Zahradní Ateliér / Garden Atelier





Spiritual Art at the Forfest

Radim Bačuvčík



The fourteenth annual Forfest, a festival of contemporary art with a spiritual focus, took place in the week from the 21st to the 29th of June this year in Kroměříž.


As you might expect from the name, it’s the town of Zlín that is the capital of the Zlín Region, but the region’s cultural centre is without a doubt the town of Kroměříž. Unlike the regional capital, an insignificant village until the beginning of the twentieth century, the region’s second largest town is an ancient centre that can boast genius loci favourable to the spirit of art. Its superb Baroque architecture, above all the Archbishop’s Chateau and adjoining Under-Chateau Garden, and the whole charming townscape are magnets for people with an artistic sensibility, and so it is no surprise to find that it is a lively centre of musical education (there are two conservatories in Kroměříž) and above all of all kinds of more or less formal arts activities. Among the most important is the Forfest Festival.

Forfest’s subtitle is “An international festival of contemporary art with a spiritual focus”. If we ask how far the festival lives up to the adjectives in its title, we would have to answer that it does so to a different extent in each case. The Forfest is indeed a truly international festival, and its reputation seems to be greater in Europe and overseas than in our republic. Every year many visitors come to the festival from all over the world and it is not unusual to find there are more guests from abroad than from the Czech Republic. This goes not just for the performers but for the composers who are featured in the programme. The share of home and foreign artists is practically the same at the Forfest.

Although Forfest defines itself as a festival of contemporary arts in the broad sense it is in fact mainly a music event. This year the imposing exhibition of work by Californian artists called Mind Trips, which opened the festival, was the only presentation of visual art except for the exhibition of Milivoj Husák’s Drawings from a Larger Cycle. Poetry was represented simply by two authorial readings by Marek Toman and Roman Szpuk, drama by a play called Days Nights performed by the Prague Miriam Theatre and contemporary film solely by Petr Baran’s multimedia project Creation.

The question of how far the Forfest programme presents genuinely spiritual art if one that I shall ask the reader’s forgiveness for ducking. The theme is too subtle and subjective to write about usefully here. A whole range of the works at the festival were clearly inspired by spiritual or sacred subjects, but as far as those with less obvious spiritual content were concerned, I leave defence of their inclusion to the organisers of the Forfest, namely the Kroměříž Arts Initiative run by the husband and wife team Zdenka and Václav Vaculovič.


Forfest for Composers

Forfest is not just a primarily musical festival, but very definitely a festival of composers and premieres. Every year it features several world and Czech first performances of works by composers from at home and abroad. This year’s Forfest was no exception. Just the opening concert brought a whole harvest of premieres: works by the American composers William Toutant and Daniel Kessner (Hommage of Orlando Lasso and River of Time respectively), Déjá Vu by the Rumanian composer Liviu Marinescu and a shortened version of Pavel Zemek’s Second Symphony “the Passion”. The opening concert was also the only symphonic concert and enjoyed the largest audience. The Zlín Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic conducted by Milan Kaňák gave a very respectable performance, and in the Zemek symphony it was joined by an imposing octet of soloists and the combined forces of the Kroměříž Moravian Madrigalists and the Brno Ambrosian Choir. The other particularly impressive item on the programme was River of Time by the Forfest’s permanent guest composer Daniel Kessner. It showed an immense sense of musical dynamics and melody with such a strong appeal to the audience that one might even call it pan-European.

The concert featuring the works of František Fiala offered an experience of a quite different kind. A composer who is also director of the Kroměříž Conservatory, Fiala manages to combine a progressive very modern spirit with great musical openness. With his extraordinary inexhaustible melodic invention and immense musical imagination his music is highly evocative and at the same time accessible, making the him this year’s Forfest discovery. Fiala’s music evidently has the potential to speak to a larger audience that is usually resistant to contemporary music and to do so without cheap effects. It will certainly be interesting to watch this composer in future.

