Tag: international new music scene

Opening Concepts—The Themes That Shape Each Year’s Edition of Classical:NEXT

A woman in a red and black plain strapless dress singing, She is holding the microphone in her right hand and turning her head toward it

With only four weeks to go until Classical:NEXT, I am taking this opportunity to breathe and reflect, a rare thing to do as general manager during the crunch phase of production. I currently feel like I’ve run a full marathon already and am getting my last energy together for the final sprint.

I wonder where this last year has gone and if we are really opening the doors for the eighth time? As it approaches, you always have to ask: Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was packing my bag for another week of sleepless nights during Classical:NEXT? But then I think back on the last year and I realize how many places I’ve been to and how many people from numerous countries I have had the chance to speak with, and it feels like even more than 12 months have passed. In my head, I am time-traveling back while also thinking a month ahead, to the moment we began and I see all the people filling the home of Classical:NEXT, which has been at Rotterdam’s de Doelen for the past five years. I find myself feeling overexcited, not only to see everyone again, but in realizing that “wow, they actually kept their word to come to Rotterdam!” This of course fills me with pride and gratitude, and I realize: This whole year of effort and hard work was worth it, just for this particular moment of reunification.

After raising my glass to the visitors at the welcome reception, I’ll already be looking forward to the first sounds of our opening concert. The Opening is, after all, THE thing people speak about during the days of Classical:NEXT. You can sense the hunger of the hundreds of art music people, and it’s a clear reminder that there remains no substitute for people meeting each other in person. It’s a very uplifting moment to see people reuniting, and this family-like atmosphere gets stronger and warmer each year. It reassures me and makes me feel that we are doing something right in creating an international community with deep bonds between people who share the same passion.

The opening night reception for Classical:NEXT in 2016 (Photo by Eric Van Nieuwland)

The opening night reception for Classical:NEXT in 2016 (Photo by Eric Van Nieuwland)

Each year we adapt to an ever-changing art music landscape, reflected by the Opening. While the hosts vary—from different institutions, export offices, or collectives—the focus changes with each edition and we can see how selected curators now go above and beyond with their Opening concepts. We are aware that the Opening is a powerful moment and tool, so we use it cautiously. It does not simply signal the beginning of our global music meeting, but sets the tone for the entire event, bringing to the stage the spirit of this gathering, underlining the intercontinental and innovative perspective. They are also a draw for the international media, garnering the most of their attention.

Each year we adapt to an ever-changing art music landscape.

The Canadian-hosted Opening in 2015, at our debut in Rotterdam, set the bar high for the following years. I can still remember the very beginning like it was yesterday, with the fearsome, deep-throat singing and improvisation of Inuit punk Tanya Tagaq kicking off the event. It was as if her voice came from the earth’s core – a unique and unforgettable moment. As a display of Canada’s connectivity and cultural diversity, the variety-packed Opening showcased the excellence of its multifaceted scene with a double keynote speech between Martin Hoffman of the Berlin Philharmonic and Yannick Nézet-Séguin of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, and a video speech by soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan.

In 2016, the Classical:NEXT Opening helped celebrate the 50th anniversary of de Doelen with “Dutch Mountains,” an interdisciplinary event that highlighted innovative and vibrant music from The Netherlands. Founder and music director of New World Symphony Michael Tilson Thomas served as the video keynote speaker, with double bassist and creator of London’s Chineke! Orchestra Chi-chi Nwanoku adding to the list of prominent names in attendance.

For the sixth edition in 2017, instead of showcasing a country, we felt the urge to set the topic ourselves and featured a small selection of the many projects and people from around the world that focus on inclusion. The performances offered examples of what society can achieve through music, with the Chineke! Orchestra and Afa Dworkin from the Sphinx Organization leading the way and Marin Alsop contributing via video keynote.

