At a used book store in Ljubljana a grand piano is covered with plush toys and a statue of former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito.
It’s Difficult to be a World Showcase with Limited Resources: The 2015 ISCM World Music Days

It’s Difficult to be a World Showcase with Limited Resources: The 2015 ISCM World Music Days

An aerial view of the old town of Ljubljana

A view of Ljubljana from one of its highest points, Ljubljana Castle.

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.)

A bicycle parked in front of a poster for the 2015 ISCM World Music Days on a street in Ljubljana.

Aside from posters at the concert venues and on the door of the building that houses the Slovenian Composers Society, this was one of the only posters for the 2015 World Music Days I noticed in downtown Ljubljana.

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.

Delegates to the ISCM General Assembly sitting across from each other in alphabetical order by country on desks arranged in a large rectagular formation to ensure that everyone can see each other.

The 2015 ISCM General Assembly was convened in marathon five-hour sessions for three consecutive days.

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.)


How to Overcome Jetlag in a Day: Listen to Tons of Spiky Music and Talk to Lots of People

The stage of Kozina Hall showing some instruments, chairs, and (on the back wall) organ pipes.

The stage before one of the 2015 WMD concerts at Marjan Kozina Hall.

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.

*

The stage at the concert hall at Ljubljana Conservatory.

The stage at the concert hall at Ljubljana Conservatory.

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?

A pipe on the side of a building in the old town of Ljubljana is embellished by a drawing of a scubadiver.

Many of the buildings in Ljubljana are strewn with graffiti. It’s somewhat unsightly in the old town, but some of it is actually really quite good.

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.

After the concert, I spoke briefly with Yao Chen who described the genesis of the piece which was written during his final year of compositional studies at the University of Chicago.


Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli (photo by Marylene Mey, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales)

During the first ISCM General Assembly, the repertoire choices were announced for the 2016 World New Music Days which will take place in Tongyeong, South Korea from March 29 to April 3, 2016. I am happy to report that, from the six pieces that New Music USA submitted for consideration, Missy Mazzoli’s choral work, Vesper Sparrow, has been chosen for performance. (Vesper Sparrow is the opening track of roomful of teeth’s new recording render on New Amsterdam Records. The recording was awarded a New Music USA Project grant.

 

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.

The facade of the record store Spin Vinyl showing a bunch of LPs, including one by Elvis Presley, in the window.

Legend has it that this quaint little shop in the middle of Ljubljana’s old town was the first place to sell punk rock records behind the Iron Curtain.

A brief aside: Earlier in the day, since at this point the ISCM general assemblies had concluded and I had some time to wander around, I popped into a few local music shops but was not able to find many things that I didn’t already have. I was happy to find a CD devoted to the art songs of Josip Ipavec (1873-1921) as well as scores for most of them at a small but very nice store located in the same building as the offices of the Slovenian Music Information Centre and the Slovenian Composers Society. But at Spin Vinyl, the premiere local rock shop which is located besides the river that runs through the heart of the old town, I failed to track down the first two albums by the extremely impressive Slovenian instrumental rock/post-jazz group Štefan Kovac Marko Banda (a.k.a. ŠKM banda) whose subsequent recordings I got turned onto by Slovenian music journalist Igor Bašin when he visited New York City last year. Immediately prior to the concert I stumbled into a street fair right outside Kozina Hall that was organized by University of Ljubljana. So of course I went searching for music there. As luck would have it, one of the booths contained material from the Slovenian Philharmonic, including discs. I was immediately drawn to one devoted the music of Lucijan Marija Škerjanc (1900-1973) which included a harp concerto, but strangely the discs were just for display and they would not sell it to me. They told me that I could find it in the gift shop in Kozina Hall but there was no such shop, so I went back again and told them I was only around for another two days and was very interested in the disc to no avail. However, during the intermission of the chamber music concert I described above, I was greeted by a member of the staff of the Slovenian Philharmonic who handed me a huge pile of CDs for free including that Škerjanc disc as well as discs devoted to the music of the hall’s namesake Marjan Kozina. I still haven’t had a chance to listen to all of them but that Škerjanc Harp Concerto is a gem, another work which, like Uroš Krek’s violin concerto Inventiones Ferales, deserves a more prominent place in the orchestral repertoire.

 

One of the doorways of the extremely ornate Orfejev Salon whose side beams are two larger than lifesize sculptures of women.

