Interview with Alexander Hollensteiner

General manager of the Kammerakademie Potsdam, Germany. Interview by Richard Oeckel, Xenorama Studio, 12.05.2021.


Alexander Hollensteiner, the general manager of the Kammerakademie Potsdam discusses artists’ right and duty to address societal and political issues, tensions and entanglements of the analogue and digital in the field of music and the need for art academies to engage with and integrate the real world in teaching.


Please introduce yourself briefly and describe your profession.

My name is Alexander Hollensteiner. I’m acting general manager of the Kammerakademie Potsdam, which is a freelance orchestra based here in Potsdam consisting of 33 freelance musicians. And my job is to run the orchestra economically, artistically and monitor all personal questions with my team and also administer all actions around the concerts and the events we are doing.

How would you describe your relationship to art schools or universities or institutes of higher arts education currently, and how do you see your relationship develop in the future?

Currently we are working quite closely with some music schools, mostly in the Berlin area, which is the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin and the UdK (Berlin University of the Arts) because obviously we are looking for the most talented young musicians coming from these music schools to be part of our orchestra or to be part of our campus, which is the rising star of a frame of our orchestra. We are also working quite closely with other non-arts schools, so “normal” universities or universities of applied science; we have both institutions here in Potsdam. We do have the University of Potsdam and the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam. And we are having different projects. For example – just to mention one – together with the university we developed a tool like an audio guide for concerts, which is also a mixture of technology, communication and new formats of arts distribution. That was quite some years ago. And now we are starting to work again more closely with the university on the questions of new concert formats and also digital and technical based concepts formats. We hope to do more in the future. [chuckling]

You call yourself an academy, too. The Kammerakademie Potsdam. Do you see yourself also as an institute for higher art education or as an art school? What is the concept behind that academy?

The name doesn’t refer directly to academy as a higher arts institution, but it states that it’s not a “”normal” orchestra in the sense that we have musicians employed sitting there playing music that people would put on their stands, but that we like to be involved with academic contexts. This could be various art forms – we are doing a lot of projects with literature and also other art forms such as dance or performance or theater. Each year we are doing our own opera production. And on the other hand, we like to work closely with the science world, which in Potsdam is quite unique because we have a very high density of scientists. I think in Potsdam we have the highest scientists rate per inhabitant in Europe. So it’s very clearly linked to that field, too. So, academy, but we are not considering ourselves as some sort of arts school. Whereas we are having our two year campus project where young musicians are learning how to be part of an orchestra like Kammerakademie Potsdam, but this is really very clearly practice-driven.

What impact does the relationships to art schools or institutes have on you personally, or what impact did it have on you personally? Is there something interesting to tell?

Personally, I can say that I like the change of perspective. We are looking from a more practical point of view. And whenever I speak to or whenever we have contact with education, the higher education or more the scientific parts, then we have another perspective on what we are doing. This is always very, very fruitful. And referring to music schools: It is also a check in terms of learning. What does a student learn within the frame of higher education and what do they need in practical life? This is not the same. So also to understand what these young people need in addition to their music school life in order to make a living as for example a freelance musician. So this is very interesting for me, but also in the function I’m having here. So both personally and professionally.

From your perspective, with regard to both the present day and also the future, what are the most impactful roles of artists, art and creative work, for example, in society or in the economic sector?

Big question! [chuckling] I think artists should have the right and also the job to address all sorts of topics that are related to society. These might be political, social, democratic or climate issues. So I think first of all, an artist should be aware that he is indeed having a stage and that he is allowed, not only allowed, but that he has the right to use that stage in order to convey artistic approaches to society and to address its burning issues. I think this can also help the artists to find their way in society. We are currently looking at a situation of crisis where it’s very difficult to only do the “normal” job, but I think it requires that artists need to be political, politically driven. Not party political, but political in the sense that we also need to be conscious that we have a strong word in present and future society, and we can use the power of the artistic, but also the public power that we are having.

