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Hundreds of denizens of the music, literary, and visual arts communities gathered together yesterday for the American Academy of Arts and Letters annual Ceremonial yesterday in New York City. The Ceremonial, an annual ritual for well over a century, is a roughly two-hour presentation of awards and inductions (which always takes place on a Wednesday afternoon at 3:00 pm and is immediately followed by a reception at 5:00 pm). Like most longstanding formal ceremonies, it is an extremely tradition-bound event. So much so that anytime there is even the subtlest change in the proceedings, it feels extremely significant (e.g. the size of the program booklet which this year was far less unwieldy). This year’s iteration had more noticeable differences than most despite it marking the 125th anniversary of the institution as well as the centenary of it being based in Harlem at an opulent Beaux-Arts complex of buildings that also houses Boricua College as well as the Hispanic Society Museum and Library.
For starters, due to ongoing renovations taking place in the Academy’s historic auditorium, this year’s ceremonial took place off site. (Apparently the last time that happened was in 1942 although, of course, the in-person Ceremonial was replaced by virtual events over Zoom during the height of the pandemic.) It was nevertheless held in an equally stunning location, the Gothic Revival main sanctuary of the landmarked Episcopal Church of the Intercession, built in 1912-15, which is conveniently located one block south enabling attendees to return to the usual location for the reception, outdoors between the Academy’s two art galleries, although this year they decided not to cover the space with a giant canopy. For some reason, it usually rains on the dates when the Ceremonial is held, so that canopy comes in handy. True to form, it rained again this year, but it was only a slight drizzle toward the very end of the festivities and most people appreciated chatting in the open air.
Removing the giant canopy definitely gave the post Ceremonial reception on the campus of the Academy a much more open atmosphere (photo by FJO)
But these details are all cosmetic. Of greater significance was the broad range of people who were honored this year in all of the disciplines. Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña and pre-eminent Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov were inducted as Foreign Honorary Members. Only Americans can be elected to full membership, and the Academy also inducts as honorary members Americans whose creative activities fall outside its three officially-recognized disciplines. This year, film director Francis Ford Coppola and actress Frances McDormand were inducted in this category, although neither could attend; they join the ranks of Woody Allen, Bill T. Jones, and Alice Waters, among others. Kurkov later gave the Blashfield Address, an annual oration which in some years has been a struggle to stay awake through, but his impassioned words about the ongoing horrors taking place in his homeland were powerful and deeply moving and resulted in him receiving a standing ovation from the attendees.
Kurkov’s standing ovation following his deeply moving Blashfield Address during the 2023 Arts and Letters Ceremonial at the Church of the Intercession (photo by Michael Spudic)
Also, worth noting here, were the presentation of two Gold Medals plus an Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts, which this year was given to photographer Susan Unterberg, founder of Anonymous Was a Woman, a program that awards unrestricted $25K grants to female-identifying artists over 40. The Gold Medal, the Academy’s highest accolade, is a lifetime achievement award voted on by the full membership of the Academy that is restricted to the Academy’s membership. Literary critic Helen Hennessy Vendler was awarded the Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism and 92-year-old painter, sculptor, quilter, and performance artist Faith Ringgold, who was there, received the Gold Medal for Painting after which she said she needed to leave soon so she could go create more work, to which the audience responded with resounding applause.
Of course, of greatest concern to the readers of this publication are the music honorees and their range this year was particularly noteworthy. Six composers were newly inducted as members of the Academy by Augusta Read Thomas. We are particularly proud that all six of them have been featured in extensive conversations elsewhere on these pages: Adolphus Hailstork, Carman Moore, Roger Reynolds, Maria Schneider, Wadada Leo Smith, and Pamela Z.
Augusta Read Thomas inducts Pamela Z into the American Academy of Arts and Letters at the 2023 Ceremonial. (Photo by Michael Spudic)
David Sanford presented awards to 16 different composers, 14 of whom were there to receive them. The year’s award recipients were selected by a committee of Academy members: Julia Wolfe (chair), Annea Lockwood, David Sanford, Christopher Theofanidis, Augusta Read Thomas, Chinary Ung, and Melinda Wagner. Eve Beglarian, David Serkin Ludwig, Nicole Mitchell, and Roscoe Mitchell (who could not attend) each received an unrestricted $10,000 Arts and Letters Award which is supplemented by an additional award of $10,000 earmarked specifically for the recording their music and having it presented in a concert at the Academy. Shih-Hui Chen was the recipient of the Walter Hinrichsen Award which covers the cost of the publication of one of her scores by C. F. Peters, and Robert Honstein received the $10,000 Andrew Imbrie Award which honors the work of a mid-career composer. Andy Akiho and Zosha Di Castri each received a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship of $15,000 which is also awarded to mid-career composers. The two recipients of this year’s $15,000 Charles Ives Fellowships were Charles Peck and Peter Shin, and the six recipients of $7,500 Charles Ives Scholarships were Seare Ahmad Farhat, Jordyn Gallinek, Luke Haaksma, Ali Can Puskulcu, Harriet Steinke, and Bethany Younge (in absentia).
John Harbison then presented two awards to two pairs of operatic collaborators. Operas were nominated for these awards by the Academy’s members, and winners chosen by a jury comprised of members John Harbison (chair), Anthony Davis, Tania León, Tobias Picker, and Shulamit Ran, who met in 2022. Composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek were each the recipients of a $10,000 Marc Blitzstein Memorial Award in recognition for both the body of operatic work they have created together and the works they have created with others. Harbison remarked that they could not be at the Ceremonial to receive their awards because they are currently at work on a new opera (in Paris). Composer Laura Elise Schwendinger and librettist Ginger Strand were both in attendance to receive the Charles Ives Opera Prize for their 2019 opera Artemisia, which is about the extraordinary life of 17th century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. As composer, Schwendinger received $35,000, and Strand, as librettist, received $15,000.
Finally, Mindi Dickstein presented two Richard Rodgers Awards in Musical Theater (which help to cover the costs of staged readings at non-profit theaters in New York City) to the bluegrass and folk-infused musical Lewis Loves Clark featuring music by Dylan MacAurele and book and lyrics by Mike Ross and to the surreal, post-Apocalyptic Marie in Tomorrow Land featuring music by Erato A. Kremmyda and book and lyrics by Maggie-Kate Coleman. The members of this year’s jury were David Lang (chair), Lynn Ahrens, Kristoffer Diaz, Mindi Dickstein, Amanda Green, Michael R. Jackson, Richard Maltby, Jr., and John Weidman. The Richard Rodgers Awards are the Academy’s only awards for which applications are accepted.
As per always, the post-Ceremonial reception was a joyous see and be seen mingling event for Academy members, award recipients and invited guests spanning the various artistic disciplines honored by the Academy. It is one of the only times that members of each of these communities come together in such a way and as such will always be an event to look forward to each year.
Academy member Henry Threadgill and others enjoying the canopyless outdoor reception after the Ceremonial. (photo by Michael Spudic)
Personally congratulating Wadada Leo Smith with Augusta Read Thomas during the post-Ceremonial reception (photo by Michael Spudic)
I’ve been attending the annual New York City-based conference of Chamber Music America in January since before the launch of NewMusicBox (which is nearly a quarter of a century) and, since 2015, have also traveled to Chicago in the latter part of December to attend The Midwest Clinic, an annual music expo focused mostly–but not exclusively–on wind bands. (It’s mostly school-based groups, but there are also military and community ensembles who perform here. And, in addition to wind bands, there are also school and community-based string orchestras, percussion ensembles, jazz big bands, and chamber groups.) What keeps me coming back to both these events year after year is the amount of focus on new music and that both attract a wide range of people involved in the music: interpreters, publishers, advocates, and–most importantly–composers from diverse backgrounds who have a very wide range of stylistic inclinations. This means there are always tons of new music-specific conversations (sadly often not the case at convenings for several other national music networks), plus there are tons of exciting live performances of new works. Once again, both events proved being worthy of my time.
Although it’s probably obvious, it needs to be pointed out that the pandemic was responsible for hiatuses of both events. (Strangely I still remember getting extremely sick right after flying back from Chicago in 2019, more than two months before the alleged North American arrival of COVID-19, which miraculously I still haven’t officially contracted, and I hope to keep it that way.) Following the nation-wide shut down in March 2020, the Windy City’s monumental McCormick Place, North America’s largest convention center where the annual Midwest Clinic has taken place since 2009, shut its doors for well over a year. Obviously, there was no 2020 Clinic except for a somewhat surreal makeshift virtual event over Zoom. But McCormick gradually resumed business in June 2021, and by December the venue was purported to be back to “normal.” So there was a 2021 Midwest Clinic though it did not seem to attract its usual audience of over 17,000 people.
Since it always takes place in January, the much smaller CMA conference was the last major music gathering I attended before everything shut down in 2020. But for the next two years (2021 and 2022), it was deemed too unsafe to ask people from around the country (and, in fact, the world) to attend this sometimes claustrophobic-feeling event which for many years has taken place on three floors of a medium-sized hotel a block away from Times Square. Instead CMA presented virtual conferences which also took place, as it seems everything else did, over Zoom. So the gathering this past weekend was the first in-person CMA conference in three years and references to Rip Van Winkle were frequent as was an overarching sense of resilience and fortitude. As a result, this year’s CMA get together felt much more like a long awaited homecoming than Midwest Clinic did two weeks earlier. Still, neither was a “return to normal”; both events veered from their previous formulas in significant ways and overall these changes were refreshing and welcome.
The Midwest Clinic and the Chamber Music America conference both veered from their previous formulas in significant ways and overall these changes were refreshing and welcome.
Frank J. Oteri
The most clever composers have formed collectives and support each other. As a result, a much greater diversity of composers is now present there and it has made a difference.
Frank J. Oteri
The overall lack of parity between male and female music creators throughout the CMA conference showcases was as noticeable as it was at the Midwest Clinic.
Frank J. Oteri
Obviously today's extremely wide range of compositional voices are the most representative of world in which we currently live, but there are plenty of reasons why it is important to show that a diverse range of people writing music is not a 21st century aberration and highlighting that range offers a fuller view of the great repertoire that is all of our inheritance.
Frank J. Oteri
"This music has been marketed as a luxury item for such a long time ... but that's such a greedy way to experience this music."
"Our goal should be to bring people from one state of consciousness to another."
What we have the ability to control is our attitude.
Just about the only difference I perceived in the holiday decorations since I’ve been attending the Midwest Clinic is that at one point in 2019 the reindeer (which looks more like a moose to me) mysteriously lost its face. It was missing from the display in 2021 and 2022, but everything else was there.
Since I began attending the Midwest Clinic in 2015, the event has had pretty much the same format every single year down to the same banner photos of previous years’ honorees and even the same holiday decorations. From what I can glean, it has been exactly the same long before I began showing up. People could begin registering on a Tuesday evening, but the first event would always begin at around 8:00 A.M. on Wednesday morning. For three days there would be non-stop activities–many competing showcase concerts and panels (which they call clinics) as well as reading sessions, product showcases, and by-invitation only ceremonies (which are not printed in the program book, like the announcement of the annual Revelli Award), plus a bustling exhibition area–with all listed events usually ending by 9:00 pm in the evening. After those three somewhat overwhelming 13-hour plus days, there would be a relatively quiet final half-day on Saturday which way fewer people attended, ending with a showcase concert by a high profile wind band ending by early afternoon. (On that last day, not only is the Exhibition Hall already closed, so are almost all of McCormick Place’s food concessions making it feel like the event was already over.) Bands usually play in the same set of large rooms with one specific room, a significant walk from all other events on the schedule, reserved for jazz bands. When I first started attending this thing it felt like these groups were being segregated, but the long walk to hear them was always worth it.
This year the decorations as well as the banners of honorees were mostly the same (though thankfully, finally, they weren’t exclusively white men) as were the room assignments and the planned three and half-day structure. But there were two significant differences to the schedule, albeit only one of which was planned. Breaking its usual calendar, activities began on a Monday and were scheduled to end in the middle of the day that Thursday. But it was not to be. On Tuesday, fearing an historic winter storm which ultimately resulted in the cancellation of more than 18,000 flights nationwide, the organizers cut the event short, shutting the exhibition hall half a day early on Wednesday and rescheduling the events of the final Thursday half-day to other times where rooms were open on Tuesday night and Wednesday. By mid-Wednesday, McCormick Place seemed like a ghost town when a mere 24 hours earlier it felt like rush hour at Grand Central Station (and also, due to most folks not wearing face masks, like a massive potential super spreader event).
There were soooooo many people at this thing, but there were also so many tubas!
As a result, I wound up attending far fewer events than I usually do and, I must confess, I felt somewhat cheated though obviously the bad weather wasn’t the fault of Midwest Clinic’s organizers. Nevertheless, from what I did attend, I was able to perceive what I believe is real positive change. While the composers of the repertoire for performances at the Midwest Clinic are still quite far away from being truly representative of the cultural and gender diversity of the population of this country, there seemed to be a real effort to foreground music by Black composers as well as by women. It must be pointed out that the the entire event is heavily driven by music publishers. In the old days, the big publishers actively promoted certain composers and their works were the most prominent. In the 21st century landscape, where self-published composers can compete in a more level playing field, there is a greater opportunity to break into this network. It is something composers like John Mackey and Johan De Meij discovered a long time ago and they still keep coming every year. Admittedly, it’s not cheap. If your music gets performed in one of the concerts, you must be represented by a booth in the exhibition hall. This is a much easier expenditure for a big company than it is for an individual. But the most clever composers have formed collectives and support each other. As a result, a much greater diversity of composers is now present there and it has made a difference.
The audience waits in anticipation just before the start of the Brooklyn Wind Symphony’s showcase.
While there’s nowhere near a gender parity among the composers featured during Midwest Clinic concerts, most programs this year included at least one work by a female composer and sometimes there were more. Back in 2015, the only two female-identifying composers listed in the program book were Julie Giroux (whom I decided I had to meet and several years later spoke with for NewMusicBox) and Keiko Yamada (who did not attend that year because I later found out she does not actually exist). In the intervening years, seeing the name of a female composer on a program, still a rarity, was often the deciding factor in determining which of the sometimes five simultaneous concerts I would attend. This year I didn’t get to hear every piece by a female composer that was performed since they were no longer such complete outliers, but nevertheless it was gratifying to hear works by Nicole Piunno, Laura Estes, Augusta Read Thomas (her 2020 composition Crackle was another highlight of the second Navy Band concert), Kimberly Archer (who had previously composed a work that was played by the U.S. Marine Band at Joe Biden’s Inauguration), Christina Huss, Carol Brittin Chambers, Yukiko Nishimura, and, of course, Julie Giroux. Frustratingly, though, the Revelli Award continues to be exclusively a domain for male composers and this year’s winning work, Flying Jewels by Colorado State University-based James M. David, though extremely effective, was no exception. Obviously there were also some other fabulous pieces by men. I’d be remiss not to mention David Biedenbender‘s stunning sax quartet concerto Severance (of which sadly only two of the three movements were played), Jim Stephenson‘s really exciting Wildcat Run, Joel Love‘s extremely moving It is Well, and finally the late John Zdechlik‘s masterful Rondo Capriccio which is hardly a brand new work (it was composed in 1979) but I had never heard it before so it was new to me. Finally, I must call attention here to the extraordinary Cedar Falls High School Jazz One from Iowa, the one jazz group I was able to trek over to hear. I was completely captivated by every piano solo played by high school senior Colten Thomas as well as the idiosyncratic drumming of junior Kate Galyen who have both been part of the band for three years. I can’t wait to hear them in other contexts one day. Still, when the whole thing came to an abrupt end a day before it should have, it was like suddenly going cold turkey. That’s why it was great to be able to have a similarly deep, albeit very different, musical immersion only two weeks later thanks to Chamber Music America.
The Cedar Falls High School Jazz One on stage at the designated jazz venue at McCormick Place.
If the Midwest Clinic is a successful story of incremental change, the Chamber Music America conference is a successful story of radical transformation. Well, maybe radical transformation is a bit of an exaggeration. Still, there were enough differences in the organization of this year’s conference so that it felt like a significantly different experience. In the past, the conference had three tightly packed days of activities starting early on Friday morning and running through Sunday evening. Although for several years there have also been several pre-conference sessions starting on Thursday. This year, there were also some events on Thursday, but the official conference opening actually took place on Thursday night with the annual reception hosted by BMI which is always attended by a significant number of BMI-affiliated composers who are in town in addition to the CMA conference registrants. This event, which is one of the new music community’s great schmoozefests, used to be the culminating event of the first day. By moving it an evening earlier, it was a great way for people to just catch up with one another after, in many cases, not seeing each other for three years. (Although admittedly a drinks and small bites reception in the COVID-era is somewhat akin to a mild form of Russian Roulette. A great many folks, myself included, remained mostly masked, though it’s impossible to nosh and chat while masked, so I sat at a table in the corner instead of engaging in my previous BC-era peregrinations around the room.)
The real radical change, however, was the way that ensemble showcase performances were presented. In previous years, showcases were scheduled at the hotel on Friday and Saturday afternoons, sometimes competing against panel sessions and time to explore the exhibition hall. The beginnings and endings of showcase sets were always hectic, with folks going in and out, picking and choosing which groups they wanted to hear and it was often extremely noisy directly outside the room where the showcases took place, so sitting in the back was not ideal. (I commented in previous years that it seemed like the classically-oriented groups and the more jazz or improvisation-inclined groups attracted very different audiences with little overlap, which was extremely upsetting given CMA’s mission to bring all this music together.) But this year CMA held all the showcases at DROM, an eclectic music venue in Alphabet City that serves food and has a full bar. (An aside: the food, which was mostly Middle Eastern fare, was terrific if a bit overpriced; it was an expensive night out in New York City.) There were eight showcases on Friday night from 6:00 P.M. until around 10:15 P.M. and an additional six on Saturday morning from 11:00 A.M. until approximately 2:15 P.M.–all showcase sets were supposed to run no longer than 20 minutes but things inevitably went a bit overtime. Still, people stayed and listened, and they listened to an incredible range of music.
