A Conversation with Catherine Kontz

by Marguerite Haladjian
Catherine Kontz standing next to a window, smiling at the camera

This new edition of a renowned festival celebrating contemporary music, where your own works have been performed in the past, is the first under your leadership. It is dedicated to the theme of memory. Why did you choose this theme?

To me, memory is key to the manner in which we experience music, and how we live with it. Music cannot arise from nothing, nor can it be heard without a personal and historical background. The sound of a piece of music, or even a single note, can trigger memories, take us back in time, bringing certain moments, places and people to mind. Furthermore, music also increases our brainpower, countermanding processes of ageing and memory loss. At the same time, music is essential to creating an atmosphere, giving a framework to unforgettable moments of our lives: when we are grieving, celebrating or meeting friends. Everyone has their own “soundtrack of life”, and our collective perception of the world takes place before the background of the music of our time. Therefore, music and memory are linked in manifold ways, and the subject lends itself equally to serious and demanding events as well as entertaining performances and informal experiences.

How did you plan your rich and varied programme, which unfolds over the course of four very full days?

I wanted to illuminate the subject from as many perspectives as possible. Some works are what I call classics of contemporary music, for example Triadic Memories by Morton Feldman, a piece in which the composer toys with the audience’s short-term memory, Alvin Lucier’s Memory Space, in which the performers are asked to render an acoustic situation from memory, or his famous work I am Sitting in a Room, in which the listener experiences the fragmentation of a tone in real time while tape recorders continuously record the same text. I consider these composers and their works reference points of the festival, and they are the basis upon which I have built the programme.

Some of the compositions are commissions for the festival. Their composers were invited to explore the main theme. For example, we present a concert of the ensemble ARS Nova Luxembourg for which five composers of different generations were asked to take inspiration from a photograph from their childhood to write a piece. The adventure continues with world premieres of the latest work by the British composer Errollyn Wallen for the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra; a work Joanna Bailie wrote for the Ensemble Ictus, playing with the notion of walls with ears and a playable storage medium; as well as a piece by the American composer Christian Wolff, who represents the generation of experimental music.

Further current works illuminate the subject in a manner which expands and enriches the festival’s programme. Take, for example, the installation For Ruth by Annea Lockwood, which presents a shared memory of a person, a partner or lover. The same is true of remember me by Claudia Molitor, an opera project which grew from a desk which the composer inherited from her grandmother, and which she has transformed into an installation for this event. Ka by Bushra El-Turk, a kind of concerto for percussion and strings, is a musical expression of her search for her father’s soul. The work was just nominated in England for The IVORS Classical Awards.

Musical creativity today is very vibrant, or shall we say intense. Depending on personal notions about music and sensitivities, it takes different paths between inklings and sudden inspirations, appearing in the guise of improvisations, of traditional music or experimental approaches. In an effort to escape uninventive conservatism, these works question both musical idioms and existing forms. Was it important to you to emphasize the many different possibilities and unique developments of today’s composers in your programme?

In my opinion, we can count ourselves fortunate today to be able to witness such a broad variety in the arts and in music. There are different trends and movements, and the stylistic directions and notions are as numerous as the composers. I myself am active in different musical fields, and in this festival of contemporary music, I wanted to showcase the broad spectrum music offers us today. Upon closer inspection, one recognizes that what unites these various styles is a striving for novelty on the basis of a courageous, experimental search. We do not compose to recreate music with known forms of expression and sonic colours. For that purpose, we have archives full of musical works which can be performed at any time. As composers, we strive to create music which innovates, arouses curiosity and reflects our own times. Anytime we risk a look back during this process, this happens with a specific intention, for example a new interpretation of a work from the canon of the past. Every work performed during the festival has been carefully and consciously chosen because it forms part of the puzzle which is a general aesthetic concept. As the artistic director, I planned the festival as a large-scale performance, which visitors may enjoy in part or as a whole. We start on Thursday morning with the presentation of a wonderful project which is the result of six weeks working with people with dementia, a project developed jointly with a great team of musicians and artists; and we end the festival on Sunday evening with Laurie Anderson, one of my personal heroines, who is renowned for her artistic narrations and performances.

