How thinking both big and small made the Darmstadt music festival indispensable to New York

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Hallett and Layton, avant-D.J.s, are hosting their first festival ()
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Nick Hallett and Zach Layton, the co-curators of New York's Darmstadt Institute, have come a long way from their beginnings as avant-garde D.J.s

Starting tonight, with a live appearance by Pauline Oliveros (during the week of her 80th birthday), and extending into late June, when Darmstadt will co-present a rare theater work by Karlheinz Stockhausen as part of the Make Music New York festival, their brainchild has become an indispensable part of the city’s live music calendar. Whether based at Issue Project Room in Brooklyn, or else at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park (where Stockhausen’s Musik Im Bauch, or “Music in the Belly” will be presented on June 21), the duo has managed to pull in some legendary names from the avant-garde world as well as give the spotlight to lesser known up-and-comers.

Still, Hallett says they approach each new Darmstadt festival as though they were still just a D.J.-sized project.

“We put out invitations to the artists we want to work with," he said when I spoke with him and Layton this week. "We may have specific repertoire wish-lists kinds of things,” but the totality of worthy composers and works that receive scant attention means that they’re focused on filling those gaps. “We also try to think about curating [these] shows like pulling a record out of a stack. As long as the stack is there, we’re just pulling them out.”

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This month’s stack offers a healthy mix of the old and new. Kid Millions, better known as John Colpitts, the drummer for the rock band Oneida, will have an evening for his own compositions with his latest ensemble, named Man Forever. Local ensembles like the Mivos Quartet and Wet Ink will play new compositions from among their own ranks. And history will be attended to not only in the tonight’s program surveying Oliveros’s pioneering work, but also in evening-length celebrations of John Cage and Gordon Mumma.

“I think Mumma’s work is right up there. I think there should be a lot more interest in his work from the entire concert-presenting world in New York,” Hallett said, adding that as someone who built his own electronics, Mumma leads directly to the paths pursued by many other experimental musicians of the present day. “Now, with Tristan Perich, who programs his own microchips: I find that his work is directly in conversation with Mumma’s. He really pioneered the use of feedback as a musical compositional tool. And that’s obviously hugely pervasive in the noise scene. It owes so much to Mumma.”

But the Darmstadt approach to repertory doesn’t merely rest with championing lesser-known innovators of the past. The programmers are also into subtly subverting our understanding of the titans whose works we think we already understand. This is partly made clear in the program notes for the upcoming presentation of Stockhausen’s Musik Im Bauch, which contains music that some modern music lovers will recognize, though in a new context:

The piece was inspired by a game Stockhausen played with his two-year-old daughter, Julika, in which the composer listened to the sounds in her noisy stomach. Seven years later, Stockhausen conceived Musik Im Bauch during a dream. A loose narrative defines the transformation into humanity of three automatons, who attack a giant bird-man, named Miron, savagely cutting open his stomach and pulling out 3 music boxes which play melodies based on the signs of the Zodiac. All the music throughout the piece is taken from the melodies of the music boxes—a separate work often performed outright, "Tierkreis"—played in different speeds and fragmentations.

“People really remember the 'Tierkreis,'” Hallett said, “but this is the piece that gives them the bigger context. I always find with Stockhausen these big theatrical presentations really allow you to see the full picture of what he was thinking or hearing or conceiving of as music.”

Layton, who was chiefly responsible for programming the night of Cage’s music set for next weekend, has likewise elected to challenge existing perceptions of a well-loved modern composer. Two late efforts by Cage—the “number piece” entitled “Twenty Three” from 1988, and the Hymns and Variations from 1979—sit on the program next to the composer’s String Quartet in Four Parts from 1950.

Speaking of the “number pieces,” in which Cage abandons the traditional score for a series of “time brackets” distributed to each player, Layton said: “I’ve always thought in some way they’re the most elegant pieces Cage ever wrote.” Given the resonant acoustics of the new Issue Project Room space on 110 Livingston Street in Downtown Brooklyn, the idea of having “Twenty-Three” played by members of a string ensemble distributed throughout the hall helped direct Layton’s choice.

“There’s a beginning and an end point [for each part], but the beginning and end points are flexible. And Cage talked about this in relation to Japanese architecture: how they made earthquake-proof things, where the buildings would shake with the earthquakes so that they wouldn’t fall down.… And that he’d like to think of these number pieces as being kind of earthquake-proof and flexible.”

Turns out “earthquake-proof and flexible” is not a bad way of thinking about the aesthetic program put forward by both Hallett and Layton via the Darmstadt festival. By cheerfully ignoring the canonical ways we think of the many varied schools of modern composition—or even the ways we think of individual composers—they’ve made our understanding of them that much stronger, too.

More information on the Darmstadt 2012 series is available here. Tickets for tonight's Pauline Oliveros 80th birthday concert are available here.