»There Is an Appreciation for Risk-Taking.«

An Interview with Kollektiv Unruhe

26 September, 2023 | Kristoffer Cornils

Die Mitglieder des Kollektiv Unruhes im Halbdunkel. Foto von Norbert Frank
©Norbert Frank

Kollektiv Unruhe is a young group of composers and performers from various backgrounds who try to do things differently. With not »NOT FOUND,« they will present a collectively composed long-form piece at this year’s Klangwerkstatt on the 16th of Novemberfield notes editor Kristoffer Cornils spoke with members Lara Alarcón and Olivia Palmer-Baker about the freedom, safety, and financial hardships (the collective is currently raising funds for »NOT FOUND« via crowdfunding) that come with an ambitious project such as theirs.

What is the Kollektiv Unruhe?

Lara: We are a group of composers, most of whom are also instrumentalists, who are in the process of professionalising and try to introduce themselves to the scene. When we founded Kollektiv Unruhe in 2021, we were all studying at Universität der Künste and were fortunate enough to be able to use that as a platform for our concerts. We wanted to get together in a shared space in which we all feel safe, can exchange ideas, and enhance our respective abilities. It is also our aim to blur the line between the composer and the performer.

Olivia: The collective was born out of our shared desire to realise our own projects together. We are also a very international ensemble and diversity and gender balance are very important to us. We believe that everyone has something to say, even if they are not as involved in the compositional process as others are. We work in a very democratic way. Twelve of us form a board in which we discuss different proposals from different working groups within the collective. This makes our working process very intense, but we think that is worthwhile.

Lara: After our first concert in August 2021, we participated in 48 Stunden Neukölln with collaborative pieces created together with various video artists, dedicated a concert to notions of free improvisation and language, and took part in the Impuls festival in Graz this year. For this year’s Klangwerkstatt, we have conceived an ambitious piece that is based on a collective composition that works with the amazing space of the Studio 1 in Kunstquartier Bethanien. It’s an orchestration of ideas that is presented as a long-form piece.

Unruhe is not only a collective, but also an ensemble—or rather several ones.

Olivia: Sometimes, an ensemble will emerge from the collective while we are trying to establish a repertoire and play together across different fields such as free improvisation or more traditional projects. We work with a chaotic, eclectic mix of different personalities, instruments, sounds, and aesthetics.

What would you say is the lowest common denominator between all of you, what brings you together?

Olivia: We are a self-organised collective and are all very excited about fusing and trying out new things. I joined the group for the 48 Stunden Neukölln project and do a lot of free improvisation. When we were workshopping some ideas earlier this year, it was exciting to see that all of the members wanted to try out new things. I am primarily a bassoonist, so I occupy a niche. (laughs) I work with a lot of different groups because everyone needs a bassoon, but sometimes I don’t feel very comfortable when I have to conform to a very prescribed idea of what a performer is allowed to do. It is not always appropriate to voice my thoughts if I have an idea for a different staging, for example. I have curated concerts in the past, but I have rarely been afforded the space to really take risks. With us, that is different. Whenever new ideas emerge, the collective will provide a space in which they can be developed further. The freedom to do that creates a feeling of safety.

Lara: Safety is the key word. I came to Berlin from Buenos Aires two years ago, and it was amazing to find a place where I can be myself and express my ideas. I come from a performance background and my idea of composition is by no means conventional, which is why it was important for me to feel like I am a safe space in which I can explore that—especially as a woman. 

Does this mean that a certain sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo is one driving force behind your work?

Lara: Of course we are dissatisfied with some things, especially those related to gender or age. The contemporary music scene is still dominated by a certain old-man way of thinking. (laughs)

Olivia: There are many people who would rather bitch and gossip than have a conversation and collaborate, which is very surprising to me because the contemporary music scene prides itself in being very progressive and forward-thinking while strict hierarchies continue to exist. What I find very healthy about the collective is that it is open to change.

Lara: Even though our personal philosophies sometimes collide, we will talk openly about it and find compromises. I think we bridge a lot of gaps, if only between different aesthetic approaches and genres. I think that a lot of institutions want to work in these ways, too, but things are only slowly improving.

Olivia: We still hear about a lot of abuses of power and misconduct at big institutions, and it will take time to address and change that. Composers are still seen as monolithic figures, but really they are just normal human beings like you and I! (laughs) These are precisely the ways of thinking that we do not want to perpetuate.

How has your work and your approach more generally been received within the scene?

Lara: We are still trying to create an audience, which is hard because we are still a fairly new collective with members from very different backgrounds. This means that people will be interested in some of the things we do, but maybe not all of them.