So you’re saying that one of the impactful roles of an artist in society for you is the addressing of issues also with a political background or he has the right to take this role?

Alexander Hollensteiner
Yes, and the artist should always be aware that he has this role and addresses things that the public is probably not that aware of. So by taking the occasion that he’s having or she’s having, the artist can support our democratic way of dealing with burning topics.

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Can you specify this a bit more to your field of expertise, regarding musicians or orchestra musicians, and the content mixture that you’re approaching? Not only about the music the Kammerakademie, but in a broader almost collective-like vision and opening to other forms of arts. What would you say is the role of your artists in society or in the economy, especially regarding Potsdam, the city you’re living in?

I think an artist could be something like a good example, a role model, which doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not allowed to make mistakes. I think he should even try to make mistakes in the sense that by seeing the artists failing, this also can help the spectator to understand something.

I’m giving another example from my orchestra: We have a strict democratic order. We have 33 musicians who have the very same rights. They have one vote, so we have 33 votes. So every major decision needs to run that democratic level. This means, first of all, an ideahas to be so good that at least 50% of the musicians are able to support the idea. So in that sense there’s a lot of communication. There’s a lot of reasoning back and forth. There’s a lot of pros and cons and all those very democratic practices that, yes, might take a little bit longer, but then if we have a decision, then you can be sure that it is carried by the majority of our team. And this is something I think that’s very important, when democracies are under fire everywhere in the world or parts of the world – even in Germany, at the moment, we have quite some irritations within the democratic structure because the parliament is not in acting mode these days, the government has taken over due to the Corona pandemic. So we are facing a crisis in democracy these days, even in Germany.

I think it is very important that teams or collaborative collectives, like the Kammerakademie Potsdam, are acting as good example internally, and also convey this externally. Also, since two years – so we have started long before the crisis – we have started to work on a new topic. We are currently working on reformulating the cultural task of sustainability. We are working together with the IASS, which is the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. It’s the most prestigious institute for sustainability topics in Germany. They are also consulting the Bundesregierung [Federal Government] and so on. And the good thing about it is that it’s not only focused on climate. But it’s working on a very broad sustainability term. And you have a lot of different people there, also fine artists, and we are currently working with them on reformulating our job, our official cultural job within the framework of sustainability. So this also reflects our approach to these questions, for example the incorporation of female composers or conductors, the opening of our programmation to all music and artists of the world, the addressing of problems and climate issues, the participation of all citizens of our music, but also of the fact to be a good example and not only in bringing these topics to the stage, but also to live and to act accordingly. Because this is what happens sometimes that artists address something on stage, but then they behave the other way around. So also address ourselves in sustainability questions. It’s a very complex system. I can’t answer this in a minute here, but this also reflects our approach to these topics.

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What are the most influential trends and developments that you see today in society? How do they influence the attendance, role and reception of your field of art?

I think the “algorithmization” of every part of our daily life is such a dominant thing. If you look at all the now normal forms of communication.

For example if you talk to Siri [Apple’s voice assistant used on Iphones etc.] like how quickly Siri can understand what you’re saying, and then just answering back and such things. And I think this is something that, especially in the last 14 months, which is the time of the Corona crisis, these digital possibilities paid very much for our jobs. In terms of what we are doing now: an interview, normally without any technical problems. And I know that some universities are working on the possibility for orchestras to work live on musical terms without any delay. I don’t know if they already succeeded, but normally you have a delay, so you can’t rehearse via video or Internet call. As far as I understood, there’s a big group of technicians that are working on that. So we are talking about communication. We are talking about all sorts of aesthetic formats, also in terms of participation. The possibilities of participation in an artistic project has gotten much easier.

So we are also talking about a democratic thing here: sometimes you just need a mobile phone – and everybody normally is having a mobile phone these days. You have to find the information and you have to have the link, or you have to get the idea of what is happening, but then you can access it very easily. This also brings the discussion of what a value art has, as mostly these digitals formats come without a pay wall, but this might also be the transition from an analog world into an hybrid world.