Friday night’s marathon opened with a formidable Rochester NY-based artist-led ensemble called fivebyfive who were joined by Minneapolis-based electric harpist/composer Amy Nam in a performance of her fascinating CMA-commissioned …of breath and fire which also featured video footage of glass sculptures being created by Madeline Rile Smith. They subsequently performed Anthony R. Green‘s captivating … a tiny dream. I was disappointed not to hear the works by Missy Mazzoli and Edie Hill that were also listed on the program, but 20 minutes races by pretty quickly. The group was following by the stunning NYC-based Baroque ensemble Twelfth Night who did not perform any new music, but everything they played sounded new (Purcell and Fasch, plus an aria from BWV 199 by J.S. Bach for which they were joined by the mesmerizing soprano Julie Roset). The Beo String Quartet, which followed, also cancelled a piece they were supposed to perform by Missy Mazzoli, which was to be their opener. Instead they performed an work they themselves composed which was inspired by Mexican music in which at one point members of the quartet were whistling. It was much more captivating than their subsequent medley of a movement from Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet and an excerpt of Beethoven’s Opus 18 No. 1, but at least they ended with a portion of a work by contemporary Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz.
CMA’s showcases at DROM began with fivebyfive joined by electric harpist Amy Nam for a performance of Nam’s …of breath and fire featuring a video projection of glass sculptures being created by Madeline Rile Smith.
The Dyachkov-Saulnier Duo also felt obliged to perform Beethoven. (In late December, Atma Classics just released the duo’s recording of his complete sonatas and variations for cello and piano, so they performed excerpts from a set of variations as well as one of the sonatas.) Mysteriously they also performed a movement of a sonata by Shostakovich, explaining that although he was Russian and Russian repertoire is taboo at the moment given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he was a dissident. And they ended with the Burlesque of the late jazz-inspired Ukrainian-born composer Nicolai Kapustin who spent most of his life in Russia. All of this music is top shelf repertoire, but if they were trying to make a statement about the situation in Ukraine, there are tons of living Ukrainian composers who work deserves a hearing. Also, why only play music composed by men? In 2023, it almost seems tone deaf. But they were certainly not the only group featured that seems out of touch with the zeitgeist. The overall lack of parity between male and female music creators throughout these showcases was as noticeable as it was at the Midwest Clinic. Duo Sonidos, which pairs violin and classical guitar, followed with transcriptions of music by Astor Piazzolla and Manuel Ponce plus a work written expressly for them by Clarice Assad which was by far the most interesting thing they played. Far more exciting was a transcription of music by another Latin American composer, Alberto Ginastera, by the Argentinian jazz vocalist Roxana Amed who performed with her quintet. Their rendition of Wayne Shorter’s Virgo was also ear opening.
The Aznavoorian Duo (sisters Ani and Marta, another cello-piano pairing) were up next and featured a program centered predominantly around Armenia (their ancestral homeland) but also included a couple of composers from other parts of lands that were also once part of the Soviet Union. They began with a transcription of a melody by the 19th century Armenian Komitas who is often considered the father of Armenian classical music and followed with a work inspired by Armenian culture from the American Peter Boyer. Again, I would have loved to have heard cello and piano repertoire by some living Armenian composers, but nevertheless I loved Ani’s tone on her cello, which was an instrument her father had built expressly for her. At this point, after more than three and a half hours of music with no intermission, I was getting pretty wiped out. But I was so glad I stayed to hear the final set featuring the Johnston Brothers, Ziggy and Miles, a guitar duo originally from Australia who are currently studying at Juilliard. Their combination of precision and duende (there’s really no better word for it even though they weren’t playing flamenco) was flabbergasting. Their opening performance of Brazilian guitarist/composer Paulo Bellinati’s Jongo was a non-stop energy jolt and the subsequent Rodrigo Tonadilla was also thrilling. Even their transcription of Debussy’s bonbon Clair de Line was revelatory. But their concluding account of Australian Nigel Westlake‘s Songs from the Forest was sublime. As they mentioned, most Americans have only heard his music for the movie Babe: Pig in the City. I know whose music I will be tracking down as much as I can of later this year.
The following morning’s collection of showcases began with Doug Beavers‘s Luna, a nine-piece conjunto which spanned Latin Jazz and full on salsa. It was a welcome wake up since DROM’s coffee wasn’t. The noticeably quieter Interwoven, an intercultural ensemble combining Western bowed strings with Chinese erhu and Japanese koto, was up next. They performed works combining Western and Eastern instruments by Americans Thomas Osborne and Daron Hagen as well as suite featuring music by early 20th century Chinese composer Liu Tianhua that was later reworked by Chen Yaoxing. More cross-cultural music followed, a duo comprised of Dutch trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and American accordionist Will Holshouser, both of whom composed repertoire they performed. I was particularly moved by Redbud Winter, a work Holshouser wrote in memory of his mother.
ShoutHouse was literally larger and louder than any other ensemble that performed during the 2023 CMA conference showcases at DROM.
Next, it was back to full throttle volume with ShoutHouse, a cross-genre nonet fronted by composer Will Healy which combines musicians with classical, jazz, and hip-hop backgrounds in performances of music mostly composed by Healy with words by spiritchild, who is the group’s MC. They also performed a piece written expressly for them by Jack Frerer. Acknowledgement should also be given to ShoutHouse’s seamless interweaving of acoustic and electronic sounds which rarely comes off so effectively in a live music performance. I was floored by Alfredo Colon‘s soloing on EWI (electronic wind instrument). They were a tough act to follow, but there were still two more sets. Tallā Rouge, a self-described “Cajun-Persian viola duo,” performed mostly excerpts including, ack, more Beethoven, though it was nice to hear their performances of music by Caroline Shaw and Dave Rimelis. Finally, the Dan Pugach Nonet, a three wind, three brass, piano-bass-drums nearly big band devoted to performing the music of drummer/leader Pugach. Most of the players had a chance to solo except for, frustrating, bass trombonist Jen Hinkle, the only woman in the group and, more frustrating, the only female instrumentalist in any of the jazz-oriented ensembles. From where I was sitting I could clearly hear her tone on her instrument and the music could have greatly benefitted from some foregrounding of that lower register. As soon as they finished playing, it was a mad rush to the chartered bus to take us back to the hotel with only a few minutes to spare before the afternoon panels began.
I have not yet written about any of the panels, some of which also took place on Friday afternoon before the showcases, figuring it was better to describe them all in one place. On Friday, I attended a panel about making concerts accessible to a neurodiverse audience. The presenter, Jenna Richards, offered some valuable insights about optimal durations, providing attendees with as much advance information as possible, and working with the performance space so it could be made less constricting than the typical rows of seats in most venues. But by focusing on presenting movements from standard repertoire rather than encouraging session attendees to commission composers who could create vibrant music designed especially for such a performance it seemed far less transformative a presentation than it could have been. Far more useful was the session led by a group of musicians associated with ChamberQUEER—Danielle Buonaiuto, Aiden Feltkamp, Brian Mummert, and Mazz Swift–with the provocative title “‘Til All of Us Are Free: A Liberatory Framework for DEI in Chamber Music Organizations.” The panelists had the very crowded room of session attendees breakout into smaller groups to discuss ways in which a chamber group could diversify its audience and funder base. The group I was part of mostly agreed that such a plan must begin with diversifying the people who are performing and the repertoire being performed. But not everyone held that view. It got somewhat contentious at times. When various groups were reporting back, a member of one of the groups talked about the need to sometimes devote concerts to core repertoire which they have now decided to embellish with commentary from the stage along the lines of “imagine what kind of music would have been written had one of Bach’s daughters been allowed to compose music.” To which I felt compelled to raise my hand and counter that there were female composers who were active at that time. What about Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre? As well as Black composers. So if you’re performing Mozart, why not also include a piece by Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Obviously today’s extremely wide range of compositional voices are the most representative of world in which we currently live, but there are plenty of reasons why it is important to show that a diverse range of people writing music is not a 21st century aberration and highlighting that range offers a fuller view of the great repertoire that is all of our inheritance.
Breakout groups for GenderQUEER’s EDI panel at the 2023 CMA conference continued having provocative conversations long after time ran out for the session.
On Saturday, I attended a session moderated by 2023 CMA Conference Chair, flutist Jennie Oh Brown, featuring two visionary musician/administrators: tenor Nicholas Phan who also serves as the Artistic Director of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago; and jazz singer Dwight Trible who also serves as Executive Director of the The World Stage performance gallery in Los Angeles. Perhaps the biggest insight from that session was Phan’s quip that the problem with classical music is that it “has been marketed as a luxury item for such a long time” and “that’s such a greedy way to experience this music.” Finally, I attended a very practical and informative session about touring and presenting during the pandemic which was billed as “jazz and chamber music” but everyone on the panel came from a jazz perspective–Rodney Marsalis and Morgan Pappas (from Marsalis Mansion Artists) plus artist manager Gail Boyd, a co-founder of the Jazz Coalition. Although the situations they described, everything from unpaid fees to the uncertainty of rescheduling, are equally applicable to classical music, as well as indie rock, funk, or bluegrass for that matter. After attending The Midwest Clinic where you wouldn’t be blamed if you erroneously believed the pandemic was over, it was refreshing to hear people talk about the ongoing problems we are all still facing in trying to make music in these still extremely precarious times.
After all the heady sounds and ideas on Friday and Saturday, Sunday was a bit of a let-down. The day’s activities began with a somewhat lackluster networking breakfast that was not heavily attended. Thankfully there was an amazing concert at the hotel later in the afternoon devoted to two CMA commissions: Martha Sullivan‘s Certain Dragons performed by the dazzling vocal sextet The Western Wind; and Arun Ramamurthy‘s New Moon Suite performed by his trio consisting of Sameer Gupta on drumset, Damon Banks on electric bass, and the composer on violin performed in Karnatic style. I’m glad it was not followed by anything else, since anything else would have felt extremely intrusive after such sonic transports, but it might have been nice to have an additional panel in the morning, although I remember all too well how disappointing it was to participate in a Sunday morning CMA panel which was very poorly attended.
The Arun Ramamurthy Trio (Sameer Gupta, Damon Banks, and Arun Ramamurthy) right after they proved that great music can happen, even in a conference room at a hotel!
Admittedly I did not attend the luncheon honoring new music soprano and educator Lucy Shelton (recipient of CMA’s 2023 Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award) and Palestinian-American composer/multi-instrumentalist Ronnie Malley (recipient of CMA’s 2023 Michael Jaffee Visionary Award). There was an extra $45 charge to attend and it was probably too late to get a ticket plus I had already paid for and attended the similarly priced networking luncheon on Friday and was somewhat worried that eating yet another meal (Friday’s was albeit a tasty Asian-themed buffet which was an improvement over previous years’ fare) on a round table surrounded by a group of necessarily unmasked people some of whom I probably did not know was probably too much of a crapshoot after having already attended the opening reception as well as eating and drinking during the ensemble showcases at DROM.
Still, overall the 2023 Chamber Music America conference was head and shoulders above most of the annual CMA conferences I’ve attended in recent memory. So a special shoutout is in order to conference chair Jennie Oh Brown as well as to CMA’s visionary and extremely articulate new CEO Kevin Kwan Loucks, who is also an active chamber music pianist. I was thrilled that during his introductory remarks to the keynote speaker Loucks mentioned that CMA is in the process of trying to secure their own performance venue which I imagine will be as galvanizing a space for the chamber music community as OPERA America’s National Opera Center has been for singers, vocal coaches, producers, composers, librettists and all the other members of the opera community. I should also write a few words about that keynote speaker, film, television and stage actor Giancarlo Esposito, whom I first became acquainted with from his performance as the intellectually rigorous tempestuous militant Buggin’ Out in Spike Lee’s 1989 motion picture Do The Right Thing. Esposito offered many pearls of wisdom during his extremely performative speech, but the two that left the strongest impression on me is that our goal as artists (whether creative or interpretative artists) should be “to bring people from one state of consciousness to another” and that the only thing “we have the ability to control is our attitude.” Finally, I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to CMA’s Susan Dadian who, as per every other conference I have attended since she joined the staff many many years ago, tirelessly kept finding me to introduce me to composers who were there whom she thought I may not yet know. I will be back again next year!
I travelled from Ohio to Ojai to arrive at the Blackbird Creative Lab, an education and mentorship program for composers and performers established by the ensemble Eighth Blackbird. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Just looking at the two names—Ohio and Ojai. They seem pretty similar, don’t they? The Lab couldn’t cause that big of a difference in my life, right?
The Blackbird Creative Lab is held at the Besant Hill School, nestled in the mountains of Ojai. My current home in Ohio is surrounded by a landscape of cornfields, flat as far as the eye can see. The different terrain of Ojai was striking.
Me being struck by the difference
I am certain that I speak for all members of The Lab when I say that the experience in Ojai connected me with a fount of empowerment, bravery, camaraderie, and creativity.
Every morning at the Blackbird Creative Lab, I took in a breath of inspiration as I opened the door to a dramatic, gorgeous landscape, with hills that morphed and grew with the changing sunlight. Starting the day in this manner led to an open mind that was ready for saturation. The Blackbird Lab quenched this thirst each day.
Cue the mountain montage!
Communication was key throughout the two-week residency. We opened up our hearts and minds through rehearsals, performances, the hang, learning from each other in one of the most open environments that I’ve ever experienced.
Guest artists spoke with the community each night, but not in a stuffy lecture format. The salon talks were bona fide times of connection, leading all of us on a rollercoaster of deep inspiration.
Jennifer Higdon, laying down some inspiration
Fellows rehearsed with members of Eighth Blackbird, working on compositions by other fellows, faculty, and composers who resonate with the contemporary music world. These pieces were performed in a marathon of concerts in the final three days.
What did I garner from this experience? I don’t have the words to describe the magic created at the Lab (thankfully, pictures are worth a thousand). But, I’m going to try to respond as sincerely as possible. First, I was imbued with a renewed sense of artistic direction. The community built around the Blackbird Creative Lab is intensely passionate about their artistry. Their passion is highly contagious, fueled by the Blackbird’s core values of unquestioned quality, pervasive innovation, intense work ethic, genuine informality, and bold openness.
We all garnered tools that can “feed our flame,” as faculty member Jennifer Higdon put it. The community built at the Lab nurtured the potential of each and every member and encouraged us to be the most authentic versions of ourselves.
Nurturing was happening all around campus…
…in shapes and sizes that you might not expect.
There was music that I needed to hear, from musicians who I needed to meet. There were messages that I needed to hear. Sage advice came from all members of the community, and there were particular conversations with Nico Muhly, Shara Nova, Jennifer Higdon, and Lisa Kaplan that I will treasure. But of course, these conversations were just threads of a larger tapestry woven by the entire Blackbird Creative Lab.
Just a sliver of what I needed to hear. To be honest, I needed to hear everyone at this Lab. I was profoundly moved by each and every member of the community, and I can’t thank them enough for sharing their artistry and opening their whole-hearted selves.
Now that I’ve returned from Ojai to Ohio, I can confirm that my life has been positively transformed. I feel like I am part of something larger than myself because of this experience.
The Lab galvanized my artistry. As an example of this, I spent a few weeks tracking new compositions for my upcoming multimedia project, Enter Branch, just before heading to the Lab. This is a project that is about connection and that brings together musicians and artists from communities I hold dear. As I recorded, there were elements of the compositions that still seemed vulnerable, and I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. The Lab drove home a mantra that I’ve lived with for years, but had forgotten recently: If you don’t feel vulnerable when you’re sharing your art, then you might not be connecting in an authentic manner.
So as the sun sets on this iteration of the Blackbird Creative Lab…
I’d like to leave with a few shots of the magic in action. In the final performance of the festival, we staged a production of works by Cage, Wubbels, and Eastman. Throughout the course of the Lab, we had in-depth discussions on how to honor this situation. In the end, every single member of that ensemble poured their hearts into the performance. At one point, members were performing variations of Cage’s 0’00”, carrying out a disciplined action. For my disciplined action, I took pictures of members of the ensemble, on the stage, performing live as we shared this experience with the audience. Here are those shots. My love and thanks to everyone involved with the Eight Blackbird Creative Lab. Stay on it!
Ever since Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy announced Kendrick Lamar’s win in the music category a bit after 3 p.m. on Monday, news outlets and social media have been alight with hot takes and existential reflections. As the first artist working outside the classical-ish field (with a couple more recent nods to jazz) to snag the prize, the selection of Lamar’s album DAMN. seems to have signaled a lot, both in terms of the parameters of the Pulitzer itself going forward and regarding some larger cultural shifts when it comes to art and gatekeeping.
What Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Means for Hip-Hop (The New Yorker) Doreen St. Félix considers how Lamar’s historic milestone—becoming the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for music—figures in the grander, affected consecration of blackness within élite spaces.
Last month I visited the Netherlands’ second city, Rotterdam, to attend Classical:NEXT for the first time. Five years ago, when I was first approached about attending this new international forum combining conference sessions, concerts, and exhibition rooms, I was skeptical, bordering on dismissive. I doubted that any convening with such a name could be inclusive enough to embrace the pluralism of 21st-century new music, which is—after all—the music that lures me to travel around the world.
It’s no secret that I don’t feel comfortable with the term “classical music.” First, there’s the inexplicable anachronism. (E.g. Why is a term for an 18th-century aesthetic being used for music from other times? And wait a minute, what does this music have to do with Ancient Greece or Rome?) Then there’s the not very subtle racism of assumed cultural specificity related to the name. (Without a qualifier, like “North Indian classical music” or “Chinese classical music,” it is assumed that music described as “classical” is exclusively from the Western world.) Even worse is the term “contemporary classical” which is simultaneously oxymoronic and an unbridled display of hubris. (No recent music has yet stood the test of time and no one can predict what ultimately will.) Because of this combination of confusion and seeming obliviousness, I believe that the use of the word “classical” to describe a millennia’s arbitrarily grouped together collection of extraordinary music, particularly the stuff being created right now, discourages many people from experiencing it.
