Czech Composers in the Post-Modern Era

Miroslav Pudlak

This little anthology could not possibly claim to illustrate the recent development of Czech music in full or even as a representative cross-section. It is far too small, someone important will always be left out, and even the pieces selected do not represent the whole output of their composers. The choice of pieces is deliberately not conceived as a chronological view, it focuses mainly on the current middle and younger generation of composers. Here composers born in the 1950s rub shoulders with one composer 20 years younger.

Despite great diversity of style, the generation to which the five older composers belong shares a number of more general features that have to do with their common historical experience. These features are individualism, resignation to what for years was enforced isolation from the international "festival" mainstream coupled with resistance to identification with the conservatively minded institutional musical life in the Czech Lands. Orchestral pieces are almost absent from the lists of their works (the situation in Czech orchestras being unfavourable to the attempt) and most of their output has consisted of chamber music written for a circle of like-minded performers. To this day their work tends to be performed as part of their own projects, ensembles and small festivals. Their example is highly illustrative of the much in the life of Czech music over the last 30 years.

Let us therefore first take a look at the period of the 1970s and 1980s, when this generation grew up and started on their active careers. These were the two decades of the rigid Neo-Stalinist regime installed in 1968 by Soviet tanks after Czechoslovakia's brief experiment in cultural and political liberalisation. It was an epoch that brought centralist control and conformism to the life of the Czech arts. Official concerts of contemporary music were for long years grey and boring affairs. Conservatism also ruled the music schools where composition was taught. At the Music Faculty of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts the key teaching posts in composition were held by mediocre composers, prominent in the Communist Party. Composers like Martin Smolka, who were students during this period, did not feel themselves to be the heirs of these conformist composers in any respect. Instead they tended to see themselves as the successors of the Czech avant-garde of the 1960s, i.e. of groups of composers who at the time were ostracised and driven underground into the position of musical dissent. In their biographies Martin Smolka and Petr Kofroň for example identify their teacher as Marek Kopelent, who gave them private consultations since at the time he was not allowed to teach at any school.

Compared with the politically extremely regimented Prague, the situation was rather better at the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts in Brno, where a group of progressively-orientated composers with a broad outlook and serious interests in new musical trends continued to teach even in the 1970s. In Brno the truly outstanding teacher of composition was Alois Piňos (see CM 4/05), who published important works on the theory of composition and kept up contacts with the Darmstadt Courses, where he was regularly invited as a teacher and to which he took his own students. Peter Graham, Josef Adamík and Petr Kofroň, for example, all studied in his class. It was in their circle that there first developed a clear search for new, in the broad sense of the word "post-modern" stylistic orientations, as it were in an attempt to find a way out of the all too familiar territory where the wearisome and in fact already anachronistic conflict between the ruling Czech traditionalism and the forbidden fruit of the 1960s avant-garde was still endlessly raging.

Since official concert life in the field of contemporary music was centrally directed by the Union of Composers and offered few possibilities for free musical expression, these composers sought their own ways of getting their work performed. In the mid-1980s, therefore, the Agon Ensemble was formed, led by a group of composers. Initially it operated on an amateur basis (and so could not be controlled by the authorities) but later became more and more a professional body. In addition to presenting works by its own composers, the ensemble introduced the Czech public to important foreign works and the music of the half-forgotten Czech avant-garde. On the Brno scene a similar role was played at the same time by the ensemble Art incognito (later Ars incognita) and the Central European percussion ensemble DAMA DAMA. By the time of the revolutionary changes in 1989 these ensembles had already created a solid performer base from which other professional groups could emerge in the 1990s. The circle of composers that had been the architects of Agon and Ars incognita went on to define the character of the festivals New Music Marathon in Prague and the Exposition of New Music in Brno, both of which became important components of musical life. Agon also managed to break through into several foreign festivals, for example the aesthetically like-minded Bang-On-A-Can Festival in New York, and thanks to the overlap between its members and the Marathon Festival to arrange a whole series of invitations to important foreign composers and performers.

Composer Composition Creation year
Graham, Peter The Lunch Break in a Factory of the Future
Kofroň, Petr Tworl 1994
Smolka, Martin Oh, My Admired C Minor
Medek, Ivo Wings 2005
Zemek (Novák), Pavel Unison I for 4 saxophones 2004
Štochl, Ondřej Tetralogue 2005