One of the doorways of the extremely ornate Orfejev Salon

The string quartet concert later that evening was held in the most picturesque (though also somewhat claustrophobic) venue of the entire week, the Baroque-ly ornate Orfejev Salon in the Slovenian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. The very appropriately named Dissonance Quartet (fronted by first violinist Janez Podlesek, the very impressive soloist in the Krek concerto) played a really tough program. The first half of the program featured three works from three continents (South Korean Jae-Moon Lee’s String Quartet No. 2, String Quartet by Egyptian Amir Okba, and Nocturna Itinera by Portuguese composer Patricia Sucena de Almeida) which might lead people to believe that the techniques of Helmut Lachenmann have become standard to musical vocabulary worldwide. And Alexander Khubeev’s String Quartet No. 2, which opened the second half of the program, showed that this style has its adherents in Russia as well, though I wonder what Vladimir Putin would think of such music.

After such unremittingly gnarly fare, it was a joy to hear Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin’s Curiosity Cabinet, a collection of eleven miniatures that whimsically explore a wide range of musical styles. The concert concluded with the 1983 String Quartet by 81-year-old Lojze Lebič whom I had heard repeatedly described during the week as Slovenia’s most significant living composer. I am philosophically opposed to such ranking, and in this case somewhat baffled by it since I am so fond of Janez Matičič and Uroš Rojko, both of whom wrote amazing pieces that were also presented during the festival; nevertheless Lebič’s quartet was a formidable work.

The Last Day of the Festival

A sculpture of a man playing a tenor drum that actually moves.

A sculpture of a man playing a tenor drum that actually moves.

On Friday afternoon, 4saxess offered up a program of saxophone quartets that was far more diverse than that of its string counterparts the night before. Almost Silenced by Urška Pompe, who serves as the senior lecturer in music theory at the Ljubljana Academy of Music, is a virtual encyclopedia of extended saxophone techniques, whereas multiphonics form the principal content of the brief Albumblatt II by Bonn, Germany-born, Chicago-based Hans Thomalla and breathy utterances are the centerpiece of the two-movement Goldspell, by Mirela Ivičević, a Croatian composer and performance artist who currently lives in Vienna. In Australian Lachlan Skipworth’s Dark Nebulae, breathy sonorities and multiphonic clusters come together to serve as a sonic metaphor for the vast clouds of atomic dust in the far reaches of outer space; it is highly evocative and haunting music.

Exactly opposite in effect was Austrian Matthias Kranebitter’s Minced and Bulbous for which the players were joined offstage by Neven Smolčič who triggered pre-recorded electronic sounds from a laptop. Though in Kranebitter’s notes he claimed to be inspired by the paintings and music of Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart), it sounded more like a video game that had taken a wrong turn—it was often assaultive in its ferocity, but thoroughly engaging nevertheless (perhaps thoroughly engaging because of its unbridled ferocity). That wasn’t the only piece which added other sonorities to the saxophones; for Bamboo Spirits by Japanese composer Tomoyuki Hisatome which opened the program, audience members were given a sheet on which a short melody was notated and were requested to sing along and, since this was a pretty sophistical audience, we did quite a good job of it. It seemed sort of hokey at first, but it actually proved to be quite effective.

The immense lobby of Gallus Hall.

The lobby of Gallus Hall felt more like a passageway at an airport than the lobby of a concert hall.

The final concert of the 2015 ISCM World Music Days, which took place in the massive Gallus Hall, was among its most impressive. It offered a total of six pieces in the 10-15 minute range, all by European composers, performed by the Slovenian Philharmonic under the direction of TaeJung Lee. The program included two mini-concertos by two of the most prominent younger Slovenian composers: Into the Shades for violin and orchestra by Nina Šenk (again featuring soloist Janez Podlesek who must have gotten no sleep that week) and Hawk-eye for French horn and orchestra by Vito Žuraj. Though Into the Shades was composed three years ago and was recorded in 2013 by Podlesek and the Slovenian Philharmonic (it’s one of the recordings in the stack I was given), this was actually its first live performance. Much in the spirit of single-movement konzertstücke which once upon a time were often featured on orchestra programs, Šenk’s composition is mostly a springboard for the soloist; in fact, in her notes she describes the orchestral accompaniment functioning merely as a sonic “shadow” of the solo violin part. Hawk-eye, on the other hand, is a feat of dazzlingly virtuosity in which an extraordinarily wide range of sounds race by, in both the orchestra and the daredevil solo part, often with a clear sense of humor but always inherently musical. With this work Žuraj has completely redefined the horn concerto as a medium and has set a new standard, perhaps even beyond Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, for what such a work can be.

