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Biennale Musica 2021: Lucia Ronchetti takes vocal music centre stage
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Biennale Musica 2021: Lucia Ronchetti takes vocal music centre stage

Titled Choruses – Drammaturgie vocali, the 65th International Festival of Contemporary Music takes place from 17-26 September 2021.

Biennale Musica 2021

The Biennale Musica Festival will take place in various historic locations in Venice and intends to highlight the Venetian musical tradition by linking it to current contemporary composition.
Titled Choruses – Drammaturgie vocali, the 65th International Festival of Contemporary Music of La Biennale di Venezia will take place from September 17th to 26th, directed by composer Lucia Ronchetti. The focus of attention will be on “composing for the voice, based on the monumental choral works of the past decades to the dramaturgical explorations of the most recent vocal production” (L. Ronchetti).


Concerts, sound installations, experimental performances, vocal happenings, a processional opera and a chamber musical theatre work will present the many facets of the voice in contemporary creativity.
The Festival will feature an important Venetian choral ensemble, the Choir of the Cappella Marciana, along with some of the most representative choral and vocal ensembles in Europe: the Theatre of Voices from Copenhagen, SWR Vokalensemble and the Neue Vocalsolisten from Stuttgart, the vocal ensembles Sequenza 9.3 and Accentus from Paris, with the participation of the Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice and the Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble.

The Centre for Computer Music and Multimedia of La Biennale di Venezia (CIMM) is responsible for the diffusion and spatialization of the electronic parts in some of the works.

The Festival will feature composers from different generations who have created important vocal and choral a cappella works, vocalists and performers from different musical traditions, sound artists who integrate the voice into their sound projects. The young composers and performers selected by the Biennale College will compose new works in the diverse forms of composition represented in the festival.

The encounters, lectures and Lezioni di Musica in collaboration with Rai Radio3 serve to highlight the relationship between the Venetian vocal musical tradition and the contemporary age.

Choruses is a wide-ranging festival that is an invitation to a sort of “listener’s pilgrimage” through historic places and theatres – from the Arsenale (Tese, Sale d’Armi, Piccolo Arsenale) to the Basilica di San Marco, the Teatro La Fenice, the Teatro Malibran, the Conservatorio B. Marcello, and the Teatro Parco Bissuola in Mestre.

Composing for voices together

Kaija Saariaho, Hans Abrahamsen, George Lewis, David Lang, Luca Francesconi; Sivan Eldar, Sergej Newski, Samir Odeh-Tamimi, Francesco Filidei, Jennifer Walshe; George Aperghis, Arvo Pärt, Sylvano Bussotti, Morton Feldman: composers from different generations who conceive vocal composition as a means for experimentation and innovation in the contemporary age.

The vocal music of Kaija Saariaho, the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement of this edition, is based on the texts of important authors from various eras who address universal themes such as the solitude of the journey, distance, death. The texts are analysed by the composer as sound material and as instructions and suggestions for listening. To her the Festival dedicates a profile in four works: the world premiere of Reconnaissance, performed by the Accentus ensemble, which is also the protagonist of the Italian premiere of Tag des Jahrs; the European premiere of Only the Sound Remains, in the new production by Aleksi Barrière and performed by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices; and the performance of Notes on Light for cello and orchestra that is to inaugurate the Festival at the Teatro La Fenice with its Orchestra conducted by Ernest Martinez-Izquierdo.

The version for orchestra of Claude Debussy’s Childen’s Corner composed by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, on the programme of the inaugural concert, highlights the fundamental relationship between the composers of the second spectral generation and the research on timbre by Debussy.
Born the same year, 1952, George Lewis, the acknowledged protagonist of experimentalism and the African diaspora, is a multimedia artist and professor of composition at Columbia University, currently artist-in-residence at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. His new work, commissioned by La Biennale, is about Anthony William Amo, among the philosophers of African origin to obtain renown and become influential in Europe. The world premiere of the new piece for voice and electronics will be performed by the Neue Vocalsolisten, winners of the Silver Lion award.
David Lang, the protagonist of American post-minimalism and founder of Bang On A Can, is the composer of The Little Match Girl Passion, the piece that won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008. It will be performed by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices, which recorded it for the Harmonia Mundi label, winning a Grammy Award in 2010.
Luca Francesconi will be at the Biennale Musica 2021 with Herzstück, a work for vocal ensemble composed for the Neue Vocalsolisten to a text by Heiner Müller, the author from whom he adapted the libretto of his opera Quartett, one of the most highly acclaimed contemporary opera productions, which boasts many performances and new productions around the world.

