Ostrava Days Festival, Czech Republic

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Elizabeth Davis travels to a little-known corner of Europe for a vibrant new music festival

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OstravaSearch for Ostrava in any guide book to the Czech Republic and you won’t find it. And the city's Wikipedia page isn’t very encouraging either, focusing mainly on the city's heavy industry and its role as the region's administrative centre.

So I had very little idea of what to expect when I set off to the city for Ostrava Days, a three-week long festival of new and contemporary music. And the planefull of stag do-goers on my flight to Brno didn’t reassure me.

But what I found, when I arrived was a self-effacing city, scarred by a turbulent history, but with a resilient and enterprising population busy creating a thriving metropolis.

The streets are dotted with tell-tale signs of the Soviet Union – statues of burly miners and bold, formalist architecture – and for three weeks every two years leading figures from the world of avant-garde and contemporary music come to the town for Ostrava Days.

Ostrava The festival had already been running for a week before I arrived on 23 August and had opened with a performance by Philip Glass and his ensemble. I arrived in time for a rare performance of Petr Kotik’s ‘opera’ Many Many Women.

This is a work which stretches the word ‘opera’ to its very limits. Many Many Women uses a surreal text by Gertrude Stein, the singers all sing at perfect intervals from each other (fourths, fifth, octaves) and there is no plot. And it lasts for six hours (I’m afraid I didn’t last all of it, not least because I was aware of the marathon of electronic music taking place the following day…)

In Ostrava it was performed without an interval (mats were provided if the audience wanted to lie down) and we were free to come and go as we pleased.

It was without question the most informal concert I’ve ever been to – talking was frowned upon but otherwise pretty much ‘anything goes’. Food for thought for all those orchestra managers worrying about making concerts more accessible.

And the music. I’m not even sure music is the right word – this was more abstract art in sound form. Singers sang without vibrato, very little dynamic and even melodic variations. This was music, but stripped down to its bare essentials.

"Many Many Women" by Petr Kotik -- S.E.M. Ensemble from S.E.M. Ensemble on Vimeo.

It seemed to be semi-improvised – so even though each short section was scored, any pair of instruments or singers could perform them. The SEM Ensemble performed with sopranos Kamala Sankaram and Sadie Dawkins Rosales, countertenor Patrick Fennig, tenor Daniel Neer, baritone Kelvin Chan and bass Steven Hrycelak. And the composer, Petr Kotik, played flute for the performance.

The work seemed to me to capture something of the reassuring and terrifying continuity of everyday life before, after and in between momentous events.

But, like a painting by Rothko or Pollock, or Joyce’s Ulysses, Many Many Women will evoke different reactions in every listener. And I was glad to have had the chance to hear this subversive epic of the avant-garde.