Before trekking to Ljubljana, Slovenia for the 2015 World Music Days (WMD), the signature annual music festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), I had attended three previous editions of this one-of-a-kind event. There is no other music festival on the planet that attempts to bring together a selection of recently composed music that has been vetted by new music organizations from countries on six continents. (WMD takes place in a different location every year in co-production with a local presenter, and the programming is always a combination of local new music and mandated international repertoire culled from ISCM member organizations’ submissions.) Folks wanting to plunge directly into my day-by-day play-by-play report of the 2015 proceedings should feel free to jump ahead, but if you’d prefer some additional context about how this year’s edition measured up to some of its predecessors before doing so, stay right where you are.
The first WMD I experienced, coordinated in partnership with the 2011 Zagreb Bienniale, blew my mind. But the second one—which sprawled from Košice to Bratislava to Vienna—was often a source of frustration due to a seeming stylistic uniformity despite its myriad venues and geographically diverse repertoire. Last year’s convening, in Wrocław, thankfully did not suffer from such aesthetic constraints, but it was frustrating for other reasons. Concerts were over-programmed and scattered in performance spaces very far apart from one another, making it nearly impossible for attendees to reach them in a timely fashion. Plus, even getting to Wrocław requires significant coordination. There are very few direct flights to and from most major international cities. (My own commute there was a complete nightmare; for the sake of civility I will keep the airline that took me there nameless, especially since at this juncture I am unable to say or write its name without prefacing it with an expletive.) I mention all of this to acknowledge that since I didn’t arrive tabula rasa in Ljubljana, comparisons herein with my previous WMD experiences are inevitable.
For starters, current economic realities led to a convening that was far less grandiose than its predecessors. There was also an added twist that affected ISCM-member attendees. In previous years, the hosts for WMD were required to cover the full cost of up to a seven-day hotel stay for one delegate from every organization that is a member of ISCM. But this year only three nights were covered even though the festival spanned a total of seven days. Since, in addition to all the concert fare, ISCM delegates are required to attend general assembly meetings where a wide range of ISCM business matters are discussed, the assemblies were crammed into marathon five-hour blocks on the first three weekdays to ensure maximum assembly participation from folks who were unable to stay the additional days due to the added costs. But that not only made those sessions unduly long, it led to a noticeable decline in concert attendance after those first three free-hotel days were up. This was all the more noticeable because ISCM delegates formed the majority of the audience at most of these concerts; in fact, some performances seemed to occur beyond the radar of local music aficionados. (I had several conversations with people I met in various shops and restaurants who expressed an interest in music but had no idea that this festival was going on.)
The paltry signage for WMD around town (I only spotted a handful of posters) was a stark contrast to Wrocław, where tramcars were festooned with WMD banners, and Zagreb, where television film crews showed up to the festivities. (Admittedly, it helped that Croatia’s then president was composer Ivo Josipović and that his music was programmed during the festival.)
In addition to the Ljubljana concerts being poorly attended, there were significantly fewer of them and they took place in only a handful of venues. On a positive note, having fewer concerts made it not only possible to attend everything, but also to have time to process it all—which can be quite a mental challenge since concert programs typically consist of 100% new material, often by completely unfamiliar composers. Given the somewhat reduced schedule, it should have theoretically also been possible for festival attendees to explore this small and extremely picturesque central European city, but since the hotel in which the delegates were put up (which was also where the assemblies took place) was alongside a highway on the city’s outskirts and getting back and forth required a chartered bus, it was a challenge to add on any activities that were not part of the official program of events.
During previous WMDs I participated in, there had usually been various symposia coordinated in relation to the festival as well as pre-concert talks with some of the participating composers. In Llubljana, there were only a few pre-concert talks and we were informed that some of them were being conducted only in Slovenian with no translations provided. While there was a musicological conference concurrent with the festival titled “From Modernism to Postmodernism” and some of the sessions looked compelling, they took place at the same time as the general assemblies and continued past the start of the first concert each day, so there was no way to get to any of it. I also was unable to attend any of the “Accompanying Programme” concerts which were almost exclusively devoted to Slovenian repertoire since they took place at inconvenient hours, mostly very late at night.
But at least I managed to attend every “Main Programme” concert (the ones that featured repertoire submitted by ISCM members) except for the very first one—an orchestral concert on Sunday featuring works by Claude Ledoux (Belgium), Helena Winkelman (Switzerland), Nicolai Worsaae (Denmark), and three Slovenians: Božidar Kos, Ivo Petrić, and Primož Ramovš. (I was particularly disappointed that I missed Ledoux’s Crossing Edges, a concerto based on spectral principals showcasing the erhu, the traditional Chinese two-stringed spike fiddle.) I could not arrive in Ljubljana until Monday morning, just in time to catch the tail end of the first general assembly. (Though not quite as off the beaten path as Wrocław, there are also no direct flights between Ljubljana and New York City, and there isn’t a lot of flexibility in terms of travel times.)
