Review Zafraan Ensemble Continue Their Program WHOLE BODY LIKE GONE

Photo by Neda Navaee

Whole Body Like Gone – Part II. Zafraan Ensemble, Radialsystem Berlin, 6.10.2018

I first came across the Zafraan Ensemble at Festival Mixtur in Barcelona last April. The ensemble gave a master class for young composers and played an impressive concert, which left quite a lasting impression due to their diverse repertoire, virtuosic playing, and emphasis on theatrical expression.

Founded in 2009, the Berlin-based ensemble aims to innovate and challenge both themselves and the audience with every project, their most recent being a concert at Radialsystem (Berlin) during a small musical theater festival – the second part of their “Whole Body Like Gone” program.

The concert consisted of seven short pieces by various composers, each of which was enriched by elements such as staging, lighting, video art, and theatrical elements. While the pieces were supposedly unrelated, much thought was put into creating continuity throughout the concert. The pieces were performed at the highest level, although some musicians embodied the theatrical expressionism more than others.

One clear instance occurred in “Die Macht der Gewohnheit” for a talking violinist by Elena Mendoza, which required certain vocal and facial expressions from the performer. The virtuoso performance of violinist Emmanuelle Bernard in terms of both playing and theatrical expression was so convincing that one might assume the piece was composed especially for her.

Another piece in the program that used text as a musical material was “X” for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion, by Johannes Schöllhorn. In this metronomic piece, the composer draws on rhymes in different languages that each player says or shouts out while playing random, short fragments on their instruments. The result is a rhythmic and humorous piece, a kind of nonsense poem in which the musicians also function as narrators. The performance, while engaging, revealed some gaps in the theatrical abilities of certain ensemble members. While some were very enthusiastic, others lacked the same expressiveness in their speech.

Most of the pieces were performed alongside video works by artist Martin Mallon that were projected onto a black mesh screen and small televisions placed on the floor.

The most powerful use of videography occurred in the opening piece “Okanagon” for harp, contrabass, and percussion, by Giacinto Scelsi. For most of the performance, the stage was completely dark, filled only by the metallic and percussive sounds emerging from behind the screen. This challenged the audience to mentally match the instruments to the sounds. It was only in the last few minutes of the piece that the “secret” was revealed on a live screen, giving an overall sense of relief: the harpist used a screwdriver, creating metallic sounds;  the contrabassist tapped on the instrument’s wood, together with the percussionist, who took to the tom-tom.

Another use of the video, which in itself was successful, but overall weakened the musical composition, was done in Aus for saxophone, clarinet, viola and piano by Christophe Bertrand.

Characterised by mostly ceaseless movement and various elements of tension and relaxation, the piece featured powerful crescendos and chromatic scales, and was swallowed in the video attached to it – a silent film in black-and-white, in which images of intense urban movement appeared alongside images from the anatomy world, such as a beating heart and ribs. The result was a musical piece functioning as a soundtrack to a silent film. The music served the image, rather than the other way around.

The most musically communicative piece in the program was “Fieber” for flute, clarinet, viola, harp, piano, and percussion, by Yoav Pasovsky, in which the composer uses melodic, repetitive motifs to explore different timbres as instruments are doubled or called up in different combinations. “Fieber” was also accompanied by a black-and-white video capturing the movement of ocean waves, which functioned as a meditative background to the piece.

Toward the end of the piece, a video in color was displayed on the televisions, presenting the body and covered face of a male figure, perhaps  in order to raise questions about the connection to the piece’s name and its repetitive, feverish content.

One of the most significant elements in the concert was the placement of the performers – they changed places between pieces and arranged themselves in different formations across the stage or in the hall.

One example of this could be seen in “Schweiß” for cello and four instruments, by Enno Poppe, which presents a question-answer relationship between the cello and the other instruments. Here, the performers were placed in a formation that enriched the piece with additional layers both in stereophonic and theatrical aspects. The cellist was placed behind the tribune where the audience sat, while the rest of the performers were scattered onstage: the flutist and clarinet were standing on the sides, and the violin and viola players were sitting in the center opposite each other, thereby strengthening the “talkative” sense the piece aims to convey.

The last piece in the program, “New Tags” by Nicolai Worsaae, was performed by the entire ensemble, whereby the harp, contrabass, and percussionist played as the other musicians served as actors. Complimentary elements, such as a video work, which had its own sound and corresponded with live sounds, the red lighting, unique staging and a “Cheers!” toast in the end, created an enjoyable, entertaining experience.

One thing that bothered me and tainted my positive experience was the lack of information in the concert program. Strangely, the names of the pieces were missing, and the names of the composers were indeed mentioned, but appeared in an incorrect order, which was confusing to say the least. In addition, although the audience primarily spoke German, there tends to be a percentage of non-German natives at these sorts of events; therefore, it is advisable to offer an English translation in the future.

In summary, much like my first encounter with Zafraan, this concert left a strong impression. Yet again, the addition of visual and stage elements added a new dimension and emotional depth to the pieces, which were performed outstandingly by the ensemble. I’m full of anticipation for their next project, set to take place at Archive Books in Berlin in the end of the month.