Representing the generation of the 1970s and 80s, Sivan Eldar, Sergej Newski, Samir Odeh-Tamimi and Francesco Filidei will respectively present three world premieres and one Italian premiere at the Festival.
Composer Sivan Eldar, who studied in Israel and the United States, where she graduated from Berkeley with Frank Bedrossian and Edmund Campion, now lives in Paris, and since 2019 has been in residence with the Orchestre National Montpellier (Opéra Comédie). Sivan Eldar reinterprets myth in After Arethusa, relying on the writing of Cordelia Lynn, the playwright and librettist with whom she has often worked (they will make a joint debut at the Opéra de Lille in the 2021-22 season).
Born in Moscow in 1972, Sergej Newski trained in Germany with Jorg Herchet in Dresden and with Friedrich Goldmann in Berlin, where he still lives. The Neue Vocalsolisten commissioned Newski to write a new piece, Die Einfachen, inspired by the reporting of historian Irina Rodulgina about “The Simple”, the name of the gay movement in Leningrad in the 1920s. Also working on the European scene like Newski, and like him a resident of Berlin, Israeli-Palestine composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi was born in Jaljuliya, an Arab city in Israel in 1970: a performer of traditional Arab music, he later studied musicology and composition at Kiel and Bremen. In Venice he will present the piece titled Timna. One of the most acknowledged composers of his generation, Francesco Filidei will present the world premiere of Tutto in una volta, a title borrowed from a poem by Nanni Balestrini.

One of the most significant artistic personalities in the panorama of contemporary music, Georges Aperghis was attracted by Adolf Wölfli’s obsessive repetitiveness. Wölfli-Kantata, in its Italian premiere performance, seems to reflect the dense patterns of the Swiss artist, considered a master of Art Brut. The monumental work for vocal ensemble and choir composed for 36 real parts will be performed by the Neue Vocalsolisten together with the SWR Vokalensemble choir.
Arvo Pärt’s Stabat Mater will be performed in the original 1985 version for trio of voices and strings. This is a liturgical song the text of which, for the Estonian composer, “presents to us the simultaneous existence of the immeasurable pain of this event and the potential consolation”. Valentin Silvestrov shares a common destiny with Pärt, as he turns to the “source of music” in his Liturgical Chants.
The painter, director, scenographer and artist Sylvano Bussotti will be at La Biennale with Per 24 voci adulte o bianche, a sort of vocal happening that was also performed in a version for the theatre by Living Theatre (in 1967 in Bordeaux). Part of the cycle Cinque frammenti all’Italia, in which Bussotti “deconstructs texts by Rilke, Adorno, Braibanti, Michelangelo, D’Annunzio, Baudelaire, and Jacopone da Todi oscillating between boundless freedom and a rigorous attachment to method”.
Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman, like many works by the American composer, is inspired by the large canvases of American abstract expressionism, in this case the octagonal Rothko Chapel. “Rothko’s language goes right to the edge of his canvas and I wanted the same effect with the music – that it should permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance”.

Composition project for the Basilica di San Marco and the Cappella Marciana

The perfect acoustics of the Cappella Marciana in the Basilica di San Marco provide the space for Il viaggio della voce, a site-specific composition for recorded voices commissioned by La Biennale to Christina Kubisch, the pioneer of German sound art, and formerly a professor at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste in Saarbrucken, where she founded the first German department of audio-visual art. Electromagnetic induction, ultra-violet rays, solar energy, Kubisch is an artist interested in spatial listening outside the designated places that require a frontal relationship to the performance. Her works are the result of in-depth studies of the specificity of the chosen site. Thus the Cappella Marciana becomes the object of her research.

Fascinated by Renaissance and Baroque Venice towards which musicians converged from across Europe, Christina Kubisch wondered: “What would happen if those journeys took place again with today’s possibilities? If the Renaissance voices of the composers of San Marco returned to their native land but in a contemporary world?”. That was the starting point for Il viaggio della voce, the recorded voices of the San Marco singers, which Christina Kubisch carried as her own “baggage” all around Europe to dialogue with other spaces: “with churches, cloisters (and maybe even modern offices), where the pre-recorded sounds are diffused and re-recorded … bringing to life a “new abstract polyphony”. “Hence the journeys of the voice are not created on the computer using a digital programme, writes Kubisch, on the contrary, though certain electronic procedures might be necessary, it is a procedure of a moment over the course of time. It will take a long time. Long slow journeys, and few of them. Then all this material will return to Venice to San Marco to be diffused, alternating in concert with the “real” singing of Maestro Gemmani’s choir”.

Moving still – processional crossings

Commissioned by La Biennale, the processional work titled Moving still – processional crossings is conceived by Marta Gentilucci – an Italian composer trained internationally, with a PhD in composition from Harvard and a research residency in composition at Ircam in Paris – in collaboration with four contemporary poets who wrote the original texts. They are Elisa Biagini, Irène Gayraud, Shara McCallum and Evie Shockley, each with a different language, culture and aesthetics, but a “common focus on orality, on the importance of the sonic transmission of the text” (M. Gentilucci).
The work will be performed along a path that will start in the late afternoon at the Sale d'Armi in the Arsenale, moving through the streets and squares of Venice to meet the public across the city, and ending inside the Teatro alle Tese. It is a reflection upon every possible variation of a group of people going and moving  – from the religious act to the protest march to migration, “on having to being able to go elsewhere”.
Conceived for a mixed vocal ensemble and four narrating voices, the work will be performed by the twelve voices of the Sequenza 9.3 ensemble of Paris joined by twelve voices from the singing courses of the Conservatory of Venice, all conducted by Catherine Simonpietri. They will be directed by Antonello Pocetti.