The first concert I attended combined chamber works scored for wind quintet with music for percussion ensemble at Slovenian Philharmonic’s Marjan Kozina Hall (named after an important mid-century Slovene composer who was also the first post-WW2 manager of the Philharmonic). Alternating the repertoire between Slowind and SToP (the percussion group) was much more effective than having each set of players perform half a concert by themselves, since the separation of similarly instrumented works allowed for greater clarity and aural digestion. That said, I remember precious little of Greek composer Vassilis Bakopoulos’s Wind Quintet No. 1 (2012) or Slovenian composer Corrado Rojac’s 2003 Clichés for wind quintet. Admittedly my clock was not completely adjusted yet. I was, however, quite taken with Motion/Emotion, a 2011 wind quintet by Sunleif Rasmussen, whom I’ve been told is the most successful composer from the Faroe Islands. Rasmussen was in attendance, and it was wonderful to finally meet him.
In Cloud Cluster, a four-movement percussion quintet of almost symphonic proportions by Xiaozhong Yang from Chengdu, China, the instruments are frequently used more for their sonorities than for rhythmic dexterity. According to the program notes by the composer, its four movements—“Drift,” “Assemblage,” “Surge,” and “Scattering”—are an attempt to depict the behavior of clouds, how they shape, change, and dissolve over time. The work begins with two players blowing into bottles and ends with them throwing stones into the air. Vibrant City, a percussion quintet by Chris Hung from Hong Kong, is a sonic evocation of that fast-paced metropolis in which shimmering melodies are woven across the pitched percussion instruments against an ever-shifting rhythmic backdrop of swacks and thwacks from unpitched instruments. But for me the most exciting piece was the insistent TWOMB: For John Cage for percussion sextet (2012), the sole work on the festival that was co-written by two composers, Peter Adriaansz and Maarten Altena, both from the Netherlands. Also quite compelling was when the two disparate sound worlds of winds and percussion came together—for Larisa Vrhunc’s The Rate of Decay, which was a sonic tug of war between two horn players and two percussionists—though neither of the hornists who performed in that piece were members of Slowind. Ultimately, though, Louisville, Kentucky-based Jacob Gotlib’s Portrait Sequence for percussion duo (2012) was the most unusual piece on the program. He describes it as an anti-percussion piece. I’ll let him explain it himself…
The second concert, held at the Ljubljana Conservatory of Music and Ballet, consisted of seven works performed by the Ensemble Neofonia under the direction of Steven Loy, an American-born composer and conductor who has lived in Europe for the past 20 years and is now based in Ljubljana. The program included works from Slovenia, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, South Korea, and the United States. Unfortunately Lewisville, Texas-based Timothy Harenda was unable to travel to Ljubljana to hear his 2014 composition Purple Quartz for bass flute, bass clarinet, cello, vibraphone, and piano, which alternated traditional performance techniques with noisy percussive gestures in an attempt to sonically convey the duality of quartz stones. But thankfully Slovenian composer Uroš Rojko was on hand to hear a particularly satisfying performance of his 2003-04 Stone Wind for flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, violin, and contrabass; the off-stage flute and clarinet echoes at the very end of the piece were magical.
Motions, Stases by Polish-born composer Krzysztof Wołec (who currently teaches composition at the University of Louisville) was an exciting concertante work in which pianist Małgorzata Wałentynowicz was sometimes clearly the aural focal point but at other times was engaged in sonic combat with the ensemble in order to remain in the foreground. Fata Morgana, a work for a somewhat unusual combination of five instruments (violin, viola, doublebass, oboe, and bassoon) by Hong Kong-born composer Kai-Young Chan, who is currently a doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, is an attempt at creating sonic mirages with some effective melismatic flourishes.
Sadly I found myself zoning in and out for most of the remainder of the program, jetlag getting the better of me by that point. There was a third concert back at the delegates’ hotel at 10 p.m. (part of the “Accompanying Programme”) which consisted exclusively of Slovenian works that were all composed this year. Much as I wanted to hear the work on the program by Brina Jež Brezavšček, having been entranced by pieces on a disc devoted exclusively to her music that was given to me a few years back by my friends at the Slovenian Music Information Centre (SIGIC), instead I gave in to the jetlag, returned to my room, and passed out.
