Monheim Triennale 2022: Let’s set sail for new musical worlds
Let’s start by asking a pretty fundamental (if usually unnecessary question): what actually is a music festival? Sure, you could list the likely features and most events would fit the bill. Bands, fields, venues, hot dogs, food trucks, face paint, #bangers, “classics”, togetherness, silliness, joy. But maybe there’s something deeper and more ancient that we’re also looking for? A bit of mystery perhaps?
On the opening night of Monheim Triennale, much of the town gathers to hear Marcus Schmickler’s specially composed “Entwurf einer Rheinlandschaft” (‘Draft for a Rhinelandscape’). Amid some bemused faces, what to expect? (Check out his 2020 preview performance ‘Could you patent the sun’ to get an impression where the journey started) Accordionists check their musical scores, sat in the middle of the road. Music notes start to stutter inbound from boats, gradually combining with horn blasts sounded by brass sections on the roof of an office building, ending an hour later in a hypnotic operatic climax, with seemingly half the town now caught up in this musical adventure. It’s the perfect start to what follows. Bracing, angular, lush and strange in equal measure, artfully enveloping the small town of Monheim in exotic waves of unfamiliar sound.
The festival – in its first full outing after Covid delays – manages to embody its dedication to the edges of artistic endeavour in other ways, a chief one being the use of a delightful cruise ship as its main venue. It’s as if strange music has arrived from somewhere up river, a place where they manifestly do things a little differently.
Cruise ships and music have something of a checkered history of course. One pictures 2000-plus Kenny G fans excitedly nibbling through a lifeless-yet-endless buffet before the nightly show from the great man. Or, those ‘hair metal’ boat tours where you can sample the best of Queensryche, Poison and Motley Crue while succumbing to the Norovirus – another thrilling prospect. The combination is a mystery. Perhaps there’s just something inherently appealing about the idea of land based activities taking place within a floating hotel?
Turns out It’s a perfect fit for Monheim’s festival ethos of art-should-prod-to-inspire. Somehow the mix of polite nauticalia and unassuming but pretty local town, conspires to bring an Ingmar Bergman-ish tone to proceedings. There’s a sense of carnival based on deeper, suppressed needs for surprise and challenge. Perhaps we’ll fall in love again? With music, voice, with sax, percussion, with humour, with that delightful person over there? Our mental boats have bobbed quite far out to sea, you see… our expectations refreshed, our senses tingling.
What makes a show, ‘a show’?
Monheim brings musicians from Uganda, South Korea, Manhattan, Germany, UK and many other corners of the world, to see what they might create together. In this respect, we are about as far from the ‘play the hits’ routine and rampant competitiveness for stages and billing that characterises most festivals. The audience too, are committed avant-guardians, keen to discover what an always collaborative roster of artists might invent in the next performance.
The spirit of invention is everywhere. Farida Amadou teases out new sounds and approaches on her bass, Sam Amidon takes centuries old folk songs for deconstructive excursions with Marc Ribot, Park Jiha brings her recontextualised South Korean folk instruments and shares them with a local school orchestra, Greg Fox drums for almost everyone, seemingly at once, Shahzad Ismaily brings a poised bass part or atomised beats to each appearance, Matmos add a touch of knowing sampladelic grooviness in two appearances (sadly our old nemesis Covid, nixes their ‘bizarre supergroup’ collaboration with Jennifer Walshe).
The list of interpolations goes on and on. (Check out the Monheim Papers for more on the long list of artists). It’s less a festival of sets, more a temporary model village for mass collaboration.
As a dyed-in-the-wool pop fan, this might all seem quite the excursion – and to a degree you’d be right. But the joy of this thing is the way it takes you back to the fundamentals: of playing, of listening, of making sense of what we want from instruments, musicians and art more generally. Sort of like a massive reset button or a California cleanse. And there’s something incredibly thrilling about watching a bunch of teenagers from local schools taking part, becoming inducted into one of the most singular musical worlds, getting a chance to collaborate as peers. They more than meet the challenge.
Art can help you have a better day
On Saturday afternoon, as I wend my way back from the boat to the town, a small crowd gathers to await activity from Thomas Stricker’s geyser-in-a-roundabout. The local Mayor, Daniel Zimmermann, who funded the piece, is clearly a devotée of the ways art can put a town on the map. This rather eccentric and kooky installation literally stops traffic, and as Zimmermann explains later, it’s to be expected that some locals have, ah, reservations about this kind of investment. But with Monheim now committed to at least 10 years of triennales, he seems intent to make the town a haven for artistic daring and unfamiliar experiences. And well, bravo to that – the musical edges have found a new home on the banks of the Rhine.
For interviews with the artists at this year’s event, read the Monheim Papers.