“Let me draw your attention to the fact that many venues and platforms, new art spaces have been opened in recent years in Russia, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where concerts of contemporary music take place, contributing to increased interest of the public.“
Mehdi Hosseini takes us into the contemporary music scene of St. Petersburg and Russia, which despite a growing interest of the public, often stands in the shadow of classical music.
What strikes us about your institution is that it is particularly international and very high-calibre. How do you see the relationship between this international orientation and your national and local work?
Culture is a wide-ranging concept comprising the values and social norms of human society, as well as individual knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, skills and habits.
With the expansion of global and transnational identities, people tend to become more undifferentiated in their tastes, relationships, and perceptions. The process of globalization disrupts stability, homogeneity, and integration on the one hand, transforming society into a permeable and fragmented space, but on the other, it implies communication, kinship, interdependence between individuals, groups and communities, thus contributing to a greater awareness of the human world on a wider scale of culture and identity. As identities are essentially constructible, and such construction occurs in a definite way in each period, global integration has brought the bases of this process together to a single point.
Music forms the identity in any country or nation, as well as contemporary thinking patterns, and as such is one of the most significant elements of culture. Contemporaneity in music is understood as the philosophical and aesthetic contemplation that emanates from changes in musical language and its evolution over the past one hundred years. Thus, the identity of musical culture and the process of its globalization are natural, progressive and evolutionary. So in response to your question, I would say that reMusik.org is actually a platform that represents the musical identities of contemporary composers, where a cultural discourse for finding common ground is created.
The Saint Petersburg Contemporary Music Center is about education and the development of Russian contemporary music, and this process demands mutual involvement, engagement, and interaction within the professional community, both in this country and abroad. This is especially true since new music is far from being something static, identifiable by timeless facts and classical principles, but a form of art that can be considered a historical and evolutionary phenomenon.
Summing up, I would say that due consideration of transnational and global events allows us to satisfy the needs of the younger generation of composers, musicians, artists and those who concern themselves with new music, and to pave the way for the emergence of new perspectives, going beyond the country’s borders in a global context
What were the motives behind establishing reMusik.org?
By 2010, after I had completed my studies in music composition at Saint Petersburg Conservatory, I already had some experience as a composer working with different orchestras, ensembles, and musicians from St. Petersburg. It is well known that St. Petersburg is the home of the most prominent representatives of the Russian school of composition, such as Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich. Moreover, ever since the time of its foundation, it has also been an attractive city for foreign musicians, which always strengthened Russian and European musical ties and increased the city’s international prestige. The city has a huge number of orchestras, concert venues, music schools, including regular contemporary music festivals such as Sound Ways, St. Petersburg Musical Spring, New Horizons, From Avant-Garde to the Present Day, Time of Music: Fin de siècle. In addition, the PRO ARTE Foundation presented lots of interesting programmes with the participation of eNsemble under the direction of composer Boris Filanovsky. Despite all of this, a number of circumstances led me to leave Russia in order to continue my work in another country and be, like any interested composer of contemporary music would wish, at the focal point of world events, especially those in Central Europe. However, the course of events took me on a different path as I was permanently involved in various projects with a venue in St. Petersburg, which kept drawing me back to Russia.
I found myself still bound to the active scene in St. Petersburg and at the same time I also wanted to be involved in on-going world events, to keep in touch with the music community I was interested in outside Russia. My way around this was to open an information resource centre in St. Petersburg, serving as an online platform with which we could create a database of composers and events and include a lot of other functional information that was clearly lacking in St. Petersburg in 2010.
In our first year, we worked solely as an information portal. We then began to organise our first concerts, workshops, composition competitions, as well as contributing to other festivals and projects. At the end of the pilot year, we came to the conclusion that we would continue with Saint Petersburg Contemporary Music Center “reMusik.org”. We registered the first independent, non-profit Centre for Contemporary Music in Russia on 1 April 2011. I would like to mention that another similar centre did exist before: the Centre for Contemporary Music under Moscow Conservatory, founded in 1993 by Vladimir Tarnopolski, a remarkable composer and friend of mine, who also founded the Studio for New Music Ensemble in the same year. I would also like to mention another popular and important Russian music ensemble, the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble, founded in 1990 by another excellent composer Yuri Kasparov, which continues its work to this day owing to the excellent managerial efforts of another friend of mine, Victoria Korshunova. Despite all of these groups being active in Moscow, the situation in terms of resources and information, especially in St. Petersburg, did not improve much, so I was happy to focus on developing this at the beginning of my career. This information was urgently needed in 2010 to raise music awareness among the public.
