The German-based group Ensemble Modern has performed interpretations of modern classical works and other avant-garde music since its inception in 1980. Renowned for its pioneering collaborative work with such composers as Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm, John Adams, Steve Reich, and Heiner Goebbels, Ensemble Modern has established itself as a major presence in the world of New Music. The group is unusually flexible in scope, with a repertoire ranging from opera and classical to experimental jazz and pop. When the musicians are not on tour—the ensemble performs approximately 100 concerts a year, half in Germany and the rest internationally—they take part in numerous projects, such as film and video productions, multimedia events, and music theater.
Ensemble Modern was born when several members of the Young German Philharmonic joined forces to focus exclusively on the music of contemporary composers. These young musicians shared a vision of creating the first ensemble in Germany that would interpret only new music of the twentieth century. Among the group’s first members were Catherine Milliken, on the oboe; Dietmar Wiesner, on the flute; and Michael Kasper, on the violoncello. The ensemble—consisting at the time of 21 soloists—held its first concert in Cologne, Germany, in the recording studio of Deutschlandfunk, on October 30, 1980.
As Ensemble Modern was pioneering new musical territory in Germany, the group faced the challenge of finding an audience for its work. “At first, we had audiences of about 40 for our concerts [in Frankfurt],” flutist Dietmar Wiesner stated in an article for Galleria magazine that appears on the Messe Frankfurt web-site. Gaining respect from music audiences was a gradual process, but a turning point came in 1983, when the ensemble presented the first performance of the complete works of Anton Webern. The group toured with this program in Berlin, Frankfurt, and North Rhine Westphalia, winning the respect of German audiences along the way.
In 1985 Ensemble Modern established a home base in Frankfurt. Ulrich Schwab, manager of Frankfurt’s Alte Oper, had invited the group to participate in Frankfurt Feste, the city’s famed music festival. At the Alte Oper, the ensemble was given rehearsal space and a place to perform not only during the festival but also on a regular, ongoing basis. Here the group offered the public its first subscription series, which initially attracted only small audiences interested in contemporary classical music. Gradually, interest grew, as did audiences.
Ensemble Modern had always prided itself on its democratic structure. Favoring an egalitarian system, the group avoided hierarchies among its musicians and emphasized the importance of the collective. The ensemble took this philosophy one step further in 1987, when it became a civil law association. As such, each member became a shareholder and co-owner of the “Ensemble Modern company.” All of the 21 musicians were to have not only an equal financial investment in the group, but also an equal say when it came to artistic decisions about the programs they would perform and the composers with whom they would work.
Unlike most other groups of its kind, Ensemble Modern chooses to have no artistic director or chief conductor. Rather, the ensemble works together to plan its programs and to choose its conductors and guest soloists. “[T]he remarkable thing about the EM is that it is like a small city-state,” the American conductor John Adams told Ensemble Modern in an interview posted on the group’s website. “Plato would have described this as a perfect democracy. It’s like a small village with self-rule: there is no permanent conductor who bosses the orchestra around. That’s something very attractive that makes me, a New Englander, feel very comfortable.”
The ensemble’s democratic structure has done much to enhance its musical diversity and stylistic range. Since all members are encouraged to express their artistic interests, the group has explored many different kinds of sounds and has avoided what Adams referred to as “aesthetic orthodoxy.” In her review of Ensemble Modern’s 1999 CD Music for Eighteen Musicians, published at the M/C Reviews website, music critic Catherine Howell wrote: “These are musicians with classical instrumental training, coupled with an antielitist appreciation of different music styles and traditions, like techno, jazz, and folk. Moreover, they are musicians
Members include Eva Böcker, cello;Uwe Dierksen, trombone;Roland Diry, clarinet; Michael Kasper, violoncello;Susan Knight, viola; Hermann Kretzschmar, piano,Catherine Milliken, oboe;Jagdish Mistry, violin;Rumi Ogawa, drums, cymbalon;Franck Ollu, horn; Nobert Ommer, sound director;Freya Ritts-Kirby, violin; Rainer Römer, drums;Noriko Shimada, bassoon; Wolfgang Stryi, bass clarinet, saxophone;Dietmar Wiesner, flute;Ueli Wiget, piano, harp.
