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Interview with Miriam Akkermann

Miriam Akkermann has taken up the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Professorship at the FU Berlin for the summer semester 2024. To mark the occasion, Björn Gottstein spoke to her about her plans for the semester, the interfaces between practice and theory and the difficult role of musicology as a documenting and stimulating authority on the contemporary music scene.

Björn Gottstein: Ms. Akkermann, you first studied flute and then musicology. This means that you approached music from both sides and now hold a professorship in musicology, which is intended to integrate practice into theory. How do you proceed with this?

Miriam Akkermann: The big challenge is to allow both sides to realise their interests and to find the interfaces that interest them both: The question of documenting contemporary performances, for example. Here we can see very clearly that the hope from the artists' perspective is often that musicology has the perfect formula for how to document. Musicology, on the other hand, hopes that the artists know exactly how to preserve their work for eternity. This naturally leads to a certain tension. I believe that musicology can develop descriptive formats and offer systematisation. If the artists are open to explaining the artistic processes and works, this is an incredibly rich source for musicology. Both sides should work together as equals and draw on the entire body of knowledge. They need each other in their diversity. And I believe that as soon as that is clear, everyone can only gain.

Björn Gottstein: During your time in Dresden, you also invited composers to the seminars - Stefan Prins and Rama Gottfried, for example. Are you planning to do the same at your new venue?

Miriam Akkermann: I've just come out of a rehearsal phase with Natasha Barrett. She is a composer-in-residence at the Summer School in Barcelona for a research project in July. We will also be focussing on South America at the institute in July and will be looking at works by Paulo Chagas and Cassia Carrascoza Bomfim, among others. The main focus here will be on the question of what it means to perform and experience pieces that no longer only have individual media presences, i.e. in which there is a presence ranging from real to hybrid to completely digital. The long-term goal is to bring together students from a wide range of disciplines, such as music, theatre, dance and media studies, composition, sound art and digital art. It is very important to me to invite a wide variety of artists and composers to give them the opportunity to present their own work. However, this always requires some lead time in the academic field.

Björn Gottstein: Natasha Barrett, Paulo Chagas - that's the present, artists with their own approach who are working on original issues. In your opinion, how does this relate to what you have to teach in musicology as a basis, in the past you would have called it a canon?

Miriam Akkermann: You need knowledge about music and developments in the 20th century so that you have the tools to be able to discuss current works and scrutinise contexts. Many of the questions that we are discussing today in relation to the latest works were already discussed in the last few decades. This is especially true when we look at performance practice. What topics were discussed? What was perhaps discussed to such an extent that we can take the results and discuss them further? And sometimes there are certainly questions that remain unanswered.

Björn Gottstein: Musicology is a small department at the FU, as part of an institute that also includes dance, theatre and film studies as well as cultural and media management. How do you feel about this environment?

Miriam Akkermann: For me, it's great to have a colleague in Camilla Bork with whom I have an incredible number of points of intersection in my research. This is independent of the size of the institute. The fact that a lot of contemporary art and performative art is researched throughout the institute means that there is a super environment in which the other disciplines are very close and it's really easy to make connections. My hope for the five years of the guest professorship is that we will manage to further develop these interfaces and set up joint projects accordingly.

Björn Gottstein: As a scientist, how do you deal with new developments, technologies such as artificial intelligence, for example? Do you see yourself as being called upon to help shape the present and perhaps even the future?

Miriam Akkermann: With its methods, musicology has a limit in the "now". We can only work on things that people have already done or are in the process of doing. Purely analytical or descriptive work does not take us into the future. But especially when we look at works of the 21st century, we realise that there are hardly any pieces left whose documentation does not include recordings, films or videos. The way in which we document and the means by which we document and how the now often digital materials are preserved is fundamental. In this area, we as musicologists automatically become implicit co-creators of what will be in the future. And I think that's a really big step and a big change in the position of musicology. We're talking about a time span of - let's say - ten years. If artistic activity is not properly documented, if it is not reprocessed or contextualised differently – and this will be particularly exciting for musical productions with the integration of artificial intelligence techniques – then the information is simply gone, even though the people still exist. This is the new challenge for musicology.

Björn Gottstein: Finally, I would like to ask how you assess the situation of New Music in general. On the one hand, there are pessimists who see no future in the face of fiscal austerity and cultural brutalisation. And then there are the optimists, who emphasise that contemporary music enjoys general acceptance today and that there is a great variety of tonal languages. How do you see that?

Miriam Akkermann: We can see that we have an audience today that has grown up with this post-war avant-garde. Many of these pieces were certainly blatant pioneers of their sound aesthetics. But some of them are now established and will therefore no longer be perceived as extremely radical by today's audiences. Xenakis is a very good example of this. These previously unfamiliar sound clusters can now be found in so many other areas that they no longer come as a shock. The audience also grows with the challenges. You can actually see that traditional concert programmes have the courage to include a contemporary piece. The acceptance of such experiments is much greater, even for listeners who are not used to them. I would therefore say that many aspects of the pessimistic perspective relate particularly to funding and institutionalisation and not so much to the creative side. The artists don't let themselves get down creatively. I am very positive about the composers. They will find great ways to surprise us as an audience.

Björn Gottstein: Thank you very much for the interview. I wish you all the best in your new role!