From Darmstadt to the Shopping Mall

There have been few additions to the canon of “classical” music from Africa, or most of southern Asia and Oceania. And yet, despite the efforts of extremists in various parts of the world, some form of music is created, performed, and listened to in every nation on the planet; music is one of the few pan-terrestrial human activities.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

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.

The public’s behavior is either friendly or indifferent, unless they are intimidated because their spiritual leaders are protesting. As a whole they are always rather inclined to enjoy something they have devoted time and money to. They come less to judge than to enjoy.”
—Arnold Schönberg, “My Public” (Der Querschnitt 10, vol. 4, April 1930)
“Fuck knows what for… but you shouldn’t be doing music for fun … When something happens and before it can be mimicked and you haven’t got a word for it, that’s the ultimate success.”
—Bill Drummond at the Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna, Austria, November 11, 2013

I’m finally back at my desk in New York City after orbiting the entire planet. Thanks to flying east for the entire journey, I crossed the International Date Line only once and therefore gained a day, although I actually spent nearly 42 hours in flight. However, that’s quite an improvement over making such a journey in 80 or 81 days. Yet even with all the technological advances that make it possible to travel in such a manner relatively painlessly (so far the jetlag has not completely kicked in), it’s still something of a marvel. While I’ve been all over the world, this is something I had never done before and I remain utterly awed by it since it really provides a perspective on the size of the planet we live on and the significant distances that separate us from one another.

Those significant distances go a long way toward explaining why people in different parts of the world continue to perceive things in different ways, despite all the possibilities for shared experiences via the internet and, for better or worse, the ubiquitous global chains. E.g. no matter where on the planet I was these past two and half weeks, golden arches were always in my periphery. But it is difficult to claim that anything besides those chains is “universal.” In fact, the adjective “universal” is perhaps the most hubris laden epithet in common parlance. How can people who have never traveled beyond our own planet make claims for anything outside our own world?

JUbiquitous Golden Arches

A shared experience for millions of people daily in Vienna and Hong Kong? Well, not exactly.

And yet such a claim of “universality” has been made for various European cultural traditions, such as classical music and the continuance of its legacy through so-called contemporary or new music. Undeniably, throughout the 20th century and now into the 21st, important contributions to this particular mode of music creation, performance, and presentation have been made by composers and interpreters from nations all over the globe. Curiously, however, this type of music making doesn’t happen with the same intensity everywhere. There have been few additions to the canon of “classical” music from Africa, or most of southern Asia and Oceania. And yet, despite the efforts of extremists in various parts of the world, some form of music is created, performed, and listened to in every nation on the planet; music is one of the few pan-terrestrial human activities.


A sculpture of a giant ear outside the studios for Austrian radio station ORF in Vienna, where a 2013 ISCM concert was held, is an immediate indication that there’s interesting stuff to listen to inside there.

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), which has convened an annual contemporary music festival since 1923 (alternately called “World Music Days” and “World New Music Days” by its members—more on that later), has had sections based in countries on all six human-habited continents but the aforementioned geographic lacunae are mostly absent. South Africa has been the only African nation that has regularly participated in ISCM. And, as a further reminder of how much still needs to be done to insure greater global inclusivity, outgoing ISCM President John Davis (who hails from Australia) reminded the delegates attending the final 2013 General Assembly (on November 14 in Vienna) that the ISCM’s 2010 convening in Sydney remains the only time that the festival took place in the Southern Hemisphere. The first official ISCM gathering to take place outside of Europe was in Haifa, Israel in 1954 and the next did not occur until the organization’s one and only official convening in the United States in 1976—only one of three ever to occur in the Americas. (The others took place in both Toronto and Montreal in 1984 and in Mexico City in 1993. According to ISCM’s records, there were also “unofficial” assemblies were held in 1940 and 1941 in New York and San Francisco respectively, before the war caused the society to be on hiatus until 1946.) But over the last quarter century there has been a concerted effort to involve more of the world. ISCM has held five World (New) Music Days festivals in East Asia: in Seoul, South Korea (1997); in Yokohama, Japan (2001); and three in Hong Kong (in 1988, 2002, and 2007). The final of these (2007) also included events in Macau.


If the hair doesn’t bring in new audiences, nothing will!

Of course, the only way to make the ISCM an organization that is more representative of the new music that is being made all over the planet is to have a broader definition of what constitutes “new music” and, more specifically, a definition that is considerably less Eurocentric. This will be a challenge for many of the delegates who seem to still cling to a Darmstadtian new music aesthetic, which was an aesthetic that informed a great deal of the music I heard during the ISCM concerts I attended two weeks ago in Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria. (The 2013 festival was actually spread across three cities, but I was unable to get to the first of the three host cities—Košice, Slovakia. However, I was happy to see that some of the Košice programs featured some clearly un-Darmstadtian fare. The composers whose works were performed there included Christian Wolff, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Per Bloland, Louis Andriessen, British conceptual minimalist Christopher Fox, Lithuanian microtonalist Egidija Medekšaitė, and Slovakia’s own Vladimír Godár, whose music has been recorded by ECM.) Unfortunately I was only able to attend a total of eight of the ISCM concerts that occured in Bratislava and Vienna, a mere smattering compared to what I was able to experience when I attended the ISCM WNMD in Zagreb, since this time around the festival was concurrent with the 2013 conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC). Though both events were happening in the same cities, activities were all too infrequently synchronized.

