Jubileusz European Workshop for Contemporary Music (20th Anniversary of the European Workshop for Contemporary Music) International Festival of Contemporary Music Warsaw Autumn

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Jubileusz European Workshop for Contemporary Music (20th Anniversary of the European Workshop for Contemporary Music)

20th Anniversary of the European Workshop for Contemporary Music 

Katarzyna Naliwajek talks to Rüdiger Bohn, Hannelore Thiemer, Jerzy Kornowicz, Olaf Wegener, and Tadeusz Wielecki 

Katarzyna Naliwajek: How did the idea come up of summarising twenty years of the EWCM ensemble by recalling the memories of those who brought the workshop to life and who are involved in it today? 

Jerzy Kornowicz: In April this year, I was present at the Acht Brücken festival in Cologne, which included a special concert by the EWCM ensemble and an official ceremony to mark the twentieth anniversary of this initiative. I realised not only that we were celebrating twenty years of this cooperation, but also of the facts building up this deservedly notorious project. I should have been aware of these stories both as a former chairman of the Polish Composers’ Union and the by now long-serving director of the Warsaw Autumn Festival. This late-awakened awareness of the circumstances surrounding the foundation and early years of the EWCM was influenced by conversations with the people who engendered that ensemble and were present in Poland during the first workshops and rehearsals. I talked to them for a few hours, sometimes off the record, and it was a fascinating journey into times already so radically different that they were on the verge of being forgotten. I was confronted with details, anecdotes, moods, and emotions from the early years of the EWCM, narrated with great authenticity. 

KN: What are your most important memories of the gestation and development of the EWCM and this German-Polish cooperation? 

Olaf Wegener: It was Mrs Hannelore Thiemer, who deals with contemporary music at the German Music Council, who first came up with the idea of initiating a collaboration with the Warsaw Autumn festival. At first, there were German– Polish symposia on culture and its structures as well as German concerts of contemporary music ensembles. Later, Tadeusz Wielecki and his team came up with the idea of setting up workshops and organising regular meetings of young musicians from Poland and Germany, so that they could study contemporary music together and present concerts of really ambitious programmes at the Warsaw Autumn festival. 

Hannelore Thiemer: It all started with an interview with Joschka Fischer. I heard it on German Radio in the summer of 2000. Fischer, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, had just returned from Warsaw and elaborated on how very difficult relations between Germany and Poland were because of history. He stressed how building cooperation between the two countries should start with culture. The next day I called the German Embassy in Warsaw, where our idea was accepted, and it was the Embassy that put us in touch with Tadeusz Wielecki. His openness and willingness to work together made further cooperation much easier. Just one year later, we were on the ground with the first Polish-German forum, inaugurated at Warsaw’s Royal Castle on 21 September 2001 under the title “Conditions and objectives for the promotion of culture. The role of music in the 21st century.” Cultural practitioners from both countries were invited. The forum was opened by the Polish Minister of Culture, Andrzej Sylwester Zieliński. A concert was also featured by the German Music Council with the participation of the United Berlin Ensemble. The next forum was held in 2002, and it was here that the starting signal for the German-Polish New Music Workshop was given. In September 2003, the Kwartludium Ensemble and young German musicians, university graduates, met for rehearsals and another concert, already under the direction of Rüdiger Bohn. In keeping with the nature of the project, the rehearsals took place in the Fabryka Trzciny, an old factory building that had been converted into a cultural centre. 

Tadeusz Wielecki: This cooperation has enjoyed a great flow from the very beginning, thanks to the goodwill on both sides. Whenever we had any artistic or organisational postulates, the Germans took them into account and tried to implement them, and vice versa. Of course, there were discussions about the programme, with meetings in Warsaw and Bonn as well as Berlin. Mrs Thiemer, Rüdiger Bohn, and later Olaf would come to Poland. They usually had already prepared programme proposals, including a selected work by a German composer, necessary to obtain a German grant. But the core was the so- called masterpiece: an outstanding work of new music already in the canon, representing an important artistic, compositional, and performance issue. And so those young musicians worked on works by Lachenmann, Boulez, Grisey... 

The framework and formula of the whole were worked out from the outset, while the individual fillings each time required reflection, meetings, and discussions. Proposals were subjected to consideration, but there was generally no controversy or unacceptable positions. It all proceeded—as it does at our programme committee—in a good ambience, with mindful listening to each other, including on organisational matters. 