In 2018, Classical:NEXT featured a French focus, working closely with Le Bureau Export. It was in this year where I realized that our “missionary tours” are so important. Classical:NEXT, in a way, took the international community on a trip to France and successfully introduced delegates to the supposedly “inaccessible” French market. And we set a new record in French attendance that year.

For this year, our opening “Hear it New!” curated by National Sawdust will be a very special moment I’m sure, particularly in light of the fact that we announced it jointly to colleagues and friends at their home base in NYC at our annual Classical:NEXT Meet’n’Greet in January. While there, I attended outstanding concerts at National Sawdust in Brooklyn and witnessed a way of “tuning in” the audience with a meditation practice. Inspired by this experience, we decided to incorporate a meditation practice of Pauline Oliveros’s “Deep Listening” program in our own Opening and I am very excited to see if it resonates with and inspires the audience the way it did with me.

I’m very proud of the collaboration between women-led National Sawdust and Classical:NEXT.

Additionally I’m very proud to see that our headline for this year’s edition “21st Century Polyphony: More Voices, Greater Symphonies,” will be perfectly reflected in our collaboration between women-led National Sawdust and Classical:NEXT and will mirror our ongoing commitment to giving a voice to groups that are often underrepresented in leadership, on the podium, or in audiences.

With this year’s Opening, we kill two birds with one stone. While matching the focus of giving a voice to underrepresented groups, we also highlight the importance of the United States and the need to be connected in order to bring the perspectives and the artistic content across the pond. “Hear it New!” was therefore a natural choice. America is known as the land of endless opportunity and a field for experimentation in general, whereas other countries sometimes tend to choose stability over taking risks. America is upfront in creating new ideas and this is something that the wider art music community can undoubtedly learn from to free new ideas and unleash an endless stream of new possibilities.

The “Call for Opening Hosts” for Classical:NEXT 2020 is open once again and the team is excited to get new proposals within the next months. More information is available here – https://www.classicalnext.com/programme/opening/hosting.

Classical and Contemporary Cambodian Music and Dance

What happens to a country’s rich classical music after a small group attempts to systematically destroy it?

I have wondered about the answer to this question since I read about how the Khmer Rouge tried to eradicate nearly all of traditional Cambodian culture after taking over the government of Cambodia in 1975.  Thankfully, in the face of this tragedy a number of people dedicated themselves to preserving the Cambodian classical traditions by helping artists escape Cambodia, as well as by learning, teaching, performing, and helping to develop organizations dedicated to preserving the Cambodian arts.

My mentor, Chinary Ung, is one of these people who has devoted much of his life to preserving traditional Cambodian culture.  For nearly ten years, starting in the mid-1970s, Chinary stopped composing to dedicate most of his energy to this task.  It was not until the mid-‘80s, when he was confident that classical Cambodian music was finally safe, that he began to compose again.  After this gap in composing, his compositions from the ‘80s until today all reflect his deep understanding and relationship with the music of Cambodia.

During my doctoral studies at the University of California San Diego, Chinary Ung regularly spoke to me about Cambodian and Southeast Asian music, as well as his thoughts and dreams for its future. Since graduating in 2012, I have been working with and collaborating with him on some of these projects and, recently, I have begun to regularly travel to Cambodia to help work on some of his and my own projects in the country.

I first travelled to Southeast Asia last February for the 2015 Music and Performing Arts International Festival at Burapha University in Chon Buri, Thailand.  A dear friend and another one of Chinary Ung’s former composition students, Koji Nakano, invited me to attend this festival as a guest lecturer as well as a participant in the Asian Young Musicians’ Connection activities.  For the latter, I collaborated with young Thai musicians at Burapha University on a composition for three Thai instruments, two handheld transducers, and live electronics—…spaces to listen to from within (iv)—that was performed during the festival.  During the same festival, Chinary Ung was also present as a featured composer. Chinary gave a keynote lecture and had his work, Spiral XI, performed as part of the AYMC concert.  While at Burapha University, Chinary also led a one-week composition workshop for a small group of young Thai and Cambodian composers.  Three performers prepared the young composers’ works and then presented them to a jury consisting of Chinary and guest composers from throughout the region.  Koji had helped Chinary organize this workshop as part of Chinary’s Nirmita Composers’ Institute (NCI), a mobile institute dedicated to fostering the next generation of Cambodian composers.