Group formed in Germany, 1980; performed first concert in recording studio of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany, October 30, 1980; performed complete works of Anton Webern to critical acclaim in Berlin, Frankfurt, and North Rhine Westphalia, 1983; established home base in Frankfurt, Germany, with first subscription series at Frankfurter Alte Oper, 1985; became civil law association, making each member a shareholder in the “Ensemble Modern company,” 1987; created Ensemble Modern Orchestra, 1999; celebrated twentieth anniversary by commissioning new works by ten young composers, 2000.
Addresses: Office —Ensemble Modern, Schwedlerstr. 2-4, D-60314 Frankfurt/Main, Germany. Website — Ensemble Modern Official Website: http://www.ensemble-modern.com.
with an acute understanding, and acceptance, of the role of technology in music-making; indeed, the members of Ensemble Modern actually number a sound engineer among their ranks.”
By the mid-1980s, Ensemble Modern had gained worldwide repute and was touring frequently in Paris, London, and other European cities. Occasionally the group would work with other musicians to interpret compositions written for a larger ensemble, such as Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, performed in Frankfurt, Berlin, and Paris in 1987. An international presence led to new opportunities to work with musicians and composers from around the world. In 1992 Ensemble Modern collaborated with American new-music pioneer Frank Zappa to create the Yellow Shark project and CD. Other milestones include the ensemble’s 1996 collaboration with the composer Heiner Goebbels to create the music-theater production Black on White. The world premiere in Frankfurt was such a success that Ensemble Modern and Goebbels received invitations to perform the work in more than a dozen theaters in Europe and abroad. The following year brought another unusual project: the world premiere in Bonn of the video opera Three Tales, part one Hindenburg, by composer Steve Reich and video artist Beryl Korot.
In 1999 the ensemble presented its newly founded Ensemble Modern Orchestra, which billed itself as the world’s first orchestra devoted to music composed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Composed of the core group of Ensemble Modern soloists joined by many other virtuoso musicians, the orchestra planned to meet and tour twice a year. Its first two tour programs included works by composers Helmut Lachenmann, Charles Ives, and Michael Gordon. Conductors leading the orchestra on tours included John Adams, George Benjamin, and Pierre Boulez. Although Zappa died in 1993, Ensemble Modern completed its collaboration with him in 2000, producing Gregory Peccary and Other Persuasions from material formerly created with the musician.
Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, with help from the city of Frankfurt, Ensemble Modern enlisted ten young composers to create new works. In 2001 six of these compositions premiered in the Frankfurt 2000 program—works by Enno Poppe, Johannes Maria Staud, Brett Dean, Hilda Paredes, Markus Hechtle, and Sebastian Stier. By 2002 Ensemble Modern had released 30 CDs in a range of musical genres and styles. The group’s projects that year included several opera productions, including Guo Wenjing’s Ye Yan/The Night Banquet, performed in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and New York, and new video-opera work with conductor Steve Reich and video-artist Beryl Korot.
(With Heiner Goebbels) Chamber Music, ECM, 1993.
(With Mauricio Kagel) Exotica, Koch-Schwann, 1993.
(With Luigi Nono) Prometeo, EMI, 1995.
(With Frank Zappa) The Yellow Shark, Barking Pumpkin, 1995.
(With George Antheil) Fighting the Waves, Red Seal, 1996.
(With John Adams) Shaker Loops/Phrygian Gates/Chamber Symphony, RCA, 1997.
(With John Cage) The Piano Concertos, Mode, 1997.
(With Heiner Goebbels) Black on White, RCA, 1997.
(With Hanns Eisler) Roaring Eisler, RCA, 1998.
(With Steve Reich) Music for Eighteen Musicians/Ensemble Modern, RCA, 1999.
(With Kurt Weill) The Compilation I, Largo, 1999.
(With Fred Frith) Traffic Continues, Winter & Winter, 2000.
(With Wolfgang Rihm) Jagden und Formen, DG, 2002.
Independent (London, England), September 4, 2000, p. 14.
New York Times, July 27, 2001, p. E4.
“Contemporary Music in All Its Many Colours: Ensemble Modern—A Success Story,” Messe Frankfurt, http://www.messefrankfurt.com/en/seiten/unternehmen/galleria/archiv/archiv_1/moderne.html (June 25, 2002).
Ensemble Modern Official Website, http://www.ensemble-modern.com (June 17, 2002).
“The Reich Stuff: Ensemble Modern’s ‘Music for Eighteen Musicians,’” M/C Reviews, http://www.media-culture.org.au/reviews/sounds/reich.html (June 25, 2002).
"Ensemble Modern." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ensemble-modern
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