But this is really something I would say from our point of view arts or music performance art is a big change driver these days. Speaking of my branch we do know that only 2 to, I don’t know, 5% of the people are actually visiting classical concerts. So the question that will be very important is: how can the technical possibilities, also due to the crisis, help to elevate that number? So how can we reach the other 95 to 98% with the thing we are doing? And then how can analog and digital go together in the near and far future. So how can we try to find new approaches from both ends? And I think this is a very interesting question because it addresses aesthetic questions and also democratic questions in terms of participation, because we know that there is a big group of people who wouldn’t come to a concert hall or philharmonic hall or to an opera, but if you go to the people, either analog or digital, this can help. So it’s a chance also, I think, so this is one or two ideas that I might come up with.

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Regarding the economic sector, which is a very interesting question to ask you as the manager of an artists group that you are: is there a development that you can point out over the last years, or maybe in the near future that you see that changed the economic perspective of an orchestra? Did it change due to the Corona crisis? Will it maybe change, also in terms of monetarisation of arts and the bigger picture or trend in it?

First of all, in the last years, even 10 years, 20 years, the overall figures of live concert visitors has grown from year to year. This is not only classical music, but it’s also in jazz, in pop and rock and so on, but also in classic, we have the “festivalisation” of classical music. So in every barn, charch or castle there’s a little music festival and at every lake there is a summer stage and so on. So in the last years, just until the start of the crisis, the figures grew constantly. So we don’t have a problem here really. Or we didn’t have one, right? Because also, I don’t know if I have the latest numbers, but you can clearly find them, every year the income situation and the economic situation of this live music branch gets bigger. So now we don’t know where we will start again, once the acute crisis is over. We don’t know how far we fall back and how long it will take to be back on track but certainly I do hope that there is a chance to get back to the level we had before. One answer.

Second answer: you have in the orchestra world, let’s say, two groups of orchestras, especially in Middle Europe. It’s different in other parts [of the world], but in Middle Europe you have the fully employed, fully subsidized big, let’s say, “cultural orchestras”, as we say in Germany. Mostly the bigger orchestra, the big symphony orchestras, also some smaller orchestras. And they’re fully financed by the state or by the communities or the cities. We will see what will happen to them, but I’m just saying, this is one group where you have a lifelong employed situation and really you don’t have a problem there.

Then there is the freelance, project-based, self-driven field as my orchestra is. We are having an official public duty yes, but our musicians are not fully employed. So every project we are delivering to them is a project they needto make their living [from]. So we also see what the crisis makes elicits. What I feel is that the crisis is just a burning glass. It was problematic before that you have these two fields and that they are treated very differently, both economically and also on a prejudice base. We often hear: “ah, it’s a freelance orchestra and what is their main profession?”. So we have the amateur-discussion, we have the not-the-main-job-discussion, as if it would be just a side job. We do have the discussion that it’s not a good quality because the musicians didn’t really get the “real” job.

So we are also talking about how work in artistic fields is organized in the 21st century. And mostly or often it is still considered that you have a good draft, which is the employed job. Or you have the “not so good” job. And this prejudice is very very common in our field. I know it’s different in other fields, like directors in music theater, they are always freelancers. And you don’t have that there, because it’s normal that they are not employed, but in our world, in the classical orchestra world, you have two very different settings. I think is very important to understand that there are two ways of making doing the job and not one way is better than the other. They’re just different. And I think this is very, very important, honestly.