By Tuesday, however, I was perfectly acclimated to the time zone. So I was totally ready for the first concert, again at the Conservatory, which featured solos and duos involving piano, clarinet, euphonium, and pre-recorded electronic sounds. Curiously, each piece with an electronic component used different language to acknowledge it. New Zealander Chris Cree Brown’s 2012-13 Sound Barrel was described as being scored for euphonium and “fixed media.” Icelander Rikhardur H. Frideriksson’s completely electronic Brons, a mesmerizing work created in 2004 and revised in 2008 which was constructed exclusively from pre-recorded sounds of gongs and tam-tams, was simply listed as being “for electroacoustic.” Janez Matičič’s 1970 Cosmophonie, an acknowledged Slovenian electronic music classic, was described, as were most similarly scored works from that time, as being for piano and “magnetic tape.” But South African composer Michael Blake’s Tombeau de Mosoeu Moerane was listed as being scored for clarinet and “four-channel tape” despite the fact that it was completed in 2013 and the equipment on stage looked more like a laptop than a tape recorder. Perhaps in the future the ISCM can take an official position on the proper taxonomy for such repertoire.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual music. I already described the sound world for Brons. Sound Barrel offered some really exciting interplay between the flabby low brass sonorities of the euphonium and crunchier electronically generated sounds, some of which were even lower. The reedy sonorities of the pre-recorded electronic material in Tombeau provided a very empathic sound bed for the live clarinet sounds. (Blake’s work was actually originally scored for birbynė, a Lithuanian aerophone traditionally performed by shepherds that can be played with either a single or a double reed.) The electronic sound world in Cosmophonie, on the other hand, was a real blast from the past—vintage bleeps and bloops interrupted virtuosic piano runs and clusters, which were played with extraordinary grace by Nina Prešiček. Matičič, who divides his time between Ljubljana and Paris and who turns 90 next year, was in the audience and, since I’m a huge fan of his three piano sonatas (thanks again to another disc I got from SIGIC), I was delighted to briefly talk with him. In addition to those electro-acoustic compositions, other concert standouts were Contemplation, a daredevil solo clarinet piece by Taiwanese composer Chien-Wei Wang, and Dialogues, a rhythmically charged solo piano showcase by Venezuelan Osvaldo Torres which was also very convincingly delivered by Prešiček.
But the next concert, a program back at Kozina Hall performed by the Slovenian Philharmonic String Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Simon Krečič, offered some of the most persuasive performances of the entire festival. In Chartres (2012), by Parisian-based Lithuanian composer and vocal improviser Justina Repečkaitė, a slowly moving chain of drones and microtonal slides attempts to evoke the south window of the Chartres Cathedral. Although Bratislava-based Oľga Kroupová’s 2014 Gryllus Musicalis is a concerto for solo violin and strings (the first of two that was presented during the concert), many of the individual players act as co-soloists throughout. In Paolo Geminiani’s Imminenze (2000), one of the cellos initially takes on a seeming concertante role, but by the end everyone is a soloist to some extent.
I was really smitten with Rituel Bizarre for prepared string orchestra (2010), a visceral exploration of timbres that are midway between tones and noises created by Swedish composer Ansgar Beste, who after living for many years in Germany has been pursuing a PhD in Norway. Equally stunning, but for very different reasons, was Páll Ragnar Palsson’s deeply emotional Supremacy of Peace which was inspired by the stark contrast of abandoned factories and pristine farmlands in northeast Estonia. (I learned later in the week after talking with Palsson and other WMD attendees from his home country, Iceland, that he came to notated composition after performing for most his youth in the highly successful Icelandic indie rock band Maus.)
The remainder of the program was devoted to two mid-20th century Slovenian classics: “Ne, jaz nočem še umreti” (“No, I Do Not Want to Die”), an extremely sentimental aria composed in 1951 by Alojz Srebotnjak (1931-2010) that was milked for full impact by baritone Gabriel Lipuš; and Inventiones Ferales, an extraordinary 1963 violin concerto by Uroš Krek (1922-2008) which deserves to enter the standard repertoire. Yet again, thanks to my SIGIC friends, I already knew and admired this piece from a recording; but hearing such a strong live performance of it, particularly the stunning solo passages played by Janez Podlesek, made my belief in the piece even stronger.
Can There be Peace and Love Among All Beings in the Universe?
