Daniel Kühnel
Daniel Kühnel
The story starts in 2015, on an autumn Monday night in Dresden. Outside the State Art Collection, the far-right marchers from Pegida are baying out their messages of anti-immigrant intolerance, as they do every Monday night. Inside, with the sound of the demonstration pulsing threateningly through the walls, we hear the German Federal Parliament’s response: a music festival to “let the museum out-sound the demonstrators outside” with a message of Dresden as an open-minded city, a city that “would not have existed if it wasn’t for its interests in other cultures throughout history”. In that festival, music was placed in the context of the museum’s collections, arranged to explore the origins and concepts of European identity, asking the crucial question: how could a new relationship evolve between Europe and the world, a healthy relationship directed to the future?

Two years on, the director of the Dresden State Art Collections that day, Hartwig Fischer, is director of the British Museum. He has invited Daniel Kühnel, the Artistic Director of that festival and the Intendant of the Hamburg Symphony, to curate a festival “similar in thought” at the BM’s galleries. For a fortnight in April, Europe and the world: a symphony of cultures will bring music from many eras and every corner of the planet. Gagaku music from the Japanese Middle Ages contrasts with Chinese kunqu opera and the classical musics of India, Persia and Arabia; the polyrhythms of György Ligeti’s piano etudes follow a panel discussion on the African rhythms that inspired them; Stockhausen’s Telemusik, built from ethnic music gathered around the world, is placed in the BM’s “Collecting the world” gallery.

Great Court of the British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum
Great Court of the British Museum
© Trustees of the British Museum

Is this the British Museum becoming political, fighting for harmony in a troubled world? Kühnel doesn’t think so: “I don’t see the British Museum as becoming any more political than it was”. But for him, arts are inevitably in the public realm and become uninteresting if they cease to be so: a political dimension is expected, at least in Germany, of theatres, opera houses, museums (although perhaps not of orchestras). Furthermore, “the BM is not an arts museum, it’s a place of knowledge of the world, an entity which has grown out of the European cultural understanding”. Kühnel refuses to accept the idea that these festivals are an attack on anyone, even Pegida. “We are giving a message that in itself is open to everyone. It’s a clear message of humanity, and you can’t attack with humanity. I’m not a pacifist – if one’s attacked, one should protect oneself – but I definitely think that stating our values is something we should try a lot more of.”

“The gagaku ensemble from Tokyo perform the oldest form of orchestral music in the world, which is highly formal and rigid, such a foreign world of sound, of attitude and meaning”. Music should not be abused, Kühnel says, but it can be contextualised in terms of its performance history and the philosophic context of its time – not about day to day politics, but “politics at the level of political theory, and I do believe that the British Museum has always been very strong on that”.

Surely, I ask, there are those who would say that this is not a symphony but a cacophony of cultures? Kühnel knows the pitfalls and confident that he is avoiding them. “I am very aware that much of what is done today in world music could end up being a cacophony: it’s very often folklore pressed into Western harmony in a 4/4 takt. We are not going to do that: there is not one of these seventeen concerts that is going that way. And we are not just performing music in a nice space. Of course, everyone can come and enjoy a concert that’s wonderful on a musical level: these are all excellent performers. But beyond that, there’s a very articulate statement that goes with each concert.”

Zhang Jun © Zhang Jun
Zhang Jun
© Zhang Jun

Kühnel’s awareness of the richness and sophistication of non-Western classical music cultures first flowered on a visit to Shanghai, where he met Zhang Jun, one of the masters of kunqu. Kühnel had been expecting “some kind of weird temple musician”, only to be confronted with a broad-minded sneaker-wearing youngish man of today – albeit one with a “precise and completely dedicated way of dealing with that tradition”. (Zhang will be fusing kunqu with Shakespeare in the BM’s China and South Asia room on April 20th). Kühnel came across gagaku while researching the work of Toru Takemitsu (who was not normally a composer of Japanese classical music, but wrote one major gagaku piece, Autumn Garden). He remembers being “sneaked into” the last half hour of a gagaku performance: “I couldn’t understand it – I really didn’t get what they were doing – and yet it was obvious that they were doing something very important”.

How, I ask, do audiences deal with such a concert, with music to which they have no point of reference? “The intriguing part is to see that there is always a point of reference. When we did kun opera in Dresden, we placed it in the porcelain collection. The first porcelain in the West was invented in Dresden (or copied, really): very early on, with all the chinoiserie from Marco Polo and before, one had visually the sense of how that culture presented itself. People said to me ‘it’s funny how, through hearing and seeing the performance, we reflect on what we know and what we don’t know and what we’re used to seeing, what we have on our coffee tables every day’”. The gagaku musicians won’t be playing in the Japanese gallery, but in the Egyptian room: the idea is to set the formality of the music against what is visually the most formal and rigid of court cultures, of which we know something from the stories of Cleopatra and others. The juxtaposition will enable people to ask what components of this music and culture we can relate to: “we’re trying to do what the Rosetta Stone does, to help people to decipher”. The festival will therefore require a certain level of intellectual curiosity, but since the British Museum welcomes many thousands of visitors a day “who are not going into this place to see beautiful art, but to enhance their knowledge”, Kühnel is completely confident that enough of their public will rise to the challenge.

The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Egyptian Sculpture Gallery
© The Trustees of the British Museum

There's also more contemporary Western music by such composers as Scelsi, Cage, Stockhausen. I confess that when faced with these, I often understand the intellectual concept behind the works but am left emotionally unmoved by a performance. “Other people say that about Mozart…  to do anything is a risk. In Dresden, we did Stockhausen’s Hymnen, complete, 1 hour 57 minutes without an interval, on opening night over midnight. Now I’ve seen Hymnen before in Berlin and had the same reaction as yours. But here, it was in a very specific place, the chapel where Schütz wrote his music, we started the evening with very different pieces starting from Schütz, and while some people left, many were still there at the end, way after midnight. And my experience was that it took me to a certain kind of trance and I started to understand the depth of this world of sound. With contextualising things and not overdoing it, not doing three or four hour marathons – our Stockhausen will be an hour or so, less than many Londoners’ commute – my kind request would be ‘give it a chance’.”

Will the festival appeal primarily to music lovers or museum regulars? “I don’t have any experience with a space that hosts such a huge number of visitors a day: Dresden and Jerusalem are very different. And there, we had arts encountering arts: the British Museum has lots of art, but it’s a museum of knowledge. We are shifting into a Weltanschauung [a whole world perception].” Kühnel sees this festival as the way to bridge the permanent world of artifacts with the ephemeral art of music.

A symphony of cultures is prominently sponsored by the German Foreign Ministry. When I ask what they’re hoping to achieve, Kühnel refuses to speak on their behalf, but says “it’s obvious. They are funding a festival in London in 2018 dealing with Europe and the world. One issue must be seen as given and important, to say that Europe is a cultural entity beyond the EU.” In creating the concept, he harks back to Herodotus, the first writer to refer to Europe as a cultural entity, and to the opening declaration of the Histories, that Herodotus would set out the great deeds of both Greeks and foreigners.

Is he happy, I ask, being a cultural omnivore? Kühnel accepts the danger that people will think him arrogant – wrongly, because “I might be idle, I might be impatient, I might be many terrible things but I’m not arrogant” – but says simply that “I don’t know what else to do. I really think that to articulate actions in arts and especially in music can make a point and I think we do too little of this.”


Europe and the world: a symphony of cultures runs from 16th to 29th April 2018, at various venues within the British Museum. You can see full listings here.

This interview was sponsored by the British Museum