Right after the festival in Thailand, I joined Chinary and his wife Susan Ung in Cambodia.  Chinary had invited me to join him for this trip so that I could help him make recordings as well as join him and Susan for some important meetings about the future of music composition and new music in Cambodia.

Before continuing, I would be remiss not to mention the impressions that Thailand and Cambodia left on me.  When I arrived in Thailand, I had expected that it would be far different than anywhere else I had been.  Instead I found that what I saw of Thailand resemble a less developed Taiwan to me.  My wife, who is from Taiwan and joined me on this trip, had a similar impression.   She told me that Thailand reminded her of what Taiwan was like in the ‘80s.  Cambodia, on the other hand, was drastically different than anywhere else I had been before.  Soon after leaving the airport in Phnom Penh, I was struck by a deep disparity between the rich and poor that I had never seen before.  For example, along the streets of Phnom Penh one regularly sees slums and piles of uncollected garbage next door to gated mansions or luxury car dealerships; or across Palace or National Museum, adults and children rags mob tourists begging for money.  I don’t want to go into more details about this disparity here, but many signs of deep economic inequality that I encountered left a strong impact that continues to resonate within me to this day

The day after we arrived in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I attended a concert that the Cambodian composer Him Sophy had arranged in honor of Chinary Ung’s visit.  This concert took place at the Him Sophy School of Music, a private school that Him Sophy founded.  (As an aside, because there are few government institutes for the arts in Cambodia, a number of individuals such as Sophy and Sethisak Khuon have recently founded their own schools and organizations to help with local arts education.)  The concert included performances by the only marching band in Cambodia, a student pianist, and music for a Khmer harp that Sophy had designed after a lost Cambodian instrument, as well as an outstanding performance of traditional Cambodian music featuring one of the few living masters of the roneat ek.  For the last piece of this concert, violist Susan Ung and I performed my work Vanished into the Clouds (雲隠) for viola and live electronics.  Chinary wanted us to perform this piece on the concert because it used technology and had an approach to sound that the Cambodian audience had likely never encountered before.  After the concert, it was obvious that this performance had made a strong impression on many of the audience members as a number of people spoke with Chinary about wanting to combine this new approach with traditional Cambodian music.

On our third day in Cambodia, Chinary, Susan, and I led a three-hour workshop for the members of Cambodian dance troupe Amrita Living Arts.  As Cambodian classical dance and music are traditionally combined as an art form, the Amrita staff members were eager for us to discuss how they could improve the music in their productions.  After a lengthy discussion with the staff and then the troupe members, they then showed us some videos of their previous works so that we could critique the music selections.  Although the music obviously needed more consideration or expertise, we were all struck by the very high quality of the dance work and, in particular, by how all the works meaningfully addressed Cambodian dance traditions and demonstrated thoughtful ways to move these traditions forward and make them relevant for today.

A few days later we met with a number of arts administrators from Cambodia as well as staff from the Cambodian non-governmental organization Cambodia Living Arts to discuss Chinary Ung’s plans and dreams for the Nirmita Composers Institute (NCI).  As I mentioned earlier, the main goal of NCI is to help foster the next generation of composers in Cambodia, as well as to heighten compositional activities throughout all of Southeast Asia.  In the near future, the main project for NCI will be a two-week workshop ­for young Cambodian musicians who either compose Western-based music or perform Cambodian traditional music.  The workshop will include composition and performance faculty from the USA and across Asia and will take place in July in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  The long-term hope is that this workshop will continue annually and that NCI’s activities will broaden to include many other music projects that take place throughout the year as well as throughout Southeast Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world.   One of the main reasons to work on this project is Chinary’s observation that although Cambodian traditional music has been preserved, the music is no longer developing and now more closely resembles a museum rather than a living art.  In our discussions during this meeting, many of the local Cambodians were very excited by Chinary’s project and brought up how in the last decade or so, nearly every other art form besides music has begun to pulse with new creative energy in Cambodia.  The hope among many of the people there was that the Nirmita Composers Institute and our initiative to educate and promote the work of young Cambodian composers and traditional musicians will be able to help music reach the international stage in the same way that other Cambodian art forms and artists have in recent years.

