The oboe, while integral to the orchestral ensemble, rarely takes center stage as a solo instrument. Yet, James Austin Smith, a forty-year-old American oboist, challenges the conventions by delving into the lesser-known world of East German oboe music. Recently presenting his groundbreaking program, “Hearing Memory,” at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Smith shared insights into his unconventional career and the rich musical tapestry of East German composers.
Trained at Northwestern University, the Yale School of Music, and the Leipzig Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Smith’s decision to operate outside the orchestral framework distinguishes him in the classical music scene. Despite his extensive training, he opted for independence, avoiding the politics and limitations associated with orchestral life. In 2017, he found stability through a teaching position at Stony Brook University.
The genesis of Smith’s exploration into East German music dates back to his time in Leipzig in 2005 and 2006. Under the tutelage of Christian Wetzel, Smith discovered the avant-garde ensemble Gruppe Neue Musik Hanns Eisler, co-founded by Burkhard Glaetzner in 1970. This group operated in tension with official East German cultural discourse, exploring new works without institutional ties or a budget, making it resilient to political interference.
In 2020, Smith returned to Germany, conducting research and interviewing surviving members of the scene. His “Hearing Memory” concert focused on three prominent composers from the later East German period: Friedrich Goldmann, Georg Katzer, and Christfried Schmidt. These composers, like their Soviet counterparts, embraced chaotic eclecticism, incorporating echoes of Germany’s past into their compositions.
The program featured unconventional and playful pieces, challenging preconceptions about East German music. Schmidt’s “Aulodie No. 1” showcased kinetic extended techniques, while Katzer’s “miteinander—gegeneinander” verged on performance art. Goldmann’s Oboe Sonata, though outwardly conventional, fostered a smoldering tension with its obsessive dance around the note B.
Smith’s performance demonstrated not only his virtuosity but also his commitment to contextualizing the music. Through videos and interviews, he provided a live documentary experience, offering a deeper understanding of the East German context. His running commentary elevated the concert beyond a typical musical performance, making it a model for young performers seeking alternatives.
For Smith, the project goes beyond musical exploration; it represents a quest for purpose in tumultuous times. The Leipzig group, he contends, exemplifies musicians creating with a purpose beyond their practice, producing music with meaning beyond sound. In a modern twist, Smith and pianist Cory Smythe premiered Matana Roberts’s “Schema,” a structured improvisation rooted in Black avant-garde traditions, connecting the past and present in a seamless musical narrative.