friendly feedback, and sometimes we manage, after a long period, to get back to the composer with either a commission, a dialogue, or even by playing the work.

Do you give feedback?

Yes, we have a huge feedback culture. Besides playing a lot of music amplified, and occasionally getting feedback there, we also give a lot feedback amongst each other. Actually we train this kind of thing. It's also a sort of discipline and communication: how do I give my colleague feedback on what he just did without always repeating the fact that he played great? It is something that is needed to also criticize certain things, maybe a certain sound in a certain piece. Maybe this colleague forgot to practice for a week. Or maybe you notice that this colleague is not at all into the music, and you have to find a way to motivate him, to get him along. We have a wonderful culture of giving feedback amongst each other. It really works, and it increases the quality.

Giving feedback to the work that we get offered, like giving a composer feedback. Let me give an example: we commission a composer. And the only thing we hear from the composer is the date that the piece arrives. And there was no dialogue during the creation process, and we just get a score, and we're playing the score. There is very little chance to give the composer any feedback. Maybe we tap him on the shoulder after a concert and say, "Thank you, that was a great piece." But if we wouldn't think it's a great piece, then I think it's very hard to find a way to say, "Well, we didn't like this." Or, "Maybe this could have been different". Now, some musicians are more honest than others. Some musicians go to the composer and say, "This was really crap writing for my instrument. Improve." But, surely this is very seldom.

We have a much better chance in giving feedback while working with a composer: when a composer comes up to us and says, "I would like to... I'm looking for this kind of sound, I'm looking for this kind of music," and then writes down something and we get the music, we start playing it. And then, there is a possibility of saying, "Well, you did this and this, but it could be different for my instrument. This would work better, for our ensemble." So, there's a possibility for a constant dialogue, and that happens, often.

What do you see as the role (intended and actual) of new music in the modern world?

I'm trying to find a concrete example, instead of starting a philosophy. There are, I think, several tasks for us, playing new music. Once after a concert,we had the honor of speaking to the former Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country within Germany that supports us, and that provides us with money to keep alive. And Mr Rüttgers came up to us and thanked us for a nice performance. And he actually defined the role that we have, not only as playing new music, but for artists of our time. He said, for the vital society of North Rhine-Westphalia, it was very important to be constantly innovative, to be constantly innovating.Innovating in many ways. In ways of living together, in ways of industry, to innovate improvements in industry, to be creating new products, new techniques. Innovation, he said, could only come from a society that is aware of its culture, that gets fed by artists, who share their thinking about the society. And playing your music is a way of presenting new ideas, a new world of sounds. It forces an audience to shut up and listen, and I think that's a very rare thing in our community, in our way of living, where media are often trying to be louder.

That is one thing. It's a very difficult question. Another thing is that the means of new music, the language that new music uses, I think, provides an objective level for many people to communicate.

Is it a good time to be running a new music ensemble?

Yes, it is always a time to be running a new music ensemble.

Tell us about your current projects

We just did a project in Vietnam, a culture exchange between Vietnam and Germany. We just did the world premiere of the complete KLANG cycle, by Karlheinz Stockhausen. We also played a new piece by Harrison Birtwistle at the Bachfest in Leipzig; a new piece by Kaija Saariaho in our series in Cologne. We are now preparing a big music theater piece for the Ruhrtriennale, a piece called "Leila und Madschnun ". Composer is Samir Odeh-Tamimi. We are preparing a lot of projects for the fall. You can always inform yourself through our website,

What are your plans for the future?

Our plan for the future is to continue what we are doing as a new music ensemble now. We are very happy with the way we managed to develop. We have a concert agenda filled with 80 to 100 projects, or shall I say "concerts", every year. Sometimes we play concerts on a tour, but usually every concert is a unique project. And this is very much what we're planning to do for the future. Of course, within these 80 to 100 concerts, we can define a sort of direction. But, I think, it would be a mistake to put our plans under one capital and say, "This is what we're trying to do." We are very diverse, and we're planning to stay that way. So, we play contemporary music and that's what we'll keep doing. Apart from that, there have been several other developments in the musikFabrik, which are worth mentioning. We started pedagogical projects, which means that we try to reach out to children and teenagers in schools, we even have projects for grown-ups. We try to present them new music, we try to get them to the musikFabrik, we invite them to rehearsals, invite them to participate. Sometimes there are even small performances of young people or children before our concerts in Cologne.

Another project that is quite interesting is a youth ensemble of contemporary music, called Studio musikFabrik. This is not an ensemble of music students, but youngsters that are especially talented in playing music. We invite them, or even they audition for the musikFabrik, and we have eight to 10 concerts with this youth ensemble. Another project that we started, although not many musicians are involved in that, is our website for children: musikPiraten ( ). It’s for children between 6 and 10. They get to know music in a very playful way with very funny games. There is also lots of information for parents and teachers… So we try to activate a new audience.

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2024

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