The workshops were initially held in Poland. At a certain point, it turned out to be quite a financial burden, because we not only had to rent a hall for a week, but also provide the service. The German side financed hotels and travel for the German musicians, but aspects such as concert hall and instruments rental were always on our side. Grażyna Dziura, director of the festival office, asked if it were possible to organise the workshops alternately, once in Germany and once in Poland, and this is what happened for the next few editions. The first year, if I remember correctly, the German side reached an agreement with the Darmstadt courses. We selected Polish musicians to go to the International Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt and the workshops and the first concert took place there (as part of the Courses!), which was later repeated at the Warsaw Autumn. Generally, however, the premiere was held in Warsaw. 

KN: What emotions and challenges accompanied you in the key moments of establishing the EWCM? 

HT: After the first concert of the German-Polish New Music Workshop, I was certainly both grateful and relieved. Indeed, the beginnings were not easy. There were language difficulties and organisational problems. Instruments had to be piloted out of the customs area, and a number of transport issues had to be solved. I still remember the harpist who broke a string. It was not possible to order this string locally, fortunately it arrived just in time for the concert on an overnight mail plane and, thanks to special customs-related efforts, we managed 

to have it delivered. We were lucky to work with a Polish company that solved many such organisational issues small and big. The concert itself was a great success. It was broadcast live on Polish Radio. Tickets were sold out right after the first day of rehearsals. Polish director Tomasz Matusiak agreed to document this phase until the final concert. The evening after the concert, it was interesting to hear participants talking about their initial reservations and prejudices and how these had dissipated as they worked together. These were the most exciting moments for me. 

OW: I, on the other hand, remember the huge project of performing Stockhausen’s Hymnen in 2008. It was a massive challenge, involving fifty musicians: a real orchestra, no longer an ensemble of thirty or fifteen people as before. We took them from Milan to Pforzheim and then Warsaw. It was the idea of Warsaw Autumn, organised with the financial support of the European Union. It involved a lot of work and required commitment from many people. It is projects like this that bring institutions together and create strong connections between people, in this case between me and Tadeusz and the whole Warsaw Autumn staff. I’ve known them since 2007, so that’s about 16 years. When I meet Tadeusz, every time we have something to reminisce about. That is also part of the mutual trust: you know the people and you know you can work and succeed with them. It’s a really good feeling. 

TW: Initially, we also had the dilemma of where to recruit the young musicians. Back then, the situation of contemporary music in Poland was completely different from what it is now. No one wanted it in higher education, no one practised it, there were just a few individual people interested in it. There were a few soloists, the Silesian Quartet, a few other ensembles, but generally that kind of music did not function in the community, or more broadly, in contemporary culture. Warsaw Autumn was an island: we already had mobile phones, but the whole country, with some exceptions, was still using crank phones, that was the problem. We wanted to organise workshops, develop education so that this music became more widely practised and understood in Poland, but how do you do that when no-one is interested? We had to convince people of something they weren’t convinced of. So we based the project on Kwartludium, those four young musicians who were interested in this kind of activity of their own accord. They did the recon and invited others on our behalf. But it was a bit by chance. When someone already had a summer job arranged, so that they could make a bit of money (after all, these were freshly graduated musicians, some had families), they no longer had time to carve out a whole week for a fairly modest fee... 

The situation changed thanks to our Cracow colleagues from the Warsaw Autumn committee, namely the late Krzysztof Droba, as well as Magda Długosz, and Krzysztof Szwajgier. Because there was always a ferment in Cracow, the Cracow Academy of Music was—also in their own perception— modernist, contemporary, while the Warsaw one was considered conservative. Cracow had the Muzyka Centrum ensemble, Penderecki, Schaeffer, many people of eminently contemporary music. In Łódź or Wrocław at that time, there was hardly any contemporary music, although of course composition was taught. Cracow was different. Conductor Przemyslaw Fiugajski even tried to set up a contemporary music ensemble there (which ultimately proved to ephemeral) and found a few interested people. It was to them that Szwajgier, Droba, and Długosz offered to participate in our project. It took some negotiating with the authorities of the Cracow Academy, but we got their consent and the workshop could take place in Cracow. The Academy lent their hall and even paid the soloists’ fees. The members of the orchestra were students and participated in the workshop as part of their curriculum. This was the leaven from which the principle of cooperation with academies was born. We did two more workshops in Cracow, and thanks to the efforts of Marta Szoka and Artur Zagajewski from the Warsaw Autumn programme committee, a similar collaboration was established with the Music Academy in Łódź. The situation had already changed dramatically; we were even organising entry exams and recruiting people to take part in workshops that were to culminate with a Warsaw Autumn concert. 

