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Music Notes: Peter Kubelka's quest for essences

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Peter Kubelka hates recorded music. "I am not opposed to electronic music, to music created to be heard on records," he explains. "But the performance of music written to be performed on wood or animal parts or the human voice on electronic equipment results only in an imitation--a 'photograph' of music. Recorded music is very much like reproductions of paintings in art books. The use of 'electrophonics' causes people to forget that music comes from a living being and has to be set against silence. The musical pollution that exists today is more unhealthy and horrible than air pollution."

This distaste for recorded music might create some problems for a professional musician, but in 1983, Kubelka, who plays the recorder, founded a small ensemble called Spatium Musicum--"musical space"--and set about exploring the possibilities of live music played without amplification. He denounces the "desecration" of churches all over the world that have been wired for sound. "There can be no better proof of the absurdity of this than the fact that these churches have functioned perfectly for centuries without electronic enhancement," he says. Kubelka has managed to fill the vast Gothic cathedral at Amiens with the sound of a single bass recorder.

Kubelka and the other two members of the group, Ulf and Walther Derschmidt (all of whom sing and play a variety of ancient and modern string and wind instruments), don't receive payment for their performances or rehearsal time. All three are employed teachers, and travel and other expenses are sometimes covered by grants and donations. This lack of financial dependence gives the group a certain amount of artistic independence. They plan to give two concerts here next week: one in the Louis Sullivan-Dankmar Adler Trading Room at the Art Institute, and one in the atrium of the State of Illinois Center.

The group's name has three meanings: the architectural space that a concert is played in, the historical space of all of Western music, and the "time space" of each concert, the way in which the time of the conceit is used. "I am interested in the relationship between music and architectural space," says Kubelka. "We play in a space, and if a space is played in it becomes a musical space. We use the space as an instrument and try to play with it in a give-and-take relationship." Spatium Musicum once gave a concert at an ancient monastery in Naples, in rooms of a variety of architectural styles. The audience followed the group from room to room as they played pieces thought to be appropriate to each space. Some works were played in every room to demonstrate how the acoustics and architectural elements affected the sound of the music.

Kubelka and his group are very open-minded about the kind of concerts they play. When Kubelka found members of a small bankrupt zoo begging with their animals on the streets of Frankfurt, he decided to stage a benefit concert for them at the Frankfurt art school where he teaches. On the stage with the musicians were an elephant, a bison, and a llama.

Kubelka's position on music is consistent with his approach toward other arts as well. An accomplished chef and filmmaker, Kubelka believes that each art is created out of the materials basic to that medium and that in the articulate use of those materials one finds the medium's essence. Music must be performed live, and cooking consists of combining raw materials with each other and with heat to produce a new entity that is nonetheless true to the original ingredients.

But Kubelka first achieved renown as a filmmaker, beginning in 1955, with a series of short films that redefined the possibilities of the medium. He rejects the dramatic and literary content of most movies as external to the medium's essence, and creates works whose use of light, space, time, and sound have a formal perfection like that of great music. He holds a film professorship at a prestigious Frankfurt art school and in April he completes a visiting professorship at the School of the Art Institute. (His last class, at 1 PM Thursday, April 6, in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute, is open to the public.)

Interestingly, all of Kubelka's films were commissioned--one was even supposed to be a beer commercial--but, he says, "I always broke the terms of the commission," and made the films exactly as he wished. His films are very much in the tradition of the uncommercial independent film, made by the filmmaker in pursuit of the art. It was his awareness of this tradition that in fact sparked his interest in "independent music."

Spatium Musicum's repertory includes Western classical music from all periods, as well as Austrian folk music, but most of what they play was written before 1750. Kubelka decries what he calls the obscuring of the richness and diversity of the first eight or nine centuries of Western music by a relatively small period of music history--"by people like Mozart, whom I hate." Much of the music written before 1750 was by composers in the employ of the church or noblemen or a town. But "all through the history of music which is also the history of the employment of composers--musicians also wrote pieces only for themselves or for other musicians. In this 'independent music,' musical criteria was most important, and this was the music that most advanced musical thought." The majority of pieces that Spatium Musicum plays are drawn from this largely neglected tradition.

The Art Institute concert will include music from the 13th through the 20th centuries, played out of chronological sequence in order to suggest unexpected connections. "Usually in a concert each piece is played only for itself," Kubelka explains. "I try to make a program so that each piece interrelates with and comments on every other." Thus two pieces of Austrian music from apparently opposite ends of the musical spectrum will be heard next to each other: an example of Austrian folk music and a piece by the great but rarely heard Josef Matthias Hauer, one of the two originators of 12-tone composition. The group are aware of the historical research into early-music performance that has changed the way such works are played today, and incorporate much of that research into their own playing, but they are not dogmatic. Indeed, discontent with the academic dullness of some early-music groups was another impetus behind the group's formation, "We reserve the right to use the full extent of our musical heritage for any musical purpose we see fit; what is most important is to make good, living music."

Spatium Musicum will perform works by Solage, Dufay, Josquin Despres, and Purcell among others, in a concert sponsored by the School of the Art Institute, Thursday, March 23, at 1 PM in the Trading Room of the Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Monroe. They will perform again next Friday, March 24, at noon in the atrium of the State of Illinois Building, 100 W. Randolph. Admission to both concerts is free. More information is available at 939-4569.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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