There are multiple cultural sounds in Cambodia that Chinary Ung has wanted to record for many years to use in compositions that include electronics.  As Chinary does not have very much experience with writing for electronics, he has talked about collaborating with me.  When we were in Cambodia, we thankfully had the opportunity to make some of the initial recording for these composition projects.

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection

Two stone idiophones from the National Museum of Cambodia’s collection.

The first sound that Chinary wanted to record was an ancient percussion instrument that he had seen a number of years before at the National Museum of Cambodia. Chinary had messaged the National Museum’s director a request to record this instrument while we were in Cambodia and, although the director did not give us a response to our request, he arranged for us to meet him in person to discuss our plans. Hopeful that we would get permission, Chinary, Susan, and I showed up early to our appointment at the National Museum with my recording equipment.  While waiting, we also tried to find the instrument that Chinary remembered but, unfortunately, couldn’t locate it.

When we met with the director he was rather enthusiastic about Chinary’s musical ideas and graciously gave us permission to record whatever we wanted to from the museum’s collection.  After we all then toured the museum’s public displays and were again unable to find the desired instrument on display, the director mentioned that they had some ancient “stone bells” in storage that might fit Chinary’s description. When we saw the objects, they were unfortunately also not what Chinary had remembered. However, after we examined and heard them, Chinary, Susan, and I agreed that they would be worth recording and might even be superior to what we had originally sought to record.

Jacob Sudol sitting at a table recording a pair of stone idiophones located underneath the table.

Recording the stone idiophones in the National Museum of Cambodia.

According to the National Museum of Cambodia’s archives, the two stone idiophones (or “stone bells”) had belonged to the museum since it first opened in 1917.  There was no information in the records about when or where the idiophones had been acquired.  Likewise, the staff and archives had no information about their age, what they were originally used for, or whether they were a part of a set of idiophones or isolated instruments.  While there, one of the staff members mentioned that archeologists had recently found a number of similar but smaller stone idiophones in the Cambodian jungle.  He also showed us photos that demonstrated the how the newly found idiophones resembled the ones in the museum’s collection; however, as Cambodia contains a lot of archeological terra nova, it’s hard to group objects together.  Although I’m not an archeologist or an ethnomusicologist, the two stone idiophones we recorded remind me of separate blades from the Chinese bianqing (編磬) or the related Korean pyeongyeong, as well as the descriptions of the lost ancient Chinese stone bells that Confucius wrote about and supposedly played.

One of the stone idiophones was originally broken in two and was recently fixed with a metal bar.  The other idiophone was unbroken and has a remarkably resonant harmonic timbre.  This unbroken idiophone also has a few low pure frequencies that sustain for a very long time after the idiophone is struck.  The timbre of both idiophones also changed significantly depending on where and how loudly I struck them.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite.

Chinary Ung and Yos Chandara with a Cambodian singing kite. N.B. the blade and reed are attached to the top of the kite.

For over forty years, Chinary Ung had dreamt of recording the sound of Cambodian Singing Kites.  On the last day of my first trip to Cambodia, Chinary worked with the former dean of the Cambodian Royal University of the Arts, Yos Chandara, to arrange a morning where staff from the Khmer Kite Museum would fly three Cambodian singing kites for us in a dry rice field just outside of Phnom Penh.