The organisers scored a great success in ensuring that most of the composers whose work was presented at the festival were actually there in person. Not only the composers already mentioned, but also, for example, the British composer David Matthews, who brought his composition , the Flaying of Marsyas, inspired by a visit to the Kroměříž Archbishop’s Chateau where he saw Titian’s picture of Apollo Punishing Marsyas and decided to give it musical expression. Other composer celebrities at the festival included Antonín Tučapský, whose musical profile was presented by the Kroměříž Moravian Madrigalists conducted by Radek Dočkal at the final concert, Alois Piňos, with two pieces performed by the male vocal quintet QVox at the launch of the opening exhibition, Rudolf Růžička, who presented his electro-acoustic compositions by himself and in combination with a film by Petr Baran, and Richard Mayer, who draws inspiration for his music from several stays in Iceland. The line-up of composer profiles was completed by a cross-section of the work of the late Jan Novák, who was forced into exile against his will.


Forfest for Performers

Apart from meeting contemporary composers, Forfest festival-goers encountered a while range of brilliant performers, whether soloists or ensembles.

The Qvox male vocal quartet and its interpretation of Piňos’s Psalm 71 and Invocation has already been mentioned. They also sang In morte del eccellentissimo Monteverde by Miloš Štědroň and Three Madrigals by Jana Hanuš, and overall it seems that contemporary music is their special domain. While in contemporary music and in the Gregorian chant Salve Regina or the organ Primo tempore the quartet sounded very convincing, in the Renaissance pieces they adopted a tone very similar to that of the Janáček Male Choirs on their CD and so were a great deal less distinctive, while not actually disappointing.

On the subject of brilliant performers, we should certainly mention the British ensemble, The Fibonacci Sequence, which apart from presenting David Matthews Flaying of Marsyas premiered the Brno composer Jaroslav Šťastný’s Fibonacci fantasias (without Titian), written specially for them and for their concert at the Forfest. In Šťastný’s timbre jeux d’esprit with their aliquot tones and in the virtuoso passages in Matthews’ pieces the string quartet with oboist gave an unusually precise performance, perfectly mastered in terms of expression.

Visitors to two concerts on two successive days given by the cellist Werner Taube and the pianists Renata and Milan Bialos respectively had an opportunity to hear just how different the principles of contemporary music and approaches to its performance can be. While the German cellist performed very avant-garde pieces that placed huge demands on listeners, the father and daughter Bialas duo had chosen music with rather more immediate listener appeal. There need be no odious comparisons of skill, of course, since all the musicians concerned are truly excellent. On the other hand, Werner Tabe was wholly absorbed in his music and quite unconcerned as to whether the listeners were coping with it (and it should be added that for the most part they only started to get the idea when the Forfest organiser Zdenka Vaculovičová in her accompanying commentary started spontaneously to talk about the images that Taube’s music conjured up in her mind), while the Bialas duo allowed clapping after every piece and for unknown reasons always kept back in the wings for a time while the audience had to wait. Pavel Blatný made a contribution to the latter concert not so much with his commentary, which he might have done better to have with him on paper, but much more with his Water Music using elements of his own arrangement of Erben ballads, which was in terms of invention and evocative mood were many times more impressive than the other pieces played.

From the performance point of view the high point of the Forfest was probably the concert given by the young Spanish pianist Ricard Descalz. He played the Czech premieres of pieces by Jesús Rueda, Sofia Gubaidulina and other composers with immense southern temperament and a virtuoso bravura that brought our the great colour of the music. It is only to be regretted that the American guitarist William Feasley, who gave a recital the night after Descalz, had not devoted more attention to getting on the same musical wavelength with Pavel Ciboch, his partner in several duets. Their lack of common rhythm was in places disturbingly obvious and rather undermined the impression not just of Feasley’s solo play, but of the whole evening. .