You have chosen works by famous artists and pieces by rising young composers from various parts of the world for your programme. What is your artistic guideline?

I love bringing people together, so that they can share their work and their experiences. On the contemporary music scene, this approach seems of essential importance to me. The theme is not merely a shared element, but also a manner of reaching audience groups who may not be experts in today’s music. I have constructed the event so that artists from all over the world meet here, mixing with the numerous composers and musicians living and working in the region who are also part of the programme. The notion that they meet in the small country of Luxembourg, even though some of them come from such faraway countries as Australia, Canada, the USA or Japan, makes me happy and proud. I have made a conscious effort to make the programme inclusive and diverse, both with regard to artists and audiences. In my opinion, a festival is a space designed to encourage communication, an inspiring filter giving everyone the opportunity to have original ideas in exchange with others, share values, in order to experience inspiring and creative moments together.

How will the numerous concerts and encounters you have organized unfold in the Philharmonie’s spaces?

We are selling day passes and tickets for the entire festival, because I want listeners to attend several concerts when they come here. The experience must differ from normal attendance at one of the Philharmonie’s events. I hope that the audience is curious, that it discovers music it didn’t know before, and perhaps learns to love it – to its own surprise.

Listeners should return home with lots of happy impressions in their ears and hearts, and full of joy, so that they are ready to face the dark months of winter! The concerts are almost never longer than an hour, so that it is possible to hear several short performances in one day. The performance times do not overlap, so the audience can hear and see everything. There are also spaces that invite the audience to relax, recharge, make new acquaintances and contacts, and to strengthen friendships. I hope people experience a pleasant time which they will enjoy remembering later.

How can we imagine the interplay between the music of the live concerts happening locally and the recordings accessible via QR codes, which revive the relationship with earlier musical experiences?

Most of the concerts are live events, but at the same time we have five installations inside the Philharmonie’s foyer, which can be experienced for the duration of the festival. One of it uses QR codes, inviting participants to a little treasure hunt within the Philharmonie. It offers an opportunity to stroll through this enchanting building, to marvel at its architecture while being immersed in Luxembourgish music of the past century. All music was new music when it was created!

We have also devised a space which is accessible throughout the entire festival, containing both an installation and live music. Owen Spafford and his friends will perform traditional Irish and English music here, while loudspeakers will play interviews with traditional musicians. In my opinion, this is the cozy part of the event. So bring your instrument and simply join the party!

Which audiences are you targeting during these four days, in which you promote direct communication through active listening experiences?

I hope to reach the contemporary music community in Luxembourg and the neighbouring Greater Region. Furthermore, I would like to motivate people who don’t normally attend new music concerts to be inspired by the atmosphere of this festival. The Sunday is conceived as a family day, with lots of interesting events suitable for a young audience (aged 6 and up).

There are so many wrong ideas and prejudice about today’s music! Often, people don’t realize how many different genres and styles there are. Just as you will not automatically like all newly-published books or all paintings of the youngest generation of painters in a gallery, you probably won’t like all the music we are offering. But wouldn’t it be a shame only to look at museum art, or only reading classical literature? Come with open ears and eyes, and I am convinced you will have worthwhile experiences, both on a personal and an artistic level.


Catherine Kontz was interviewed by the music critic Marguerite Haladjian.

Exploring Extremes

Like it? Come and experience it for yourself at the Philharmonie, during our annual rainy days festival! For this 24th edition of the contemporary music festival, artists are exploring extremes. 17 electric guitars, a work lasting almost 24 hours, a piano concerto without a pianist, you'll definitely be kept on your toes! So many surprises for you to discover…
Blurry upside down photo of a road in the desert
rainy days 2024