The chief objectives of the Atlas Ensemble are the promotion of exchange and cross-pollination of traditions and achievements of the art music of different cultures, and the development of new repertoire.
Just as our society has been irrevocably transformed into a multicultural community, the music world is also in constant flux. The musical landscape of the future will be determined by ensemble formations that unite disparate musical cultures, stylistically (in terms of idiom) as well as in terms of instrumental heritage.
Cultural fusion is currently taking place in all art forms and on all levels. In music, pop and jazz have played a key role. The Atlas Ensemble aims to refine this trend by bringing together the achievements of art music from distinct cultures. In doing so, the Atlas Ensemble is committed to respecting and preserving the invaluable trove of musical traditions, and to protecting them against the ever-looming threat of musical globalization – the downside of current artistic developments.
In writing for such a formation, composers must address complex issues. How are all these instruments to play together without doing an injustice to the integrity and traditions of the various cultures? Is it legitimate, for example, to regard a local instrument purely as a source of sound, independently of its cultural background, or is this a naïve or even flawed approach? How can a composer take full advantage of the virtuosity and spontaneity of a master of the tar, kemancha or kanun, while the player can hardly read music? How does he deal with the various tuning and tonal systems; which one should be applied? The use of microtones in non-Western music is highly refined. It would be arrogant and simplistic to force all the world’s instruments into the corset of our Western system. In order to achieve an equal, balanced exchange and effective cross-pollination, Western composers and musicians should ideally study non-Western tonal systems. Music students in Baku, Beijing or Tashkent have, after all, had the opportunity to become versed in Western music as well as their own musical traditions.
Just as the kelim and the clove have made their way into our Westerm households, the sheng and the qanun could just as easily become an everyday sight and sound at our conservatories, in our ensembles and in our orchestras. And just as Thai or Moroccan dishes are now common culinary fare world-wide, maqam, raga, pelog and slendro could one day belong to the universal cultural skills of young composers from Malaysia, Mexico and Madagascar.
The Atlas Ensemble has launched an ambitious effort to combine musicians from different cultures, with their local instruments, in a single chamber orchestra. It is essential to preserve a non-globalistic approach: everything must not start to sound alike, but the differences must be maintained, emphasized and respected. It is precisely those differences that harbour an overwhelming potential; together, composers and musicians reap the fruits of the world’s centuries-old cultural treasures and in doing so discover unforeseen as well as hoped-for combinations of sound colour, musical form, expression and playing techniques. For the creative spirit as well as the future of music, this is truly a gold mine.