Brahms, Bach, and Beethoven are ernste Musik—serious, "E-music." "U-music" - entertainment music - covers everything that’s not classical art music, stretching from top 40 hits to jazz. OK, so where in this German system do you place the Asphalt Orchestra?
On the one hand, the Asphalt Orchestra is made of classically trained musicians and run by the esteemed New York contemporary classical ensemble Bang on a Can. But on the other hand, they look more like a radical marching band and adapt a repertoire from Charles Mingus to Bjork to the Pixies.
"Yes, what is it? But you don’t have to put a label on everything. Sometimes the beauty of it is not to be able to put a label on it."
That’s Pia Holzer, a dramaturg at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Every year, the Konzerthaus dedicates a festival to music from a single country. This February 16th through 26th, it’s festival USA.
“We start thinking, what is special about the music of this country? The real American spirit is that in comparison with Europe, they don’t distinguish that much between serious and non-serious music. It’s just not such a big topic," Holzer explains.
"We wanted to show the broad spectrum, but also how different genres work together and inspired each other. Like Leonard Bernstein said, there is no serious or non-serious music, but only good or bad music. So what we we want to show is the good music.”
Take Frank Zappa.
"He’s a music revolutionist. Everyone knew that he’s a rock musician. But not so many people actually knew that he was also interested in the music of John Cage and Edgar Varese," Holzer says. "He knew a lot about contemporary music. He had a band, and the Ensemble Modern was his last band."
The Ensemble Modern, acclaimed for their interpretations of contemporary art music, will bring two of Zappa’s compositions to the festival—excerpts from Yellow Shark and Gregory Peccary. Turns out, Gendarmenmarkt audiences are big fans of American experimental and minimalist music.
In one word, the portrait of twentieth century American music that emerges from festival USA is "diverse." The closing concert from the Konzerthaus’ own orchestra and head conductor brings together George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with selections from John Adams and Phillip Glass.
And those who come to the opening concert to see Broadway performer Kim Criswell sing Gershwin and Bernstein, may end up hearing the Asphalt Orchestra as well; who knows?
"If you take a look at the beginning of our festival, you may see them somewhere outside in Berlin. If you’re lucky, you will stumble across them. And later they will do a late night concert. It’s a wild mix of different styles and different music," says Holzer.
From rush-hour late afternoon jazz concerts, to Pixar soundtracks played alongside the actual films, to Zappa’s unclassifiable tunes, the range of music in the festival is eclectic. The only thing that unifies the program is how impossible it is to pin down.