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“We must invest in the future of orchestral music” – An interview with André De Ridder

Max Dax speaks to conductor and self-described intermediary between the worlds of classical and pop André De Ridder ahead of this Sunday’s concert at Berlin’s Volksbühne. Featuring Arcade Fire’s Sarah Neufield and Magnetic North, the concert is presented as part of his stargaze collective and attendant program.


André De Ridder has done much to bridge the divide between classical and pop. His work with Damon Albarn on the operas Monkey: Journey to the West and Dr. Dee marked the beginning of his longstanding relationship with contemporary figures from pop’s outside edge (Owen Pallett, Mouse On Mars, Matthew Herbert). His most recent work is for These New Puritans—a band who aren’t shy when it comes to scoring music for orchestra—on their much anticipated third LP Field of Reeds. Through his stargaze collective, he is helping to nourish networks between perceived “high” and “popular” arts by providing a platform for these future focused projects. This Sunday, 19th May sees a show take place at Berlin’s Volksbühne in concert with the project, and features Sarah Neufeld (Arcade Fire) and Magnetic North, the new project from Simon Tong and folk guitarist Erland Cooper. Here André De Ridder speaks about his goal for the project and why he believes Berlin lags behind when it comes to fostering a dialogue between generations old and new.

Max Dax: I find it very interesting that curating a concert series is a format that’s becoming increasingly common. We recently reported about a concert series being curated by Schneider™ together with Jochen Arbeit at the Berghain Kantine. Do you have the feeling that a kind of evolution is going on in this regard?  

André: Absolutely. I think this actually stems from classical traditions, the idea of thematically linked series of concerts or evenings. It seems ironic that it’s been announced that one of the great artist-curated festivals, ATP is coming to an end. Their events were great and immersive experiences of certain scenes and sites of musical reference, exchange and cross-fertilisation. One of the last ones, in December, was curated by The National whose members collaborate with a vast number of artists. Not just from rock and electronica but classical ensembles and composers such as Kronos Quartet, Calder Quartet, So Percussion, Nico Muhly, Daniel Bjarnasson and Steve Reich, to name a few.The festival became a melting pot of all current music. I mean, you had those audiences listen in absolute silence to these chamber pieces by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, with strings and winds, wearing stethoscopes to listen to their heartbeats—using them as the beat. There’s incredible scenes in Brooklyn and Montreal or wherever, where all this is happening.

Of course, Berlin has this very much in the field of electronic music, but maybe we can widen the scope. I hope ATP is resurrected in some form. For now, we’ll just do our own version and expand into contemporary classical.

Tell us a bit about your collaborations in the field of contemporary classical music.

In 2007 I led the opera Monkey: Journey to the West with Damon Albarn and since then I’ve been increasingly active in this area, doing another one with Damon as well as working with These New Puritans, Owen Pallett, Mouse On Mars, musikFabrik, and Matthew Herbert. I wouldn’t call this “contemporary classical” but contemporary full stop. With stargaze, our newly founded collective, we’ve already recorded tracks on the forthcoming These New Puritans album Field of Reeds and I also hooked the Dutch classical composer Michel van der Aa up with the band to collaborate on one song, too. We have also performed a new version of Terry Riley’s seminal work “In C” and we’re premiering a work by Lee Ranaldo at the Holland Festival in June. We’ll be at Haldern Pop basically opening up a laboratory for instrumental collaborations.

At the same time I have a sense that this whole movement and its value has not reached the German and Berlin cultural institutions. Or that it’s developed without us really having grabbed it, without having real platforms to show these international projects. Again, you can read almost daily about projects that are going on in New York such as the Wordless Music series or the Ecstatic Music Festival, where I noticed that Julia Holter’s performing together with Laurel Halo, a musical ensemble and electronic composer Daniel Wohl. There’s a platform for such events in London, New York or even Amsterdam. Series such as these take place in major concert halls, and are even sometimes initiated by them. To me, that seems to be missing here in Berlin.

But there is a growing awareness here. I mean you can’t make a general accusation against all German institutions can you? 

There are certain festivals, such C3—“Club Contemporary Classical”—where they seek to bring classical music into the club, or to mix club culture with classical music. I find that to be, in a way, focusing on the “packaging”; how the music is presented, whereas for me it should really be focusing on the music and not the fact that the concert is taking place in an unusual location. Here the so-called institutions of high culture—the concert halls—that are so well-financed that they could afford to support these projects (and usually spend a lot of money bringing international orchestras here anyway) are content to play the same symphonies over and over. They haven’t reached the point where they see ambitious pop culture as being of equal worth. Whereas this shift has happened in major institutions such as the Barbican Centre or the South Bank Centre in London, the Cité de la Musique in Paris or the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam.

What seems to be the problem? Is it a question of highbrow versus lowbrow?

Here in Germany “contemporary” music means academic music being made at the moment, however in the English language the label contemporary can be used for all sorts of music: pop, folk, electronica, jazz and classical. The head of contemporary music at the Barbican Centre doesn’t have a classical music background, but has worked in pop music (and happens to know his Stockhausen and classical contemporary repertoire as well).  It’s the same at the Southbank Centre too. There really has been a paradigm shift in these institutions over the last 20 years but in Berlin that simply isn’t the case. When I think about the two major institutions in Berlin, the Philharmonie and the Konzerthaus, there’s nothing like this going on. Maybe Sting or Elvis Costello have played there with their own symphony orchestra, but that’s not what we’re talking about and there hasn’t been collaboration between the orchestras that are based in those institutions. Look the London Symphony or the BBC Symphony, both of which are resident orchestras at the Barbican Centre or the London Sinfonietta at the Southbank (working with Aphex Twin and Micachu). They don’t take on these projects because they’re forced to, instead they value such them. In my opinion there needs to be a change in the way the funds are allocated within Berlin’s concert halls.