Classical:NEXT has the potential to be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, despite its name.
However, after three days of transformative concert experiences and spirited discussions, both during official sessions and through casual conversations with the numerous high profile music professionals from around the world who showed up, I’m willing to eat crow on this one. I’ll say unequivocally that the 2017 edition of Classical:NEXT (c:N) was the most vital music get-together I’ve participated in in the last 12 months, quite possibly even longer. And, more importantly, I think c:N has the potential to be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, despite its name. In fact, so much of what I experienced there—in terms of sounds heard live, as well as people I connected with (plus all the recordings I brought back home)—was not only mostly newly created music, but music that falls outside the rubric of what many folks might consider “classical music.” Ultimately, the capitalized NEXT is the more important word in this event’s name.
(Before I attempt to give a brief summary of my mere 72 hours in Rotterdam, which is where c:N has been taking place annually for the last four of its five years, I should acknowledge that the reason I was there was because I had been asked to moderate one of the panels, so my conference fee and 2/3rds of my hotel stay were covered. All I had to work out was one night in a hotel and getting there. )
A completely packed foyer for the opening reception of Classical:NEXT
As soon as I retrieved my conference badge and walked inside the foyer of De Doelen, the huge complex of concert halls and meeting rooms where c:N was held, I was greeted by familiar faces from all over the globe. Folks I originally met at the ISCM World (New) Music Days and the IAMIC Conference, as well as people closer to home who attend the Chamber Music America conference. I navigated my way through an extremely crowded room, balancing trying to remember who everybody was who clearly knew who I was, catching up with them as best I could under the circumstances, and introducing them to each other. But soon we were quickly ushered in to Juriaanse Zaal, a medium-sized concert hall, to hear a performance by Chineke! Orchestra which, as per their website, was “established in 2015 to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe.” Although their performance was impeccable, I must confess that when they opened the program with Edward Elgar’s three-movement Serenade for String Orchestra, composed in 1892, I began to revisit my fear that this gathering was not for me. But they quickly made amends when vocalist Nicole Jordan joined them on stage to perform two passages from Sarah Kirkland Snider’s indie rock-infused Unremembered, a work by a female American composer written in the past five years. The audience was ecstatic. Too bad Sarah couldn’t be there to witness that. Even more euphoric was the audience reception for the work with which they chose to end the program, a frenetic quasi post-minimalist Double Concerto by Belize-born, London-based composer Errolyn Wallen who thankfully was there to experience it. After that, the reception continued—more introductions, more conversations, and a valiant fight against jetlag which I ultimately lost a couple of hours later. Many of the conversations centered around Chineke’s strange program—so great that two of the three works they performed were by living composers and both were women, but why did they play Elgar? And why did they open with it? Strangely, musing back on it a month later, it seems an apt metaphor for what this whole gathering was about. Elgar epitomizes what people think classical music is. The Serenade is a beautiful piece and they played it tremendously, but they can do so much more than that, and they went on to prove it. It began with “classical,” but it was ultimately about NEXT.
The Chineke! Orchestra take a bow after the opening concert of Classical:NEXT (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland)
I woke up the next morning feeling completely refreshed and oblivious to the fact that the clocks were set six hours earlier than they had been in New York. (Note to self: the best way to combat jetlag is to be insanely tired when you go to sleep the night before.) Unlike just about every other music conference I’ve attended in my life, c:N does not begin as early in the morning as possible. The exhibition hall doesn’t open its doors until 9:30 a.m. and panel sessions don’t commence until 10. While it reduces the amount of time available for connecting with other attendees, do you really want to connect with anyone before your third cup of coffee? And speaking of that third cup and beyond, coffee was free and available to anyone wandering around in the exhibition area, as were stroopwafels (my favorite Dutch sweet snack) and other sugar-laden edibles.
Panels throughout c:N took place on De Doelen’s upper floors and, in order to get to them, attendees needed to ride escalators up that were situated in such a way that it ensured passage through all of the exhibition displays that were spread out on several floors. Planners of conferences such as the League of American Orchestras, OPERA America, Chorus America et al—whose exhibitors have sometimes complained about low traffic to their booths—should follow c:N’s example here.
Classical:NEXT attendees wandering through the expo area. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
While the layout makes it take longer to get where you ultimately think you want to go, it allows you to discover a bunch of stuff you might not have known about—in my case (as a result of myriad treks up and down) some highlights include recordings of Latvian and Swiss jazz, Korean multi-instrumentalist Park Jiha (more on her later), unaccompanied choral music by Austrian composer Beat Furrer sung by the Helsinki Chamber Choir, the Grieg piano concerto on period instruments (yes, I learned a few new things about older music, too), as well as, later the following evening, Scottish gin!
As it turned out, the first panel session I attended was not nearly as interesting as the stuff I discovered on my way up there. The organizers of c:N led an orientation session for new attendees to help them learn how to network with each other comfortably. Since I was a new attendee I thought I should show up, but since I’ve been attending music industry gatherings all over the world for decades at this point, I was probably not the target audience for their sage advice, though I did manage to meet and exchange business cards with Gabriël Oostvogel, who as the (albeit outgoing, as I later learned) director of De Doelen is one of the most powerful impresarios in the Netherlands. I also didn’t hear anything I hadn’t heard many times before in a session on the death of music journalism called “Professional Commentary on Music is Dying Out, Do We Care?” led by Shirley Apthorp, a Cape Town, South Africa-born, Berlin-based journalist who has written for publications throughout Europe and North America as well as Europe. But again, I probably wasn’t the target audience. (It’s hard to see the web as a negative force after spending 18 years online with NewMusicBox.) I was, however, very intrigued with the multimedia performances by Carmina Slovenica I heard described during a session about choral music initiatives that I caught the tail end of.
Lunchtime in the Expo Area of Classical:NEXT. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
After a standing lunch provided free of charge in the exhibition area, which allowed more time for interactions between the attendees, there were three back-to-back sessions that I was asked to participate in. First was a networking session for Music Export Centers organized by Music Estonia’s director Virgo Sillamaa. I was only able to stay for the first 15 minutes but nevertheless, as the only American participating, it was somewhat awkward to address concerns about visas and international collaborations in the current political environment. Luckily I had to rush off to moderate a session about how the digital environment has changed the artist-agent/manager paradigm, both for the better and the uncertain. Joining me on the podium were: Stephen Lumsden, who has more than 35 years of experience as an artist manager and is currently the managing director of the U.K.-based Intermusica; Sune Hjerrild, a Denmark-based tenor who, to end the “agent monopoly” and give more power to individual artists, spearheads an online platform called Truelinked; and Australian percussionist Kaylie Melville, who has built a successful career for herself as a soloist and chamber musician completely DIY. It was often an extremely heated discussion, especially in the Q&A period when a presenter acknowledged that he won’t book a musician, no matter how talented, if he thinks it will not be an audience draw. But it all came to a crashing halt after the allotted 45 minutes since we all had to go on to the next thing. For me, the next thing was a networking session for members of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC) led by IAMIC president Kostas Moschos, who also runs IEMA (the Greek Music Information and Documentation Centre). It was great to re-connect with these folks, some of whom I’ve known since I first started participating in IAMIC back in 2000. (And, as further fodder to my assertion that c:N might be the most viable international gathering place for open-minded music-focused people, there were more IAMIC members here than at the 2017 IAMIC Conference in Cyprus this past weekend, which I sadly was also not able to attend.)
After a quick meal at a Vietnamese noodle shop down the road, I returned to De Doelen to catch most of the evening’s showcases. Once again, for an event called Classical:NEXT, the emphasis was firmly on next. I walked back in during the tail end of a performance of a quartet blending Balkan Gypsy and tango elements led by Buenos Aires-born pianist Gerardo Jerez Le Cam, who has lived in France since 1992. Combining two instruments that are culturally specific, the Roma cimbalom and the Argentinian bandoneon, with two that more easily cross cultural boundaries, the piano and violin, the Jerez Le Cam Quartet made music that sounded simultaneously familiar and completely new and also hard to describe as “classical.” Next up were Zwerm, a Belgian electric guitar quartet which is no stranger to contemporary American repertoire. (They’ve recorded Larry Polansky’s The World’s Longest Melody for New World Records, as well as a disc of 12 one-page pieces by Earle Brown, Alvin Curran, Nick Didkovsky, Daniel Goode, Christian Wolff, and others.) But they devoted their c:N showcase exclusively to music from the English renaissance, though it sounded nothing like early music. My favorite was probably their performance of In Nomine by John Taverner (as opposed to John Tavener) which they rendered exclusively through effects boxes. Again, more NEXT than classical. But the highlight of my evening was an improvisatory quartet led by Park Jiha that seamlessly combined traditional Korean and Western instruments. She sang and performed on piri, saenghwang, and yanggeum amidst cross-cultural improvisations by New Zealand vibraphonist John Bell, Korean tenor saxophonist KimOki (a.k.a. YoungHoon Kim) whose combination of global mindedness and mellow tone recalls Yusef Lateef, and percussionist Kang Tekhyun, who is equally comfortable performing gnawa music and reggae. It was truly mind blowing. But don’t just take my word for it, track down the quartet’s debut album Communion (at least here or here) which, as I’d mentioned, I was lucky enough to pick up in the exhibition hall earlier in the day. There were other showcases off-site that lasted well into the night, but that was enough for me for one day.
Park Jiha’s mind-blowing quartet captured live in performance, (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
I began Friday morning having breakfast in the hotel I had just checked out of with music consultant and consummate bloggerAndy Doe, whose byline will hopefully reappear on these pages before too long. Then it was more coffee and conversations in the exhibition area, as well as grilled cheese and vegemite sandwiches cooked up fresh at the Australian booth, before heading up to a session about fostering collaborations in Latin America led by Brazilian experimental composer Thiago Cury (who also runs Águaforte, which recently became an associate member of ISCM). The most valuable takeaway was a piece of advice for musicians wanting to organize concerts in South America: make sure that you are paid in dollars or Euros rather than local currency (given the instability of many of these currencies). I’ve previously commented on the ironies of making more musical connections with Latin Americans in Europe than at home in North America, but those ironies are laden with a greater degree of disappointment nowadays.
If you book a gig in Latin America, make sure that you are paid in dollars or Euros rather than local currency.
The Rotterdam Philharmonic did lovers of new American music proud. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
Though I was already extremely impressed with how new music dominated the performances I had attended thus far, there was probably no greater investment than that of the Rotterdam Philharmonic, whose concert that evening consisted of only two works, both by living American composers. First, Michael Gordon’s The Unchanging Sea, for which the orchestra, under the direction of Bas Wiegers, was joined by pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama—though it would be inaccurate to describe Gordon’s relentless musical arc as a piano concerto. A film by Gordon’s frequent collaborator Bill Morrison (Decasia, Gotham, etc.) was also projected during the performance, though to call Gordon’s music a film score also doesn’t adequately convey the symbiosis that Gordon and Morrison achieve in their collaborations. After a brief intermission, the orchestra performed John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean, a similarly intense, slowly developing, single movement of music. I had never previously heard The Unchanging Sea and hope to again soon, but after attending the New York premiere of Become Ocean and hearing the recording several times, it’s like standard repertoire to me. But it was still transformative to hear both of these pieces live back-to-back in such committed performances in the fine acoustics of De Doelen’s Grote Zaal. I was overjoyed, though a British artist manager who happened to be sitting next to me, was not happy at all.
“I thought it would never end,” he opined while most of the audience was giving the orchestra a standing ovation. “There was nothing going on at all. I like things that develop, like Beethoven.”
Trying to find an in any way I could, I asked him if he’d been to the Rothko room at the Tate Modern, one of my favorite spaces in London, suggesting that the music we heard might be the sonic equivalent, and to which he replied, “I hate those paintings; I’m not even sure if they’re art.”
I write all of this not to disparage either the music that was performed or the man who didn’t like it. We otherwise had a delightful conversation; he even told me he enjoyed the session I had moderated the day before. But I do write this because part of what convenings like Classical:NEXT must continue to do is work toward convincing folks who love “classical” music that what comes NEXT is also something worthy of their love.
What convenings like Classical:NEXT must continue to do is work toward convincing folks who love “classical” music that what comes NEXT is also something worthy of their love.
While that concert and the conversations I had at the reception afterwards with Michael Gordon, Louis Andriessen and his wife, violinist Monica Germino, and many others should have provided me with enough inspiration to end my day and head back to my hotel for some sleep, I decided I would barrel on to some of the late night c:N showcases at a club called The Worm. I heard the last third of the set by Breath + Hammer, the duo of clarinetist David Krakauer (who is no stranger to these pages) and pianist Kathleen Tagg who together play improvisatory music inspired by klezmer. Tagg, who frequently sticks her fingers inside the piano to alter the timbre of the strings (often making it sound like a cimbalom), is the perfect foil for Krakauer’s virtuosic pyrotechnics—it is a wonderful rapprochement of traditionalism and experimentation.
Breath + Hammer (pianist Kathleen Tagg, left, and clarinetist David Krakauer) brought klezmer into the 21st century at The Worm. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
Then came American-born Netherlands-based flutist/composer Ned McGowan, who performed his entire set on contrabass flute, albeit with some technological wizardry that at one point allowed him to play a contrabass flute sextet by himself. Again, it seemed to be all new music all the time at Classical:NEXT, and even more than that, all new American music.
Ned McGowan and his amazing contrabass flute. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
On the final day, most of the exhibits had already been taken down by the time I arrived back at De Doelen. It was only 9:30 a.m., but thankfully there was still coffee and stroopwafels. John Davis, the director of the Australian Music Centre, led an Asian-Pacific Rim networking meeting which seemed to attract most of the people who were still there. Fun fact: this year a total of 23 Australians were registered for c:N which seemed like quite a lot until I learned that 30 had registered for it in 2016. For comparison, only 33 people showed up from the United States, which included the Sphinx Organization’s president and artistic director Afa Dworkin, Nicholas Alexander Brown from the Library of Congress, composer and radio host Seth Boustead, Charlton Lee and Kathryn Bates of the Del Sol String Quartet, composer/pianist Andrew Shapiro, Paul Tai from New World Records, composer and New Amsterdam Records co-founder Judd Greenstein, Sean Hickey from Naxos who is also a composer, and Karen Ames from the Berkeley-based audio manufacturer Meyer Sound. It was interesting to observe which countries had a strong presence at c:N and which ones didn’t. Classical:NEXT evolved, in part, out of classical music sector professionals’ frustrations with MIDEM, the annual international music trade fair which used to attract a huge contingent from just about everywhere who showed up to promote their nations’ music. I encountered people from at least 25 different countries at c:N. I’ve already acknowledged in this attempt at a brief overview of c:N; folks from Denmark, Greece, Estonia, England and Scotland (which behaved like separate countries there), as well as Brazil, Canada, and South Korea. I also reconnected with colleagues from Lithuania and made new contacts with people representing the music scene in Chile and Armenia. Still, it was mostly Europeans. This, of course, is par for the course if the event always takes place in Europe, and it probably will remain that way for the foreseeable future. It’s already an enormously complex undertaking for its organizers, Piranha Arts, who are based a mere 380 miles away in Berlin.
It seemed to be all new music all the time at Classical:NEXT, and even more than that, all new American music.
But there was still plenty of internationalism on display at the closing event of 2017. Classical:NEXT’s annual Innovation Award went to Buskaid Soweto String Academy of Performance and Teaching in South Africa, beating out competition from Greece (the Molyvos International Music Festival) and Germany (the PODIUM Festival Esslingen), though as c:N’s Director Jennifer Dautermann pointed out, all of the nominated organizations are worthy of our accolades. The final showcase, featuring a fabulous guitar trio from Colombia called Trip Trip Trip, was, again, exclusively new music—all by Colombian composers whose music I had never heard before.
The Colombian guitar trio Trip Trip Trip (Guillermo Bocanegra, Camilo Giraldo Ángel, and César Quevedo Barrrero) ended Classical:NEXT on an upbeat note. (Photo by Eric van Nieuwland.)
There is so much music still to discover thanks to all the recordings I brought back with me. I actual harbored some worries that my carry-on suitcase exceeded the weight allotment, but all was fine. Now to find the time to listen to it all!
1. I flew on one of the cheapest possible routes, which was also a rather counterintuitive one: via Turkish Air from New York City to Amsterdam via Istanbul. The 9 1/2-hour layover at Ataturk Airport on route to Schiphol following a 10-hour JFK-Istanbul flight was not ideal, nor was the merely 3-hour layover from 3:30-6:30 a.m. on the return, but the price was hard to beat. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the speed of the train ride from Schiphol to Rotterdam’s Central Station, which turned out to be just a few blocks away from my hotel as well as the site of c:N. Though it’s roughly 37 miles, the train ride was more than twice as fast as my interminable daily subway commute between my home and office, which are just 14 miles apart and both on the island of Manhattan! In fact, after departing JFK on Tuesday afternoon and finally arriving in Amsterdam by one of the longest routes possible slightly after 6 p.m. on Wednesday, I got on a Rotterdam-bound train and managed—thanks to the quickness of the ride—to check into the hotel, quickly shower and change clothes, and still have seven minutes to spare before the opening event began. [scroll back up]
3. I’d like to give an appreciative shout-out to c:N’s director Jennifer Dautermann, their director of communications Paul Bräuer, project manager Jana Schneider, and, in particular, their general manager Fabienne Krause who invited me to moderate the talk there which enabled me to attend. [scroll back up]
Since returning from the latest iteration of the International Society for Contemporary Music’s (ISCM) annual World Music Days, which this year was held in the remote South Korean fishing town of Tongyeong from March 27 to April 1, 2016, I’ve been struggling to figure out the best way to describe what I experienced during those six days. Part of the problem, believe it or not, is that for the past eight weeks, every time I start having deep thoughts about contemporary music, my mind invariably strays to Harry Potter. Admittedly I had spent the two months prior to my Tongyeong journey reading all seven of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels for the very first time. (Yeah, I know, where have I been?) I’d also been warned that these books (and the subsequent cinematic adaptations of them which I’m finally getting around to watching on DVD now that I’ve finished reading the books) tend to incite fanatical obsession.