The sound of the Cambodian singing kites comes from a blade on the kite that houses a long stiff reed that is suspended by a piece of rope on each end.  When the kite is flown, this reed makes sound by spinning at different rates.  The timbre of this reed is rather faint when the kite is flying because of how high one needs to fly the large kites to keep them in the air.  To better capture the sound of the reed, I attached a wireless microphone to the kite itself.  Thankfully, this approach worked and I was able to make very clear recordings of each of the three Cambodian singing kites.  When we were flying the kites, a local Cambodian told Chinary that in Khmer mythology, the gods are said to fly on these kites.  Following this myth, in a sense, we had just recorded what these gods hear when flying.

Since the kites were large and hard to fly, the director of the Khmer Kite Museum removed the blade with the reed from the kite and attached it to a string so that he could spin it around his head.  By doing this, he had much greater control of the tones than one could while the blade was on a flying kite.  This sound of the isolated blade is loud, beautiful, and also very musically expressive.

With gracious funding from a Fulbright East Asia Regional Travel Grant, I returned to Cambodia for a week last November.  For this trip, Amrita Living Arts had invited me to be an International Guest Expert for their Fall 2016 Contemporary Dance Platform in Phnom Penh.  The platform is a recent initiative for dance and theater that provides artists with resources and a period of time to create or refine a new work.  At the end of a platform, the new works are presented publicly.  For the Amrita platform I was invited to participate in, three dancers/choreographers from the Amrita Dance Troupe were each given six weeks to create a new work.  As the guest expert, I went to the first performances of the completed works and then gave a four-hour critique of the works as well as a four-hour workshop on new music to all the dancers/choreographers of Amrita.  Although the dancers are not trained as musicians, I was impressed by how critical, open-minded, and hungry for knowledge they all were.  I was also struck by how much they had learned and absorbed from the brief workshop Chinary, Susan, and I had had with them in February.  Likewise, I was impressed by how Amrita Artistic Director Chey Chankethya had noticed that the music has been one of the weakest components of their productions and was eager to bring in people to help the group’s members improve this.  Since this trip, I have also begun to regularly collaborate with Chey Chankethya.  For example, she has used some of my music in some of her recent dance works that have been performed in Japan and Singapore.  I am also currently discussing other ways I can collaborate with Amrita in the future.  In particular, I want to develop projects where members of Amrita and I can combine dance, music, and live interactive technologies.

While in Cambodia in November, Chinary, Susan, and I also met with staff from Cambodian Living Arts to work on organizing logistics and meet the student participants who will join the aforementioned 2016 Nirmita Composers Workshop.  While we auditioning and meeting with the workshop’s participants, I was particularly struck by how strong and musically talented the traditional Cambodian instrumentalists are.  Although the traditional musicians don’t have experience with writing their own music, I believe that they are much stronger and more creative musicians than the participants who will be studying Western-based composition at the same workshop.  Following this, I’m wondering how we can help to teach traditional Cambodian musicians to move their music forward in a manner similar to what the dancers in Amrita have done.  I’m also wondering how we will be able to help young Cambodian composers advance in ways that composers from other Asian countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, China, and Japan have.  I’m also hopeful that the young Cambodian composers who mostly write Western-based music will learn from their culture’s strong classical music tradition.  Hopefully, with many people dedicating their time and energy towards projects such as the Nirmita Composers Institute, the answers to these questions will begin to reveal themselves in the near future.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Chinary Ung working with Cambodian musicians in a village outside of Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Classical and New Music Culture in Taiwan

While it’s relatively easy to find English language articles about new music ensembles, new commissions, or festivals that take place nearly anywhere in the West, I rarely ever find any information about such activities happening in Asia. This disparity in coverage is somewhat unnerving to me considering that the combined population of China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (over 600 million) is about double that of the USA (~318 million) and nearly the same size as Europe (~750 million). I am certain that the lack of coverage is partially the result of language barriers and socio-economic issues, as well as political complications between various Asian and Western countries, but there clearly must be a lot of fantastic new music from Asia that we just don’t hear about in the West.