And then also from a market point of view, you know, when I started in the business 20 years ago, simply spoken: you had some stars and you had a big medium range of musicians, orchestras, ensembles etc., and then you had the beginners. So we had three sectors. And within the last years already before the crisis, this big medium field got thinner and thinner because the cities didn’t want the orchestra to be on tour or it’s [gotten] more difficult to get into the few good spots in the marketplace. So now, you’re having a small group of orchestras, ensembles, soloists, conductors at the top. Further you have only a few very solid orchestras, very solid conductors, very solid soloists not being a superstar, but just having a really cool career over 30, 40, 50 years. This got rarer and rarer. And then you’re having the young and hot. I’m seeing a huge gap in this middle field. We are not taking enough time for careers. We are not allowing that an orchestra or soloist or a conductor needs time to establish himself. They’re also not taking their time, but we are also forcing them: another CD, another hit. And if the hit is not coming you are out and the next is up. So we are hustling here. We are not letting things grow in a profound and, and normal “organic” way. We are just forcing it all the time. And the big stuff from yesterday, today is totally uninteresting. This is so unsustainable.

Thank you very much for these insights. I think it’s really easy to extrapolate that to other art forms. I can really relate to that. And I’m really inspired by this.

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Do you see a trend or a development in the art of classical music and the rendition of classical music, especially regarding new formats and also the presentation of analogue art, which the classical concert still is to this day? Maybe I can give you an example of a new format: On YouTube, you can see any big classical concert if you want for free. How does this affect your art form and its presentation? Maybe you can talk a little bit about that. Is it positive? Is it negative? Is it both?

I think it’s very hard to say how we will come out of the current situation, but I think as always in life, it’s both a chance and a risk. The risk is that it just goes with the flow that, you know, people are clicking and clicking and then the next and the next and the next, and it doesn’t really matter what it is. What sort of piece, what orchestra, which soloist, what content. It’s just clicking on another given link, and then you’re bored after a couple of seconds and then you skip to the next. That’s the risk.

The chance is that people are, if you do it well, if you play the game of the communication modes and the communication ways like YouTube, as you said, it sets a certain logic and if you understand the logic and you use it for your purpose it can be a chance. And I cannot say I’m an expert here, but we did a couple of YouTube things. And if you do that well, if you hook it well, if you do this interestingly enough, then we have a much broader audience than in any given analog hall here. So we would need to repeat the concept 20 times in order to address the same amount of people that actually clicked on the video.

So it’s both, but how the risk and the chances are balanced, I think that’s very open. That’s very open for each organization, but it’s also very open generally. In classical music, we have the problem, that we don’t have a good digital sales model. Spotify, is not a bad thing. ou have a model, if you click on a track, the artists gets very few money per click, which makes total sense for the big pop artists, because they are earning money like they never before just by the pure amounts of clicks . But if you have a thousand clicks on a clip and the orchestra is getting one Euro for that, you can forget about it because at the same time, as we said before, the analog concert was treated as a very valuable event. So the same thing in analog: let’s say one person would pay 40 euros per ticket. He would never be willing to pay 40 Euros in the digital world not even for a monthly subscription. So there’s a big gap.

I know that many people are experimenting these days, but I really have no idea how this will be balanced in the next weeks and months coming from a pandemic situation [still highly relevant when the interview was conducted]. But I think the bottom line is that we need to find a system of value for the digital form. It shouldn´t be for free and it has a value, but it starts with the value because if people understand it has a value, then they will be ready to pay. I think it can’t be the other way around. I know it helps to have the right price to sort of flourish the right value. This is a normal moment I can use when I’m pricing my concerts. Then I can use the price as a hint for people to understand how valuable the concert is. So if I’m doing a super cool concert for a super low price, I’m undermining the value that the concert has. So I think we have to find a way of creating value in the digital world, especially for classical music.

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I think one of the most prestigious analogue arts is the classical orchestra concert. It’s the history and long tradition of it and its value is really important in society, especially in Central Europe. Putting it in a provocative way: Is digitalisation killing analogue art, because everything is digitalised? For example: is it the same for someone to see an orchestra play on YouTube in the highest available quality at home? It’s surely not the same as being there. So what’s your point of view on this?

How was the song? “Video Killed the radio star”? [chuckling] – No, it’s not. It’s certainly not.

I didn’t say this earlier, so I’m saying it now: economy is not the opposite of art. They belong together like two sides of a medal. So, no, certainly not, but we have to find a way to balance things. We have to find a way for cool digital formats, interactive formats, mobile formats.