If you think hard enough about new music and how it makes its way in our present society, there are striking similarities to the fictional wizarding community that J. K. Rowling has so elaborately depicted in her Harry Potter narratives.
But I think there’s a deeper reason for this seeming takeover of my synapses. If you think hard enough about new music and how it makes its way in our present society, there are striking similarities to the fictional wizarding community that Rowling has so elaborately depicted in her narratives. So I thought it would be instructive to attempt to flesh out some of the parallels between these two worlds in the hopes of coming to a deeper understanding of our special corner of the universe and why it is the way it is. And, who knows, though the process I might even get some rabid Harry Potter fans interested in new music and vice versa.
First, some background for Potter novices might be required here, so bear with me. (If you’re as hardcore a Potter junkie as I’ve become, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.) In Potterville, wizards perform most commonplace activities—everything from cooking and cleaning to commuting—by using magic. For example, they get around either through flying on brooms, using floo powder (stuff which enables them to travel through the fire in chimneys), apparition (focusing on a desired location in their minds), or—for very long distances—portkeys (strategically placed innocuous objects that, when touched, take you to a specific faraway location). But the majority of people in the world are unable to perform magic; these unmagical people are referred to as muggles. Muggles are almost completely oblivious to the existence of wizards. In fact, when directly confronted with magic, most muggles refuse to believe it exists. But that’s not totally due to their ignorance or indifference. Although there are some wizards who are fascinated with muggles and their customs, and some wizards even wish there could be a greater understanding across all social sectors, the Ministry of Magic and the International Confederation of Wizards impose a strict International Statute of Secrecy which forbids wizards from performing magic around muggles and, because of that, wizards go to great lengths to hide their world from folks who are not part of it. (E.g. one of the gateways between the muggle world and the wizarding world is a pub on London’s Charing Cross Road called the Leaky Cauldron but when muggles walk past it all they see is an abandoned shop front. Similarly, London’s King Cross Station contains an additional platform that is invisible to muggles, Platform 9¾, from which young wizards take the train that goes to their wizarding school. Etc.)
Ironically, despite the strict division of the world into wizards and muggles, there are very few remaining wizards in the world who are “pure bloods” (e.g. those having two wizards as parents). Most are “half-bloods” (having one wizard and one muggle parent). But there are also others whose magical abilities are not inherited at all; they are completely “muggle-born” and only later come to the attention of wizards. The villainous wizards despise these muggle-borns and engage in attempts to banish them from the wizarding community. The worst of these folks, who have no compunction about murdering those who don’t fit their ideal, are called Death Eaters.
The seven books and the eight films on which they are based, are a seven-year progression through the education of Harry Potter, a half-blood orphan who was raised by his deceased muggle-born mother’s relatives. Potter attends one of the most prestigious wizarding schools, Hogwarts, located in a remote northern corner of the United Kingdom, where young wizards are divided into one of four groups: Gryffindors (the brave), Ravenclaws (the very smart), Hufflepuffs (the loyal), and Slytherins (the sneaky/clever). There are also illustrious institutions devoted to the study of wizardry in France (Beauxbatons) and Northern Europe (Durnstrang) and, at one point, teams from them compete against Hogwarts in a Triwizard Tournament.
Okay, enough for now. I know that’s a lot of terminology to keep organized in order for us to proceed—but, to begin the comparisons, are these layers of jargon all that different from the extensive vocabulary we regularly use to explicate new music?
Are the layers of jargon required to understand the Harry Potter story all that different from the extensive vocabulary we regularly use to explicate new music?
So, an indulgence: let’s replace magic with new music. After all, when we try to explain what we’re all so obsessed with, doesn’t it seem like we’re describing some kind of magic? From the way the music is actually created to the way it is performed before an audience, doesn’t it sometimes seem like impenetrably arcane hocus pocus? It certainly can to people who are not directly involved with it—e.g. composers, interpreters, behind the scenes advocates (funders, presenters, publishers, record label folks, journalists, etc.), or otherwise-not-directly-connected but equally-engaged fans. So, in order to flesh out the analogy, let’s borrow the word wizard to connote anyone who is a member of the new music community and the word muggle (in a hopefully non-condescending way) to describe anyone who is not directly involved with it.
Few of us would deny that most muggles have virtually no awareness of most of the music that we, the music wizards, find so compelling. Our concert venues, festivals, prestigious awards, etc., despite how important they seem to us, are—like the ministry that is so powerful in Harry Potter’s wizarding world—completely invisible to those who are not in the know. Some music wizards want to reach out and attempt to get muggles as excited about this music as we are. Some even go as far as incorporating elements of the music that muggles do listen to into their own brand of musical wizardry. But the wizards who have incorporated such muggle elements (fill in the blank with any pop music subgenre of your choice here) sometimes get castigated by other wizards who believe that doing so somehow debases new music. These wizards want to keep things separate and worry that wizardry as we know it would cease to exist if there is too much accommodation to muggles, so they prefer that things should remain as they have always been. While I will not go as far to accuse anyone of being the equivalent of a Death Eater here, I still continually witness attitudes and practices that could easily be interpreted as anti-muggle-born behavior (e.g. musical wizards who believe that new music must conform to certain stylistic paradigms that derive exclusively from a specific musical tradition). Yet, most of us, especially those of us who grew up in the United States, were not born into this music or the traditions from which it sprang (e.g. Western classical music). Rather, this music is something we came to after growing up primarily exposed to muggle music. Which is to say, American new music is mostly a muggle-born phenomenon.
American new music is mostly a “muggle-born” phenomenon.
The United States has never had deeply ingrained new music institutions that have the power to dominate the aesthetic discourse the way they do in Europe. To name just a few extremely powerful entities, Europe has IRCAM (Beauxbatons), Darmstadt (Durnstrang—the name even sounds similar!), and Huddersfield (Hogwarts). There’s also a prestigious showcase for emerging composers, which is perhaps the new music equivalent of a Triwizard Tournament—Gaudeamus Music Week. But most things in the USA either feel much more locally-focused (e.g. Bowdoin, Cabrillo, June in Buffalo, Mizzou, Ojai, Other Minds, etc.), relatively small add-ons to larger entities (e.g. Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, The New York Phil’s Contact! Series, the various Composer’s Institutes held by orchestras around the country, etc.), or relatively DIY (e.g. the Bang on a Can Marathon and now Banglewood, or the New Music Gathering). The local vs. add-on vs. DIY trifecta plays out in the publishing and recording company spheres in this country as well. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of all the heroic self-starters out there as Gryffindors, all the super-smart folks who spearhead various local enterprises as Ravenclaws, and all the loyal troopers who lobby for new music at larger institutions for whom it is not always a main priority as Hufflepuffs. For fear of inciting a new music civil war, I won’t designate anyone here as a Slytherin. But you might find it a fun parlor game to ponder who is who, though please do it in the privacy of your own thoughts.
Anyway, now that we’ve set up this extremely elaborate metaphor, where does an organization like the ISCM—and its annual World Music Days—fit in? Established in Salzburg in 1922 and, since the following year, convening an annual new music festival somewhere in the world (except for a hiatus during World War Two), ISCM ought to be an even more significant “institution” within our community than a Beauxbatons, Durnstrang, and Hogwarts. In fact, it should be nothing less than the International Confederation of Wizards. It should be the entity that musical wizards all over the world turn to in order to determine what the best practices are for musical magic. But in our world, things don’t quite work out that way.
Each year, ISCM partners with a music festival in a different city which hosts the ISCM’s delegates from all over the globe and presents a series of concerts alongside its own festival’s programs entitled World Music Days. (Well, some call it World New Music Days, but let’s not get into that this time around.) Whereas the host festival’s concerts are curated by the festival’s artistic directors, the repertoire featured on the World Music Days is supposed to be chosen exclusively from submissions made by official ISCM “sections” on six continents although it is also possible, particularly to encourage composers in countries that do not yet have official ISCM sections, for individual composers from anywhere to submit works for consideration as well. Audiences for WMDs vary widely. Some years there is a significant local audience; other years it seems like the only people attending the concerts are the ISCM delegates. But shouldn’t an undertaking of this magnitude attract a significant number of cultural tourists from all over the world?
Here are some impressions of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days from Keaton Garrett, a composer and saxophonist currently enrolled at Stephen F. Austin University in Nagadoches, Texas, who was one of the few people in the audience who was neither an ISCM delegate, a composer with a work featured on the festival, or a local new music fan. But he was not quite an outsider, either. He was selected to attend this year’s festival on a scholarship from Stephen F. Austin University which maintains a Full Associate Membership in ISCM, under the direction of Stephen Lias, to represent composers from the state of Texas.
Having your music selected for inclusion in the ISCM World Music Days could be a major career boost for a composer.
Despite the admittedly insular audience for these events, having your music selected for inclusion in the ISCM World Music Days could be a major career boost for a composer since among the delegates who attend each year there are important new music decision makers from around the world—really powerful wizards, sotospeak. There are also undeniable bragging rights for being part of a legacy that includes the world premieres of such magical works as Berg’s Violin Concerto, Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, Hindemith’s Clarinet Quintet, György Ligeti’s Apparitions, George Perle’s Six Etudes for solo piano, Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Isang Yun’s Third String Quartet, and one sixth of Webern’s published output. Significant early performances of a great deal of many 20th century favorites have also taken place during WMDs, repertoire that is arguably canonical, at least in part, as a result of its being showcased in this international forum (e.g. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Britten’s Les Illuminations and Sinfonia da Requiem, Morton Feldman’s False Relationships And The Extended Ending, Jean Françaix’s First Wind Quintet, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Ginastera’s first two string quartets, Gérard Grisey’s Partiels, Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Salvatore Martirano’s O, O, O, That Shakespeherian Rag!, Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, Ravel’s Violin Sonata and Left Hand Piano Concerto, Roger Reynolds’s Quick are the Mouths of Earth, three of Roger Sessions’s symphonies, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and on and on). But perhaps, even more significantly, WMDs have had a laudable track record in embracing a wide diversity of new music aesthetics. WMDs have also been historically way ahead of the curve in showcasing tons of emerging composers and, in particular, some significant female composers relatively early in their artistic trajectories: Joan La Barbara, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Canada’s Barbara Pentland, Chile’s Leni Alexander, Serbia’s Ljubica Marić, Korea’s Unsuk Chin, etc. Zwilich and Chin have both credited WMD for helping to launch their compositional careers.
All in all, it is an extremely impressive history which has even occasionally reached general public consciousness—the muggle world beyond new music—from time to time. There was actually a significant amount of American media attention around the one time that a WMD was officially presented here in the USA, during our bicentennial year, although admittedly the most memorable press quote from it was a quip made by the late, usually sanguine Leighton Kerner in what was, by and large, a vitriolic pan of the entire festival in The Village Voice: “Better to have living music by dead composers than dead music by living composers.” The activities of the ISCM up to the year 1980 fills up a massive 700+ page book (in German) by the Swiss musicologist Anton Haefeli. If there were a book that gave the entire story, up to the present day, it would undoubtedly be nearly twice as voluminous. But here’s the rub. There is no other book and the Haefeli book, which has never been revised or translated into any other language, has been out of print for decades.
The esteem in which this organization and its annual festival were once held is greatly diminished nowadays. Like the Leaky Cauldron or Platform 9¾, it is invisible to the general public. Sadly, it’s also invisible to most new music practitioners. On a personal note, before I started attending WMDs five years ago, I was only vaguely aware that ISCM still existed. I had long known that it had been an important convener of new music activity in Europe in the early 20th century and yet, weirdly (thinking back on it now in retrospect), it somehow never had registered to me that ISCM was an organization I needed to learn more about despite my being actively part of the new music community in the USA in some capacity since the 1980s and being involved with other international networks—like the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC)—since the year 2000. Full disclosure, during the 2016 General Assembly in Tongyeong, I was elected to the Executive Committee (ExComm) of the ISCM which means I am now officially charged with strengthening the organization and ensuring that its esteem increases. To that end, it might seem that I’m no longer completely capable of objectively assessing the ISCM or its World Music Days. In all honesty, that is another reason why it has taken me such a long time to attempt to write about my week on Tongyeong even though my regular modus operandi for describing music has always been to keep personal opinion out of it as much as is humanly possible and to simply describe what I’ve experienced. So, attempting to keep that in mind, here goes.
Outside the main Tongyeong concert hall.
This year’s host for the World Music Days was the Tongyeong International Music Festival (TIMF), an annual showcase for classical music heavily weighted toward contemporary music that was established in the year 2002 in the hometown of Korea’s most revered composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995). But Tongyeong is not one of the most practical destinations—it actually seems more remote than Hogwarts. While it is a port city and therefore is relatively easy to get to by boat (if you’re nearby and that’s your preferred mode of transport), Tongyeong has no rail station and no airport. The closest town with an airport is Busan, which is more than 90 minutes away by automobile, and no transcontinental flights land there. Basically to get from my apartment in Manhattan to the Tongyeong Concert Hall—a stop at the hotel would have meant missing the opening reception—took more than 30 hours, significantly longer than a journey via the Hogwarts Express. Late Friday night I met up at JFK with Missy Mazzoli whose travel to Tongyeong I had arranged because her music was chosen for performance this year. We arrived early Sunday morning in Shanghai where we waited for several hours before boarding a flight that took us to Busan. In Busan we had to hail a taxi because, due to delays in the Shanghai-Busan flight, we had missed the chartered bus.
When we finally arrived outside Tongyeong Concert Hall, the first person we saw walking on the street was one of the most celebrated musical wizards of our era—Philip Glass, who was scheduled to perform a solo piano recital there later in the evening. I’m sure at some point I was informed that he had been invited to perform during TIMF, but I had forgotten. So it was a totally surreal moment. We were as confused by seeing him there as he was when I called out, “Hi Philip” from the car. But then Glass resurfaced about 20 minutes later and (along with various festival dignitaries and local politicians as well as Korean composer Unsuk Chin) addressed the 2016 ISCM delegates at the densely packed opening reception. His words were extremely moving. At one point he described all music as being world music. I was extremely proud for American music at that moment, even though all I really wanted to do was check into my hotel room and pass out, which is all I was able to do about two hours later. After all, I needed to get some rest in order to make it through six intense days of meetings and concerts.
Missy Mazzoli and Philip Glass at the opening reception for the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. Also visible in the background, immediately behind them, are ISCM’s Secretary General Olga Smetanová plus composers Jacob David Sudol and Chen-Hui Jen.
The first General Assembly (this is the part of ISCM that is probably most like the International Confederation of Wizards) started bright and early at 9 A.M. back in the concert hall complex, which was a less-than-quick zig-zagged chartered bus ride from the hotel. Traditionally during the first of the assembly sessions, delegates reintroduce themselves and their respective organizations and there is usually an announcement of significant composers from each of the delegates’ countries who had died since the previous convening followed by a minute of silence. It was particularly heartbreaking for me to announce the deaths of David Stock, whose Inner Space received its world premiere during the 1976 WMD, and Steven Stucky—which was news to many of the people there. Despite our all being connected now through the internet, and particularly via Facebook, news in our community still travels much slower than it ought to.
There was an impressive ratio of gender and generational parity for the majority of the concert programs: 40% of the pieces programmed this year were by younger composers (composers under 35).
Later that afternoon, the first official WMD concert set the appropriate all-over-the-map tone for the week’s musical activities, featuring four stylistically and geographically contrasting works performed by the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa under the direction of Christopher Lee. The first, Steps (2009)—audio here, score here—by Israeli composer Yasmin Tal (b. 1981), was a series of three miniatures that seamlessly wandered back and forth between material that (at least, to my ears) sounded European and Asian. (Other attendees commented to me that they thought the piece sounded American!) I was very smitten with the Fünf Stücke um den Fluss zu queren (2012) by German composer Charlotte Seither (b. 1965). Another collection of miniatures, this dazzling work was chock full of dazzling and often unexpected sound effects, though it always sounded completely idiomatic and, imagine that, fun. It was originally composed for youth orchestra, but it strikes me as a piece that musicians of any age would enjoy playing. A variety of extended techniques were also foregrounded in Vuolle by Finnish composer Jouni Hirvelä (b. 1982). But this nine-minute single-movement 2014 piece, which was also chock full of quartertones and sixth-tones, was very different from what followed, the 1993 Divertimento (one of the oldest works featured during this year’s festival) by the Chilean Hernán Ramírez Ávila (b. 1941), a work which, by comparison, sounded downright neoclassical.
The entire concert lasted roughly an hour, as did most of the others throughout the week. The impressive ratio of gender and generational parity was also true for the majority of the other programs, too. All of this was an extremely welcome contrast with concerts on previous WMDs I had attended these past five years. I was told that 40% of the pieces programmed this year were by younger composers (which I think means composers under 35). I did not do the math to confirm whether or not this was true, but it certainly felt like the right balance.
Several of the 2016 ISCM WMD programs as well as the Asian Composers Showcase were held in TIMF’s smaller “Black Box” concert hall.
Next I attended the Asian Composers Showcase concert, featuring the Ensemble TIMF, which was sponsored by the Goethe Institute. This was not officially part of the ISCM World Music Days, but I figured the alternative to attending it was passing out from jetlag, plus the concert consisted of four newly-commissioned works and I’m always up for hearing something new. The composers were allowed to write for an ensemble of up to nine instruments and most of them also experimented with extended techniques and various add-ons. One work, Hotei by Noriko Koide (b. 1982, Japan), even included balloons. At the end of the concert, a selected jury (which included ISCM President Peter Swinnen and outgoing Vice President Henk Heuvelmans) as well as the audience chose their favorite piece. Koide’s piece stole the show, winning both the official Asian Composer’s Showcase Goethe-Award and the Audience Award. At this point my memory is somewhat blurry about the other works: Quälend by Utku Asuroglu (b. 1986, Turkey); Mixtum by Seungwan Baek (b. 1981, South Korea); and Griefs for Nothing by Thatchatham Silsupan (Thailand). But I did stay awake throughout.