The first of Wednesday’s concerts, both of which took place at Kozina Hall, was a short choral program performed by the Slovenian Philharmonic Choir under the direction of Martina Batič. While I was not as wowed by them as I had been by Anna Szostak and the Camerata Silesia Katowice, a Polish choir that performed on the WMD for two consecutive years (in Vienna in 2013 and then closer to home in Wrocław in 2014), I was still extremely impressed with how the Slovenian choristers were able to (mostly) effortlessly handle the variety of extended vocal techniques that were featured in some of the repertoire, particularly in Portuguese composer Nuno Costa’s 2014 Pater Noster, an idiosyncratic setting that made the audiences hear the familiar words of this famous hymn in a completely different way. The work ultimately fetched Costa the 2015 ISCM Young Composer Award (YCA), a cash prize funded by the Vancouver, Canada-based concert presenter Music on Main which enables the ISCM to commission a new work by the winner that will be performed at a future WMD. (The members of the ISCM’s 2015 YCA jury were Alejandro Guarello from Chile, Gudny Gudmundsdottir from Iceland, and Glenda Keam from New Zealand; Stephen Lias, who runs a Texas section of ISCM, served as the jury coordinator.)
Other highlights included Ako ko čuje glas moj (If You Hear My Voice) a mellifluous setting of a New Testament passage by Serbian composer Ivana Stefanović and a chromatic, mostly homophonic setting of the hymn Omnia Tempus Habent by Hungarian composer Péter Zombola. Hommage a Papaji, a tribute to Indian mystic Hariwansh Lal Poonja by Romanian composer Gabriel Mălăncioiu contained some extremely lush harmonies that seemed to float beyond consciousness; but by the end its spell was completely broken by all the singers interminably reciting one line over and over again (“Let there be Peace and Love among all Beings of the Universe”). Denmark was represented on the program by a lovely two-movement work from 2010, Singing – Swinging, by the most famous living Danish composer, Per Nørgård. At the conclusion of the concert, brass players and percussionists joined the chorus for Seventh Angel, a cantata by another elder statesman, Slovenian Pavel Mihelčič, who served as the artistic director and president of the program committee for the 2015 WMD.
Mihelčič is also the artistic director for the new music ensemble MD7 which took the stage for the Wednesday’s other concert. This concert, featuring repertoire from three continents (Europe, Asia, and North America), was again conducted by Steven Loy with whom I had a chance to speak briefly about what brought him from Virginia to Slovenia.
Highlights of the MD7 program included the otherworldly Pangaea Ultima by Canadian Gordon Fitzell, British composer Nina Whiteman’s The Galaxy Rotation Problem which was chock full of microtonal inflections, Pan by Heera Kim from South Korea which alternates passages of relentless freneticism with stasis, and Tlesk vode (The Snap of Water) by Slovenian composer Tadeja Vulc in which one of the percussionists makes various sounds with a vat full of water. As Vulc acknowledged in her program note, “These sounds have been explored to the finest detail by composer Tan Dun, but that does not mean that others are not permitted to use them. I have woven some of them into my work, in which Tan Dun’s name is also concealed.” But, judging from audience reactions, the showstopper of the evening was Yao Chen’s extremely dramatic O… What an Awakening! for soprano and Pierrot quintet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), a work funded by New Music USA that was chosen for presentation during the 2015 WMD from the six repertoire choices we submitted. Below is a video recording from the premiere performance of the work, by the San Francisco-based chamber ensemble Wild Rumpus, which to my ears is even more riveting than MD7’s spirited performance of the piece in Ljubljana.
Thursday’s first concert, the last one that took place in Kozina Hall, was another chamber music program. The concert opened with a set of four songs for soprano and piano by Jakob Jež, an octogenarian composer who is a sort of Slovenian Ned Rorem, and the first half ended with the almost neo-romantic sounding Two Concertante Duos for cello and piano by Ljubo Rančigaj. But I was most impressed with the work sandwiched in between them, Chilean composer Juan Manuel Quinteros’s deft piano trio, Macondo, named after the fictional town described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his landmark magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.
There was a work that sounded even more indebted to magical realism, Nemico Orfeo by Canadian-born, U.K.-based Cassandra Miller scored for soprano voice, cello, and two flutes which were situated out of sight in the balcony. The effect was enchanting, though I’m not sure how it would have come off if the concert hall had been full and there were audience members sitting up there. Since the music hinted at a Baroque aesthetic sensibility, I also would have preferred to have heard it sung by a singer with a less pronounced vibrato. Soprano Jerica Steklasa, though extremely personable and fluent throughout, sounded a little too verismo for this subtle, somewhat surreal music. I have to admit I could not hear the references to jazz pianist Bill Evans that were supposedly strewn through Israeli composer Ziv Cojocaru’s Do You Like Bill, a 2013 work scored for Pierrot quintet, but Latvian composer Renāte Stivriņa’s often extremely quiet but sometimes very noisy Composition 10, which was inspired by a 1939 non-representational painting by Wassily Kandinsky, sounded requisitely abstract.