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities. I mostly grew up in and did my undergraduate studies in Tucson, Arizona, where I got to know a smaller and mostly academic-centered new music community that largely focused on new American music and earlier 20th-century music. When I did my master’s degree, I moved to Montréal, a vibrant and diverse new music community that largely programs and focuses on music from Europe and Canada. I’ve also had contrasting experiences when doing my doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, and when I moved to Miami in 2011 to teach at Florida International University. Through these experiences, I’ve come to understand that the only real way to get to know a music culture is to actually interact with and become part of that culture’s community.

Following this, I feel very fortunate that eight years ago I met two people who have given me a personal connection to the broader new music community in Asia. One of these is my mentor, the Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung, who has many connections to Asian composers both abroad and in the USA. The other person is my wife Jen Chen-Hui (任真慧), a young and very talented Taiwanese composer who didn’t live outside of Taiwan until she began her doctoral studies in San Diego.

In 2009, I began to regularly travel to Taiwan with Chen-Hui and now usually spend my entire summers there. During these trips, we attend multiple new music concerts and often meet her former teachers and many of her performer and conductor friends. While making these connections, I’ve developed a strong interest in both traditional and contemporary Asian music. Wanting to learn more about Asian music, I applied for and won a Fulbright Taiwan Senior Scholar grant for the 2015-16 academic year. I have now been living in Taiwan since last August, teaching composition and music technology at National Chiao Tung University.

Over the years, I’ve realized that many people don’t know that much about Taiwan. Despite its contentious status with China—which considers Taiwan a rogue province and has repeatedly prevented the UN from recognizing it as separate country—Taiwan has a completely autonomous government and most Taiwanese people I’ve met will tell you that they consider Taiwan a country. Taiwan is very small, with only about 23 million people and a geographic size similar to the state of Maryland. Despite this, Taiwan is also one of the world’s largest economies. When it comes to music, if you consider the population, Taiwan also produces an exceedingly large number of highly talented classical musicians who live and perform all over the world. As a personal example, nearly all of my wife’s classmates from throughout her schooling later went abroad to the USA or Europe to study and most of them have remained abroad as professional musicians. I’m often surprised that Chen-Hui seems to know a former classmate living in every large American city we visit. In addition to moving abroad, many Taiwanese musicians also return after their studies to live in Taiwan and, as a result, the skill level of Taiwanese performers and composers is very high.

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities

Now at this point I don’t want to generalize too much, as I still am very much a foreigner in Taiwan and don’t speak or read enough Chinese to fully interact with the culture. This said, I’ve made a few observations over the years about classical and contemporary music here that I think are worth sharing:

1. Classical music concerts are very well attended.

Nearly every concert of classical music or new music that I’ve attended in Taiwan (as well as everywhere else I’ve traveled in Asia) has had an audience that filled two-thirds to three-fourths of the seats. It’s also worth noting that these audiences include people of all ages. This has been the case for concerts in medium to large halls performed by Western and Chinese orchestras, choirs, and even small chamber ensembles.

I was also recently quite surprised when I attended the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Tongyeong is a small and remote town and is over an hour by car from the nearest big city, Busan. Despite this, the concert venues were relatively large, beautiful, and yet the audience attendance at these concerts was also usually quite sizable.

2. There are not many new music ensembles in Taiwan.

In contrast to some large North American cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, or Montréal that have multiple new music ensembles, Taiwan has only a few. I’ve spoken to some composers from China who have said that there are also very few new music ensembles in China. It’s worth mentioning that three of the most active groups in Taiwan that regularly program contemporary music—Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, C Camerata Taipei, and Chai Found Music Workshop—all feature traditional Chinese instruments.