Later in the evening two excellent South Korean choruses shared the stage—the Incheon City Chorale and the Ansan City Choir (who had been featured in a showcase last year during the 2015 ACDA convening in Salt Lake City I wish I had caught). Luckily there are Soundcloud links (which I’ve affixed to the titles) for most of the repertoire (albeit performed by different groups). The Incheon singers (conducted by Jong-Hyun Kim) offered four pieces. Though a 2012 setting by Latvian composer Oskars Herlinš (b. 1980) of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet Nr. 28 frequently obscures the words by setting them with a variety of slides and percussive whispers, Paul Stanhope (b. 1969), one of Australia’s leading choral composers, took a much more direct text-setting approach in The land is healed, a movement from a much larger composition completed in 2014 called Jandamarra, which recounts Aboriginal folklore. Iris Szeghy (b. 1956), a composer from Slovakia who has written a great deal of choral music, struck of something of a balance between these two approaches in her Gratia gratiam parit (2014), which set five short aphoristic sentences combining traditional choral approaches with more experimental techniques. (Sadly the link here is to a more detailed description of the piece since I was unable to find anyway to listen to it online.) A moment (2013), a brief but immersive vocal rendering built from a single chord by Estonian composer Liisa Hirsch (b. 1984), is also not available for online listening although several of Hirsch’s other pieces, albeit nothing for chorus, can be listened to on her Soundcloud page.
South Korean singers can tackle challenging music from all over the world and make it completely their own.
Ansan (conducted by Shin-Hwa Park) performed a total of five pieces. Unleash the beauty of your eyes (2014) is a setting of Sappho by British choral composer and conductor Alexander Campkin (b1984). Für viele (2013) is a Christian Morgenstern setting by another choral composer/conductor Kurt Bikkembergs (b1963) from Germany. Chen-Hui Jen (b. 1981), who divides her time between her native Taiwan and Florida, employed sounds from the International Phoenetic Alphabet to convey the sonorities of spoken Chinese language in her extremely lush Twilight as a drifting islet (2013), which is a setting of her own text. Danish composer Toke Brorson Odin’s Ambulance-Helikopter is a fascinatingly intense and relentless six-minute non-verbal piece. According to his bio, Odin has composed extensively for theater, film, and software apps; based on Ambulance-Helikopter, I want one of those apps! Finally, I should describe their performance of Vesper Sparrow (2012) by Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980), the work chosen by the programming committee for the 2016 World Music Days from the six works submitted by New Music USA. The work’s original interpretation, by the eight-member vocal ensemble A Roomful of Teeth for whom she had written it, is deeply informed by the earthy and nasal singing techniques of traditional Sardinian folk music and it is mesmerizing. But the Ansan singers took a more classical approach which was equally effective. In addition, since they’re a much larger group, they decided to alternate passages between the full choir and a smaller group rather than only have a smaller group sing the piece. Mazzoli, who was able to attend rehearsals earlier in the day, was totally on board with this and the result was pure magic of a different order than the original. All in all, these two choruses proved that South Korean singers can tackle challenging music from all over the world and make it completely their own.
A General Assembly session of the ISCM in Tongyeong.
The next day began with the second general assembly meeting during which the attendees splintered off into working groups to discuss the future of ISCM—reimagining a new model for WMD, possibly hosting something more like a conference than a festival, how to more effectively harness social media, and whether the material on the ISCM website should be primarily targeted to ISCM members or to a more general audience. These talks were a welcome change from what has often felt like a de-facto, if not necessarily intentional, International Statute of Secrecy. Of course, if WMD were to truly represent all of the new music going on in the world, it would have to embrace a much wider realm than music whose instructions for realization is conveyed to interpreters through the cipher of score-based notation (or the even more seeming abracadabra realm of fixed media). But that would make such an undertaking much costlier and far more logistically complex. The thing about notation is that it has allowed music to travel around the globe with a greater speed and efficiently than individual musicians can travel (perhaps even if there were such a thing as floo powder) and, thanks to the internet and easily transferable PDFs and audio files, spreading music has never been easier.
The basic model on which WMD has been built is each country that is part of the ISCM network gets to have at least one piece of score-based music performed by local musicians (or a pre-recorded electronic/computer piece) over the course of a week-long music festival. But if the presentation was expanded to include music that is either predominantly improvisatorily-generated (e.g. jazz, Classical Indian music, etc.) or for which the interpretation as realized through a group dynamic is more significant than any preconceived game plan (e.g. rock, many traditional African musics, etc.), then individual musicians and entire groups from each of the countries in the network would have to be invited, accommodation provided, etc.—all in order to give a performance that probably couldn’t exceed 15 minutes if every nation is to be fairly represented. I did the math. ISCM currently has 65 members which hail from 47 different countries and several additional territories with various degrees of autonomy, both cultural and political. If, as per Andy Warhol’s dictum, all member organizations were allotted an equal “15 minutes of fame” (to which I’ve tacked on an additional—extremely optimistic, I know—10 minutes to allow for getting on and off stage), it would require at least 27 hours of concert time. If concerts were all 90 minutes, which would be ideal, that would mean a total of 18 concerts over the course of 6 days. This is approximately 1 ½ times the amount of music that gets played in the current WMD scheme. More importantly, asking and paying for an individual musician or a band to schlep to some remote city on another continent for such a brief appearance seems a waste of resources. So, in the final analysis, the present WMD model might be the most ideal if the goal is to represent everyone equally. Still, perhaps there are other ways to shine light of the wider variety of musical activities in each of these countries—a series of talks with recorded excerpts, perhaps inviting a small group of other kinds of musicians each year from just a handful of countries on a rotating basis, etc. This could also be away to bring into the ISCM network other underrepresented parts of the world (e.g. Africa, South America, South Asia, Oceania), all of which have vibrant, living musical cultures that are not predominantly score-based.
The official 2016 “ISCM Family Photo” featuring all the attending delegates which represent new music organizations based on six continents. (I’m in there somewhere.)
After all that heady talk, it was difficult to focus on the first of the day’s concerts—a performance by the Changwon Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tae-Young Park—but the music inevitably grabbed my attention and took my mind off of everything else, as it ought to. Well, mostly. I was particularly smitten with the opening work O Freunde, let others speak (2013) by Henrik Strindberg (b. 1954, Sweden). Strindberg was formerly active as a progressive rock musician—he’s a founding member of the band Ragnarök—and his rhythmically-charged orchestral writing is clearly indebted to his years of rocking out. Fresh from the morning’s discussions, it demonstrated—to me at least—that though WMD is, by design, currently limited to score-based music, there are a vast number of aesthetic possibilities that still can (and should) be mined within that rubric. Zoetrope (2015) by Korean composer Yejune Synn (b. 1991) also partook of a sound world that was beyond what is usually performed by symphony orchestras. Synn’s generative music was inspired by pre-film animation devices that speed through a series of images to create the illusion of motion (think of the phenakistoscopes and other inventions of late 19th century British-born American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose pioneering output I first learned about, as luck would have it, via Philip Glass). It so mesmerized the members of the committee that adjudicates the ISCM’s Young Composer Award that at the end of the week Synn was declared the winner. But the “forte, piano” concerto (2013) by Volodymyr Runchak (b. 1960, Ukraine) had an even more unusual structure. Rather than being cast as a conventional piano concerto in which a virtuoso soloist interacts with an orchestra, often seeming like a sonic metaphor for an individual struggling within or against a society, here the orchestra and piano actually never perform together at the same time. In fact, the piano is completely silent until the very end of the work when it finally commands the foreground for only about a minute. It is, pardon the pun, quite disconcerting. The other works on the program were significantly subtler in their impact. There were some hints of Messiaen in Prayer of the Firmament (2011), by Isao Matsushita (b. 1951, Japan), a work composed in direct response to the tragic earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Despite the Memory of the Lost Silence (2012) by Zeynep Gedizlioglu (b. 1977), a Turkish composer currently based in Berlin, is a somewhat aphoristic tone poem that seems inspired by exile. In her somewhat elusive program note, Gedizlioglu states that the work is the output of “a journey I have made” and that “The Silence—which has never existed; which is lost—could be hidden in an unmasked melody that the orchestra shouts out loud. … Despite the memory of the lost silence, the orchestra shouts.”
Two of the ISCM delegates—George Kentros (president of the Swedish ISCM Section) and Susanna Eastburn (the Chief Executive of Sound and Music, the United Kingdom’s ISCM section)—hosted a meet and greet event called Composer Collider which was designed specifically for the composers of pieces featured during WMD who were able to make the journey to Tongyeong. Unlike the ISCM delegates, who are required to attend the daily General Assembly convenings, the featured composers are mostly left on their own, except for the rehearsals and performances of their works, so it was a great way to make them feel more welcome and involved.
Sunset in Tongyeong
I should point out here that although most of the musicians who perform during WMD festivals are local, Tongyeong offered some unique challenges. Despite it being the birthplace of Isang Yun and its now being the home of a spectacular music complex which houses two excellent concert halls (where all of this year’s programs were held), there aren’t a lot of local musicians on hand to tap for such a presentation. The aforementioned Chanwon Philharmonic is as close as Tongyeong gets to having a local orchestra since Chanwon is only a little over an hour away by car. The choruses from Ansan and Incheon are both not too far away from Seoul which means an hour by plane to Busan and then the requisite ground transportation. But I’m not sure how the folks from Kanazawa, Japan, got there, unless they had access to a portkey. It looks relatively close on the map, but flight routes are extremely convoluted. The best route might just be by boat, but at close to 500 nautical miles it doesn’t seem like a fun trip.
And then there’s the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble (HKNME) which was on hand for two entire programs. It takes longer to get from Hong Kong to Tongyeong than to get from New York City to Los Angeles, but I’m very glad they made the journey. An extremely versatile, modular ensemble which, for the purposes of the repertoire they were called upon to perform, morphed from a “Pierrot-plus configuration” (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion) to a full string orchestra under the direction of Sharon Andrea Choa. And the repertoire was equally varied. They opened the first of their programs with Reflections on Arirang (2013), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Joyce Wai-chung Tang (b. 1976, Hong Kong), which was inspired by very famous South Korean folk tunes. As the snowflakes return to the sky, a 2010 string orchestra work by Japan-born, now Vancouver-based Rita Ueda (b. 1963) was designed to induce various auditory illusions.Monolithe (2010) by Jean-Marie Rens (b. 1955, Belgium) seems somewhat strangely titled to me since the piece is chock full of lush harmonies. But there is a considerable amount of repetition and harmonic stasis which is intended, as per the composer’s own description, to explore “the perception of time through the dialectical relationship between stillness and movement.” Into the outer (2014) for 13 strings by Taiwan-born, Australia and New Zealand-raised, and San Diego-based Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh (b. 1984) is, according to her, about “propagation versus consumption” something which is considerably more difficult to aurally process than the relationship between stillness and movement so I just focused on it as pure sound.
HKNME opened their second program with Dérive (1984), a Pierrot-plus-percussion sextet by the recently deceased Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). It was the oldest piece on the official concert program and was, in fact, older than many of the composers whose works were performed this year. But Midsummer Song for string orchestra, though composed by Raminta Šerkšnyte (b. 1975, Lithuania) in 2009, hinted at much older music, late 19th/early 20th century European romanticism, whereas >Fragmenti v «Ja gulyala veselo» (2014) by Balázs Horváth (b. 1976, Hungary) suggested an alternative present tense. A double bassist, playing way above the instrument’s usual register, pursues a relentless ostinato that microtonally descends ever so slightly with each additional iteration as strings and percussion explore a wide range of sonorities. I was at the edge of my seat until the very last moment. But perhaps the most wonderful thing on that concert was the world premiere performance of Woodland Heights, an extremely unusual 2014 string orchestra piece by Irish composer Nick Roth (b. 1982). The musical materials for the piece are culled from data about the growth of trees in an ideal forest spanning a 720-year period. According to his program notes, “each crotchet” corresponds to “one year in ecological time.” To further drive the point home, branches occupied seats next to the string players who, upon occasion, rubbed them. At a climactic moment toward the very end of the piece, some of the players went off-stage to bring back a tree which they mounted in a large flower pot on the middle of the stage. While most of these tree-based shenanigans did not actually make any sound, it made for a fascinating visual counterpoint with the process music the strings were performing.
In between the two HKNME concerts was yet another incredible local seafood meal with some of the delegates (writing about the food in Tongyeong would require me to write something twice as long so I’ll resist), a very brief night’s sleep, and the third of the ISCM’s General Assembly sessions. Among the agenda items that morning was the election for an ExComm position which was vacated by Gaudemus director Henk Heuvelmans. I am deeply honored to report that I was elected unopposed by acclamation. It would be disingenuous for me to claim that it wasn’t the highlight of the morning for me, but there were other really exciting things that transpired as well. There was a captivating presentation by Javier Hagen, president of the Swiss ISCM section, about recorderology.com, a website that synchronizes notated scores to musical performances, as well as an informative survey of composers of Basque origin (“a nation without a country, actually a country without a nation”) by Mikel Aingeru from Musika Gileak. There was also a lively and, as of yet, not completely resolved discussion about the best way to represent composers who were born in one country but currently live in another. As it stands now, music by such composers could be submitted for consideration for WMD either by an ISCM section based either in their birth or adopted countries. Perhaps what was most exciting, however, were talks about future WMDs which included an offer by S’fisokuhle Xulu (from New Music South Africa) to host World Music Days in the ISCM’s centenary year, 2022, on the African continent for the very first time. It is too soon to confirm that this will actually be the plan (since a concrete agenda will need to be presented that then must be voted on by the delegates), but plans are already in the works for several other upcoming WMDs: 2020 in Auckland (and hopefully also Christchurch), New Zealand (in late April and/or early May); 2019 in Tallinn, Estonia (during the second week of April); and 2018 in Beijing, China (from May 19-25, 2018). The very next incarnation of WMD, which is a co-presentation by Music on Main and the Canadian League of Composers, will take place in Vancouver in November 2017. Music on Main’s Artistic Director David Pay emphasized that the festival will be diverse and inclusive in its programming and ensure not only gender parity, but a fair representation of composers of diverse age groups, races, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations. It promises to be a great opportunity to knock down the barriers between musical wizards and musical muggles and, since it’s a much shorter distance for people in the United States to travel to than most WMDs (certainly any that I’ve attended thus far), I hope that it could attract a huge and diverse audience from this country as well as from all over Canada.
On the other hand, the next concert of the day, a program that juxtaposed string quartets and brass quintets, felt like the kind of program that keeps new music as hermetically sealed from the outside world as the wizarding realm is. On first encounter, the four works performed by the Gaia Quartet—String Quartet No. 4 “Alphabet in Whirly Music” (2006) by Dan Dediu (b. 1967, Romania), Bagatelles (a work composed in honor of the Webern centenary) by Matej Sloboda (b1988, Slovakia), Rhymes (2012) by Evis Sammoutis (b. 1979, Cyprus), and Saenggak (Thinking about) (2015) by Jae-Goo Lee (b. 1977, South Korea), a composer who has studied at Queens College and the University of Chicago—seemed to all speak the same musical language although clearly their composers didn’t (speak the same verbal language). Theirs is, by and large, a musical language that is extremely difficult to translate to anyone who doesn’t speak it and the players, an active chamber group from within the Seoul Philharmonic, often seemed to be getting lost in translation. This was sadly even truer for the brass players, which as far as anyone was able to determine was an ad-hoc ensemble assembled expressly for the purpose of performing the works on the program: Varius Multiplex Multiformis (2004) by Robert Lemay (b. 1960, Canada); Praying Mantis III (2015) by Roché van Tiddens (b. 1990, South Africa), The sound a gemmed light (2014) by Neville Hall (b. 1962 New Zealand), and Three Polish Dances by Ewa Fabianska-Jelinska (b. 1989, Poland), though Fabianska-Jelinska’s quasi-folk piece was a stark and somewhat jarring contrast to the rest of the offerings. I tend to eschew musical judgments and I am willing to listen to every one of these pieces again, but at the time I was extremely eager for the concert to end.
I felt equally unengaged at a concert later in the evening featuring members of the Ensemble TIMF (which really were local musicians) which was devoted to chamber and solo instrumental works, though admittedly it didn’t start until 9:30pm on an already packed day. It also really didn’t help that one of the pieces involved silence and turning off the lights before it ended. I actually heard someone snoring. While I did not fall asleep, my memories of In the distance (2013) by Kristoffer To (b. 1990, Hong Kong) and Lágrimas (2014) by Francisco del Pino (b. 1980, Argentina), both for solo cello, Fluchtlinien for solo flute (2015) by Henrik Denerin (b. 1978, Sweden), and Pedma Dorje, a 2011 string trio by Li Liu (b. 1986, China) are extremely hazy. Thankfully I was able to reinforce my memory of Strade della città tumultuosa, a 2015 quartet for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello by Simone Fontanelli (b. 1961, Italy), through hearing a different performance of it on YouTube and could appreciate what sounds (to me at least) like an evocation of contemporary urban life. On the other hand, I do still remember the 2010 Obo kvartett by Faroese composer Kári Bæk (b. 1950), which was reminiscent of much mid-20th century neoclassical chamber music, because at least it offered a pleasant respite from the preponderant modernism of the rest of the program.
