Being old doesn’t necessarily preclude being hip. At 72, Prague Spring is one of the elder statesmen of the European festival circuit, with headline offerings culled from some of the best orchestras and soloists on the continent. But festival managers also make an active effort to include modern and contemporary music, giving lesser-known voices a chance to be heard and audiences an opportunity to expand their musical experiences.

Musico-Technical Inventions at Prague Spring © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
Musico-Technical Inventions at Prague Spring
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

Offbeat offerings call for unconventional settings, and for a program titled Hudebně-Technické Invence (Inventions Combining Music and Technology), Prague’s National Technical Museum was an ideal choice. A showcase for the sciences and in particular Czech products and achievements, the museum boasts a grand Transportation Hall packed with vintage aircraft and automobiles, along with a pair of monster steam locomotives. Technology is literally on a roll, creating a sense of momentum and progress that is a perfect fit for music moving in new directions. 

The program offered a smart balance of new and established composers, dropping anchors before giving wing to excursions into the sonic stratosphere. In that context, Steve Reich provided a comfortable opener and Heiner Goebbels a familiar if noisy combination of traditional and experimental elements. This gave Czech composers Michal Rataj and Jan Trojan, both of whom spent time at the Center for New Music and Technology in Berkeley, California, the opportunity to take full advantage of a superb surround-sound system that gave the music a three-dimensional spatial configuration. 

Karel Dohnal © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
Karel Dohnal
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

Reich’s New York Counterpoint featured clarinetist Karel Dohnal playing with a prerecorded track of multiple clarinet sounds, mostly in repeating loops. It is a friendly, accessible exercise in minimalism originally written to capture the vibrant pulse of Manhattan. The complexity and volume of the recorded lines grow as the piece progresses, and Dohnal did an outstanding job keeping up with them. By the end it was impossible to distinguish between what was live and what was on tape, with both the actual and recorded instruments blending into an agreeably electronic pitch. 

Rataj’s Sentenceless Sentence started life as a soundtrack for a radio play, and retains that quality in concert, starting with deep, dramatic tones that never let up and flitting through abrupt turns in color and texture. Rataj showed an impressive vocabulary, running through a kaleidoscope of hums, whistles, roars, rumbles, percussion and an occasional recognizable chord, creating a sensation of sonic canyons yawning open and then closing. Perched at a table on the floor with his laptop and mixer, he could not be seen from some seats, giving the impression of a reverse 4’33” – all music, no player. 

Violinist David Danel, who specializes in contemporary music, did heroic work with Goebbels’ Bagatellen, which challenges the soloist to hold his own against enormous hammering and banging. Sitting at an electronic keyboard, pianist Sylva Smejkalová provided all the noise while Danel did his best to maintain a dialogue of sorts. It is a compliment to both musicians to note that in the screaming concluding movement, with eyes closed one could easily imagine a seasoned drummer and guitarist pounding out some rock pyrotechnics.

Musico-Technical Inventions © Prague Spring | Petra Hajská
Musico-Technical Inventions
© Prague Spring | Petra Hajská

Trojan’s Circulation lacked cohesion, perhaps because it involved three live instrumentalists (saxophone, violin and clarinet) and some very sophisticated electronic improvisation, performed by the composer. But the sound was fantastic, swooping and swirling around the hall like the planes hanging from the ceiling. Meanwhile, there was a whimsical touch on the ground – three remote-controlled cars that zipped around and through the audience, programmed to perform a rough choreography with the music. They provided grounding for the high-flying electronics and, surrounded by a century of automobile history, the ultimate in resonance.