Olivia: What I noticed when we performed at Impuls was that there is an appetite for doing things differently and breaking down barriers such as the one between the audience and the performance. There is an appreciation for risk-taking. In the past decade or so, we have witnessed a shift in culture, not just contemporary music, from post-modern cynicism towards a meta, half-ironic-but-sincere way of doing things. I’ve been really inspired by people like Matthew Shlomowitz, who held a lecture in Darmstadt in which he asked why we should limit ourselves to work with only one voice. Why not combine atonal pointillistic textures with a samba drum beat? (laughs) At Impuls, we performed some pieces that were sent to us after a call for collaboration, but also some of our own stuff like a piece by Nik Bohnenberger that was very performative and funny. It was an interesting mix and people really enjoyed it. I think a lot of people are happy that the heavy modernist phase is finally over. (laughs)

What was the idea behind this call for collaboration?

Olivia: We want to build a portfolio and try things out, especially in regard to collaborating with other composers. Some composers submitted very loose descriptions, while others sent over a fully fleshed out score. Some things worked out, others didn’t. It was very interesting. 

Lara: We are still in a stage of developing a common language and are experimenting a lot. The call for collaboration gave us the opportunity to understand how other people think and how that resonates with our own way of thinking.

Olivia: The question that we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we want to be an entirely self-sustaining group. I personally love to collaborate with other people and the energy that they bring to the table. Having more opportunities for performing or staging on board is always a plus. I think collaborations help us discover ourselves, too. However, having only us helps us build up our own concepts and performances. The collective is still very young and it takes a lot of time to get everything done properly and professionally. We have some core funding from Klangwerkstatt for this project, which is very nice. But our task now is to raise funding to cover our own ongoing »overhead« costs, making our fees at least relatively proportional to the crazy amount of work we’ve been doing. This is something that is not often talked about: in the early stages of founding an ensemble, there is a lot of unpaid work. It is worth it, it is necessary, but it is unpaid. So every penny counts.

What is the idea behind the »NOT FOUND« project?

Lara: The title stems from a certain frustration related to communication within our group, it is a reference to the classic »404 Not Found« error message. It’s about sending a signal and not receiving feedback, being ambitious and talking about something on too many different platforms. This was translated into different approaches. We split up into four groups. In our group, we work with an open score that I brought along and develop the piece while we play it. Others took the theme more literally and will integrate apps like WhatsApp or Telegram in their performance and engage with the audience.

Olivia: This will be the first section of the piece and it will be all about posing questions and interacting with the audience, which is very self-referential. The first quarter of the entire performance is based on the perception of the audience, so they are creating the music—although we are playing so they will be triggering us to play. It’s a process, really. In the next section, this will be contrasted by a trio of three different voices doing very different things, having a dialogue or maybe not—you can choose to experience it how you want. The third one is a commentary on authorship, with dialogues again taking place; Saemi Jeong will do some amazing live-sampling while we are playing. The last group will consist of Lara, Ilona Perger, and me. We bring it up to a very human climax, I would say, immersing the audience in a wall of sound. In between, there will be tape pieces that will reference the sound world through sampling and manipulation. This will come from many speakers around the room, which will create a natural transition. As a whole, »NOT FOUND« is through-composed and self-referential, asking questions about meaning and how it is constructed. This all sounds very intellectual, but it will be very accessible! (laughs)

Lara: Accessibility was very important for us when conceptualising the piece, because sometimes that is missing in contemporary music. We wanted to make it possible for the audience to relate to it, whether or not that means that they understand the musical languages we use. 

Olivia: I think one time one person will sit on the edge of the stage, but other than that, we are not using the stage! (laughs) That’s just fun!

Lara: The acoustics of the space, Kunstquartier Bethanien’s Studio 1, are also crucial.

Olivia: Absolutely. In the last section, I will play the bassoon while Lara works with voice and electronics and Ilona plays a harmonium. This creates a mix of sounds with a voice-like quality and it will be impossible to say where they are coming from. We will be spread out amongst the audience. They can bathe in the sound …

Lara: … or walk around! This was one of the first things we spoke about when we founded Unruhe, that the typical concert situation is just so boring! People just sit and watch …

Olivia: … and then at the end, they get up and clap! That’s when they finally can make some noise. (laughs) Coming back to the space, it has quite an imposing acoustic since it is a chapel. You have to really be smart and work with it—or against it. There are these choir stalls above the audience and it is impossible to communicate if you are playing in those because you are so far apart. From that also began the idea of communication and what it is. Music transgresses language boundaries and meaning is never as defined as it tries—and often fails—to be in spoken word. We’re embracing this.

  • Interview
  • Kollektiv Unruhe
  • Klangwerkstatt
  • Kunstquartier Bethanien

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