Strangely the concert also featured two works from Finland: Rope (2010/2012) by Veli-Mati Puumala and Whisked Whistle (2011) by Max Savikangas. Rope is extremely picturesque music that sounds like a soundtrack to off-kilter cartoon of the Road Runner variety; phrases bounce from instrument to instrument and never seem to settle anywhere for very long. Whisked Whistle was Savikangas’s first orchestral composition. Like Hawk-eye, it is also chuck full of unusual sonic effects, but they also always have a clear musical purpose. At one point in this piece there’s a passage that’s very reminiscent of the persistent three-note tattoo in Christopher Rouse’s Symphony No. 1, but Savikangas assured me during the post-concert reception that he was not familiar with Rouse’s piece and the similarities are a coincidence. It is further proof that great ideas don’t belong to any one person but are rather out there in the universe to be discovered and explored.

Irish composer Patrick Brennan’s colorfully-orchestrated, dance-like Ballabile, which concluded the first half of the concert, would have been even more effective as a concert opener. But the final work of the entire festival was entirely in the right place: inFALL by Hector Parra, a Barcelona-born composer currently residing in Paris, is a trill and tremolo laden sonic essay scored for a Maherian-sized orchestra that grows more and more intense and finally explodes.


Is It Possible to Make the World Music Days More Vital?

Delegates for the ISCM World Music Days stand together with flags and trees in the background.

After the final ISCM General Assembly, the delegates posed outside the hotel for the traditional ISCM group photo. I’m in there somewhere.

All in all, the 2015 edition of the World Music Days was filled with lots of truly memorable music that was very well performed and I was very happy that I had the opportunity to be there to experience it firsthand. Still, I could not help thinking that this one-of-a-kind new music assemblage could be so much more than what had been presented in Ljubljana. Despite a greater stylistic diversity than what I witnessed two years ago in Bratislava and Vienna (I wasn’t able to travel to Košice where the 2013 WMD kicked off), there were too many similarities between pieces. Even though there are post-Lachenmann string quartets being composed all over the world (which I learned as a result of the program by the Dissonance Quartet), most composers of string quartets are not writing in a post-Lachenmann idiom. So why wasn’t that particular program more reflective of the stunning breadth of current string quartet composition? Almost every piece on the saxophone quartet concert explored extended techniques, but there’s plenty of fabulous music being created these days for four saxophones which emphasizes other, uniquely idiomatic qualities of that instrumentation. Again, why not offer a greater slice of possibilities? And, in a festival that is supposed to highlight geographical diversity, how could there possibly be an orchestra concert that only featured music from Europe?

These were some of the questions I kept asking throughout the week, but there are others that are perhaps even more important to answer. Given the fact that WMD is the only festival during which you can hear recent repertoire from all six humanly inhabited continents that has been chosen by people on all of those continents, why isn’t it an event more people with an interest in new music want to make an annual pilgrimage to? Sure it is not so easy (and is actually quite expensive) to fly to a city in a foreign country, often a remote one, and spend a week there attending concerts. The fact that many of the delegates who were provided with three nights of free hotel stay did not stay additional days to attend the entire festival was disheartening, but also understandable on an economic level. But also understandable on an economic level is how difficult it now is for a local presenter to raise funds to cover such costs on top of mounting a week-long festival. I don’t know how much was ultimately spent by the festival organizers in Ljubljana on the 2015 WMD (the festival in Wrocław cost well over a million euros), but I did learn that a major corporate sponsor for it backed out and that, as a result, it almost didn’t happen.

It would be impossible for the ISCM to present a festival without a local co-presenter who organizes the concerts, secures the venues and the musicians, and publishes the hefty program book. But those local presenters exert a major influence on the tone of the festival, what repertoire is ultimately chosen from the submissions made by the ISCM member organizations, and what connections are made (or not made) between the works that have been chosen.

The process for submitting works for consideration, while guaranteeing that every country will have a work performed if the organization from that country follows the rules when making its submissions (six different pieces in at least four different instrumental combination categories must be offered), hinders the variety. Works for standard ensembles (e.g. string quartet, orchestra, mixed chorus) form only a small fraction of the vibrant new music being created these days, but organizing a program of oddball combinations would be a logistical nightmare (and an even more expensive proposition). Score-based music is more easily interpreted by local musicians, who are not always able to work with the selected composers, but focusing almost exclusively on music disseminated this way offers a skewed view of today’s new music scene where so much improvisatory and orally-learned music is being made. Sure, there is always some space accorded to electro-acoustic music, it often feels like an add-on, and in Ljubljana there was only one electronic work featured that did not also involve a live musician reading from a score.

At a used book store in Ljubljana a grand piano is covered with plush toys and a statue of former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito.

A rather wry bit of nostalgia. At a used book store in Ljubljana a grand piano is covered with plush toys and a statue of former Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito.

