the cologne new music scene

This article was published in German this week in the ON magazine (online version is here). The magazine features a number of articles from local interpreters, composers and even dancers, discussing their experience of the scene here in Cologne. Here follows the original English of my contribution:

I grew up in a small town on the west coast of Canada, a town too small to be able to speak of a new music scene. I studied there, later in London, England, and still later in Huddersfield: a small town with a vibrant and active new music scene, and home to one of the best new music festivals in Europe. I moved to Cologne three years ago; before that, I had only performed a handful of times on the continent.

Within the first six months of moving to Cologne, I had already performed more new music professionally than in my entire life up until that point.

There is no doubt that the new music scene in Cologne is active, diverse and open-minded. There is no doubt in my mind that Cologne achieves balance between supporting both resident groups and foreign visitors, and that the city has an increasingly strong reputation for being a hub for new music.

I didn’t move here to study and had few contacts, but seemed to find very quickly a place within the scene, first as a guest of the conservatory during student composition projects, and then with various new music ensembles in the city. Every year that passes in this city sees me as a better musician than the year before, due to the wealth of different experiences it can offer. Previously, I think I had a fairly good knowledge of a fairly wide range of composers through their reputations and recordings. My studies in Huddersfield equipped me well on that front. What Cologne has given me has been a wealth of hands on experience performing works from the world over.

Sometime during my first year, I was working on a project when the cellist sitting next to me asked how I liked living in Cologne. “It’s great. Only, I wish I had more work in the city,” I replied. “Funny you should say that,” he said. “I want to start an ensemble.”

We formed hand werk only two years ago, but in this, our second year of operation, we will play over twenty concerts, the majority of those appearances in the city of Cologne itself.


Coming from a town where one would be lucky to see six new music concerts in a year, you can imagine what a thrill it is to say that my own ensemble will play more than twenty. I could scream that off mountaintops. (Or, at least, post it on Facebook.)

Before I go any further, I would also like to say that I do not speak for my colleagues; while I will be speaking from experience as a member of hand werk, any opinions stated here represent only my thoughts, they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ensemble.

When we started, we lacked experience; we played concerts to small handfuls of people in the Alte Feuerwache (a nice little venue, but I’ve never seen it sold out), testing out the kinds of things we wanted to do: not restricting ourselves to our own instruments, building a real sense of repertoire, never employing a conductor, etc.

For the most part, I have the feeling that Cologne has supported us as no city ever could. We have been supported directly by both ON and the conservatory, where in particular, Johannes Schöllhorn has been an enormous help to us. We have here enough concerts to experiment, to find our strengths and improve upon them, to perform pieces more than once, to interact with the many other great ensembles here and to develop connections with institutions in other cities by building tours around certain repertoire. As we do everything without conductor we have needed to build a lot of experience, and our own diligence was not enough: we needed time on stage and a lot of it. It is in large part due to the dozens of concert opportunities that we have had in Cologne that we are able to boast an international reputation for being detailed in our approach, excellent collaborators and tirelessly hard workers.

We’ve always felt under a lot of pressure to work very hard, and anyone who has seen us rehearse knows how tirelessly my colleagues are capable of rehearsing: while any remaining brain power I had left the room two hours ago, some of my colleagues seem to be empowered by exhaustion. But in Cologne I’ve never had the feeling that we were “only as good as our last concert,” or that we would be punished for risk taking.

Perhaps that possibility is there, that we could disappear as an ensemble in just as many years. I find it difficult to tell, for a number of reasons, and it is difficult to explain, as I don’t want to come across as unappreciative.

As an expat and a non-native German speaker, I sometimes have the feeling that I’m missing something. It’s not that I feel excluded or unwelcome, but simply like I just don’t have all of the available information. I don’t feel that I’m “part” of a new music scene, but more that I am able to participate in one. It sounds so cliché, wanting to be “part of something bigger than myself,” (three years in Cologne also marks three years of living in an apartment above a meditation centre!) but I have had it before.

When living in Huddersfield I was decidedly part of a scene; as one of very few performers in a town brimming with composers, I felt like a very necessary part of the daily life of the new music scene. Composers would plan events, the clarinet was always used, and new pieces were constantly being written. There was a phenomenal sense of togetherness, which was only matched by the phenomenal lack of funds.

It was a great feeling, but perhaps it can only apply in smaller centres where the scene cannot be propelled forward without the interaction of individual members. It was a great feeling, but perhaps it isn’t a bench marker for the success of a ‘scene’. It was a great feeling, and perhaps it’s here in Cologne for others, but just not for me.

Part of the problem, I think, has to do with a lack of feedback. While I am consistently amazed at the number of people who attend new music concerts in Cologne, I am often disappointed that I don’t seem to meet more of them, or to have a clear sense of their feeling for the concert. It’s not that audience members aren’t friendly in Cologne; our recent collaboration with Ensemble Chronophonie on Unter Vier Ohren–in which we played seven musicians in seven small rooms to perform for one audience member at a time at our excellent venue in Deutz, raum13–was enough to demonstrate just how warm and interested our audience is. That evening was all about personalized interactions between performers and audience members, and I found it to be a very special experience.

That said, I’m not quite succeeding in explaining my criticism. Again, it’s difficult to put into words exactly what I am trying to say, so I will give an example:

A few months ago I performed a solo concert at the Zagreb Music Biennale. I was billed as a kind of ‘off-programme’ show, but what this meant for festival attendees was that I was going to do something new. The hall was oversold, so that many people were standing and some were practically sitting on my toes. The room quickly became uncomfortably hot, but besides a few children (!) making noises, there was no sign that the audience wanted to leave. I had the overwhelming sense that here was an audience that really wanted to know what I was going to tell them about new music. (In fact, people recognised me at other events during the festival and stopped me to ask questions. It was such a unique festival and such a unique sense of community!)

I’m not sure I will ever have that feeling in Cologne.

Why is this? Is it because there’s just so much going on in this city that it doesn’t leave enough space for audience members to really invest themselves? Is it that German culture is so sure of itself as being the home of new music in the world that it has developed a sense of entitlement that manifests itself as indifferent audience behaviour? In Germany, do we know so much about new music that we only judge; we don’t take the time to learn? I don’t really have the answer here; mostly I’m using this space as an excuse to say something confrontational.

Can this change? Does it need to? As performers of new music, in general, what do we want an audience to be, other than present?

Of course, I can’t judge audience members for attending concerts on a kind of automatic pilot. I see so few concerts besides my own these days; this is of course in large part due to how much is going on here. In fact, it is rare to see other performers in our own concerts; while we are brimming with composers, interpreters are few and far between. It’s rare that members of other ensembles support our concert. Rarer still, that I am able to support them. When I do attend, far too often it is out of a sense of obligation. “Oh, so-and-so is playing, and we’re colleagues/friends” or “Oh, going to this musikFabrik gig is the only way I’ll actually get to see my husband in person this week.”

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