There are efforts underway. There are big discussions regarding the Volksbühne or HAU, both of them in Berlin, who receive extra funding to put on their own concert series and undertake demanding projects but who are criticised for essentially putting on normal band concerts. 

I have collaborated with both of these institutions, and thank God they and their openminded programmers exist. But when it comes to booking orchestras or instrumentalists the cost of realizing such a concert is prohibitive. Despite the extra funding they get it just isn’t affordable to do these sorts of projects especially if they’re more obscure. That means that we have to find other ways. This is part of the reason why we founded stargaze—not just to organize our own concerts but to build new networks, too. With our knowledge and our relationships with people who work in classical as well as in pop we can play the role of bringing them together and acting as translator. In England I have played this role, sometimes literally; there are cases where somebody from the pop world wants to speak with the director of an orchestra but there are actually language barriers. You first have to build up a mutual understanding before they can really work together. It’s funny, you can have these people who are big names in pop, who are incredibly in demand but the orchestra have never heard of them! There needs to be someone who can play the role of go-between. As a conductor I always have to play the of the intermediary between the composer, performers and the public and now I want to expand this to a wider group of people who have a similar outlook and musical inquisitiveness. It’s a kind of political work that must be done and it involves lobbying, building networks and convincing people, because you can’t just dream about amazing projects. When it comes down to actually making these projects happen, it can be quite difficult.

Like, how difficult?

I spoke about the Volksbühne and Christian Morin. They put on an interesting and ambitious music program anyway, and we cooperate now but we had one particular, critically acclaimed project fail because the orchestra was too expensive or didn’t want to offer their services in what was not their home venue. The new series that we’re curating and presenting with the Volksbühne and Christian is really the beginning. But this isn’t just about Berlin. I’d like to use this international platform to work in other cities in Germany that are doing more in this field. The Cologne Philharmonie cooperates closely with c/o pop Festival and now there are two evenings that take place there. And their contemporary music festival Acht Brücken does too. In fact it sort of goes on all year. The New Year’s concert was performed by Uri Caine and his jazz experimentalits from New York.

Does this stem from the tradition in Cologne with the Studio for Electronic Music, Karlheinz Stockhausen and this interest for new music?

I think that’s probably part of it. Looking at it in a purely geographical way I can see how close the Philharmonie there is to a vibrant art scene. For example there is Museum Ludwig, that organizes musical events, some of which the Cologne Philharmonie is directly involved with. One of the program managers of the Cologne Philharmonie doesn’t have a background in classical music either, but in art. There has been a traditional connection between art and pop culture, between artists and musicians from Cologne and other cities, particularly New York. Sonic Youth worked together with artists from Cologne very early on. I ask myself why this isn’t happening in Berlin. Why isn’t there cooperation with, for example, the Berlin Music Week, where they do an evening in the Konzerthaus or the Philharmonie? I think they’ve been to Admiralspalast. Maybe sometimes orchestras buy in because they sense an opportunity to be “cool” but hell! That’s not why they should do it! They must invest in the future of the genre of orchestral music and take interest in the audiences that are young and I believe totally prepared to dig all kinds of music. They love orchestras.

It does sound like a case of having limited horizons. There are however initiatives in Berlin led by people such as Christian von Borries or yourself so there are efforts to reach audiences here with these types of performances.

Projects such as those by von Borries are certainly contemporary classical music and art projects that take place in spaces where such performances can work. The difference for me is that I am less interested in contemporary classical than I am giving a platform to artists from well known bands who also work as composers. The “well-known” factor may just help initially to alert people, then they might be quite surprised at what they are hearing

Such as Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead?

Yes, Jonny Greenwood, or Bryce Dessner from The National (you would never be able to equate their music with Bryce’s own pieces), or Richard Reed Perry and Sarah Neufeld from Arcade Fire, who is actually part of our first concert. These are all people who make very different music from what’s possible with their band. We want to show the work of the bands in a different light by showing what their musicians can do. In principle this will be first and foremost a pop series that is about music rather than art or installation or “classic in the club”. We are offering a way of connecting openminded, young, classical instrumentalists that have grown up with this type of music with international bands or solo artists to do workshops and to experiment. It doesn’t always have to lead to a big performance. A year ago we went into the studio with the German band 1000 Robota and a whole choir that we sourced here in Berlin and tried out a range of different things. stargaze itself is a workshop. We are searching for—and already know about—a pool of musicians that we can bring together to work on projects that will suit their interests and talent. We’re also looking for sources of financing this, because Volksbühne can’t by itself.

So when does this program begin?

On the 19th May, at the Volksbühne in Berlin. That will be with Sarah Neufeld and Magnetic North, the new project from Simon Tong and Erland Cooper from the UK who made a whole album about the Orkney Islands. That is a really beautiful project that brings together elements of folk and electronica with instruments and a choir. We also just had this other project that took place in the Cologne Philharmonie as part of the Eight Bridges Festival, which we were opening with two evenings. The first evening was with Nicholas Jarr, and the second one was an interpretation of Terry Riley’s “In C”, one of the groundbreaking pieces of minimal music that has become so important for electronic musicians in terms of the use of loops and pattern-based processes. Both were performed by a unique group of instrumentalists and musicians together with Matthew Herbert and a colleague of his who sampled patterns and mix them live to accompany the acoustic musical ensemble. ~


Published May 17, 2013. Words by Max Dax.