Encore: The Agon Orchestra: bringing experimental music to wider audiences


Welcome to Encore, our monthly look at the world of Czech classical music. Today we're going to be departing from the security of Dvorak or Smetana, and delving into the rich world of contemporary Czech experimental music. We'll be looking at the work of the Czech Republic's foremost experimental musical ensemble, the Agon Orchestra, which - aptly enough - is housed in one of Europe's most modern theatres, Prague's Divadlo Archa. The Agon Orchestra's director is Ivan Bierhanzl.

Ivan BierhanzlIvan Bierhanzl "It was in the beginning of the 80s, around 1983 or 1984 when a small group of young musicians from Prague Conservatory, and composers, came together to start the Ensemble for New Music."

This was at a time when the communists were still in power in Czechoslovakia. Did this cause any problems for you?

"We were somewhere between official culture and some kind of underground cultural structures, some kind of grey zone. So it means that we were not forbidden, but also we were not supported officially by government."

And these were musicians and composers who felt that there wasn't enough space on the Czech musical scene for experimentation?

"You know, during the time the whole scene of contemporary music was under the control of the Union of Composers. So it was quite - not dangerous, but maybe - something very new to start some kind of ensemble behind official structures."

Your first CD was called simply "Agon: contemporary music ensemble Prague".

"The first CD was published in 1991, so just immediately after the political changes in our country. It's a kind of selection of the best composers of our generation - like Martin Smolka, Petr Kofron, Josef Adamik and Miroslav Pudlak. Three of them were also artistic co-directors of the ensemble."

Michal NejtekMichal Nejtek One of the features of the orchestra is the way that performers and composers work very closely together. Michal Nejtek is a composer and orchestra member.

"The collaboration between composers and performers is, I think, very important, because we composers could make some new sound words and we could create something only together with performers, because they are very important for us. They know all about their instruments and we could make decisions with them together."

So that means that you work in rehearsal very closely with musicians and you actually compose along with the performers themselves.

"Yes, I think for all composers this is a very important thing, because on the one hand you have to study instrumentation in school, but on the other hand you want to create something new, that you can't find in books."

And you cross the borders of different genres. You work with rock musicians as well.

"I think it's been the case in the last eight years or so, because in Agon there are many performers from jazz and rock. So it's normal that sometimes we combine the energy and the sound for our concerts. But we don't play alternative rock, we play contemporary music, but with the energy of rock musicians. We made together a re-make of a Plastic People of the Universe concert of 1979, based on the texts of the Czech philosopher, Ladislav Klima. The concert was called 'I Came through Five Fields'. From the old recording I arranged the orchestra score for the Agon Orchestra and The Plastic People. "

One of the impulses behind the forming of the Agon Orchestra was the fact that so much influential Czech experimental music from the 1960s had fallen into neglect. The orchestra has tried systematically to perform and record these forgotten composers. This culminated in a CD released in 1994, entitled "Czech New Music of the 1960s".

The Agon Orchestra isn't just known for its recordings of lesser known composers. It has also enjoyed high-profile performances of works by such legends of modern music as Philip Glass. A highly successful production of Glass's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' at the State Opera in Prague in 1999 is one of a number of high-profile projects that have recently won the orchestra considerable critical acclaim.

The Agon Orchestra has acquired an impressive reputation both for its professionalism and for its willingness to experiment and break barriers. As Ivan Bierhanzl points out, it is also rapidly becoming known abroad.

"We regularly perform at international contemporary music festivals. Last year we were in Vienna, we were in Bratislava, in Poland, in the Netherlands also, and we are preparing two big concerts in Hamburg this year during the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival, which is a very important music festival in Germany. This is some kind of inspiration for us to be more strong in our work, because, of course, we are based in Prague, but our possibilities in Prague are limited."

This year is the Year of Czech Music. What about contemporary experimental music and the Agon Orchestra? Are you playing a role in the celebration of the Year of Czech Music, so that it won't be just about the composers that everybody already knows?

"Yes, we are also involved in this project. One project is a concert series of some new compositions at the Archa Theatre. It will start from April. The second part is our guest performances, as I said, in Germany and also in Budapest. Now in February we will play in Budapest during the festival 'Making New Waves'."

So the Year of Czech Music won't be just about Dvorak, Smetana, Martinu and Janacek.

"No, I hope that contemporary music and composers will also be presented."


Magic Carpet - world music in the heart of Europe

Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.

Petr DoruzkaPetr Doruzka It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.


1.2.2004: Up in north-eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, lies the city of Ostrava, formerly a heavy industry centre, now developing a new identity. One of the most important artists of this region is Jaromir Nohavica - a singer, songwriter and poet. His latest CD, titled Babylon, was one of the most successful and also most interesting albums of past year. Also in the programme: Salute Zappa, a homage to the American composer Frank Zappa by Czech bands.

29.2.2004: The gypsy settlements in Slovakia are probably the nearest place to the Czech Republic where Roma are still able to maintain their lifestyle untouched by urban life. In past years, the Slovak song collector Jana Belisova from Bratislava made several field recording trips to these villages, produced two CDs, and two books (in Prague you'll find them in the Romen Shop, Nerudova Street 32). In the programme: a Gypsy Christmas song from Slovakia, plus Zuzana Navarova with Mario Bihari, the blind Gypsy accordion player, and The Devil Fiddlers from Bratislava meet Andalusian flamenco.


For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme

4.1.2004: Petr looks at some new releases by Czech independent labels. Well be hearing the Czech guitarist Pavel Richter as well as the amazing Romany musician Iva Bittova, with the re-release of a fantastic recording from 15 years ago with her half-sister, Ida Kellarova. Listen out as well for the new album of the band Gothart, entitled "Rakija 'n' Roll". Gothart are a group of Czech musicians who've become enamoured of the Balkans and draw from Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Armenian tradition.

7.12.2003: Petr Doruzka introduces us to Tarafuki a very unusual band, made up of two young women cellists who sing their own songs ranging from quiet intimacy to load ecstasy. Dorota Barova and Andrea Konstankiewicz are of mixed Czech-Polish ancestry and sing in both languages. They have just released their second CD Kapka meaning a drop - and are rapidly becoming well known, throughout Europe and especially in France. At the end of the programme, listen out from the most unusual song on the CD Quiet Weeping.

12.10.2003: Katka Sarkozi, singer, songwriter and guitarist started her career almost ten years ago, but her latest CD seems to be a breakthrough.  It is titled "Magorie", translated as Insanity, Rage or Ferocity, and its impact is like that of a hushed scream that keeps haunting you for the rest of the day.

09.11.2003: To this day in Moravia you still come across traditional cimbalom-and-fiddle village wedding bands. In the last ten years this music has enjoyed a revival. Established artists like Iva Bittova now compete with a new generation of young, fresh and creative musicians. In Magic Carpet we hear music from the CD sampler "Magic Playing Moravian Roots", introducing new discoveries and featuring a rare recording of Iva Bittova and her sister Ida Kellarova.
Link: www.indies.cz


See also The History of Music.