Every August, it can seem like New York’s cultural scene goes on vacation, leaving behind an eerie quiet. Then, with a clang, comes the Time Spans festival.
At this contemporary music showcase — presented Aug. 10-28 this year by the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust, named for the experimental composer who championed the work of others — virtually every show offers not just pieces from this century, but also premieres.
Few festivals present such a concentration of daring groups, like the JACK Quartet, appearing this year in collaboration with Ircam, the French electronic music institute; the Bozzini Quartet; Talea Ensemble; and Yarn/Wire. (New this year: NIKEL, a saxophone, electric guitar, percussion and piano quartet from Israel.)
And within the sprawling, expanded program are two mini festivals: one celebrating contemporary music in Canada and another called “After Experimental Music,” organized by Benjamin Piekut, a professor at Cornell University, with Thomas Fichter, the festival’s executive and artistic director.
“A lot of thinking went into what defines the concert experience in itself,” Mr. Fichter said in an interview. So this year, Time Spans will go beyond its primary venue, the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan, to the outdoors and the Goethe-Institut New York. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
There are festivals within the festival this year. What is the thinking behind that?
When the festival began [in 2015] it was concentrated on, let’s say, an almost classical way of presenting contemporary music mostly based on scores. That expanded particularly strongly in this edition, but I was also thinking of the audience-performer relationship. And that led us to program Marino Formenti’s “Nowhere” project, where he will perform in the Goethe-Institut for two weeks. He will not speak; he will just play piano all day long. People can go in and out. It breaks down the idea of the performer being in front on a stage and a little higher than everybody, lecturing, and the audience admiring the performance.
The same is true for Christina Kubisch’s “Electrical Walks,” where she takes small groups around the DiMenna Center to experience the transformation of electromagnetic sounds into acoustic sounds. And then of course the other thing I wanted to do is break up this atmosphere of a concert hall, where you control the sound, the light — everything. In Klaus Lang’s “bright darkness,” an outdoor event, the opposite is the case. The natural light, the sun going down, is part of the performance.
What do you look for in deciding who and what you want to commission?
I was a member of Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Musikfabrik. I have been playing and programming contemporary music since the ’80s. I have a vast network — that’s basically where my knowledge comes from. Naturally, I’m going to a lot of concerts, and I have to look for trends. That is not something that is done at a desk with headphones.
What is your aspiration for these new pieces?
For some of the artists this may be a unique situation where there’s enough rehearsal time to actually create a substantial evening with these resources. So I really hope that the pieces will have a life of their own afterward.
With contemporary music, that’s often not the case. Does that bother you?
This is the most nonprofit situation you can possibly imagine. I’m agreeing to commission artists who I trust will make for an interesting evening, even if I have no idea what it will be. I think the risk of doing a lot of unknown is incredibly important: That creates music. And even if I believe that these are going to be truly great evenings, you have to have the chance to fail.
Aug. 10-28 at various locations in Manhattan; timespans.org.
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