When we wanted to perform Salvatore Sciarrino’s opera Luci mie traditrici in 2015, we invited musicians who had taken part in the EWCM workshops, and they liked it so much that they decided to continue the project on their own. They called themselves the Music Cooperative. This is the point I just wanted to make: the EWCM workshops are bearing their fruit and that’s great. 

KN: What other impressions during this collaboration do you remember most vividly that made it fascinating for you? 

OW: I was most impressed with our Ukrainian project. It was a really ambitious programme with works by Mathias Spahlinger, John Cage, and Lubava Sidorenko. We were supposed to hold a concert in Lviv. When we reached the border—it was some time between midnight and 2 am—it turned out that the musicians could cross but we had to leave the instruments; apparently it was a customs issues. I tried to solve the problem. Meanwhile, Rüdiger Bohn and the musicians went to the Lviv Philharmonic to borrow instruments there, but these proved unsuitable for the programme we were supposed to perform. In the end, our instruments arrived at the Philharmonic a few minutes before the concert. Everyone who participated in that project remembers it to this day, because they were united by a very stressful experience, which they overcame against the odds. One of the young instrumentalists told me that the feeling of tiredness, exhaustion, and stress was conducive that evening to playing Cage’s piece, which was very calm and slow; the performers were able to immerse themselves in it and just relax. 

KN: How did it happen that customs changed their minds about the instruments? 

OW: I had a lady who was helping me to communicate. Together, we first went to some border and economics office, where we quickly got the impression that there was no possibility of getting our instruments back. Then it occurred to me to call the German consulate and tell them about the issue. Suddenly, everything turned out fine and everything became possible. 

KN: And which of the musical and organisational experiences in the EWCM history do you recall as the most rewarding? 

OW: Every project is a challenge, but of course, I recall most vividly the pandemic of two and three years ago. Back then, each country had its own regulations we had to adhere to.
The fact that we managed to continue to hold workshops every year further strengthened this wonderful relationship, full of mutual trust. I remember one of those concerts in 2020, held without audience, and only streamed. It was a very strange situation for those young musicians: to sit on the stage in front of a completely empty auditorium. There was no applause or audience reaction, but the musicians had to play and it was broadcast internationally. We had, I think, about 2,000 or 2,500 people following the broadcast, more than at any “normal” concert. One of our visions is to establish a people-to-people exchange, a cultural exchange between two societies and two countries. That concert showed us we had achieved it, because it was only with a trusted cooperation that you could organise such a project in the coronavirus era. 

RB: It is difficult for me to list individual events, I remember so many fascinating moments over the past 20 years with the ensemble. Cross-cultural encounters with young composers and intense confrontation with outstanding works of contemporary music are always a challenge. 

KN: Thinking of the importance of the EWCM, can you indicate other areas of its influence? 

RB: For me, the pivotal, most fascinating thing about working with the EWCM is that every year, these workshops bring together young musicians from various European countries who are fascinated by contemporary music and curious about new techniques, open to new adventures. And that within a very short timespan during intense rehearsals, the formation takes place of an outstanding ensemble at the highest level. Every year, I look forward to this experience. 

OW: Cultural exchange is an important part of this project, together with building structures that offer young musicians the chance to work with experimental instrumental techniques and learn about the contemporary music repertoire, giving them an impulse to develop their own projects. I believe we have been quite successful in this respect. I think of the contemporary music ensemble from Cracow mentioned by Tadeusz, that emerged of the EWCM and performs this year again in Darmstadt, but also in Germany, we have young musicians who, after their experience at EWCM, are now working in ensembles such as Ensemble Garage or Trio Catch. Today, after twenty years of this project, it can be concluded that these two visions: cultural exchange with the promotion of contemporary music in both countries, and people-to-people exchange between Germany and Poland on a very fundamental level, have indeed been successes. 

