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Hamburg Musikfest 2019: Identity

Who am I? »Identity« is the motto of the 4th Hamburg International Music Festival.

If we are talking about the human condition, no concept is so obvious and at the same time hard to pin down as the idea of identity. This year's Hamburg International Music Festival takes the opportunity to examine and celebrate the huge diversity of personal, social and cultural identities in music, pictures and movement.

Opening Speech: Lukas Bärfuss

Lukas Bärfuss

Hamburg International Music Festival 2019

Discover the festival programme

I am what I seem to be, and do not seem to be what I am. I am an inexplicable puzzle to myself, I am divided from myself!

E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776–1822)

Who am I?

»I think, therefore I am,« postulated French philosopher René Descartes in 1641. That is all well and good, but who exactly is this »I« supposed to be, what defines his being, what identity lies hidden within him? Descartes did not provide any answers to these questions. To this day, the term remains hotly disputed amongst philosophers.

If the great philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and behaviour analysts have been able to agree on one thing over the course of time, it is the fact that identity is in a state of constant flux, and is formed from a complex interplay of subject and environment, from deliberate adaptation or dissociation. It calls for self-awareness and -reflection, which humans only evolve at a certain age, and animals rarely; and it can change according to context. Identity is a social construct.

Oskar Schlemmer: Dinner Party, 1935
Oskar Schlemmer: Dinner Party, 1935 © Städel Museum

The »I« in Music: Mozart and Mahler

Artists have always allowed their identity to make its mark on their works, not least as the children of a particular period and its style. However, the attempt to draw conclusions from this about the artist's personality rarely works: Mozart, for instance, was a complete and utter scatterbrain in his private life, but he still wrote divine music. Gustav Mahler in turn grew up in a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism partly for tactical reasons. But with his »Resurrection Symphony«, which is the opening work at the Hamburg International Music Festival and was inspired by a funeral service at Hamburg's Michael (St Michael's Church), he composed one of the most impressive pieces of music in the Christian tradition.

Gustav Mahler

Different From All the Others: György Ligeti

György Ligeti (1923–2006), famous for his Klangflächenkompositionen (soundscape compositions), is awarded his own spotlight at the 4th Hamburg International Music Festival. Ligeti adopted a decidedly anti-ideological stance: he evolved his identity in deliberate independence from the trends and dogmas of his time. This can be heard in many concerts with works that were mostly written during his tenure as a professor at the Hamburg College of Music in the 1970s and 80s, such as the opera »Le Grand Macabre« or the organ piece »Volumina«, where the special demands that the score makes were even taken into account when building the Elbphilharmonie organ.

Le Grand Macabre at the Elbphilharmonie
Le Grand Macabre at the Elbphilharmonie © Doug Fitch

Live Stream: »Le Grand Macabre«

Experience György Ligeti's »anti-anti-opera« on 13 May via live stream.

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Isolation and Solidarity: The First Person in Society

Over the course of the 4th Hamburg International Music Festival, several different artists devote their attention to the social aspect of identity. Sasha Waltz, for example, who conquered the Elbphilharmonie foyers with dance before the official opening, presents her new production »Kreatur«, which looks at the relationship between the individual and the community between isolation, conflict and solidarity.

Kreatur - Trailer 2017 from Sasha Waltz & Guests on Vimeo.

How Do We Want to Live?

And under the title »Happiness Machine«, ten short films present an alternative economic system that doesn't reward maximum profit, but ethical, sustainable and socially acceptable behaviour.

National Identity...

Things get more tangible and at the same time more controversial when we start talking about »collective identity«. In the 19th century, many countries started to discover themselves as nations. The monarchy, which had either forced its subjects together in grotesquely large kingdoms, or had split them up arbitrarily into a patchwork of miniature principalities, was losing its credibility and its powers of self-assertion. Peoples began to discover their own identity and tried to constitute themselves as states. The soundtrack for these developments was supplied by celebrated composers like the Czech Bedřich Smetana or Finnland's Jean Sibelius, whose works can also be heard at the 4th Hamburg International Music Festival.

...and its Perils

In the meantime, however, the phenomenon of national identity has gained an unpleasant taste thanks to the fascist regime in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, both of which made use of music for propaganda purposes. British composer Benjamin Britten fought against totalitarianism with his »War Requiem«, which tried to forge a link between the nations in the aftermath of the Second World War.

And to this day, we are not immune to these tendencies. In his latest book »Identity«, political scientist Francis Fukuyama warns against the abuse of the term by populist parties, which are increasingly instrumentalising concepts like »homeland« for their own political purposes.  The Hamburg International Music Festival ends with the work »Lab.Oratorium«, in which composer Philippe Manoury chooses as his theme the disunity and discord within Europe caused by the so-called refugee crisis.

Everywhere and Nowhere: Split Identity

The true importance of identity becomes clearest wherever it finds itself in flux, where it forms amidst the interplay of different trends. Bağlama player Derya Yildirim certainly knows all about that, as she shows at the festival: she is Turkish in origin, but grew up in the Hamburg district of Veddel. Ms Yildirim is accompanied by the Ensemble Resonanz.

»derya's songbook« // Ensemble Resonanz from Ensemble Resonanz on Vimeo.

Or there is American jazz musician Jason Moran, who traces the history of black identity in music. And last but not least the musicians appearing in the series »Big City Blues«, who have brought to the modern urban environment the traditional, identity-giving music of their (spiritual) homes – Greek rebetiko, Finnish tango, Algerian raï, Jewish klezmer – and modified it accordingly.

Game and Deception

All art forms offer potential for clever games of deception with identities. This can be seen in Shakespeare's »A Midsummer Night's Dream«, congenially set to music by Felix Mendelssohn, where the characters get jumbled up on several levels at the same time. Or in Berlioz's pseudo-autobiographical viola concerto »Harold en Italie«, in which the composer stylizes himself as a fictional character.

The »Hyper! Sounds« series looks at the mutual inspiration of artists and musicians to accompany an exhibition in the Deichtorhallen.

At the Hallo: Festspiele in the old coal-fired Bille power station, which forms part of this year's festival for the first time, we can hear how an innovative initiative can use art to change a place's identity.

Last but definitely not least, in »Stadtlied« (City Song), the Elbphilharmonie has invited Hamburg residents to formulate their own identity in texts and music as part of the festival. In this way, the 4th Hamburg International Music Festival helps strengthen the identity of Hamburg as a centre of music.

Author: Clemens Matuschek, 16 April 2019

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