If it is the “World Music Days” or even the “World New Music Days” as opposed to being just the “World Post-Classical Music Days,” why isn’t the festival designed to better accommodate the majority of today’s approaches to music making? So much of the world is still not participating in this festival. With the inclusion of a new member from Egypt who was voted into the organization last year, Africa is now represented by more than South Africa. But there is still no one at the table from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Nigeria, Thailand, and many other countries where there is a very exciting, albeit not necessarily “contemporary classical,” new music scene.

Perhaps instead of offering a performance slot to an organization in a country that dutifully submits six different pieces from that country scored for at least four kinds of ensembles, there should be a separate call for scores in each country each year on a rotating basis that ensures that different kinds of music from each country will get a hearing over a period of a certain number of years. E.g. Japan would be asked to submit six orchestral pieces from the last decade from which one would be selected, Australia a work for mixed chorus; but also Chile would be asked to submit six singer-songwriters from which one would be flown over; Belgium and four other countries would all be asked to submit a list of six jazz musicians from which one from each would be chosen to form a combo. Additional time would be carved out for attendees to hear about local new music scenes from around the world in audiovisual presentations, etc.

There would undoubtedly still be a lot of fabulous music that wouldn’t get on the radar of the WMD, but it could make for a very different kind of event that should have even greater appeal to audiences around the world—something that would only help further the cause of the creation and performance of new music and international collaborations, all of which are at the heart of the mission of the ISCM.

A statue of the composer Gustav Maher in front of a pizzeria.

I discovered this wonderful statue of statue of Gustav Mahler outside an excellent pizzeria in Ljubljana’s old town

Beyond the Radar of the World Music Days

I couldn’t get my mind off of these thoughts during the week of vacation time my wife and I spent in Austria following the new music bonanza in Ljubljana. And based on what we wound up doing there, much of it was ultimately not really a vacation—if you live your life for music, separating business and pleasure is a futile activity. We stayed in Krems, a small town that is an hour west of Vienna by train, with Antje Müller, a former work colleague of my wife’s who has since become a close friend. Antje now runs the Ernst Krenek Institute which is devoted to the promulgation of the music of this extraordinarily prolific composer (242 opus numbers of which 22 are operas!) who was born in Austria but spent the majority of his long life (90+ years) teaching and composing in Southern California. His widow, the American composer Gladys Nordenstrom—herself now 91—still lives there.

A memorabilia diplay case showing posters, a pack of cigarettes and other items related to Ernst Krenek's opera Jonny spielt auf.

At the Ernst Krenek Institute, there are display cases of memorabilia for several of his most important works including one for his 1927 opera Jonny spielt auf. The work was so popular that it even spawned a cigarette brand called Jonny; a pack of Jonnys is included in the display.

Our nine-hour train commute from Ljubljana to Krems brought us there a day before Antje returned from a trip she had taken. So she had her friend, a musicologist named Eva Stöckler, meet up with us to give us the keys and to give us an orientation to this quaint, Medieval mini-city which also houses an impressive cartoon museum and is near some of Austria’s greatest vineyards. (One, Geyerhof, which we visited later that week, has been making wine since at least the 12th century.)

Johannes Simetsberger

Johannes Simetsberger

Anyway, it turns out that Eva is married to a fascinating composer named Johannes Simetsberger, who for the last decade has devoted himself to creating pieces that contain a total of only five pitches. When she told me about him, I had to arrange a meeting with him. Strangely, though he has composed more than a hundred works, none of them have ever been performed. According to him, since he’s self-taught as a composer (he’s trained as a musicologist) and writes in an idiosyncratic personal style that is dissimilar from that of most “professional” composers, it has been very difficult for him to connect to the various Austrian musical cliques. But he’s perfectly content with his life because he has devoted it to improving people’s lives. He has two “day jobs,” one as a social worker where he helps people with disabilities in Vienna collect unemployment; composing music is an activity he gets to engage in two hours each day during his train commute.

Martin Theodor Gut

Martin Theodor Gut

Eva also told us that she studies classical and jazz guitar and it turned out that her teacher, Martin Theodor Gut, was another outsider composer who creates music for specially built instruments tuned to a 12-note just intonation scale of his own creation; one of his instruments is very similar to the quadrichord of Paul Dresher whom he had never heard of. Martin’s scale, which is based on the 1st through 13th partials of a tonic and dominant, is remarkably malleable and also contains some really pungent intervals.

The music of Johannes Simetsberger and Martin Theodor Gut, which I randomly became exposed to through a friend of a friend while on holiday, was some of the most intriguing new music I have been exposed to all year—more so than a great deal of the music I heard during the World Music Days or any other of the myriad new music events I attend around the United States throughout the year. If the small community of Krems is inhabited by two such composers, who strangely were only barely aware of each other, how many such composers exist all over the world and what can we do to connect them to each other and to get audiences to hear their music? This too, I believe, needs to be part of the mission of the ISCM.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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