3. Most concerts in Taiwan are at least two hours long.

When I help with programming or producing new music concerts in the United States, I try to keep all the concerts around one hour long and never include intermission. I’ve also found that many of my friends programming new music concerts in the USA also keep their concerts at a similar length. From my experience, I’ve found that most people consider this near the perfect length for a concert of new music, because it doesn’t overly tax one’s concentration or appreciation. By contrast, the two-hour concerts I often hear in Taiwan are often exhausting listening experiences. I’ve asked my wife and a number of my other local friends why people usually program such long concerts, and most of them suggest that concerts are so long because audiences expect to get their money’s worth when purchasing tickets.

4. There is almost no DIY approach to new music in Taiwan.

When living in the USA and Canada, many of the most exciting concerts I’ve attended have been performed at small non-traditional venues like art galleries, lofts, studio spaces, bars, or even people’s living rooms. Often many of these venues will host these events at no cost just to help promote the music or build the community.

In Taiwan, almost no concerts are produced in this manner. Also, one usually has to pay large fees to rent any performance space for a concert, including smaller art galleries. Also, music departments at universities don’t own their own concert or recital halls and therefore have to apply to their own university’s concert hall or performance space for the right to produce a concert. This makes it difficult even for faculty and students to program concerts. For example, the concert hall at the university where I teach in Taiwan rejected nearly every concert application our department submitted for the spring semester.

Personally, I think these restrictive concert procedures and costs prevent a lot of new music concerts from happening in Taiwan. In my opinion, it would really benefit the Taiwanese new music community if more people here would try to follow the sort of American and Western DIY approach to concert productions.

5. Western classical music is very popular in Taiwan.

A few things I’ve mentioned before—namely how many classical musicians Taiwan produces, as well as how many people attend classical music concerts—already demonstrate the popularity of Western classical music. I’ve also noticed that when I survey my classes of non-music students in Taiwan, that more than half of the students had studied classical piano or violin and mention that Western classical music is their favorite music to listen to. Also, when I’ve mentioned this observation to a number of my local friends, some have said that listening to classical music is often viewed as a symbol of higher social status in Taiwan.

Related to this last observation, I am sometimes a bit bothered when I consider that the most popular classical music in Taiwan, like most of the rest of the world, is from the classical and romantic periods—a time when the same Western countries were committing terrible colonial atrocities. To me, there seems to be something strange with associating a higher cultural status to an art form that comes from the foreign nations that gained most of their wealth and influence by military force. I don’t mention this to deny the beauty of Western classical music, but rather to state my own perceived reflections on how an over-exaltation of Western culture might corrupt or alter the way the Taiwanese or other Asian cultures view their own classical traditions. For example, I think of how this exaltation has influenced the modern Chinese orchestra, which sought to “improve” traditional Chinese instruments by conforming them to Western classical music models of the symphonic orchestra and equal temperament.

This question of Asian musical and cultural identity in relation to the West is actually a topic that is widely discussed in Taiwan and a lot of Asia. For example, three senior composers—Hsu Tsang-Houei (許常惠, 1929-2001), Ma Shui-Long (馬水龍, 1939-2015), and Pan Hwang-Long (潘皇龍, b. 1945)—have served as models for younger generations by researching and incorporating traditional Chinese and Taiwanese music cultures and instruments into their works. In addition, as educators these composers have included training in traditional Chinese music, such as the guqin, in college composition curricula throughout Taiwan. In my opinion, this sort of hard work to develop what Chou Wen-chung (周文中) calls a “confluence of musical cultures” is far more intriguing than when one just uses Western classical techniques or attempts to westernize Asian musical instruments and ensembles.

In my next few posts, I am going to share some more about my experiences in Asia. I plan to share some contemporary Asian works and music for traditional Chinese instruments, talk about some concert and festivals I’ve heard and have been a part of in Taiwan, as well as share some experiences I’ve had working on developing new music in Cambodia. Also, please feel free to share your comments, thoughts, or observations below!

