Javier Hagen and Ulrike Mayer-Spohn, performing together as UMS ‘n JIP, are recognized worldwide outside their home in the tiny town of Goms in the Upper Valais as “performers of global ranking” and “one of the key music ensembles on the international scene”. But they are freelance artists, and over the past four years they have learned what lockdown can mean for freelancers in loss of opportunities and incomes: from 200 performances a year around the world their concerts dropped to almost none.
UMS ‘n JIP note on their website: “There was hardly a year in which we played so few concerts, for more than two years we could not plan anything bindingly.”
JIP ‘n UMS
Javier was born Javier-Ignacio Palau-Ribes in Barcelona in 1971, hence JIP. He describes himself as “raised between 6 languages on the Mediterranean and in the Valais Alps”. He studied classical singing (both tenor and countertenor) in Germany, Italy and Switzerland. He has premiered more than 300 works, including operas, and made more than 50 recordings and broadcasts for Swiss, German, French, Czech, Chinese, Russian, Mongolian, Spanish, Egyptian, Italian and Latvian radio and television.
Ulrike Mayer-Spohn (UMS), born 1980 in Stuttgart, plays the recorder (with a focus on contemporary music), as well as historical string instruments (fiddle and baroque violin). Since 1999, Ulrike Mayer-Spohn has also performed as a recorder player, violinist, violist and fiddle player in specialized early music ensembles.
1200 concerts in 15 years
They have performed together as UMS ‘n JIP since 2007. As of 2022 they have given over 1200 concerts.
The duo’s motto is “the future is now”. But their latest activities suggest their recent past is also the future. In December they opened a rehearsal and performance venue MEBU (Münster Earport) at the foot of the Finsteraarhorn and the Rhone Glacier: “our own autonomous rehearsal and performance space, in the middle of the Swiss Alps and at the same time centrally connected to the most important European transport axes”.
All about the acousmonium
MEBU includes “a permanently installed 16-channel acousmonium to perform electroacoustic (acousmatic) music – one of the few publicly accessible of its kind in Europe – as well as a remarkable collection of historical keyboard instruments for the historically informed performance of Early Music.”
An acousmonium, designed in 1974 byFrançois Bayle, is a sound diffusion system, “a loudspeaker orchestra” in Javier’s description, a collection of up to 80 loudspeakers with different sound characteristics positioned to create a specific sound space, controlled centrally via a mixing console.
You will only likely see such expensive equipment in Vienna, Paris and Brussels outside research institutions.
“Sculptures, even sound sculptures, are somewhat static – time and space are confined,” explains Javier. “With an acousmonium we can bring them to life, make them dynamic, move them in space, let them become ephemeral.”
“Ulrike and I as UMS ‘n JIP have had the acousmonium equipment for years, but until now we have had no room to set it up. With the MEBU in Münster for the first time in our professional lives we have this space and have now set up our own acousmonium here.”
During the lockdown, they add, “we did a lot of composing and arranging and took care of the construction of our rehearsal and performance venue MEBU.”
And one of those products received its premiere at the Forum Wallis music festival in March: “im störgarten” [roughly “In the withered orchard” in English]. The British writer and composer Simon Cummings said it “is the most powerful work by UMS ‘n JIP that I’ve yet experienced.”
It is takes words from poems by the Valaisan writer Rolf Hermann from Leuk, now living in Biel/Bienne. The poems themselves take inspiration from Rainer Maria Rilke’s first poems written in French, Verger, composed in the Chateau de Muzot near Sierre, in the last years of his life, making clear he knew he was gravely ill.
The last of these Rilke poems reads: “I’ve said my goodbyes. Since childhood countless departures have gradually honed me. […] All I can do, without holding back, is feel the joy of having loved what reminds me of all the losses that move us.”
Hermann’s poems have the same emotional weight as Rilke’s, speaking with nostalgia of the Leukerfeld floodplain near his birthplace. “The landscape has been deeply changed in recent years,” he explains. “Cultivated areas, meadows and fields have become commercial and industrial zones, a golf course and a motorway. […] What happens inside us when a landscape we have loved since childhood is transformed? Unruly rebellion seems to me an advisable option.”
