Martijn Buser (Gaudeamus): ‘New music is worth being discovered’

From 6 to 10 September, Utrecht will be the global centre of contemporary classical music. From its inception in 1946, the Gaudeamus festival shows what young composers of today are working on. The main part of the programme is new music, mostly world premieres by composers and creators under 40. A conversation with Martijn Buser, artistic director of the festival.

“We started from a Western-oriented perspective and we keep trying to tweak that,” says Buser, “so that means a lot of commissions to makers of colour from other areas, regions, countries. After all, it is still new sounds, new instruments, that bind us. Our programming is not thematic, what brings us together are artists who don’t look back too much but want to look forward. We give a lot of commissions, organise a lot of residencies and they all have an impact on the festival. There is also a risk in that, because the outcome is still unknown. We think we have to take such a risk. Because if organisations like ours didn’t take that risk, the development of new music could come to a standstill.”

How do you think you can involve more audiences in contemporary classical music?

“We made a very deliberate decision several years ago to perform outside the traditional halls. Then I am talking about sound installations or performances outdoors, where we very specifically seek out the audience, so not only in the formal context of a concert hall. Furthermore, part of our programme is free. Of course, that also attracts an audience. Also young people, for instance our 8+ youth performance, very accessible. In total, we register about 5,000 visitors to the festival in 5 days.

When I joined Gaudeamus, I immediately said : We should make it a public festival. Eighty per cent of the music heard there is new is unknown. A lot of the composers are also still unknown. In some cases, the musicians too, so I said: we have to make it a ‘discovery’ festival. We only work with day tickets anymore. Like a pop festival is organised. There you can also choose just a bit more from different ingredients on an evening, you can make your own walking route, and are not obliged to sit in the same seat for an hour and a half.”

Can you name three concerts that are characteristic of Gaudeamus 2023?

Buser: “Without wanting to do short of the others: British songwriter and producer Klein is going to present a new immersive multimedia work. This is with percussion, electronics and visuals, with lots of light and effects. She brings a different perspective on contemporary music, from a metropolitan street culture. The setting comes from pop culture, with standing audience. The second event I am very much looking forward to is young creator Mees Vervuurt. He graduated from the conservatoire here in Utrecht. There is a new course there, Musician 3.0, which is about the musician of the future. That is actually much more focused on makers. The classical conservatoire is traditionally structured between the composition department on the one hand and all the instruments on the other. Musician 3.0 is actually about the combination of the two, so creating yourself, playing yourself, producing yourself, i.e. making. This is about the maker of the future. Mees Vervuurt graduated there last year and his graduation performance is his own version of the Stabat Mater. He comes from a classical tradition, but he wanted to make a Stabat Mater in a quirky way. The third characteristic performance is Utrecht-based collective BUI, which we have in residence for two years. Their way of working is unique in the Netherlands. They work exclusively on location, so they only make site-specific work. They develop a toolbox, literally a toolbox that they take to a location which allows them to take over a specific location in a very quick way to start playing with it. They have the Doornburg estate, which is an insanely beautiful spot on the Vecht, so a great outdoor opportunity.”

What does a residency at Gaudeamus entail?

Buser: “That’s really tailor-made. We don’t have a fixed format for a musician or a maker or a composer. We start a conversation with the creator, musician or composer about what he or she needs. So co-production, we help the creator find a network, a team, for example a technical team. Many musicians nowadays think differently about how to present to the audience, they think much more about elements such as lighting design, setting, et cetera. We then see which coaches we can pair up with them. We do scouting by visiting graduation shows at the conservatoires. We do international scouting with a European network, Ulysses. Eleven partners in Europe search with us for today’s talents in France, Germany, Finland, Spain, et cetera. There are also exchanges.

What profile should candidates have?

Buser: “I honestly confess that if someone has a classical background and wants to become very good at chamber music, they will be just a little less interesting to us compared to someone who is inspired by, say, artificial intelligence or game culture, or politically urgent themes. That is a bit more exciting for us because we suspect that such a candidate could transcend the contemporary music segment and perhaps appeal to other networks and venues.”

What is your biggest challenge for the coming years?

“We have to keep realising that some pieces can be quite abstract for a non-introduced audience. And how can you bring them along? How can we win them into contemporary music? I think it’s important to change the setting so that everyone feels welcome. Lighting plans and staging are becoming increasingly important and we have to take for granted that that does put time pressure on those venues and on the programme. So be it.
We try to get very close to our audience. We send out audience surveys after every festival. The information we get back is necessary for us to know whether we are doing well. People get to give us marks. So far we are scoring high and if we can stay at that level, I will be satisfied. This is a leap of faith every year. Every year it’s about new listening experiences, things you haven’t heard before. Also with a younger audience. That audience is increasingly open to sounds and experiences they don’t yet know. I hope that this trend continues.”

WHAT: Gaudeamus Festival
WHERE: In and around Utrecht
DATES: 6 – 10 September 2023

PHOTOS: Anna van Kooij, Paulus van Dorsten

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