William Rowe

William Rowe

What proved to be the most varied was a concert of works for unaccompanied chamber chorus performed by Poland’s Camerata Silesia Katowice conducted by Anna Szostak at the Mittlerer Saal in Vienna’s Urania Observatory on November 13. Among the concert’s highlights were a somewhat surreal composition by Indiana University undergraduate William Rowe (who created his own text for the piece as well) and an extremely unusual piece incorporating non-linguistic syllables as well as some extended vocal techniques called The History of Songs and Words by Japanese composer Yasunoshin Morita, which fetched him the 2013 ISCM Young Composer Award. It was also a joy to hear the premiere of the work that was commissioned from last year’s Young Composer Award winner, Paestum by Eric Nathan, an extremely well-paced and finely orchestrated composition for large ensemble which was enthusiastically delivered by the Melos Ethos Ensemble in the Small Hall of the Slovak Philharmonic in Bratislava on November 8 just a few hours after I arrived there. (I had an opportunity to record a conversation with Eric the next day in between various conference sessions which will appear on this site at a later date.)

Eric Nathan (center) with some American fans following the performance of his ISCM commission

Eric Nathan (center) with some American fans following the performance of his ISCM commission: Barbara Jazwinski, FJO (left), Stephen Lias and Ed Harsh (right).

Kyle Gann

The world would be a far more interesting place if this man was in charge of programming the music piped into shopping malls.

A few of the aforementioned Darmstadtian partisans definitely got their feathers ruffled by Kyle Gann, who was invited to give a talk about the state of new music in the United States during a series of Symposia sponsored by the ISCM open to the general public which were held at the Vienna Conservatory on November 13. After speaking eloquently and passionately about the current compositional landscape, which he attributed to a “decentered pedagogic tradition” and a “marginalization of composers” that has greatly increased over the last quarter century, Gann offered three examples of recent American music—works by Corey Dargel, William Brittelle, and Judd Greenstein. While I wish his range of examples would have been more stylistically, geographically, and socially diverse (all three are Brooklyn-based white men in their 30s), I laud his provocative attempt to subvert the aesthetics of the new music cognoscenti who decried all of what he sampled as indistinguishable from pop music and music that was reminiscent of what is played in shopping malls! (For more details, read Gann’s own account of what transpired.) From my vantage point the music that best meets the criterion for being new is music that challenges our expectations and somehow makes us question our assumption and definitions; at this late date (68 years after the death of Anton Webern), music coming out of the Darmstadt aesthetic, and indeed a whole lot of other stuff we generally describe as “new music,” does not meet those criteria.


Webern’s star still shines in Vienna.


Though, to be perfectly honest, the most talked about composer in Vienna is still this one.

The public day of the IAMIC Conference, which was held at Vienna’s Arnold Schönberg Center on November 11 also had its share of polemical interchange. The day got off to a fiery start with a talk by Dieter Hasenbach about how to measure success indicators for music. Hasenbach immediately challenged the sometimes hermetically sealed new music environment by stating that “without an audience, music might as well not happen.” But he riled some of the audience when he explained that although the marketplace fails for many types of music, specifically those that are deemed the most culturally worthwhile, no public subsidy will increase the demand for it and that ultimately it “does not make sense to subsidize training for a field where most people will fail (9 out of 10).”
Franz Kasper Kröning offered a fascinating account of how beauty has changed its meaning throughout history. According to him, it morphed from something that was transcendent and conjured the divine in Medieval times to something that accurately mirrored nature or was scientifically correct during the so-called Common Practice period, the era that spawned most of the works that have become the standard repertoire of classical music. But he argued that in the 20th century what mattered most, and was therefore beautiful, was what was socially relevant and that nowadays what is important is what is successful and that success is mostly measured in commercial terms. Karim Fanous evangelized for the digital revolution and how it has enabled a greater proliferation of music as well as a greater opportunity for anyone to reach a wider audience than anytime in human history. Samples he offered included the Harlem Shake and Psy’s Gangnam Style. But Bill Drummond (who is probably most well-known for co-founding The KLF and for subsequently burning one million British pounds) was not convinced and questioned whether viral online phenomena could actually build a sustainable career.