I did not attend the previous concert that evening, a program by the Barcelona-based Quarteto Casals featuring two quartets by Beethoven along with music by Webern and Kurtag plus the world premiere of NALDA by South Korean composer Hyunsuk Jun (b. 1978). It did not seem like a WMD program. (It was not enumerated as such in the program outline and had I attended it I would not have eaten dinner.) But it turns out that the Jun premiere was a bona fide ISCM piece that had been selected by the international jury (and not, as I had posted earlier here, a TIMF commission. Thank you to TIMF’s artistic planning manager WonCheol Kim for clarifying this and thanks to the internet’s ability to function as a time turner for enabling me to correct this here). Phooey. I also never got to check out the two sound installations that were selected for presentation—Train Re Mix (2009) by Miroslav Miša Savic (b. 1954, Serbia) and It was so quiet that the pins dropped could be heard (2011) by Hui Ye (b. 1981, China, currently based in Austria). By the time I was able to carve out some free time for them, I couldn’t figure out where they were located. After looking through a printed collection of Savic’s process pieces scored for solo piano, I would have loved to have witnessed this installation which he described as a mash-up of musical fragments reconstructed from scores that he lost on a hard-drive that mysterious disappeared. Thankfully Hui Ye posted a two-minute video excerpt of her work, in which a spinning magnet circles around jars filled with pins thus triggering sound. I would have love to have experienced this live, alas.
One of the best aspects of the ISCM’s World Music Days is getting to know people who are involved in local new music scenes all over the world. Although they spend much of their time in the United States, I had never previously met husband and wife composers Jacob David Sudol and Chen-Hui Jen. (The U.S.A. is a big country, after all.) Jen, who is originally from Taiwan and now divides her time between America and Taiwan, was the composer of a choral piece I described earlier that has been chosen for performance during the festival from the submissions of the ISCM Taiwan section. Sudol, who is currently based in Taiwan on a Fulbright, was attending as a delegate representing New Music Miami which is based at Florida International University Music Department (under the direction of Orlando Jacinto Garcia) and is another ISCM Full Associate Member. I was so intrigued by what he said to me about the differences between new music cultures in East Asia and the USA, that I asked him to write a series about it for NewMusicBox which he is doing this month.
As per tradition, the final ISCM General Assembly session was largely devoted to assessing this year’s WMD. (It was somewhat premature since there were still an additional four concert programs to attend, but it was our only option to have such a discussion since it was the last time we were scheduled to officially meet altogether this year.) Complaints ranged from ISCM signage not being visible enough on TIMF’s promotional materials to problems with amenities and internet connections. Regarding more specifically musical matters, concerns were expressed about there not being greater opportunities to learn about Korean musical life and there being very little connection to Korea’s most revered composer, Isang Yun, despite the fact that the festival took place in his birth city and that he was one of ISCM’s Honorary Members. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which works were submitted by ISCM delegates and what countries the composers were from. But all in all, most of the delegates seemed quite satisfied with their experience overall.
For the last 2016 General Assembly convening, I got to join the other members of the Executive Committee which I am now a part of (pictured left to right after me): Henk Heuvelmans (outgoing vice president), Peter Swinnen (president), Walter De Schepper (treasurer), Glenda Keam (the new vice-president) and Kjartan Olafsson. (Two others–Anna Dorota Wladyczka and Olga Smetanová, who serves as ISCM’s Secretary General–were not in the photograph. Anna Dorota Wladyczka alctually took the photograph!)
Concerts geared specifically to young audiences offer a chance to recruit a whole new generation of musical “wizards.”
So, the final four concerts… The first was a program called “Music for Children” and the audience for it actually included a ton of young children who were mostly fairly attentive throughout which is somewhat miraculous considering that a lot of the program didn’t strike me as being particularly appealing to children. But, hey, what do I know at this point? The program opened with a group of solo piano pieces that were not hard-edged modernism but nevertheless did not scream out youthfulness: Album per la fanciullezza (2013) by Paolo Rosato (b. 1959, Italy); Cahier d’explorations for piano (2012) by Gaël Tissot; Makapaka (2008) by Viktorija Cop (b. 1979, Croatia); Once Upon an Alphabet for Piano (2015) by Patrick Friel (U.K.); and Three Bittersweet Burlesques by Sunghyun Lee (b. 1995, South Korea). Although at one point there was some narration, it wasn’t spoken in Korean—which is the language that the children in the audience would have felt most comfortable with. In fact, the German pianist Michael Meyer, a fine musician but an older man who was dressed in formal concert attire, spoke the text in English with a thick accent. I could barely understand him myself. The ensemble pieces which followed, however, seemed much more in spirit with the purpose of the concert. Swiss composer Claude Berset’s La Ménagerie de Tristan (2002), which was based on poems by surrealist Robert Desnos, involved dancers and was as much a spectacle for the eyes as the ears. But the most effective piece by far was Gorilla (2013), by Jihyun Kim (b. 1988, South Korea), which also involved costumes and narration, this time in Korean, thankfully for the children though not for me since there were no subtitles. I was however able to glean from her program notes that the piece was about a little girl’s gorilla doll which comes to life. The young audience was ecstatic. But overall this concert seemed a lost opportunity. It was a chance to recruit a whole new generation of musical wizards.
How many of these children will be part of the future audience for new music?
At least there was much more for already indoctrinated new music wizards to be ecstatic about at a concert later in the afternoon by the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra (another ensemble based in the environs of Seoul) under the direction of Shiyeon Sung, a dynamic female conductor who has conducted the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The five works were startlingly different in stylistic inclination as well as in inspiration. Hallucinations (2013) by Randolph Peters (b. 1959, Canada), took as its departure point Oliver Sachs’s account of John Corigliano’s—who is identified in Sachs’s book Musicophilia as John C.—problem with tune worms. With Corigliano’s permission, Peters borrowed one of Corigliano’s melodies (from The Red Violin Caprices) and used it as the basis of a series of his own musical hallucinations. Areas in outer space surrounded by black holes, from which nothing—not even light—can escape was the inspiration for event horizon (2010) by Won Suk Choi, a Korean composer who received Master’s and DMA degrees from the University of Michigan. At times, the rumblings of the orchestra were quite intense, which I imagine is a sonic parallel to all the pent up things trapped in such space since, of course, the only possible sonic parallel to how anyone outside such a space would perceive it would be complete silence. By comparison, the muse that triggered Elementi (2013) by Nina Šenk (b. 1982, Slovenia) was somewhat more down to earth—Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe from which many surrounding nations can be seen. She rendered this multinational vantage point through juxtaposing contrasting material in the different sections of the orchestra. The Five Miniatures (2013) by the Polish-born, Paris-based Elzbieta Sikora (b. 1943) were fascinating timbral studies. At one point one of the percussionists dropped what I think was a ping pong ball, a trick that might seem gimmicky but it was a thoroughly musical gesture and as such made it seem all the more daring. But the most daring piece on the program was Fuoco e fumo, e.g. “Fire and Smoke” (2013, revised 2015), by Richard Rijnvos (b1964, Netherlands). It was music that seemed to constantly move and stay completely still at the same time. Rijnvos, who has previously blown my mind with the staggering variety of music which he meticulously derives from magic squares, is an extremely powerful wizard. Overall, this well-curated program very effectively demonstrated what a great variety of sounds an orchestra can make.
This is probably why the next concert, which was devoted to works using electronics—a realm that is all about sonic possibility—felt somewhat anticlimactic, and somewhat unmagical, to me. A total of seven works were presented ranging from an exclusively fixed media score—Light Rain, Laganside (2009) by Eric Lyon (b. 1962, USA)—to a work for electronically enhanced violin (which to me sounded mostly like amplification)—Marionette (2014) by Elena Rykova (b. 1991, Russia). The electronic sounds that accompanied the live clarinet in Tempora mutantur (2013) by Chin-ting Chan (b. 1986, Hong Kong) were largely derived from pre-recorded clarinet sounds and in Cellolar Synthesis (2010), by the Spanish-born, Switzerland-based Helga Arias Parra (b. 1984, Spain), the electronic sound world seems to emerge from the spectra of the live cello’s sustained utterances, whereas in Beyond the eternal chaos (2014) by Takuto Fukuda (b. 1984, Japan) the live flute at times seemed to imitate the various clicks and clacks of the electronic sound scape in which it was enveloped. Frames #87 (2011) by Igor C. Silva (b1989, Portugal) added video to an electronic score that dueled with a live clarinet, whose skronky virtuosic licks at times reminded me of Eric Dolphy. According to composer Yuanyuan (Kay) He (b. 1985), a Chinese-born composer now based in Texas, her On the Pivot of an Abandoned Carousel for flute and Electronics (2015) was inspired by the TV show American Horror Story. The music is occasionally eerie and unsettling, but since I’ve never watched the series I should let her describe it herself.
The final concert of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days, which inexplicably was held at 10:00 p.m. the following day on a day that had no other official ISCM-related activities, was a showcase for the Paris-based Ensemble 2e2m conducted by Pierre Roullier. With the exception of the Casals Quartet (whose concert I missed had included only one piece programmed specifically for WMD), these musicians travelled further than anyone else to perform for us, so thankfullly—despite being extremely tired and anxious for outgoing flights early the next morning—most of the delegates still showed up. After the intensity of Die Niemandsrose (2012), three songs by Carmen Cârneci (b. 1957, Romania) for baritone and ensemble based on poems by Paul Celan, A Game of Fives (2013), a playful and somewhat silly trio for soprano, flute, and viola by Yie Eun Chun (b. 1985, South Korea) was a welcome respite. But Alter Ego (2013) for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics by Jung-eun Park (b. 1986, South Korea), while also somewhat whimsical, took itself a lot more seriously. Requiem for Nature for tenor and ensemble (2011, orchestrated 2015) by Takehito Shimazu (b. 1949, Japan) was also extremely serious—it was another work inspired by the earthquake of March 11, 2011. Shimazu, who is based in Fukushima (which was the epicenter of the tragedy) was a first-hand witness and, according to his program notes, composed this requiem so people will “not forget what had happened.” Sakubel Osil for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello (2009, revised 2014) by Tomasz Skweres (b. 1984, Austria) is a mysterious, ritualistic piece based on a poem by Mary Bautista written in the Native American language Tzotzil. Finally, Aquae for clarinet, 2 horns, piano, and string quartet (2014) by Valerio Sannicandro (b. 1971), an Italian composer based in Germany, involved a variety of extended techniques—various mutes on the horn, playing inside the piano, etc.—to evoke the flow of water.
I am convinced that the magic that is new music will be even more powerful if more people can discover and appreciate it.
I probably shouldn’t have just complained about having free time for the entire day before this concert, because it allowed me and two of the other ISCM ExComm members—president Peter Swinnen and treasurer Walter De Schepper—to explore the city of Tongyeong. Among our goals of our intense walk all over the town (and this might not have been the easiest thing to accomplish considering the overall lack of Roman-alphabet signage) was to visit the Isang Yun Memorial. As we were walking in the general direction of a museum we also wanted to visit, there it was, suddenly right in front of us, conjured almost by some supernatural power. It was extremely inspiring to learn more about Isang Yun’s life and his ideas about music and community. Though much of the music he composed might initially sound extremely peculiar to a musical muggle, Yun strived to create a musical language fusing Eastern and Western sensibilities. It was music that he hoped could be appreciated by everyone. Since returning home I have felt even further charged to do whatever I am somehow able to do to help create a greater awareness for all the magical new music I have encountered throughout my life. I am convinced that the magic that is new music will be even more powerful if more people can discover and appreciate it.
Some words of wisdom from Isang Yun, from the exhibition at the Isang Yun Memorial
1. Just in case, I want to point out that there’s no such place as “Potterville” in the novels or the movies (Rowling calls her own promotional website for the universe she created “Pottermore”), but I couldn’t avoid the construct, though now it’s making me wonder if some constructive insights can be gained by comparing today’s new music scene to George Bailey (played by Jimmie Stewart)’s nightmare vision of a town actually called Potterville in which he doesn’t exist in the classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but I digress.
2. Well, to be fair, the U.S.A. does have something of a parallel to Gaudeamus Music Week in the more grassroots MATA Festival, an annual NYC-based festival which showcases music exclusively by composers under 40. In fact, MATA and Gaudeamus now regularly collaborate. And, of course, though they do not offer the same kind of exposure as a performance on a music festival open to the general public (even muggles), there are also those annual ASCAP Morton Gould Awards and BMI Student Composer Awards, both of which are announced at private ceremonies.
3. There were additionally two less prominent “unofficial” American-based ISCM festivals in the 1940s, when mounting such an event in Europe became untenable, immediately prior to the wartime hiatus.
4. The ISCM Young Composer Award—now sponsored by ISCM Associate Member Music on Main, from Vancouver—is given annually to a composer who has written what a committee comprised exclusively of ISCM delegates determines to be the most outstanding work presented during the festival among the works by composers under the age of 35.
5. There’s a trio version of this piece, featuring a baritone singer, on her Soundcloud page; curiously, another one of the pieces featured there, which I like a lot more, is called Abracadabra.
This massive notehead sculpture greets everyone who ventures up the hill for TIMF concerts.
“What we did was very radical,” Frances Richard told the crowd gathered to honor the life and legacy of composer, advocate, and Meet The Composer founder John Duffy. “Sitting here so calmly all these years later, I don’t know if you realize it. The idea was to pay composers. Whoever heard of such a thing?”
The audience erupted into applause and laugher, as they had throughout the evening of music and remembrances which also included remarks shared by John Corigliano, Robert Cross, Tania León, Annette Duffy Odell, and Steve Reich. There were also performances by Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Sherry, Miranda Cuckson with Aaron Wunsch, and the Cassatt String Quartet with Glenn Morrissette and Tomoya Aomori. For those who missed the May 3, 2016 event at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, full clips are available below.
One of the most exciting aspects of my role as New Music USA’s composer advocate is that from time to time I participate in various music-related convenings around the country and sometimes internationally. I consider these trips to be an extremely important aspect of my work since they often afford me the opportunity to serve either as a mentor to or an ambassador for composers and, more broadly, to encourage and facilitate a wide range of new music (particularly at proceedings that are not exclusively focused on new music or where the definition of new music is narrower than it ought to be). Sometimes my role at these events is official (I’m asked to give presentations, etc.) but just as often it is more informal—I relish being a rabble rouser during Q&A time. An equally important benefit of these activities is that they help to increase my own awareness of the range of the new music scene, plus the experiences and knowledge I’ve gained are things that I can usually translate it into prose here.
But sometimes it takes a while for me to catch up with all of this stuff and to find an effective way to make sense of it. Over the past two months I attended three significant national music events which were extremely different from each other in terms of scope and scale—the Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute (January 25-29, 2016 in Minneapolis), the Midwest Clinic (an annual Chicago-based educational music conference primarily but not exclusively focused on wind bands which most recently took place between December 16 and 19, 2015), and the Chamber Music America conference (which takes place annually here in New York City, this time around from January 9 to 11, 2016). I’ve decided to write about these three events together instead of reporting separately on each since it has been in searching for common ground among these disparate gatherings that I think I’ve come to some clarity about them. I should point out that it made the most sense to offer my thoughts on these three events in reverse chronological order which might seem counterintuitive, but will hopefully make better sense for what I’d like to call attention to here.
It was often quite cold outside Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, but it wasn’t as nearly as cold as it has been in New York City the past few days.
In terms of scale, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute is by far the smallest. It is typically, as it was again in 2016, an opportunity that benefits just seven composers (although in 2012 it was only six and in 2006 there were nine!). While the week’s intensive sessions with various musicians and industry professionals (on topics as diverse as effective public speaking, score and parts preparation, copyright law, and commissioning contracts) can be audited by anyone who is a member of the American Composers Forum, only the lucky members of that chosen small group get to have an original orchestra composition of theirs workshopped. And since 2006, when the program transformed from reading sessions (which began in 2002) to a week culminating in a concert, these composers have also had their works performed on a subscription concert by one of this country’s most respected orchestras and broadcast on the radio as well. The opportunity for such prominent exposure is a really big deal and arguably was a decisive event in establishing the careers of some of today’s most visible composers. Among the program’s alumni are: Lisa Bielawa, Anthony Cheung (the only composer to participate twice), Anna Clyne, Stacy Garrop, Ted Hearne, Hannah Lash, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, Narong Prangcharoen, and Sean Shepherd. I’m particularly thrilled by the gender balance in that list of names though admittedly it was a somewhat unscientific gleaning from the names of the 92 composers who have had music performed through this program, out of which only 18 were women. Still, though this is shocking in the year 2016, it is a better track record than most of what goes on in our field as a whole.
As in previous years, I was invited there to serve as a mentor to the composers (which on their official materials is described as “faculty”) which enabled me to have a considerable amount of face time with each of the composers and to attend all of the Composer Institute’s events (except for the private one-on-one consultations each composer gets with conductor Osmo Vänskä). As always, it was great to get to know these seven composers. I was impressed by features of all of their pieces, though what has remained most in my memory two weeks after attending the rehearsals and the concert are the progression of luscious harmonies in Kirsten Broberg’s Celestial Dawning, the unbridled humor and almost cinematic narrative arc of Matthew Browne’s Barnstorming Season, the sheer sonic audacity of Anthony Vine’s Transmission (which heavily features real radio static as well as orchestral simulacra of static), and the—to me at least—completely unexpected final chord of Emily Cooley’s Scroll of the Air (which I actually loved even more in the rehearsals than I did in the performance when I obviously knew what was coming). I also really enjoyed being something of a back seat driver during Performance Today radio host Fred Child’s presentation to the group about how to handle being interviewed. One of the seven composers, Emily Cooley, wrote a blog for the Minnesota Orchestra’s website which offers more details on the specifics of the week than I will here. Suffice it to say, every time I attend this thing I have newfound respect and hope for the future of the orchestra.
A group portrait of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute Class of 2016 (from left to right): Michael Gilbertson, Anthony Vine, Kirsten Broberg, Composer Institute director Kevin Puts, Nick DiBerardino, Emily Cooley, Joshua Cerdenia, and Matthew Browne.
The annual conference of Chamber Music America, an event which has been on my calendar every year for nearly two decades, offers plenty more, albeit smaller scale (by definition), opportunities for composers. There are numerous occasions for attendees to check out a really broad range of music and, perhaps even more importantly, to engage in conversations with potential future collaborators. Unlike many of the conferences of national music organizations, which often tend to attract a much larger percentage of administrative personnel than folks who actually make music, the folks who show up to CMA’s get-togethers are a real cross-section of the music ecology—composers, interpreters, booking agents, presenters—and music always seems to be everyone’s primary focus. Above and beyond that, what keeps me coming back year after year, is that the range of music focused on there is pretty wide and much of it is new. It has been a long time since CMA first opened its doors to jazz in a very significant way, in terms of topics that get featured in panel discussions and ensemble showcases as well as through the grant opportunities it offers to its members. In recent years, the borders between so-called contemporary classical music and work that incorporates improvisation have grown more and more porous and CMA seems to be doing better than most organizations in reflecting that paradigm shift.
