Happy new ears in an ancient monastery

My photos here were all taken at a remarkable event which brings contemporary music to a historic venue in the South of France. L'Académie de musique de chambre contemporaine (Academy of Contemporary Chamber Music) brings together young musicians from France, Germany and Switzerland to perform contemporary and specially commissioned works in the 14th century Carthusian monastery at Villeneuve les Avignon in Provence.

The Chartreuse du Val-de-Bénédiction (above) was formed in 1352 by a gift from Pope Innocent VI (who is buried there), and over 450 years became the largest and wealthiest charterhouse in France. After the 1792 Revolution the monastery, with its magnificent cloisters which can be seen in my photos, was dissolved, and fell into disrepair. In 1973, with funding from the French Ministry of Culture, the charterhouse was restored to house La Centre National des Ecritures du Spectacles. This is a cultural centre offering artist residencies, and has become a creative laboratory exploring new technologies in the performing arts, with artists occupying the cells instead of Carthusian monks.

At the heart of the cultural centre is the Tintel theatre, which is seen in my photo above. The Tintel was the refectory of the charterhouse, and was built more than 400 years ago with specific acoustic properties to allow the mealtime reading by a monk to be heard clearly anywhere in the dining room. The unique acoustics have been acclaimed by many contemporary musicians. These include Pierre Boulez who has performed in the Tintel with his Ensemble InterContemporain, and, conveniently, has built a summer residence to his own design in St Michel in the foothills of the Alps about an hour's drive away. The sound in the Tintel is truly outstanding. I was able to move around during performances, and the chamber musicians could be heard with remarkable clarity from anywhere in the auditorium. The hall does not have the resonance one expects from an ecclesiastical building, but instead the sound is very analytical without being cold - very Pierre Boulez in fact.

L'Académie de musique de chambre contemporaine is formed annually from musicians from Le Conservatoire national supérieur musique et danse de Lyon (Lyons, France) et the Hochschule für Musik und Theater de Hambourg und Landesmusikrat de Hambourg (Hamburg, Germany). The residency combined workshops, a seminar on contemporary chamber music titled 'Happy New Ears' led by Reinhard Flender, and three concerts in the Tintel. Improvisation is an integral part of the residency, and the young composers Stephane Borrel and Ruta Paidere worked with the musicians preparing specially commissioned works.

The photo above was taken at the opening concert which started with the musicians coming on stage to an improvisation prepared by Cornelia Monske. The other composers featured in the concert were Frederic Rzewski (USA), Emmanuel Nunes (Portugal), Alban Berg (Austria), Arne Nordheim (Norway), Philippe Gouttenoire (France), Fredrik Schwenk (Germany), and Ruta Paidere (Lithuania). France has an enlightened attitude, at a cost to the taxpayer, towards using public funding to foster the contemporary performing arts which includes the creation of IRCAM in Paris. L'Académie de musique de chambre contemporaine is another shining example of the positive results of that patronage. And the same patronage also helps to attract new audiences for contemporary music - all three of the excellent concerts given by L'Académie de musique de chambre contemporaine in the Tintel were free.

Old meets new will also be the theme of my Overgrown Path radio programme this Sunday (Sept 25) on Future Radio. The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in Germany has commissioned new works for period instruments from a number of contemporary composers using enlightened funding provided by the Siemens Arts Program. I will be featuring full length works by the English composer Rebecca Saunders and the German Benjamin Schweitzer in a concert that will also include a Baroque masterpiece, Bach's Brandenburg Conceto No 6. The programme is webcast in real time at 5.00pm UK time on Sunday Sept 25. Listen to it, and many more classical music stations, by opening the Radeo internet player via this link or via this audio stream, and click here for an internet radio user's guide.

Our recent visit to France had a Carthusian theme, and while there I read two fascinating new books about contemporary life in Carthusian monasteries. An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire (PublicAffairs ISBN 9781586484323) tells the story of five young men who join a Carthusian foundation in the 1960s, while Sounds of Silence (above) written using the nom de plume Father Benedict Kossmann (AuthorHouse ISBN 1420872915) is the story of a Carthusian who left the Order to marry and live in Florida. And then, of course, there is Into Great Silence.

Convert Overgrown Path radio on-air times to your local time zone using this link. Windows Media Player doesn't like the audio stream very much and takes ages to buffer. WinAmp or iTunes handle it best. Unfortunately the royalty license doesn't permit on-demand replay, so you have to listen in real time. If you are in the Norwich, UK area tune to 96.9FM. All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2007. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


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