David Keenan, a Scottish music journalist who writes for The Wire, gave an impassioned talk about the Texas-based outsider musician Jandek in which he decried commercial popular music stating that “most pop culture says you must say no to yourself…what would saying yes involve?” In the concluding panel, which was held in German, Gerald Bast, a professor at the University of Applied Arts Vienna, offered some of the most salient comments of the day (which I quote via the real-time translation that I listened to on headphones):

Why are we discussing success? What do we need that for? There has been a tendency for the past twenty years to quantify everything… Why do people make art and why do they stick to it? It gets hard after graduating, one can start to be more successful in a different field. A better question would be a serious discussion about why we need art and why artists exist. Which part of society is represented by political parties? Not the artists. Nobody questions why billions are being given to the banking sector and nobody screams out that this money should go to education and to the arts and to improve the living conditions of artists. It’s a waste of resources.

Although the IAMIC sessions concluded on November 12 and the ISCM sessions concluded on November 14 and I was on vacation from then until now, first spending a day in Berlin and then a week in Hong Kong, which I flew to with a brief stopover in Doha, Qatar, my mind remained fixated on many of the discussions that transpired in Bratislava and Vienna and what it would take to create a truly world-wide new music scene. I failed to find music of any kind in the insane Duty Free mega-emporium that greeted me when I arrived in Doha though some interesting occasionally microtonally inflected instrumental music was piped in on the P.A. system of both the Qatar Airlines’ Berlin-Doha and Doha-Hong Kong flights before take-off. There were some fascinating old Arab movies available to view via the in-flight entertainment though none were subtitled and all were from Egypt (which I learned from doing some subsequent online reconnaissance after landing in Hong Kong).

Doha Duty Free

I couldn’t spot any recordings in the massive duty free emporium that awaits arrivals to the airport in Doha, even folks like me who arrived in the middle of the night, but there were tons of perfume, designer bags, and even cars for sale there, plus–one concession to regional geography–plush camels.

In Hong Kong, I did not have a lot of time to search out music (I was mostly there for family stuff), but I did pick up a pile of qin recordings from the gift shop of a rock garden that is maintained by Buddhist nuns. I also went to several record shops which were mostly located in the myriad shopping malls which dominate the islands and peninsula that comprise the Hong Kong Special Administration Region. While I didn’t wind up acquiring any additional recordings at any of them, I managed to buy over 80 DVDs of motion pictures from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Mainland China, including a bunch of Cultural Revolution era propaganda films. Many of these motion pictures undoubtedly will contain music that I will want to explore further, but that will have to wait until I get over my jetlag.

Hong Kong Records

One of the two branches of Hong Kong Records in Kowloon, which I wound up visiting twice.

On the ride back from Hong Kong yesterday, first to Seoul and then finally to JFK, I tried to listen to as much recent pop fare from South Korea, Japan and the various Chinese speaking territories (which are commonly referred to respectively as K-Pop, J-Pop, and C-Pop) as I could get through. Much of what I heard of this music in the past has struck me as somewhat watered down versions of Western pop music, but I hate to dismiss anything out of hand and certainly haven’t heard enough to have anything remotely resembling an informed reaction to it. I was intrigued by Ayumi Hamasaki’s “Never Ever,” which opened with some really oddball electronic timbres, as well as Nana Nizuki’s “Synchrogazer” which featured some strange chord changes. The thing that grabbed my attention the most, however, was a recording of an indie rock group from China whose album I listened to from start to finish. The album had the word “Hertz” in the title, but by then the battery on my PalmPilot was wiped and I could not turn on my smartphone on the plane, so unless I’m able to find a way to locate a list of Korean Airlines in-flight entertainment offerings online I might be out of luck ever hearing it again. The Google queries I did for Chinese indie-rock hertz left me empty-handed.

Korean Culture at the Airport

It was nice to once again briefly visit the spaces devoted to traditional Korean culture, including traditional music, at Incheon Airport during my layover between flights from Hong Kong and to New York City on Sunday.

But as I was listening for new sounds among the East Asia’s popular music acts, I kept thinking of some of the comments that were made following Kyle Gann’s presentation. The moderator for the symposia that day, Andreas Engström (editor of the Swedish Nutida Musik), spoke briefly in a panel later that day about the underground music scenes in Egypt and Lebanon and how it is worlds away from most of the music that gets programmed during the annual ISCM World Music Days. A truly international representation of new music needs to be open to everything, but such an aesthetic position won’t be readily embraced by the folks who were reminded of shopping malls when they heard the examples of recent American music Kyle Gann sampled during his talk in Vienna. There’s a bit of bittersweet irony in all of this. If only we could get the new music we love played in shopping malls!

Coat Check

One final anecdote from my time 2013 ISCM experience that’s worth mentioning was my encounter with a coat check attendant at the Vienna Conservatory who was wearing a John Cage t-shirt. My coat check number was 101 which led to a fun conversation about Cage with her.