For example, you are sitting in the hall, you have your mobile phone on, and you can rate the concert and this will shine [appear] on a screen behind the orchestra and the orchestra sees how the young people in the audience just like it in the moment. You can play on all sorts of crazy creative formats. That’s what I wanted to say in the previous answer: we really shouldn’t make the mistake of condemning digitalisation, even though I’m very much with you about analogue art and the highest possible quality and excellence and tradition and everything you said.

But no, we can’t turn time backwards. So we have to understand how we can use digital trends and digital techniques to even better convey the analogue quality. So to use digitalisation, to, I don’t know, to dive into an orchestra, to go very close to an instrument. Probably later we will all have Google glasses. So if we’re sitting in the hall, we are watching, and then we get additional information. I don’t know, whatever… You name it. Or we do a live composition of a piece that the orchestra is playing, we are sitting in and our heartbeats make the tempo. I mean, you can think of everything. So I don’t really see a problem here, not at all, but we have to use it. I mean, we have to accept and use the techniques we ourselves created. So, no killing here.

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Do you speculate or anticipate a counter-trend? Maybe the next generations say: “I don’t want this YouTube over-information anymore, I want to pay 30 or 40 Euros for an evening. I want to go there. I want to see the analogue art.” As one can see for example in the ongoing counter-trend of [analogue] vinyl, which is flourishing again while the CD slowly dies as a format.

I think every trend creates a counter-trend and this is also very normal. But the question is, to what extent? So vinyl, yes, it’s coming back. We are talking about two, three, four, five percent of market value. So is this a trend or not? We could argue. I like vinyl. Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t think there’s a way back.

I have young kids and they are growing up in a different situation as I grew up. I mean, I got my first mobile phone when I was 25 years old, something like that. It existed for five years at the time. But I mean, they are growing up in the knowledge that every information is just a click away. And they’re using garage band [a musical app for mobile devices that lets you play musical instruments]. So, I mean, within two minutes, they are having a pop song ready. No problem. Not at all. It’s just ready. You can just broadcast it if you want; if it’s any good that’s a different question. And if you convey the information to a kid in the kindergarten, or in the school from grade one to, I don’t know, grade 10, 12 and also in the families that there is both, that there is an analogue world for media and arts and a digital world: You can actually meet your neighbour, but you can also call him via phone. You can communicate with your aunt in Melbourne online, but you can also visit her. Both are possible. You can actually put on your VR glasses and dive into a concert, but you can also visit the concert. You can go to a concert hall, it’s possible. As I said before: you can use the digital possibilities to help convey that the analogue world is great and important. So we’ll have both.

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How do you imagine the Kammerakademie Potsdam to change and evolve in the next few years? What could be the main challenges and drivers for this change?

I think it’s the question of sustainability in every dimension. May it be climate issues, equality issues, diversity issues, democracy issues or topics and social questions like the chance of participation.

So I’m just saying we have 180,000 people living in Potsdam. Why shouldn’t we try to actually reach everybody? Literally. Play, I don’t know, a thousand garden concerts? In every 10th garden, we are playing a concert and everybody invites the neighbours. Why not? Let’s do it. So we have a job to do, actually. We have to find a way to bring people back together and to form a community. May it be a Kiez [neighbourhood], a city, a village, a town or whatever. And the people are talking to each other. They’re meeting, they are getting into communication with each other and not about each other. I’m aware that I’m addressing very basic things here. Yes, I know.

But I think this will be part of our job in the future, because we have all sorts of problems: We have poor and rich and left and right, and up and down, and especially in Potsdam, which is a wonderful city, no question, but it has, you know, all poles in a very small area. So you can use it very well as a chiffre [cypher], as a symbol for that, for that idea.