How did you become the president of reMusik.org and the artistic director of the International New Music Festival? Were there any advantages to these roles of you being a composer yourself?
It was not at all easy to remain a composer while trying to establish myself in different capacities and being in charge of numerous aspects of the organisational process, which required the acquisition of interdisciplinary knowledge. In order to manage the process perfectly, I had to study all of its features for a long time, meet different people, discuss what they were doing and how particular processes worked. I was not scared to embark on this work because, I already interacted with different companies, orchestras, etc as a composer. It is clear that in the course of any work, especially at the beginning, there are always mistakes, and wrong paths chosen. I made some mistakes too, but I learned a lot from trying many things. I succeeded in some undertakings, but failed in others. This way I am gradually trying to settle all of the issues related to organisational activities. Of course, all this would not have been possible without the help and support of the people around me, including our expert council, the centre’s board of trustees. Looking back, I can say that the most difficult time was the first, second and third years, when we did not know how it all worked, where to find funding and—if we didn’t get it—how to maintain our project plan. At the same time, I had to work as a composer and teacher in order to cover the main expenses of the centre, even drawing on family funds with the help of my spouse. We managed to develop our centre in the early years thanks to all of these efforts. Throughout our work we have faced difficulties in persuading governmental structures, partners and institutions to support contemporary music projects. We put in a great deal of effort and patience to work with a young team in our collective, something I always deemed to be a priority. But I have always regarded it as an advantage that I was able to become acquainted with an extensive body of composers’ works, with brilliant ensembles performing new music from all over the world, to have an opportunity to make friends and communicate with virtuoso musicians, including critics and researchers in music, and a lot of other things. If I was only a composer and had not created such a platform, it would probably have taken me many years to make these acquaintances, even if I had moved to another country to become a composer-in-residence, and I would not have a sense of the intense whirlwind of music events. However, I would still always recommend migration to composers, rather than remaining static, because this gives a huge impetus to the development and formation of your world view, which is reflected in your creative work.
How many institutions are behind the Centre for Contemporary Music St. Petersburg and how are they connected?
reMusik.org currently works with different European representatives. Our main partners are Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council, the French Institute (Institut Français), and the Polish Institute (Instytut Polski). Our projects are also supported by the German Consulates General in St. Petersburg, Switzerland and Belgium. Over the years, we have had an opportunity to work with numerous organisations, including concert promoters, especially the major venues in St. Petersburg that support our projects, such as the Mariinsky Theatre (in particular the general director and one of the world’s great conductors, Maestro Valery Gergiev, who supported us from the very beginning, helping us to organise festivals for a wide audience), the St. Petersburg Philharmonia, the New Stage of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, and many others. Moreover, we have been working with St. Petersburg State Conservatory, our main partner, for many years. Due to this collaboration, we have been able to organise many different educational events, including courses, scientific conferences, lectures, masterclasses, and more.
There are of course many nuances and subtleties in working with partners, especially for me as a composer rather than a curator, and dealing with state institutions, some of which are now the centre’s main partners, the Culture Committee, and the Government of St. Petersburg. Several projects were supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. However, despite the scale of our projects, we do not receive special support from the state compared to that granted to a number of other organisations, such as the Russian Union of Composers. The scope of our projects and the contribution we make to culture is well known to the experts. In any case, we hope we can work more cohesively and understand each other better in the course of future collaborations with various organizations, partners, and institutions. At the moment it is not so easy to organise contemporary music projects in Russia, compared to Central Europe with its numerous foundations and institutions, some of which provide exclusive support to our domain. Russia has huge resources, including private foundations. The amount of state support is not much less than in Europe, but it is focused on supporting the classical arts. Our tremendous task is to shift the focus of these foundations and resources towards contemporary art. On the whole, I am quite positive about this situation as it is already turning our way in small steps.
