January's themed month explores the world of contemporary music through the eyes of some top performers in specialised ensembles. We continue our interviews series with Enno Senft, London Sinfonietta's Principal Double Bass.
In fact I don't see myself as a contemporary music specialist, more as a musician who believes that the music of today needs to be heard as much as that of the past. My musical background is rooted in the European string tradition, which connects directly with many aspects of today's contemporary music writing. Of course there are extra demands now, like advanced extended techniques which are challenging and often time-consuming. This is true particularly for the bass in smaller ensembles and solo repertoire, compared to, for example, classical chamber music. I don't really believe in niche musicianship, I think as a performer the same rules apply for music past and present. To make today's music relevant, its language must come across to the listener convincingly. Ideally that's what I as a musician hope for.
Is playing Contemporary music more challenging than playing classical music? For instance, do you need more time to master the technical aspects, do you find it more difficult to interpret?
It very much depends on the composer. But generally, yes. There are a whole range of extended techniques that have become standard by now (using the whole instrument's body to play on for example, not just the strings, or multi-phonics), but many composers like to invent their own repertoire of technique in search for a particular sound (like adding paper clips to the strings or using a timpani stick instead of a bow). Some parts are also rhythmically extremely complex and you feel like using a calculator. For first performances there is also no precedent and contact with the composer is crucial for finding out what is meant and what you are actually expected to do! Because of the often great complexity of the music, it’s important in performance to be able to concentrate and think fast. Contemporary music doesn't always flow as easily as classical music. You need to be ultra-alert in concert and well prepared. Long and repetitive pieces (Reich, Feldmann, etc) also present a physical, almost sporting challenge.
Do you think your approach to contemporary music is similar to the way early music ensembles approach their music?
There could be a similarities as both "genres" require some passion that goes beyond your general love of music. It sometimes feels like you need to work extra hard to convince your audience that what you play is really worth hearing, as supposed to mainstream music where many listeners come with set expectations (often overturned).
How involved are you within each project and to what extent can each member put forward ideas about what to play and with whom?
The London Sinfonietta has an artistic management that responds to the general contemporary art environment and designs programs, commissions composers, chooses soloists, conductors etc. But into that feeds our experience as performers, this includes our judgment of repertoire or new composers and artists we are working with. New commissions are often a collaboration between composer and us musicians, particularly when it involves us as soloists. As we are the performers there is a natural dialogue between planners and musicians, otherwise we couldn't work constructively. Our members have a very rich musical life outside the ensemble which nurtures our musical personalities and is crucial in maintaining the high standard necessary for the type of music we do.
How difficult is it to get contemporary music onto concert programmes/into concert halls?
It’s generally much harder than say, a Schubert Octet. However there are many prestigious modern music festivals and contemporary concert series which have enthusiastic and sophisticated audiences. And for these you need the conviction of the promoters and of those allocating public funds that contemporary music is essential in our society. I guess in some respect contemporary music remains a minority art form, but that doesn't mean it’s not valid.
Are audience responses to contemporary music changing? Does it differ in different countries?
Contemporary music is so varied that in a way it’s useless to generalize. A Steve Reich programme will probably sell out in any country though, but Abrahamsen, Poppe or Furrer might appeal more in their own cultural environment. Perhaps with younger audiences there is the perception that they expect more of an event rather than "just" a concert, including visuals or other "stimulants" like amplification or interaction. But I am not sure this is necessary. If the music itself is interesting and good, most audiences will recognise and appreciate it for what it is. Germany, France, Austria, Holland, Italy, Denmark and Poland are good places to perform.
How is your ensemble trying different approaches to reach new audiences?
I think it’s a mixed bag. Education, social media, including other art forms like visuals or electronica, new performance spaces or more accessible repertoire all play a role.
Which is the most exciting new work you've performed? Could you please describe why?
There are many, among them Haas' In vain or Poppe's Speicher. But perhaps its Dai Fujikura's Double Bass concerto, a piece of unusual virtuosity and character. Before it was written Dai came to my house to record a variety of special sounds and tricks I innocently showed him on the bass, only to find most of them in the final score of his concerto. But it was exhilarating to realize the music with the composer’s guidance, even though it nearly drove me crazy.