So I really looked forward to this year’s conference. It also helped that I didn’t need to hop on an airplane to attend it, plus two-thirds of it took place over the course of a weekend so it didn’t cut too deeply into the rest of my work schedule. And thankfully, it didn’t overlap with the Minnesota Orchestra’s Composer Institute like it did last year. Sadly, though, it almost completely overlapped with this year’s New Music Gathering in Baltimore. I was hoping I could at least witness the Gathering’s first day, but I was asked to be a mentor for a group of first-time CMA conference attendees which required being with them at an orientation session an evening before the official schedule began and being as present as I could be for them for the duration. I sincerely hope that in 2017 none of these events will overlap. Folks seeking to establish themselves in this community as well as the folks who can help facilitate that need to be at as many of these convenings as possible; it is a disservice to everyone in the community at large to schedule such important powwows at the same time.
I must admit, however, that I experienced several disappointments in addition to my usual aesthetic epiphanies by staying in NYC for CMA; I will try to address these in a way that I hope will be helpful as I offer a few of the weekend’s highlights. As they now have been for quite a few years, CMA’s panel discussions were relegated exclusively to the 9:00-10:15am time slot. Since the closest coffee was outside the hotel and was sold at Times Square tourist prices, scheduling these talks so early did not always yield the most engaged interaction. That said, there were some great insights proffered during a session on programming in the 21st century moderated by Del Sol Quartet violinist Charlton Lee. While Lee claimed that “an all-new music concert brings in a different audience because it’s more relevant,” Oni Buchanan, who runs Ariel Artists, countered that while “an all-new music concert is a completely different kind of experience … including a new piece on a [mixed] program gets audiences to listen to the old pieces in a new way.” Certain approaches are more effective than others depending on the community you are trying to reach. During the question and answer period, Atlanta Chamber Players’ general manager Rachel Ciprotti pointed out that concerts of mixed repertoire sell better than concerts only containing new work. Even more interesting was another session devoted to the Southern Exposure New Music Series that was basically a conversation between its founding director, composer John Fitz Rogers, and its current one, Mike Harley, a bassoonist who plays in Alarm Will Sound. Harley, in what seemed like a direct refutation to the aforementioned discussion led by Lee, claimed that “Mozart is a way harder sell than most contemporary music.” Admittedly Southern Exposure is a relatively small scale operation and they want to keep it that way. It has been central to their mission that all of their concerts are free and take place in venues that can only seat a couple of hundred people. Since the series operates on a somewhat tiny budget (accrued from funds raised from loyal patrons, grants and a small stipend from the University of South Carolina), visiting artists must often purchase their own travel and lodgings from a relatively small all-inclusive performance fee. But the option of home stays are offered to guests to help defray costs, plus they get taken out for great barbecue! And because it is a positive experience with a really engaged audience, many new music luminaries have still been willing to participate.
Mike Harley and John Fitz Rogers
One of the reasons panels are only scheduled in the mornings is to reserve the most optimal portion of the day—the afternoon hours—for ensemble showcases. These showcases have been the heart of the CMA conference for several years now and they probably should be. But there are some logistical problems to the way they are presented. All of the ensembles featured perform in the same room, an acoustically-challenged, partitioned-off ballroom space, yet surprisingly most groups usually make the most of it and sound relatively good in that environment. However, every half hour a new group takes the stage—for four consecutive hours on Friday and five consecutive hours on Saturday. With no breaks! Aside from the inevitable auditory fatigue of processing so many performances at once, the format makes it a real challenge for musicians to make deeper connections to the people who just heard them and vice versa. Talking to someone who just performed—a conversation that could lead to bookings, commissions, and who knows what else—requires walking out on the next ensemble and missing the music they have to offer. So often quick chats happen right outside the door, but the sound proofing is inadequate. I confess to being someone who runs out to chat with performers immediately outside the door, but I usually try to run back inside before the next showcase starts, sometimes losing my seat in the process. There’s got to be a better way to organize this to ensure that all the musicians have a chance to both perform in the most optimal possible conditions (it can never be perfect) and also to have sufficient opportunities to speak to people who could further their careers in a meaningful way.
Still some extraordinary music-making took place during this year’s ensemble showcases. I was very impressed with the energy as well as the tone quality of the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, which was particularly well displayed in their performance of an extremely moving piece called In Memoriam written for them by Joel Love who flew in from Texas to hear their performance. And I was completely floored by Organ Monk, a trio led from a Hammond B3 by Greg Lewis which totally funked out on a series of original compositions named in honor of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. They also included some unexpected twists in their interpretations of the classic standard “Lulu’s Back in Town” and material by the group’s namesake Thelonious. (Lewis and his group are performing at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola on February 16, 2016.)
Organ Monk in action. (Pictured from left to right: Greg Lewis on Hammond B3, Jeremy “Bean” Clemons on drums, and Ron Jackson on guitar.)
As I already mentioned above, the blurring of lines between strict score-based interpretation and improvisation-oriented performance has yielded some fascinating musical hybrids and some of the most interesting music that took place during the showcases fell into this zone. Though nominally a “classical” group, Sybarite5, a string quintet (quartet plus double bass) which released a disc of Radiohead covers in 2012, played much more than what was on their music stands. Similarly Matt Davis’s Aerial Photograph, though described on CMA’s webpage for the 2016 showcases as jazz, ultimately shouldn’t be pigeonholed. Davis, an electric guitarist, exclusively performs his own compositions, which tend to be long form and chuck full of subtle orchestrations. For the showcase, he was joined by nine other musicians—which included a tenor saxophonist, a drummer, and a string quartet—who performed music he wrote based on conversations he had with people in different communities around New York City. The Westerlies, a brass quartet (two trumpets and two trombones) who released a terrific CD of music by Wayne Horvitz in 2014, played their own comprovisational music this time out as well as an arrangement of a song by Charles Ives. The Carpe Diem String Quartet also proved equally adept at navigating classical and jazz idioms as well as Iranian microtonal inflections, in an excerpt from a work by Reza Vali, and even bluegrass, in a selection from the Fiddle Suite by their Montana-born violist Korine Fujiwara.
Another string quartet, the Argus Quartet, a youngish, more exclusively classical-oriented group from L.A. that is now in residence at Yale, made a really compelling case for Peculiar Strokes, a collection of miniatures by Andrew Norman which each explore particular a bowing technique. They had planned to play only selections, which would not have left the audience feeling cheated since the work is designed to be modular, though it was great to actually hear the whole thing. However, by playing all of it, they had to cancel their performance of a movement from Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas, which actually would have additionally given audiences an opportunity to hear their interpretation of traditional Peruvian sonorities. Even more distressing is that since they cancelled Leyendas and Sybarite5 did not perform a piece by Jessica Meyer that they had been scheduled to play according to the printed program, the only female composers represented during nine hours of showcases were women who performed their own music—the aforementioned Fujiwara; Montreal-based Lorraine Desmarais, who fronts a relatively straight-ahead piano trio; and Jen Shyu, who mixed jazz vocals, traditional East Asian instruments, and ritual theatre in a stunning duo with violinist Matt Maneri that ended with her simulating self-immolation. (I was there for the whole thing but couldn’t help but wondering what the experience was like for people who just showed up at the climax.)
But that’s not all. In addition to those nine hours of music during the showcases, there was also an off-site intermission-less two-hour-plus CMA concert on Friday night at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music which featured performances by four additional groups who had received CMA commissioning grants. Talk about sonic overload. Directly before the concert and immediately following the last Friday showcase (that of Sybarite5 which seemed to attract an audience that was well beyond the room’s capacity) there was an opening reception hosted by BMI which is one of the year’s most intense networking hangs. Usually nothing else is scheduled that evening which seems more prudent since conversations that begin over drinks at that reception often spill over to more informal dinners among various attendees. I imagine that they did this year as well since only a small percentage of the seats at DiMenna were occupied. So there weren’t many people in the audience for Duo Yumeno’s performance of Gene Coleman’s Kirigami. The work was an intense exploration of the timbral subtleties of the duo’s two instruments–Japanese koto (played by Yoko Reikano Kimura) and cello (Hikaru Tamaki)–that I, at least, would have benefited more from hearing earlier in the day. The same was true for pianist Fabian Almazan’s Alcanza, which he performed with his largish band Rhizome (another group that incorporates a string quartet into an ensemble of jazz improvisers), though I found the voice of Sara Serpa utterly mesmerizing. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s Touch Move, performed by his quintet Sicilian Defense, seemed mostly a platform for individual virtuosic flourishes rather than a cohesive composition, but again it was pretty late in the day at this point. I imagine that the somewhat disjointed form of the piece was by design, considering the chess references in both the name of his group and the title of the composition; I probably would have been more attuned to it had there been a program note or some pre-performance onstage commentary explaining what was going on. By the time PRISM came on stage to perform Julia Wolfe’s Cha I was ready to pass out, but the music thankfully wouldn’t let me. Though far shorter than anything else on the program, it was an incredibly dense 10 minutes filled with hockets and other kinds of tightly woven counterpoint that was completely seamless, both from a compositional and interpretational standpoint. (It was only the only time during the entire conference that a composition by a woman was performed by an ensemble that the composer was not a member of.) At 10:15pm I was completely wiped out and eager to finally have dinner, but I would have gladly stayed for more.
There’s undoubtedly a lot more I could describe about the 2016 CMA conference, but I will only make a few more small observations here. One of the conference’s highlights for me has always been the CMA/ASCAP Awards Ceremony which acknowledges ensembles and presenters whose programs have featured the most new music (music that was composed during the last 25 years). Additionally, during the ceremony, ASCAP member composers and publishers in the audience are invited up to the podium to briefly tell attendees about their own music. It is always a good way to gage what is going on around the country and in years past, I always wound up learning about a few more folks I had not been previously aware of. However, this year’s ceremony, which was scheduled on the last day right before the dismantling of the exhibits, was so poorly attended—only four ASCAP members (myself included) went up to the podium. Plus, unlike in previous years, no printed program was distributed to attendees listing all the qualifying new music repertoire on winner’s programs—an extremely useful list. It was a lost opportunity. Perhaps the distribution of these awards, which is a collaboration between ASCAP and CMA, should take place during the luncheon and membership meeting on the first day of the conference. It would reach a much larger percentage of the attendees and would set an appropriate exploratory tone for the weekend.
One of the bright moments of this year’s CMA-ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards was the introduction by new music championing soprano Lucy Shelton, who is a member of CMA’s board.
Many of the sessions of the 2016 conference were devoted to more effectively interacting (both personally and professionally) with other members of the community. New Music Gathering co-founder Mary Kouyoumdjian, in an essay she wrote for NewMusicBox in anticipation of that weekend’s contemporaneous NMG in Baltimore, claimed that she “really doesn’t like conferences” because they make her “think of barriers” and feel “pressure.” The folks at CMA did their very best to help attendees overcome this very real perception and it is perhaps a testimony to their success that I’ve received even more follow-up communications from folks I met for the first time at this year’s conference than I had in previous years, and I receive a ton of emails.
One of the best things that CMA did was to make first-time attendees feel more comfortable by assigning them mentors. I’d like to offer some space to the folks I mentored that weekend—all of whom are composer/performers active in the jazz scene, though as I can’t emphasize enough, the parsing of members of our community into jazz vs. classical slots is becoming less and less meaningful in today’s new music scene. I mentored four really interesting musicians. I’ve already described the music of Matt Davis, whose ensemble was a highlight of the showcases. Stephen Griggs is an extremely thoughtful Seattle-based saxophonist/composer, one the recipients of this year’s CMA/ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards, who has composed suites about the Japanese-American internment camps and the plight of a still not-completely-recognized Native American community, the Duwamish, whose most prominent chief, Seattle (c1786-1866), lives on in the name of Griggs’s hometown. Will Holshouser fronts Musette Explosion, an extremely unusual, though completely delightful trio—consisting of his musette (a button accordion) plus guitar and tuba—that offers post-modern re-imaginings of gilded age Parisian café music. Finally, Sheryl Bailey, a guitarist who co-leads a delightful duo with bass legend Harvie S. as well as a Hammond B3-organ trio that would make an interesting double header with the group led by Greg Lewis featured during the showcases. (What’s with the sudden resurgence of the B3?) Unfortunately, when I wandered around recording chats with people during the final hours of the conference I couldn’t find Sheryl, but here are some brief musings about the weekend from Matt, Steve and Will:
Part of why I’ve couched my description of the Midwest Clinic alongside two other events to which I’ve have a long relationship is in order to attempt to explain it. The first Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute (as I stated at the onset) did not occur until 2002 (and the first “official” concert wasn’t until 2006). The CMA conference has a much longer history; it first took place in 1978. But the Midwest Clinic has been going on now for 70 years (though alternately under the names “Band Clinic,” “Mid-West Band Clinic,” “Mid-West National Band Clinic,” “Mid-West National Band and Orchestra Clinic,” and “Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic”). So what is it and why is it called a clinic (the only thing that has been consistent about its name these past seven decades)? Everyone in the music community I’ve talked to who had no familiarity with this event was utterly baffled by the name when I told them I had been there: “Were you sick? Are you having a midlife crisis and enrolling in med school?”
At least I didn’t come home wearing one of these band uniforms!
By the end of my latest trip to the Windy City I came to understand that the term “clinic” is common parlance for a masterclass within the music education community and the folks who lead such sessions are called “clinicians,” a term which to the rest of humanity refers to medical doctors who have direct contact with and responsibility for patients. Yet considering how many “clinics” take place during this annual Windy City marathon, the singular form “Midwest Clinic” is still somewhat misleading, and “clinics” are not the only kind of activity that goes on there. It isn’t exactly a conference though many conference-type panels occur during its super jam-packed four days. It’s also not a music festival, though there were more concerts packed into that relatively short amount of time than during either Gaudeamus Music Week or the ISCM World Music Days, both of which consistently wow me with the sheer amount of music they present. And then there’s the larger-than-life exhibit hall which is a major locus of activity. In addition to being chock full of promotional fare from various universities, music organizations, and branches of the military, there are also tons of items for sale that many attendees flocked to—everything from band instruments and uniforms to sheet music and CDs. (Yes, people were actually buying physical recordings there; I personally came home with a bounty of 62 discs which I’m still attempting to listen through.)
Of all the music-related events I’ve attended during my professional life, the Clinic most resembles MIDEM, which is something of a cross between a conference, a festival, and an industry trade show. Though that’s probably not a completely accurate description, either, since MIDEM is pretty much a closed-door event for music industry insiders. The Clinic attracts a much broader range of music aficionados, everyone from numerous members of military, university, and high school bands (many of whom I witnessed delightedly trying out instruments in the exhibits) to some of America’s most prominent bandleaders and composers: I ran into Eric Whitacre and Michael Daugherty, both of whom led sessions during the Clinic, just walking around the supersized McCormick Place, which boasts being the largest convention center in North America.
One of the more entertaining booths I visited was the one for the Northshore Concert Band in Evanston, Illinois. I wound up buying several of their discs.
The first day of the Clinic got off to an extremely early start—registration began at 7:00am, and by 8 (let’s be real here), there was still a massively long line but luckily it moved pretty fast since there was so much to see and ultimately precious little time despite each day’s activities going on pretty much non-stop for twelve consecutive hours. As a first time attendee, I was given a special sticker to affix to my badge, but there was no special welcoming reception. Certainly nothing resembling the TLC of the mentors for first-time attendees at the Chamber Music America conference. So I plunged right in. Throughout those four days, the only acknowledgment I received as a newbie was an occasional comment from an exhibitor who noticed my sticker. I now wonder if it was something of a Scarlet Letter and I might have fared better had I not worn it; despite how many people were there, I got into way fewer conversations with complete strangers than I normally do at music conferences. It’s a lesson learned for the next time there, although it is only possible to be a first-time attendee once.
Attempting to enumerate all of the various things I attended and all of the people I met there would probably require me to take another eight weeks to write, so I will only recount some of my most salient memories. Among the concerts I heard, the performances by the North Texas Wind Symphony (which, under the direction of Eugene Corporon, is the gold standard in the windband community), the Atlanta-based Tara Winds, the VanderCook College of Music Symphonic Band (the Chicago hometown favorites), and, most impressive of all, the Shujitsu Junior and Senior High School Wind Ensemble (who travelled here all the way from Okayama, Japan) were as proficient as any top tier symphony orchestra, including Minnesota. So as great an opportunity as a performance by a high profile orchestra is for an emerging composer, it might be equally satisfying to secure a windband gig and also probably more career savvy—these ensembles are far more eager to perform new music, will play your piece a lot more frequently, give it much more rehearsal time, and also be thrilled to give you a recording of it. People have been telling me this for years but witnessing it first-hand repeatedly is even more convincing.
One of the most heartening thing I witnessed during the Midwest Clinic was the seemingly endless line of people waiting to attend a session featuring four composers–John Mackey, Eric Whitacre, Jonathan Newman, and Steve Bryant. The only disappointment was that because there were so many people ahead of me in the line, I ultimately wasn’t able to get in.