Solo Voice

Composer, performer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe will be in Venice as the protagonist of a solo for voice, video and electronics: Is It Cool To Try Hard Now? While her music has won a great many acknowledgments – the Kranichsteiner Musikpreis at the Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Darmstadt, Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York, the BASCA British Composer Award for Innovation – Jennifer Walshe is also renowned for her multimedia projects – compositions, installations, graphic scores, films, photographs, sculptures – shown in museums and galleries in New York, Houston, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and in Europe.

Elina Duni, the jazz singer and composer who emigrated to Switzerland from Albania at the age of ten, sings in nine languages, blending styles and repertories. She is considered “one of the most intense voices on the new European musical scene”. And so Partir, the solo concert featuring Elina Duni at La Biennale, addresses universal themes such as departure, exile, abandonment borrowing from the traditional Balkan, Yiddish, Armenian and southern Italian repertoire, as she “experiments with her personal expressivity through the fusion of traditional melodies with the sounds of jazz, a painting a picture in sound that intersects different musical stories”.

The Swiss-Ghanaian composer and vocalist Joy Frempong presents a project that explores the diverse performing worlds of the spoken-word:  a solo for voice, loop machines, keyboards, samplings and narrative elements. Part of the sounds and stories will be sampled in Venice, a city that powerfully attracted Frempong and which she has visited many times since her first trip to the Biennale d’Arte at the age of 17.

The sound artist, multi-instrumentalist and producer Zuli, a.k.a. Ahmed El Ghazoly, works on the alternative clubbing scene in Cairo and on the electronic scene with Kairo Ist Koming (KIK). At the international level, he collaborates with Aphex Twin, Autechre, Ben Ufo, Bradley Zero and Richie Hawtin. In Venice he will perform a set that weaves together the human voice and new technologies, exploring the capacity of this fascinating human instrument to “express musical ideas with different methods such as sampling and tone correction (using Autotune, Melodyne and other software)”.

Biennale College Musica

In keeping with the theme of the Festival, the Biennale College this year addresses “the dramaturgical potential of the voice, promoting new a cappella works, sound installations and site-specific performances all dedicated to the voice and set in different locations around the city of Venice” (L. Ronchetti).
The programmes of theoretical and practical seminars involving the selected young artists, divided into several sessions to be held between April and September and led by a team of tutors (Samir Odeh-Tamimi, Jennifer Walshe, Andreas Fischer, Guido Barbieri, Thierry Coduys, Guglielmo Bottin, Roberto Benozzo, Catherine Simonpietri) will end with the presentation of six original works and the performance of important pieces of contemporary vocal music.

Of the 154 submissions from 26 different countries, 4 composers, 3 performers and 1 vocal ensemble have been selected. They are the composers Maria Vincenza Cabizza and Manuel Hidalgo Navas who will present two original pieces for vocal ensemble;  the composers Jack Sheen and Chonglian Yu, who will author two site-specific sound installations which also rely on pre-recorded vocal material; the performers Daniele Carcassi, Xu Tong Lee and Agita Reķe, who will present experimental performances working with the pre-recorded voice; and finally the vocal ensemble Evo, with members Veronica Bartolomei, Eleonora Braconi, Alessandro Cavazzani, Cinzia D'Anella, Ervin Dos Santos, and Emanuele Gizzi, who for the Festival will perform a series of fundamental pages in contemporary vocal literature.
The electronic part will be produced in the studios of the Centre for Computer Music and Multimedia of La Biennale di Venezia (CIMM), which will provide the required hardware and software under the guidance of the sound engineer Thierry Coduys.

In collaboration with Rai Radio3 five audio-documentaries will be produced by Giovanna Natalini for the show Tre soldi: a logbook to follow the composition and performance workshop by the young artists of the Biennale College, from the ideation to the production of their original projects.

Lezioni di musica

A Festival dedicated to choral music in the city that has been a breeding ground for vocal counterpoint looks at this ancient past in four live music lessons. In collaboration with Rai Radio 3 and produced by Paola Damiani, the composer, musicologist and pianist Giovanni Bietti will hold four lessons in Venetian vocal polyphony live from the Sala delle Colonne at Ca’ Giustinian, the Biennale headquarters: from the Psalms by Adrien Willaert to the Magnificat by Antonio Vivaldi, “to demonstrate to the listener the remarkable modern quality of this music, which continues to be a source of inspiration for many of today’s compositions” (G. Bietti).

Thanks to

We would like to thank the Ministry for Culture for their important contribution and the Regione del Veneto for the support they give to the programmes of the Music Department of La Biennale di Venezia.

We wish to thank the Basilica and Procuratoria di San Marco, the Teatro La Fenice, the Conservatorio B. Marcello, and the Fondazione G. Cini for their collaboration.

The Media Partner for the Dance, Music and Theatre Departments is Rai Cultura, which on its web portal and on channel Rai5 will follow the events of La Biennale di Venezia for the year 2021. Rai Radio3 will be the media partner for the Music Department.