And I think artists, especially also our musicians, I feel that they are very much interested in this job to help improve our city within the scale of sustainability. Because this will be the topic of the next decades. And obviously also the climate issue, but for me, it’s more interesting to have a broader view, which climate is one aspect of. And, to understand me well, not art as a function of society but also art for art [L’art pour l’art]. Art can work for itself, yes, but it gives a value when it interacts with the rest of society, which doesn’t necessarily mean you “only” have a function in this interaction or “only” in itself. I don’t see this as a contrast [this is not mutually exclusive]. The better the art works for itself the better it might work in other contexts.

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What roles can other artists or artists from other fields or specifically art academies potentially play concerning those trends, challenges and drives that you talked about?

The art academies can help to prepare the young artists for these topics and to sensibilize, that as a musician, you need to have a good technique and you have to understand about the works of Mozart etc. But then you have to convey the information that art is not in a closed, antiseptic room, but it has to interlink with society. So I don’t have that much of an insight into such higher arts education but I think it’s very important to at least offer this impact to the young people.

And to the other question: Yes, totally. I think the challenges we are facing are extremely, extremely complex, and there is no easy answer. And in order to understand and to work on the complexity you’ll need multi-perspective teams. So it’s always good, not only to look through your own eyes, but to also sit together with other people in order to understand: how do you see this? How do I see that?

And let’s organize work on multi-perspective approaches. This always helps. And we are always working like this. We are never saying that only we know the right way and the right answer. We just, you know, throw a stone into the water and the waves go in all directions. And we try to address people who would like to be addressed. It’s very, very important, as I said before with the academy, Kammerakademie is a very open structure. We always like to work with all sorts of different groups in society. Not only artistic groups, but also other stakeholder groups, like people who are having a shop here in the city or people from the tourist offices, entrepreneurs, whatever. We are very, very open.

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magine and describe the Kammerakademie Potsdam or respectively your work in it in 25 years! What would be the best and the worst versions of the future, like a utopia and a dystopia?

[Chuckling] I think in terms of the bad solution is that the crisis will make the valleys between people deeper and the mountains higher. And we don’t do anything against it. The good version – because it’s a city with a lot of lakes and rivers and bridges – would be to meet on the bridge and to sing and dance together and to meet in the middle and to change. And to look at ourselves from a different perspective and to bring the poles closer together. To make ends meet. It’s very poetic here, sorry.

But also to come to another point. That art is also a wonderful, highly excellent thing, but on the other hand, it helps to bring people together also in the sense that their senses are trained. So hearing, listening, feeling, just being aware of what is around me and not only looking into these bloody digital tiles.To be very attentive and to be open for all sorts of vibes and really like a training of your senses. That would be wonderful. Wouldn’t it? And we are living in a fast changing society. In the last 25 years more than 50% of the inhabitants of Potsdam changed. More than 50%! So we are talking about a fast changing community and a fast changing city. And we have not only to reflect this, but also to anticipate it and to sort of work on that already beforehand together with other parts of the city, like city development. Interesting job!

Is there anything else we haven’t discussed yet that you consider relevant? Is there anything else that you would want to give the institutes of higher art education or the creatives around the country or the economic workers that work for art, that we didn’t talk about yet?

I think it would be good to work on a closer link between education and real practice because it’s very much – and I think purposely and consciously – separated. So you’re in music school, you’re doing your thing, you’re learning and you know, you’re protected very much by your institution, and then you are spitted out after your diploma. It’s very different from musician to musician. I know that. So moving closer to each other already in the time that you are educated, like we did it with interns and so on. I think this is the main issue to use these years, these precious years [of studying], to understand that there’s a life outside these walls – I’m exaggerating here. And let’s work on this! This semester I’m doing a seminar with our university and I’m talking about concert formats. And many of the students haven’t yet visited an orchestra concert, haven’t yet visited a concert hall, haven’t yet thought about all these questions. So we have to use the time they’re having not to read books, but to, you know, go into the real world. Even if it’s a digital world, it’s still a world. It’s also real, just digitally real. So just get closer together. I mean, anyway, I think you’re getting it, but I can’t emphasize it more than by repeating it.


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