Contemporary musician Petr Kotik shares experiences at Ostrava Days

Back in 1999, one of the country's most renowned contemporary music composers and conductors, Petr Kotik, founded the Ostrava Center for New Music. It worked closely with the Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra to present works by leading musicians such as John Cage, Earle Brown, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, to an audience that had yet to warm up to 'new music'. On Monday, 39 music students from 20 countries will flock to the North Moravian city of Ostrava for the Ostrava Days 2005.

For three weeks, organised by the Centre for New Music, they will be lectured and exchange experiences with some of the world's best contemporary music composers. We met up with Mr Kotik, to find out more:

"The Ostrava Days originated as a result of our cooperation with the Janacek Philharmonic and the realisation that Ostrava would be the absolutely ideal place for such an event. It has a brand new conservatory that is practically inactive during the summer, which we can rent - seventy class rooms with new pianos, a hall for 400 listeners, rehearsal studios, instruments, etc. Then, we also have this philharmonic orchestra which has fantastic facilities. The philharmonic hall in Ostrava has this great advantage of being flexible in its seating for both the orchestra and the audience. We can put three orchestras there with the audience in the middle. There is no such hall in Prague, New York, Berlin, but there is one in Ostrava."

So, what exactly are the Ostrava Days?

"Ostrava Days creates a learning environment for young and emerging composers who come from the best schools from all over the world - Columbia, Stanford, Sorbonne, Harvard, and others. It culminates with a festival. The fact that it is for three weeks makes it one of the largest of such events in the world. Now we are doing it for the third time. We have this environment, which is not really run as a school. We don't really hold formal lectures. We meet with the students, who we call residents, and we look at them as less-experienced colleagues. We exchange ideas and go through certain problematic of music such as composition and music making and we learn; we certainly learn from each other. It goes both ways."

You say that one cannot be taught how to compose music. So, how do you guarantee that the residents leave the course, having learned something?

"They learn an enormous amount of things but they don't learn them in a structured way. Of course, you learn techniques and you get educated as a musician in a structured way. But we don't provide that. We don't substitute the school regime that these people have from September to May every year. There is no need for them to come here in the summer and do the same thing they did during the year. They come to Ostrava and they get absorbed into the environment. There are some students who flunk the whole thing and that's fine but there are some who are constantly around us and they learn by observing how we do it. This is a real environment. You study a new piece here and you only have three hours with the orchestra to do it."

The three week course costs each student 2,000 Euros. Were some students provided with scholarships?

"Yes. We choose students according to their qualification and not their ability to pay for the course. The scholarships are not just provided for central and eastern Europeans but also for Americans and others. Don't forget that, for an American student on a low budget, it is very expensive just to travel."

Would you say that students from those countries where decades of Communism suppressed contemporary music use different learning techniques than their western counterparts?

"No, I wouldn't say that. We have students from southern Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and we had a very young woman composer from Minsk two years ago, who had a very interesting piece for five orchestras and it's always a great joy to be surprised by them. I enjoyed that student much more than a student from Columbia, where they are expected to be brought up to date."

It's been very difficult to promote anything contemporary, whether it's art, dance, or music. Where do you see the future of contemporary music in this country? Czechs have yet to warm up to it. Do you think they will?

"Art has always been an elite situation, whether it was Mozart, Beethoven, or Michelangelo. When art gets old and loses the rough edges, so to speak, it becomes part of culture and gets into the museums and families come and look at it with their children and are happy. But at the moment when it is created, there are just very few people who are able and willing to support it, both morally and financially. But I know that it's an uphill battle, it has always been so, and I don't expect that to be different. The idea that everything is for everybody is nonsense. I never go to baseball games. I wouldn't know what these people are doing with those bats, running around the field. But that shouldn't stop them from doing it. I can see that a lot of people who come to my concerts think it's complete nonsense what I'm doing. But that's not going to stop me from doing it."

So what about the concert that will be held and the Ostrava Band (Ostravska banda) that you're also cooperating with?

"It is from August 21-27. We are offering 14 concerts and performing 70 pieces in that one week. There will be three symphony orchestra concerts, four chamber orchestra concerts, string quartets, solos, small and large ensembles, and organ recitals. It's complete madness.

"Ostravska Banda is an international chamber orchestra with about 25 members. One third of the musicians come from the United States, another third are from Western Europe, mainly Germany. They are not just Germans but also British and Dutch but most of them live in Germany because it provides the best employment conditions for musicians. The remaining third is from the Czech Republic. I have high hopes for this chamber orchestra."