JK: It should be added that EWCM is not only a Polish– German project. There are many foreigners studying at academies in Germany, and both ensemble members and composers whose works were featured in our concerts came from a large number of countries. We specifically sought the presence of Ukrainian musicians, for example, in the “Polish half ” of the cast. So the name of the ensemble, which refers to European character, is justified: the EWCM transcends the Polish–German format. At the music academies of Warsaw, Cracow, Łódź, and Wrocław, the EWCM has provided young performers with a unique opportunity to work under the direction of experienced soloists from ensembles such as Musikfabrik, ensemble recherche, Ensemble Modern, ensemble ascolta, and El Perro Andaluz. 

I have a lot of respect for the founders of the EWCM: the people and institutions, as well as great admiration for two people who have contributed to the EWCM from the beginning and continued to be involved. Firstly, this is Rüdiger Bohn, the conductor who also consulted our programme choices, oversaw the rehearsals, and who has integrated an annual presence and exceptionally intense work in Poland into his artistic life and teaching activities. The artistic expression of the EWCM is very much Rüdiger’s lifeline, so to speak. It is difficult to describe how much he has done for the common cultural good. The second person is Tadeusz Wielecki, who years ago accurately assessed the potential of the EWCM, was instrumental in developing its formula, and organised fourteen editions. But for the highest professional, organisational and artistic standards, for the friendship and sympathy, I am also grateful to Olaf Wegener and Gerardo Scheige and to their many colleagues from the German Music Council. Here I would like to mention the chairman of the German Music Council, Martin Maria Krüger, without whose insight—both cultural and political—the EWCM could not have had such an immense impact over the years. 

It is worth realising all this today, when the EWCM has reached full cruising speed and seems to run on autopilot. Yet nothing is easy and nothing should be taken for granted, really. The role of this initiative, its pragmatic, positivistic and cultural dimensions are as relevant as ever. The EWCM reacts to reality and has witnessed the changes taking place in Poland, Germany, and Europe. It shadowed the first years of Poland’s presence in the European Union and its integration with the societies of the Union. The EWCM also testifies to the great economic development of our country: we could afford more and more, we were more and more professional. Thanks to the workshops and concerts, a generation of composers and performers joined artistic life that grew up after the changes of 1989. For them, culture is part of a life more harmonised with other areas, instead of being separated from the public sphere in order to save one’s subtleties and values. The EWCM has also reflected the changes taking place in music: new performance techniques, new instruments, new media and, ultimately, new ideas. 

HT: For me, too, it is extremely important that this project, now coordinated on the part of the German Music Council by excellent organisers such as Olaf Wegener and Gerardo Scheige, continues today on such a pan-European scale. 

JK: I once had the opportunity to express the view that one of the most culturally significant programmes run by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage is Gaude Polonia, building cultural ties between Poland and Eastern European countries. The EWCM is a smaller “programme,” purely musical, but no less comprehensive, built on international partnership and investing in our present and future. 

OW: Indeed, the opportunity given to us to develop such a project for such a long time—20 years!—is unique and pivotal. It builds a strong stability in supporting the development of contemporary music and in the relations between the various institutions and countries. Thanks to all who made this possible! 

JK: EWCM is proving to be an important work for many of those involved, perhaps one of the most significant ones in their professional activities. If something lasts for 20 years and still has vigour, it is clearly projected for a lasting impact, not ephemeral effect. What struck me last April was how cleverly and with what culture this initiative was created. How much will, patience, and professionalism has gone into building something that, with its historical, political and psychological contexts, is also an artistic endeavour where literal communication is hardest: music. 

KN: And how do you perceive the emotional changes throughout the years of this cooperation? 

RB: Twenty years ago, the ensemble was clearly divided into two groups: the Poles and the Germans. Combining them into a whole took a lot of time. Today, musicians from the beginning meet together and at the end of each workshop, they behave like one big family. But also, two decades ago young people were not used to work with contemporary music. Now, there is a basic understanding of it, and the ensemble starts work from another level. 

Rüdiger Bohn conductor of European Workshop for Contemporary Music
Hannelore Thiemer director of Podium Gegenwart in the years 1990–2006, Deutscher Musikrat gGmbH 
Jerzy Kornowicz director of the Warsaw Autumn Festival since 2017 
Katarzyna Naliwajek member of the Warsaw Autumn Festival Programme Committee
Olaf Wegener director of Podium Gegenwart since 2010, Deutscher Musikrat gGmbH 
Tadeusz Wielecki director of the Warsaw Autumn Festival in the years 1999–2016