Living in Berlin over the last half-year has brought the divide between “Neue Musik” and experimental work into stark relief for me, revealing a partition far more pronounced and rigid than anything I’d ever noticed in the U.S. While there are certainly plenty of European composers and musicians who disregard such boundaries, institutionally those borders tend to remain heavily fortified, a state of affairs readily apparent from the six concerts I attended during the annual Ultraschall Festival, one of the most respected and high profile Neue Musik events in the city.

I won’t use this space to discuss the dominance of a Eurocentric, heavily academic aesthetic, since the concept of ethnic diversity doesn’t really enter the picture at all here—apart from a handful of Asian composers, all living in Europe, everything was strictly continental. Within that context, the best performances I experienced generally pushed against that grain.

Performing a late evening concert on Friday, January 17 at the Heimathafen Neukölln, the superb Norwegian trio Poing – accordionist Frode Haltli, saxophonist Rolf-Erik Nystrøm, and bassist Håkon Thelin – was joined for several pieces by the composer and vocalist Maja Ratkje, daring to play John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” and Kurt Weill’s “Ballade vom ertrunkenen Mädchen” (where she evoked the gritty insouciance of Lotte Lenya) on a program of mostly new work that made no fuss over colliding seemingly disparate material.

In fact, Poing balanced technical rigor with humor and a palpable joy in performing – a quality I found in short supply over the extended weekend – that in no way cheapened the seriousness of its art. On Ratkje’s solo piece “ØX,” Nystrøm shaped serrated, harmonically stippled alto lines that melded and deviated from a decidedly harsh electronic track of piercing sine tones, violent cloudbursts, and brief stretches of silence. He was no less virtuosic during Eivind Buene’s trio work “Seven types of ambiguity,” dispatching meticulously notated post-bop runs sandwiched between jagged contemporary music passages that reflect the influence of free improvisation.

On the other hand, Ratkje’s “Passing Images” reveled in quietude, as Haltli played short sighs and two-note gestures, Thelin produced barely audible bowed echoes. The work was derived from a memory of a particular folk tune, and even in a sudden, skittering explosion of fricative sound it all felt appropriately aerated, as if a ghostly impression.

While saxophonist Marcus Weiss, pianist Nicolas Hodges, and percussionist Christian Dierstein of Freiburg, Germany’s Trio Accanto might suggest a jazz-like aesthetic, its repertoire is steeped in classic Neue Musik verities. That said, the trio’s January 16 performance at the Heimathafen Neukölln revealed a sharp curatorial aesthetic, finding connections among In Between, a gear-shifting new work by Japanese composer Yu Kuwabara, and Exercises 37 & 38 by Christian Wolff, the latest in a long-running series that demands serious performer input and a democratic sensibility—a requirement the ensemble delivered in no uncertain terms, balancing order and spontaneity in electric fashion.

The world premiere of the full version of Sinaïa 1916 by Johannes Schöllhorn – the group had previously performed and recorded the first section a few years ago – was especially satisfying, bringing out a gorgeous, unexpected Asian flavor in a work inspired by parts of the “Choral” and “Carillon nocturne” movements of Romanian composer George Enescu’s Suite No. 3. The concert concluded with a charged reading of Trio funambule, written for the trio in 2014 by Georges Aperghis—its tightly-wound, rapidly-shifting percussive timbres, squiggling melodies, and quicksilver dynamics neatly reflecting its title, French for tightrope-walker.

Earlier the same evening, JACK Quartet performed all four string quartets composed by Berlin-based Clara Iannotta, including the premiere of You Crawl Over Seas of Granite, a commission from the quartet that deploys detuned, amplified strings to produce acrid slabs of sound that drift, collide, and coalesce in fascinating combinations. These four mysterious, often translucent works are attractively fragile and sometimes feel like sonic refractions of light, which makes particular sense in, dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii) – from 2017, and originally composed in response to Bach’s Partita No. 1 – where the composer imagined some unnamed creature swimming in the darkest, most subterranean depths of an ocean; thus its motions are hazy, its sounds muted despite a certain gauziness.

JACK interpreted all four quartets with trademark meticulousness, imparting a masterful touch that injected a fluidity and litheness to the most harrowing and difficult passages. The oldest quartet, A Failed Entertainment, was bracing its rhythmic elucidation of whispery textures, biting, sibilant friction, unexpected metallic twangs – produced by paper clips rolled into coils and inserted between strings – clanging desk bells and terse melodic sequences. Individually each string quartet was superb, but even JACK couldn’t fully transcend the fact that all four occupied a relatively similar sonic terrain, which proved a bit fatiguing by the end of the concert. The program appeared more practical than creative, as in the days preceding the performance JACK also recorded the pieces for a future album.

The fact that the most rewarding piece on the Friday concert by the venerable OENM (Österreichisches Ensemble für Neue Musik) was Sofia Gubaidulina’s Five Etudes for Harp, Double Bass, and Percussion offered a potent indictment about some of the contemporary works on the program. There was something a bit too precious – even pointless – about the opening piece, Manuela Kerer’s Kaput II (2017). The harpsichord, flute, harp, and Paetzold recorder were loosely wrapped in clear plastic bags to symbolize the material the composer had tossed away in writing the piece, a conceit reinforced by an electronic track with soundings of those discards.

The concert closed with Elena Mendoza’s Fremdkörper/Variationen (2015), an assortment of well-played extended techniques on piano, percussion, and cello, which reached a corny climax when a performer who’d previously aided with live piano preparations gathered up various tools used by the musicians, including a wine bottle and glass, and sat at a table at the front of the stage, performing pantomime accompanied by many of the same techniques, making Tati-esque Foley effects from earlier abstractions.

The ensemble played everything beautifully, but I was left with a sinking feeling that the only purpose of some of the works was to fulfill the prescribed duty of a composer—intellectual exercises to perpetuate the production of Neue Musik, a quality that isn’t limited to Europe. Luckily, the music of Ratkje, Iannotta, Schöllhorn, and Wolff, among others, provided a rewarding alternative.

Peter Margasak is a longtime music journalist who spent more than two decades as a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, and also has contributed to Downbeat, Chamber Music, Bandcamp Daily, The New York Times, and more. Since 2013 he has curated the weekly Frequency Series at Constellation in Chicago, and since 2016 has been artistic director of the Frequency Festival. He presently is attending the American Academy in Rome as part of its Visiting Artists & Scholars Program.

Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.