Forfest for Experiment

It is of course walking on thin ice to talk of any one element in the Forfest as experimental since from a certain point of view all contemporary music has a somewhat experimental character. Nonetheless, there was something interestingly experimental about a concert called Between the Years 1953 - 73, at which recordings of music written by Jan Hanuš, Roman Berger and Miroslav Kabeláč in the years mentioned were played in a Gothic church. Paradoxically, it turned out that while a recording of orchestral music was inadequate in such a setting, electro-acoustic music – in this case Roman Berger’s Epitaph for Nicholas Copernicus – worked interestingly well, since by its nature it absorbs and can even be enriched by the sounds floating in from the street or the birds singing in the church tower. Another intriguing item was a recording of work by the composers association of HAMU students known as Konvergence, i.e. Tomáš Pálka, Roman Pallas and Ondřej Štochl, whose music was highly stimulating and provoked a lively discussion among those present. Again, there were very contradictory reactions to Morthon Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet performed by the Corona Ensemble, in which the three students mentioned play; it is a piece that lasts for nearly an hour and a half using only one gradually varied motif and it is based on the denial of the perception of time. The last event from this kind of experimental barrel was the appearance of the Kojetín Industrial Philharmonic conducted by Petr Samlík and a presentation of his proposal for principles of industrial notation.


Multigenre Forfest

As has been pointed out, despite the proclaimed inter-disciplinary nature of the festival, the Forfest remains largely a music event. The most interesting item from the other arts fields was the exhibition Mind Trips – An exploration of inner space put together from the works of artists in Southern California by curator Louise Lewis. The exhibition title is taken over from New Age vocabulary and presents the intimate reactions of artists to the contemporary world, in which everything is subordinated to financial interests and media monopolies. This year film was represented by a multimedia project from the photographer and artist Petr Baran. Entitled Creation, it is inspired by the Book of Genesis and interestingly combines film shots with the electro-acoustic music of Rudolf Růžička. The theatre performance of the Prague Miriam company, Days of Night – the last months of St. Teresa of Lisieux, was included in the Forfest programme mainly thanks to the music of Martin Dohnal, in this case close to song-writing. The play itself slightly lacked dramatic development and conflict, since it dealt continually turned only on St. Teresa’s expression of acceptance of death as the culmination of illness and her faith in the love of Christ.



As part of the festival there was also a week-long academic colloquium on the theme of Spritual Currents in Contemporary Art. Invited speakers presented different aspects of spirituality in contemporary music, art and theatre. It is a pity that much of the colloquium was not chaired or directed in any way, and so many questions were ignored or left hanging in the air. Probably the liveliest response was provoked by Libor Mathauser from the Rosa publishing house with her comments on the question of spirituality in non-classical music.


Spiritual Forfest

Having mentioned the colloquium let us return once more to the question of spirituality in art. Although many different opinions were voiced on the theme and all the works presented had something to do with it, no clear answer crystallised in response to the question of how that spirituality might be defined. Many sides of spirituality were presented, but it turned out that where spirituality is too obviously striven for and foregrounded, it may even disappear, while appearing in most powerful form in places where few would ever expect it. A composer can use a liturgical text and set it to music, but that doesn’t make the resulting work spiritual unless the inspiration has been internalised and experienced. Conversely, it can be astonishing to discover the depths contained in a music that seems as if it must be a priori cold and void of feeling, for example the music created from computer generated and modified sounds, as demonstrated in the work of Rudolf Růžička.

There is no alternative but to leave the identification of spirituality in art to the subjective feelings of each individual, since one person can perceive great spirituality where another finds it entirely lacking. We can adduce a thousand arguments for why we see or don’t see spirituality in a work of art, but no one can guarantee that anyone else will share our feelings. This is because spirituality perhaps does not even reside in art or a work of art in itself. Spirituality is in the people who create it and receive it, and it is questionable whether it is at all possible to transmit knowledge of spirituality, to point at it and to define it without ambiguity.