How are musicians selected by reMusik.org? Is it possible to become a member of reMusik.org?
Musical groups, artists and composers either apply to us, or we find them via our music community or recommendations from our expert council. We are not a music association that only presents the work of its members, so we receive a lot of proposals and this makes our choices complicated—we have a limited amount of resources.
Would you consider reMusik.org’s offer an educational opportunity or more of a freely accessible support system?
The lines of the centre’s work are designed to complement each other and to interweave in order to realise new unique projects across geographical boundaries in the sphere of new music. In recent years, the platform has actively focused on developing projects in new formats, publishing, and maintaining the work of the resource centre, thereby extending the scope of out educational activities. It is therefore difficult to talk about a priority as such, since the educational side and the support system coexist symbiotically.
We follow the work of other platforms and their particular directions, but we are constrained by limited possibilities and are not in the position to realise everything on our platform. A number of factors are always in play: the location/country, available resources, state-funded or non-governmental support, etc.
For instance, there is currently no single organization that supports composers in Russia through the commissioning system. Organizations are required to go through various procedures in order to receive grants or subsidies that they then pass on to authors as part of projects. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Culture has taken certain steps to support a great number of projects, especially in recent years, with the focus slowly shifting towards supporting composers in different regions. We understand how this problem can be solved in theory, but we have not been able to resolve it for many years. When we talk about creating a system of commissions we do not mean allocating state grants to cultural foundations through competition. There are numerous state orchestras in Russia, including about ten state-funded symphony orchestras in St. Petersburg alone, and it would be great if they could allocate funds from their annual budget to commission new music from talented young composers whose works they would add to their concert programmes over time. I am not saying that this doesn’t happen, but it is not enough at present and the urgency of the problem has become acute.
Many private foundations supporting culture in Russia have been established in recent years, but very few support projects related to contemporary music. The Aksenov Family Foundation is an exception. They recently launched an annual programme “Russian Music 2.0” that supports ten composers.
What is the significance of the St. Petersburg International New Music Festival for reMusik.org? Is it your flagship or central project?
I wouldn’t say the festival is reMusik.org’s central project, but it is certainly one of the important areas of our work. It is our best-known project and one of our most sound undertakings. It is also one of our tools to interact directly with the general public, since all of the events are held at major concert venues in St. Petersburg, I would even say the best music venues in Russia. A number of virtuosi and well-known artists perform at the festival.
The festival programme abounds in a variety of events every year, bringing together people from all over Russia and the neighbouring Baltic States, with the numbers taking part in the festival increasing recently. The public also likes to come to the festival at the end of May, during St. Petersburg’s White Nights, which has become quite a tourist attraction.
Russia’s borders have recently been opened, specifically for visitors to St. Petersburg. You no longer need to go through the complicated and lengthy process of obtaining a visa, as is the case for other parts of Russia; the online eVisa can be arranged within four days. The city has more than 200 museums, such as the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, opera halls and numerous historical attractions on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. Owing to this location, the festival has enormous potential to increase its number of visitors.
Numerous guests come to the festival from the Baltic States and Finland, due to the regular train and daily bus services. All of these factors contribute expressly to the development of the project, especially its promotion by our partners and private organisations interested in supporting projects in the cultural sphere. In virtue of this, we might say that the festival is better known than our publishing house for example, which has a narrow focus aimed at supporting composers and is not particularly based on making commercial profit, or our resource centre or academy, which is currently being developed for professional music activities.