What Ums ‘n Jip produced from this was an 80-minute song cycle for voice, recorder and live electronics “testifying,” in Simon Cummings’ words, “to the deep wounds that can be caused by the inevitable, unstoppable, march of progress”.
But Javier Hagen is not just an edge-of-the-universe composer and performer. The last event of the latest Forum Wallis, which he organizes, was a concert by the Valais folksong choir. Hagen made his first mark on the Swiss music scene by rescuing Swiss folksongs after learning (while doing civilian service) how retirement home residents often knew many traditional songs that could otherwise get lost. He now runs a programme entitled “Learn folksongs and sing them in the family” which gets schoolchildren and concertgoers to listen and sing along with specially arranged songs.
Forum Wallis, as usual, had equally varied experiences to offer. Cummings reported: “The most entertaining event at Forum Wallis 2023 was […] a concert billed as being New Music for and with children[…] One of the most hilarious compositions i’ve ever heard, Motoharu Kawashima’s Das Lachenmann began the concert, preceded on this occasion by an equally funny session where the audience was taught to sing several isolated bars from the score, which were projected onto the wall. It was fantastic to see an audience of predominately young people engaging with new music as both listeners and, briefly, performers, and clearly having an absolute blast.
“The majority of the concert involved students from the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich, all playing various recorders, who took part in a number of pieces alongside Hagen, Mayer-Spohn and members of the dissonArt ensemble.”
‘Sun and never-ending ear candy’
Asked to briefly outline the appeal of the annual Forum Wallis, founded in 2006, Hagen told the local television: “Sun, fascination for sounds, and never-ending ear candy.” Entry to every event is free and the concertgoers can donate what they want when they leave.
“You can compare Forum Wallis to a gourmet restaurant,” Hagen suggested. “It simply doesn’t serve fondue or raclette, but an excellent fusion cuisine of Peruvian or African recipes with an Indian flavour, and that’s something you don’t normally get here.”
The 2023 Forum Wallis festival also included an acousmonium-featured work by Ulrike Mayer-Spohn with the Greek new music ensemble dissonArt and JIP: fKFW.
Lockdown meant a de facto ban for musicians
During lockdown, Javier wrote an article for the World New Music Magazine about the impact of the pandemic and the official response on Swiss freelancers in the music world.
He pointed out that most freelancers did not earn enough from their art to get the generous 80% subsidy from Swiss authorities for businesses caught by lockdown in the pandemic.
Plus, “a de facto professional ban has been in place for musicians in Switzerland” with the ban on public meetings of any concert sîze, he observed in 2020.
The music sector expected a 64-91% loss in income for 2020 alone. Online presentations mushroomed, but many concerts were unpaid.
Rock musician’s appeal, Saudi involvement
Swiss broadcasting did increase the proportion of Swiss music in all programmes, after rock musician Nadja Zela sent an open letter to programme managers.
But going virtual had its technical problems, and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund bought into the multinational festival ticket business, causing some disquiet among performers because of the Saudi rights record. In all, Bern provided CHF80-100m compensation for losses but orchestras, opera houses, big festivals, clubs and cinemas had an advantage over freelancers.
Pro Helvetia’s good example
“The Swiss cultural foundation Pro Helvetia set a good example by opening special funding initiatives to support cultural projects in times of the coronavirus crisis,” he observes. “This was an important step, especially for the independent scene, since most notable Swiss foundations follow its mission statement.”
He concluded: “Short-term, smaller, more local – that seems to be the watchword at the moment, i.e. the new survival strategy.”
Not that it stopped them from producing an amusing short video entitled “Keep calm and wash your hands” in homage to COVID.
With the end of the pandemic regulations, UMS ‘n JIP are travelling again. At the beginning of May they went to Istanbul as part of their Turkey Project launched in 2014 to focus on Turkish works for two performers as well as organizing workshops, lectures, roundtables and private performances. “Works of the Turkey Project have been performed >70 times in 10 countries all over the world,” UMS ‘n JIP note.
Im störgarten on YouTube (LINK)
Keep calm and wash your hands (LINK)
Peter Hulm is Deputy Editor of Global Insights Magazine. www.global-geneva.com
Maybe weird but also wonderful: Valais Festival of New Music (LINK)
Tibetan warrior turns to pop (LINK)