My other big epiphany was that the Midwest Clinic is not exclusively a gathering for folks involved with wind band music. I heard a demonstration by a mariachi band during one of the clinics as well as part of a concert by the Beckendorff Junior High School Honor Orchestra, a string orchestra from Katy, Texas, which featured works by two female composers: Soon Hee Newbold and Keiko Yamada. [Ed. Note: Subsequent to the publication of this article, it was discovered that Keiko Yamada was a pseudonym for the male composer Larry Clark. (See September 1, 2019 comment below.)] Few concert experiences I attended last year were as exhilarating as the concert I heard by the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra (who call themselves The Be-Bop Spartans) despite it taking place in a convention center! I’d also be remiss if I did not write something about the Hendrickson High School Saxophone Ensemble (from Pflugerville, Texas). A transcription they performed of a Double Violin Concerto by Vivaldi was surprisingly very effective but I was even more smitten with what they did with a new work written expressly for them by Daniel Montoya, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek nod to Philip Glass titled Einstein on 6th Street which juxtaposed the sound world of Glass’s motoric arpeggios with melodic shapes more characteristic of the various popular music traditions that co-exist in Montoya’s hometown of Austin, Texas. I had to talk to him about it:
In terms of saturation and inundation nothing prepared me for the New Music Reading Session given by the National Guard’s Bands of the Air, one of several such sessions that took place during the Clinic. Their plan was to get through over a hundred submitted works, playing about a minute from each one. After the first fifteen I thought my head would explode and I had to leave. It was impossible for me to distinguish any of these pieces from each other with so little to go on and constant bombardment from yet another piece of music before having anytime to process what I had just heard. Much more poignant, I thought, was a presentation called “Birth and Life of New Music” that was devoted to an explication and performance of a single piece of music, an extremely vibrant and timbrally thrilling concerto for bass trombone and wind band by David Gillingham that was passionately delivered by the Central Michigan University Symphonic Wind Ensemble under the direction of John E. Williamson featuring the New York Philharmonic’s George Curran, for whom the work was written, as soloist. But the most moving thing I attended the entire time I was there, however, was a session called “Teaching Children to Create,” co-led by Glen Adsit from the Hartt School of Music and maverick composer Michael Colgrass, in which students from the Plymouth-Canton High School band program (again, from Michigan) created and then performed some incredibly far out music using graphic notation. If the “professional” orchestras performed stuff as wild as this even twice a year, I’d become a lifelong subscriber! But it wasn’t just about being avant-garde. There was a remarkable formal cohesion to one of the pieces they played, a short aleatory work by one of the girls in the class whose name I regret I am unable to include here. (I jotted it down on a piece of paper that does not seem to have make it back to New York with me.)
Disappointingly, aside from her and the two women [Ed Note: actually one, see Ed. Note above and September 1, 2019 comment below] who wrote string orchestra pieces, the only woman composer programmed during the entire Midwest Clinic was Julie Giroux, three of whose wind band compositions were featured. I was grateful to get to hear two of the three and I brought back some additional pieces of hers on recordings I got there as well. Nevertheless, such a lack of representation is shocking in the year 2016. I already know tons of worthy repertoire for wind band composed by women and I still consider myself a rookie in this scene. African-American, Hispanic, and Asian composers were also marginal to the proceedings. In addition, the winners of various awards that were given throughout the four days were all white men. Banners of photos of previous Clinic honorees, all male and all white as well, greeted me when I entered the space to register on the very first day. For such an inclusive music event (in terms of its breadth and range) to be so exclusive was very disturbing.
The banners of honorees that greeted 2015 Midwest Clinic attendees.
Since there were so many simultaneous competing events, it was hard to decide from moment to moment where I should be. Most of the sessions I attended were less than stimulating, however, with many clinicians simply reading from handouts they distributed to attendees as they entered the rooms. So by the third day, I figured out the best way to gather information was to circulate among as many conference rooms as I could, grabbing all the handouts without sticking around for too long. I also wanted to devote a significant amount of time to wandering the exhibits since that seemed to be a congregating place where attendees actually had an opportunity to converse with one another. I managed, in addition to bumping into Whitacre and Daugherty, to chance upon other composers I knew—among them composers Jim Bonney, Jennifer Jolley, Martha Mooke, Jonathan Newman, Alex Shapiro, Jim Stephenson, and Stephen Bryant (who has the best business card I’ve ever seen–a thick card containing his photo that is also a USB stick containing perusal PDF scores and recordings of his band compositions). I also bumped into Scott Tegge from the Chicago-based super new music friendly brass quintet Gaudete Brass whom I met several years ago at a CMA conference. Plus I got to meet composer Joel Love whose saxophone quartet I had the pleasure of hearing a few weeks later, again at CMA. There’s clearly a connection here and yet several people who knew me seemed very surprised that I was attending the Midwest Clinic since they all associate me exclusively with new music. But there was so much new music there, which is why I was there and why they were there as well. Jonathan Newman perhaps summed it up even better than I could:
Along Havana’s Parque Central in 2015. (Photo by Amadeus Regucera.)
When we finally exited the José Martí International Airport shortly before noon, there were literally hundreds of Cubans lining the path we followed that angled through them, connecting the airport exit to the parking lot. It was as if we were rock stars—this first-time group of composers, musicians, and their supporters arriving from the United States to take part in the 28th annual Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana. Only the masses weren’t there for us—planes arrive in Cuba when they get there, and those awaiting loved ones crowd around the exit, likely for hours on end. During the hour or so we waited for our bus into Havana (Cuba runs on perpetual delays) I witnessed several of the most passionate and tearful reunions of my life, there at the airport exit and out in the parking lot, which was full of tailgaters. None were surprised by the waits they endured—they had counted on them, clearly—and they made the most of them.
The Festival de Música Contemporánea de la Habana took place this November, and for the first time in its history a delegation of musicians and composers from the United States was invited to participate. The American Composers Forum and Third Sound selected the composers, which included myself, Kati Agócs, Ingrid Arauco, Kai-Young Chan, Cindy Cox, Michael Harrison, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Jones, Amadeus Regucera, and Spencer Topel. Third Sound musicians—Patrick Castillo (Third Sound’s managing director), Romie de Guise-Langlois, Karen Kim, Sooyun Kim, Michael Nicolas, and Orion Weiss—came to perform, and ACF also assembled a 30-member strong group of U.S. observers/patrons, which included former and current ACF board members, UC Berkeley administrators and faculty, new music bloggers, a representative of the Mellon Foundation, NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas, and a two-man documentary crew. It was a huge endeavor.
The first-ever contingent of U.S. composers on the ground in Havana. Pictured are (left to right): Patrick Castillo, Jeremy Gill, Imogene Tondre (our guide), Christopher Jones, Cindy Cox, Michael Harrison, Spencer Topel, Ingrid Arauco, Amadeus Regucera, Jennifer Higdon, Kai-Young Chan, Romie de Guise-Langlois (clarinet), Kati Agocs. (Photo by Karen Kim.)
The composers and musicians stayed in casas particulares, rented rooms in residents’ flats (think Airbnb) which were mostly in the same seven-story condo in Vedado, a neighborhood that bordered Centro Habana where many of the festival concerts took place. Our casas were right across the street from the grand Hotel Nacional de Cuba, but the neighborhood itself was quite residential—an ideal vantage point for getting to know the people and the city. (Composer Amadeus Regucera and I formed a quick bond with the madre of our casa—a chain-smoking, middle-aged dear to whom we were both mi amor.) We were responsible for getting ourselves around town, by foot or by taxi—available everywhere, unregulated but safe and very convenient.
This was my first visit to Cuba (none of us, except Patrick, had been there before), and I prepared for the trip with daily Spanish practice for about three months prior. It helped immensely—few locals spoke much English, and the shop owners, taxi drivers, craftspeople, and artists—eager to sell their wares—were more than willing to engage my extremely rudimentary Spanish. I also read two (happily) complementary books about Cuban music: Alejo Carpentier’s Music in Cuba, written in the early 1940s, and Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music from 2004. Carpentier trained as a musician and composer but is one of the best-known Cuban novelists; his book is mostly concerned with the history of Cuban art music as developed from Western models during the 16th century through the 1930s. Sublette’s interests lay with popular music, and he tries a bit too hard to provide the political and social context for the music that he clearly loves. Though I found his book practically unreadable—it seemed supersaturated with pointless facts and anecdotes—I appreciated it much more after spending a week in Cuba: its haphazard arrangement mirrors the country as I experienced it.
Cuba is a country of contradictions, an island that feels continental. (It is roughly the same size, in land and population, as Pennsylvania.) And Havana, where we spent the majority of our time, is a magnificent, European conception that is literally crumbling underfoot, a tropical paradise choking on the acrid smoke spewing from its vintage 1950s American cars. A walk of a few blocks in Centro Habana or Habana Vieja can take you through an astoundingly ornate Spanish-style courtyard (well-maintained, though its fountain is usually dry), past a string of partially collapsed, still inhabited homes, to the doors of an air-conditioned and tourist-themed bar. On the day of our concert, I walked the Malecón (the highway that runs along the northern edge of Havana, the splashing of the Atlantic on the rocks below often reaching the street itself) for about an hour, from my casa in Vedado to the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. Interspersed among the typical buildings, grandly executed but literally dissolving in the sea air, were sparkling new modern renovations—hotels and cafes filled with tourists tapping away on their laptops—at least three of them, that day, policed by machine-gun-wielding, uniformed guards.
Havana was bewildering, but certainly not without its charms: one striking and wonderfully refreshing aspect of life in Havana is its racial integration. At every level of society I saw as many dark-skinned authority figures (police, teachers, leaders of dance troupes) as light-skinned. It is true that the batá and rumba musicians we saw were more likely black and mulatto, and that the young women that constituted the Camerata Romeu and performed Western-derived art music were mostly white and mestizo, but this felt like a natural expression of their various heritages. The audiences for both were mixed, and the art forms that drew more equally on a mixing of these heritages, as with the Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, were comparably mixed in terms of their personnel. Mixed-race groups of friends and couples—young and old—were the norm in restaurants and on the streets. The racial tension and segregation that persist in the United States, even in our most integrated cities, was as far as I could tell totally absent in Havana, despite our shared history of slavery (which endured a generation longer in Cuba than in the States) and post-slavery discrimination.
The Festival de la Habana included daily colloquia (mornings) and usually two concerts per day (at 4:00 and 6:00 p.m.). Events were spread throughout the city, making it tough to get from one concert to the next on time. Most of the concerts featured Cuban musicians and were heavily populated with music by Cuban composers, but there were visiting performers from Argentina, Canada, Denmark, Korea, Italy, Spain, and the United States performing music by composers from their home countries as well as from Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Poland, Taiwan, Turkey, and Venezuela. Juggling events organized by ACF, which for the patrons included only two festival concerts—one of Cuban composers by Cuban musicians and Third Sound, and ours—and the festival itself was tricky, as most of us wanted to see and experience as much of Havana as possible. Furthermore, our arriving after the festival began and leaving before it ended (unexpectedly—more on that below) precluded our attending the grandest concerts—one by the Orquesta Sinfónico Nacional de Cuba before we arrived, and two featuring musicians from Korea and the most internationally diverse program after we had left.
The concerts I managed to attend revealed an extremely high level of musical proficiency on the parts of younger Cuban players, in particular. Nearly all of the young composers performed their own works, solo or in groups, and while the music tended to be somewhat old-fashioned (think slightly spicier Albéniz, with all the requisite virtuosity, lots of rhythmic ostinati, some polytonality, mixed in with the wholesome counterpoint of later Hindemith), the performances were often very fine, particularly when one considered the state of the instruments the players were relegated to. (For our concert, we used the finest piano in the country that had only a partially-functioning sostenuto pedal, and the local Camerata Romeu—a wonderful, all-female string orchestra that performs full concerts memorized—was one cellist short for a concert because her bridge broke and there was no replacement.) One can imagine the state of the pads on flutes, the age of the reeds on clarinets—but the musicians played with effortless grace, and it was abundantly clear to me that they had acquired their technique through their ears and not their eyes (unlike what has become depressingly common with young musicians in the States). Even less developed players in Cuba consistently created a clear musical line, and I rarely heard rhythmic awkwardness or, even more astonishing given the instruments, pitch problems. They were listening, and it was wonderful.
The Cuban composers that impressed me the most were Wilma Alba Cal and Juan Piñera. Piñera is one of Cuba’s senior composers and was well represented at the festival: his music featured interesting, clear ideas (more imaginative than his colleagues). I only heard one work by Alba Cal, but it was lovely, unaffected, beautifully paced and refreshingly simple without being simplistic. She looked relatively young, so we can hope to hear much more from her. (Third Sound will present works by Cal and Piñera at St. Bart’s in NYC on January 12, 2016, along with several of the U.S. composers’ works.) Of the international crowd I was most impressed by Claudio Ambrosini’s Prelude à l’apres-midi d’un fauve from 1994 for flute (doubling alto), violin, and piano. I couldn’t hear how it related to its titular companion (or imagine what his title suggested—isn’t Debussy’s faune already a fauve?) but it was one of the more interesting pieces that I heard, with a compelling narrative structure that surprised yet satisfied.
Overall, I was somewhat bemused by the music of the Cuban composers I heard. The anachronistic aura I perceived applied to most of the senior composers as well as the younger: it sounded as if the most recent music they had internalized was Milhaud’s (there was a penchant among the young for his crunchy but harmless bitonality, and among the young and old for his overt exoticism). One program on the festival listed a performance of Bartók’s Contrasts (written in 1938 at the behest of clarinet superstar Benny Goodman) as a Cuban premiere. If this is true, there must be many, many composers from the previous century as well as our own that Cuban composers have yet to hear.
Interestingly, I experienced a bit of a time warp with the popular music I heard in Cuba, as well. American pop was blessedly scarce during our trip, but when it did turn up, it was mostly from a generation or two prior (I went to sleep one night with “Material Girl” floating up to my fifth-floor casa from the streets below, and awoke the next morning to Stevie Wonder’s clarion call), and at least one jazz combo I heard was the spitting sonic image of the Spyro Gyra my father listened to in the late 1980s. (This latter was clearly aimed at tourists—the hosting bar’s cover charge was $10, a princely sum even considering the two mojitos it included). The most interesting popular music I heard in Cuba was by an Afro-Cuban band comprising a tres (a three-course guitar with the outer courses tuned in octaves, the inner in unisons), guitar, stand-up bass, congas, guiro, and maracas (which Alejo Carpentier claimed was the only pre-Columbian instrument still in use in Cuba). Fronted by two and sometimes three singers (who doubled on percussion), the group was young, dynamic and featured to my ears the most interesting mix of styles. They performed in a simple bar crammed with locals (two blocks from where we were staying) and didn’t sound “dated” in the slightest.
It was a fascinating trip, and I can only imagine how complicated it must have been to organize. (Kudos to ACF and Patrick Castillo for that.) The only problems we encountered stemmed from the very real challenge of acquiring good and current information. Cuba is still very much a closed society: none of us had reliable internet access during the trip, and the few that had working cell phones had acquired them in advance in Canada. Normally, this was fine—we adopted an older social model, meeting at previously determined locations and times around the city—but not always: when Havana Air bumped seven of the ten composers to an earlier flight out of Cuba (without informing anyone), it took us the better part of the week to figure out if our tickets, which we only received at the airport in Miami, contained a printing or a scheduling error. Only the day before our eventual departure did we learn that we would, in fact, be leaving a day earlier than planned.
This was an inconvenience for us, but certainly nothing compared to what the Cuban people experience on a daily basis. Couple a regular lack of information with the economic hardship still rampant in the country (I was told that a doctor on average earns $40 per month, equivalent to the composers’ and musicians’ per diem granted by ACF), and a bleak picture emerges. State-sponsored professional musicians typically earn $20–30 per month, and are not permitted to take extra gigs despite the ample free time that their roughly 9 a.m.–2 p.m. average daily rehearsal routine allows. Not surprisingly, a black market economy flourishes in Havana, as do semi-legal workarounds: private restaurants, for example, can exist only if they are located in people’s homes; those who are able to do so buy up consecutive flats to make reasonably-sized spaces to accommodate larger parties. (We visited quite a few.)
A typical sight in Havana. An old American car in front of a partially-collapsed building. (Photo by Amadeus Regucera.)
To those of us on this trip, and for the American-born guides that showed us around, Havana was a enchanting place, but it’s tempting to see only the good when one has access to the best restaurants and hotels and can earn two years of an average Cuban’s salary in a week by showing tourists the town. We were able to bring many gifts for the Cubans we met (Music Espresso in Boston donated a stack of manuscript books that I passed on to an elementary school music theory teacher, the mother of our guide’s Cuban boyfriend, and many others came similarly laden), but these only go so far. One hopes that however U.S.-Cuban relations develop, the quality of life for the Cuban people—friendly, welcoming, tremendously hard-working—is our and their government’s first priority.
After returning to Miami, en route to our hotel, three of us early-returning composers shared a cab. The driver noticed a box of mini Cohibas I was carrying and started talking: he had fled the island 24 years prior, escaping by raft on his fourth attempt over about a decade. Back then, goods beyond rations were only sold in U.S. dollars, and it was illegal for Cubans to carry U.S. currency. Women would sell sex to tourists and have their johns pay by shopping for them at restricted stores. It went without saying, but one of us asked if he was better off in the States. “100%” he said. “There was no freedom there. No life.” He has never been back.
Fernando and his well. (Photo by Jeremy Gill.)
That was a generation ago, and one hopes that a potential future Cuba is instead revealed in the person of Fernando, the owner and proprietor of a small, organic farm we visited in Artemisa (our only trip outside of Havana). After earning a Ph.D. in agricultural science (which he said prepared him “theoretically” for the work he now does “practically”), he began touring the world, advocating for small, sustainable farms in developing countries, while maintaining his own farm, staffed by six employees that he pays twice the average national salary. The thatched roof of the stone barn he built by hand sports solar panels, and the methane that he harvests from his cows’ dung is piped into the home he and his wife restored, providing cooking gas. He sells to Havana restaurants, and will soon institute a farm box program for local residents. Several years in, he is earning a profit and is slowly, steadily expanding. He showed us the well that he and his first two employees dug by hand (14 meters down), and called it a “metaphor” for how hard they were willing to work for the betterment of their beautiful and confounding country.
Starters at Fernandoʼs farm. (Photo by Jeremy Gill.)
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.)
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.
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 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.
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?
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 (photo by Marylene Mey, courtesy G. Schirmer/Music Sales)
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.
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
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Oct 23, 2015
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