In light of this, we can say the festival has developed to become more productive. However, from a fundamental perspective, the centre’s other directions and activities are just as important as the festival. Personally, I give more weight to our educational work and our resource information activities. The festival appeals to a wide audience of music lovers, encompassing different trends in academic music. The events are held throughout the city and include more than 50 premieres, heard for the first time in Russia, annually. In 2016 we decided to only include Russian and world premieres in the programme. Now I am trying to include more free improvisation and multimedia compositions in the concert programme. In the future I am planning to add a block relating to choreography and theatre. All of this will give tremendous impetus to the centre’s activities and will bring together a huge number of people practicing in other spheres of art. This year we are planning to hold an international new music forum for the first time, aimed at bringing together various Russian groups and organisations, as well as those from other countries, that work actively in the sphere of contemporary art, in order to draw their attention to contemporary music and to spark collaborative projects combining new music and contemporary art. We hope this will allow us to launch a mechanism, through the reMusik.org platform, that will connect people from different organisations and foundations and contribute to developing our community, and, most importantly, will give impetus to the development of culture in this country and worldwide.
reMusik.org offers a fully comprehensive range of promotion and support for artists. What are the advantages of having everything in one place and has this offer developed over time or has it been part of your concept from the beginning?
When we first considered opening the centre we wanted to create a platform to support and promote the creative activities of St. Petersburg’s composers. After a while we realised we should change our strategy radically and split support into several aspects, despite the limited resources available to reMusik.org at that initial period, which continue to seriously effect the scope of our activities. We gradually began to build up a chain of reciprocal interaction, enabling composers, ensembles, and artists to present their compositions. We make great efforts to ensure that all our mechanisms function and interact smoothly and fit perfectly into an integrated mosaic-like picture. For instance, we frequently offer to publish the work of the best composers who attend our composition courses through our publishing house; we also include their compositions in our concerts, or we perform their music within the framework of future festivals. Everything is interconnected, helping everyone in our system to coexist integrally and to move forward.
How big is the local new music scene? How is it perceived, especially in a country with such a strong and present classical music history?
It seems to me that having audiences with sufficient knowledge and understanding of classical music offers us a huge potential, because they have already formed ideas about academic music. On the other hand, there are those among the younger generation in St. Petersburg who have little knowledge of academic music. They tend to attend multimedia concerts, installations, interdisciplinary projects and other events connected in one way or another with new music. Our project seems quite attractive to such interested and inquisitive minds. Many venues, platforms and new art spaces have opened in Russia in recent years, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where contemporary music concerts take place, contributing to an increased interest from the public.
Attendances at our festival have increased over the past few years, and the audience has also become more varied. I hope that public authorities and private foundations will become aware of this change of scene and will change their policies around supporting contemporary art projects and contemporary music in particular.
There is a big difference between institutional culture (museums, orchestras) and independent culture (independent musicians, composers, etc.) in Germany. Do you also make this distinction? How do you experience the relationship between institutions and the independent scene?
I think the distinction between institutional and independent culture was characteristic of the last century. The situation is different nowadays. Most activities take place in independent culture and we observe it advancing through the achievements of freelance artists, composers and musicians who have managed to make it into the spotlight and be heard on the back of their own resources and efforts. We can also say that the time when institutions told musicians what to do and how to do it is over. The bully pulpit now belongs to independent culture—composers and artists—and it is these people who set the standard. On top of that, we should not forget about how social media has actively promoted independent culture, especially in recent years, and we should be grateful for its rapid development. Previous practice dictated that artists followed a narrow corridor set by the governing institutions, while today the artist can talk about anything that resonates with the public on their FB page or YouTube channel.
Therefore, it seems to me the trend is towards circumstances that promote utmost interaction between independent cultures and institutions. This favourable path becomes increasingly open and informal.
Music is also distributed and offered for sale on reMusik.org. Do you see yourself here as a kind of self-publisher or more a curator of published works?
Edition reMusik.org is the first Russian publisher specialising entirely in contemporary music. It was established in 2018, so it is only at its onset. Our intent is to publish and distribute the works of our authors. It is important for us to bring together the best specialists in the sphere of contemporary music, who are not numerous in Russia today, in order to release rare, but high-quality products. So far it is hard to predict what path it will take in the future. Publishing is a very specific activity involving many legal nuances, including copyright and commerce-related issues. Although our platform is prepared to distribute and disseminate work issued by other publishers, we do not pursue a specific commercial aim, but are oriented exclusively towards educational activities as we are still at the initial stage of development.
