Profile: Circus Schönberg – a musical trapeze act

Ringmaster Justus Vriesen gets the musical act on the go. Photo by Ada Nieuwendijk.

Ringmaster Justus Vriesen gets the musical act on the go. Photo by Ada Nieuwendijk.

There is always the music: Dutch musicians push into uncharted territory at the National Arts Festival, and aren’t afraid to fail.

What happens when you play the wrong note? You carry on. The wrong note becomes the right note, it’s where you go from there that counts.

And it does count, because music counts. Literally. Like mathematics. Take Narayana’s cows, a composition that translates a mathematical equation into musical notes.

Narayana was an Indian mathematician of the 14th Century who proposed the problem: A cow produces one calf every year. Beginning in its fourth year, each calf produces one calf at the beginning of each year. How many cows and calves are there altogether after 20 years? The musicians use a different note for each generation, so you’ll have a ‘phwoot’ for the mother and a ‘phweet phweet phweet’ for her three offspring. And so it goes. By the time you get to year 17, you’re playing notes representing 872 cows and calves, making up 15 minutes of music.

So how’s that.

This is the kind of stuff Dutch chamber ensemble Asko|Schönberg plays around with. It’s what makes them tick. And tock. And they’re bringing a circus. Let me repeat that: a chamber ensemble of musicians who play around with the compositions of 20th Century composers, are presenting a circus. In Grahamstown. At the National Arts Festival.

What a circus is depends on who you talk to. The Piccadilly Circus, for one, is anything but. The English idea of a circus is merely a traffic circle. But for the Dutch, or at least for Asko|Schönberg’s percussionist Fedor Teunisse, the idea of a circus is “a parade of things, of showing possibilities”.

“The circus is also an arena in which the audience is engaged, gets excited, which challenges the performer to go further than they would otherwise. Acts are juxtaposed with extremes and almost anything is allowed.”
What Asko|Schönberg does, is place this within the context of music, particularly that created by composers of the 20th (and 21st) Century, to present Circus Schönberg. And as in a circus, no two performances are the same.

Working off the scores by composers such as John Cage, the aforementioned Tom Johnson,Philip Glass, Steve Reich, György Ligeti, Louis Andriessen, Mauricio Kagel, and Mayke Nas, the ensemble “play what the occasion determines”.
Their piano, clarinet and saxophone, double bass, and percussion are forced to collaborate and improvise. They can also be interrupted, by each other, and by the audience. There’s talk of red cards being handed out.

In redefining the parameters of contemporary classical music, they are not afraid to wade into sacrosanct territory and question the rules. For instance James Oesi – who hails from South Africa – is known to play Bach’s virtuoso music for violin on his double bass, an instrument for which Bach never wrote music, raising the hackles of purists.
“We redefine our instruments and ourselves as musicians, as well as the role of the audience,” explains Teunisse.

Circus Schönberg is certainly not a regular concert, which is why it is situated in the Film & Ideas section of the National Arts Festival programme where it falls under the Art Talks & Events listing, even though it is none of those things, and all of them except for film. Rather than familiarity and recognition of compositions you’ve heard before, you’ll be confronted with questions, ideas and, possibly, moments of discomfort all framed within musical composition. And therein lies the fascination, the discovery – along with the performers – of new territory and new possibilities.

There is also the possibility of failure. In fact a composition by John Cage, titled Failure, is designed to ensure the player fails, it’s just a question of when. Which kind of leads back to music and mathematics in the concept of how many digits of the fraction Pi can be remembered.

But it’s not all situated in the intellect. The Dutch live in a land of rain and clay and mud, and are rooted in the physical world, with all its discomfort and delight, sadness and laughter. Circus Schönberg will take you through the gamut, with a healthy dose of fun.

This is a chamber ensemble that plays in both senses of the word.

Acclaimed Dutch chamber ensemble Asko|Schönberg presents the world premier of Circus Schönberg at the National Arts Festival on 28 and 29 June.

Piano: Pauline Post; Saxophone/Clarinet: David Kweksilber; Double Bass: James Oesi; Percussion: Fedor Teunisse

Ringmaster: Justus Vriesen

Circus Schönberg is supported by the Performing Arts Fund NL (FPK), Gemeente Amsterdam and the National Arts Festival.

This profile is sponsored by Asko|Schönberg.

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