I would also like to note that our publishing activities include an online magazine, begun in 2019, presenting articles by young music critics and journalists who cover new music events in Russia. The magazine is an open platform for topical discussions and discourse about contemporary music.
It seems to be important for you to attract a broad audience to what are rather niche contemporary music performances in your festival programme. How do you manage to reach this audience?
The festival is geared towards encompassing different segments of the target audience. Due to the fact that the city has a huge number of concert stages visited daily by a public that prefers classical concerts, while at the same time there are also a lot of art spaces with numerous underground events visited by young people, we designed our festival by choosing the best venues in St. Petersburg. Our experience with the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, where the public listens to classical virtuosi on a daily basis, is a case in point. We brought excellent ensembles specialising in new music to this venue, such as intercontemporain (France), Talea (USA), proton bern (Switzerland), and several others. In venues like this, where the number of seats exceeds 1,000, some people attend to get an impression of the spectacle, not specifically in order to watch our festival. The experience of all these years has shown that an audience that is not familiar with new music is gradually turning into regular followers of our festival. So to increase the number of regular spectators it is very important where you hold a concert, what is included in the programme, who is performing at a particular venue. For instance, this year the festival’s final performance will be held on June 2 in the Grand Hall of St. Petersburg Philharmonia, where the number of seats is 1,500. It will be a concert by Ensemble Recherche from Germany. I am convinced that this concert will be an experience in which the philharmonic audience will be immersed in the music of the last decade, composed by contemporary composers from various countries.
In contrast to this, we also present experimental concerts that have specific characteristics. In these cases we are guided by an entirely different approach. In recent years social media has become the most important tool for attracting spectators, and we manage to attract people on a regular basis by presenting original content obtained through other lines of our activity, thus securing additional support of our concert work. For instance, in the past year our magazine presented a selection of articles about participants in the festival in the form of interviews, reviews, etc., which formed serious content to be digested by the readers—our potential public—over a longer period. I should also mention our news portal, which has been covering contemporary music news in Russia for many years, which attracts both lovers of contemporary music and the professional community, especially young people interested in finding out what’s new.
Have you received any government aid to offset the restrictions caused by the Corona crisis? If so, what kind of assistance have you been given and how well is it working?
Regretfully, like many others, we have had an extremely difficult year. But owing to our long-standing work on the online platform, reMusik.org succeeded in presenting the 7th St. Petersburg International New Music Festival, including the composition course, online, with good grace and efficiency. Although everything was perfect from an artistic point of view, and we received a lot of positive feedback, we were shocked to be faced with serious financial problems in terms of external support for the centre, especially in a period when there were no big projects or events on the Russian music calendar. My numerous requests for support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, to Rosconcert and some major private foundations, such as the Potanin, Russkiy Mir, and others, were invariably rejected. At the same time, I am truly grateful to our permanent international partners—Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council, the French Institute, Fondation Suisa, the Polish Institute, the German Consulate General in St. Petersburg—who were able to support reMusik.org and help us to hold the festival with participants invited from all of these countries. This was very important for us and I was happy that we succeeded. We would have found ourselves in a very difficult situation without their support, despite all of our work.
I was saddened by the situation in terms of support not only from the Russian side, but also from the foreign side last year. It was hard to believe, but our appeal to the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation, one of the most reputable international promoters of contemporary music, was also rejected. Please don’t think that I am complaining through such a public interview (you will not find such an open exposition of the situation, demonstrating the state of affairs these years, in other interviews), since I prefer to act rather than talk, and I hate scandals. However, having been a composer engaged in parallel educational activities for 10 years (this year is our jubilee) and considering the tremendous work implemented by reMusik.org within this period of time, I believe that I have the right to present you with at least a fragment of a truthful overview of the present situation.
From your perspective, what might the arts and culture scene look like in a post-Corona society? What do you hope it will look like and how do we get there?
The pandemic has given us the chance to slow down and look around, and finally see the things that are most important in our times, which truly reflect human values. Forms of communication are changing radically, and this has given the cultural community an opportunity to see new routes for fine art, and all that will obviously shape the quality and reasoning of creative concepts.
We are especially grateful to Mehdi Hosseini for this interview despite of adverse circumstances!