Jacob Sudol performing at an electronic keyboard.

Jacob David Sudol

Jacob David Sudol writes intimate compositions that explore enigmatic phenomena and the inner nature of how we perceive sound. His music has been performed over one hundred times across the USA as well as in Canada, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Cambodia. In 2012, he founded a cello/electro-acoustic duo with distinguished cellist Jason Calloway and, since 2010, he has been in a piano/electro-acoustic duo with his wife Chen-Hui Jen. He also regularly collaborates on interdisciplinary projects with architect Eric Goldemberg, visual artist Jacek Kolasinski, and Cambodian dancer/choreographer Chankethya Chey. For free sounds, videos, and more information visit his website and his Soundcloud page.

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

An aerial view of the old town of Ljubljana

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

Before trekking to Ljubljana, Slovenia for the 2015 World Music Days (WMD), the signature annual music festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), I had attended three previous editions of this one-of-a-kind event. There is no other music festival on the planet that attempts to bring together a selection of recently composed music that has been vetted by new music organizations from countries on six continents. (WMD takes place in a different location every year in co-production with a local presenter, and the programming is always a combination of local new music and mandated international repertoire culled from ISCM member organizations’ submissions.) Folks wanting to plunge directly into my day-by-day play-by-play report of the 2015 proceedings should feel free to jump ahead, but if you’d prefer some additional context about how this year’s edition measured up to some of its predecessors before doing so, stay right where you are.

The first WMD I experienced, coordinated in partnership with the 2011 Zagreb Bienniale, blew my mind. But the second one—which sprawled from Košice to Bratislava to Vienna—was often a source of frustration due to a seeming stylistic uniformity despite its myriad venues and geographically diverse repertoire. Last year’s convening, in Wrocław, thankfully did not suffer from such aesthetic constraints, but it was frustrating for other reasons. Concerts were over-programmed and scattered in performance spaces very far apart from one another, making it nearly impossible for attendees to reach them in a timely fashion. Plus, even getting to Wrocław requires significant coordination. There are very few direct flights to and from most major international cities. (My own commute there was a complete nightmare; for the sake of civility I will keep the airline that took me there nameless, especially since at this juncture I am unable to say or write its name without prefacing it with an expletive.) I mention all of this to acknowledge that since I didn’t arrive tabula rasa in Ljubljana, comparisons herein with my previous WMD experiences are inevitable.

For starters, current economic realities led to a convening that was far less grandiose than its predecessors. There was also an added twist that affected ISCM-member attendees. In previous years, the hosts for WMD were required to cover the full cost of up to a seven-day hotel stay for one delegate from every organization that is a member of ISCM. But this year only three nights were covered even though the festival spanned a total of seven days. Since, in addition to all the concert fare, ISCM delegates are required to attend general assembly meetings where a wide range of ISCM business matters are discussed, the assemblies were crammed into marathon five-hour blocks on the first three weekdays to ensure maximum assembly participation from folks who were unable to stay the additional days due to the added costs. But that not only made those sessions unduly long, it led to a noticeable decline in concert attendance after those first three free-hotel days were up. This was all the more noticeable because ISCM delegates formed the majority of the audience at most of these concerts; in fact, some performances seemed to occur beyond the radar of local music aficionados. (I had several conversations with people I met in various shops and restaurants who expressed an interest in music but had no idea that this festival was going on.)

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

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

The paltry signage for WMD around town (I only spotted a handful of posters) was a stark contrast to Wrocław, where tramcars were festooned with WMD banners, and Zagreb, where television film crews showed up to the festivities. (Admittedly, it helped that Croatia’s then president was composer Ivo Josipović and that his music was programmed during the festival.)

In addition to the Ljubljana concerts being poorly attended, there were significantly fewer of them and they took place in only a handful of venues. On a positive note, having fewer concerts made it not only possible to attend everything, but also to have time to process it all—which can be quite a mental challenge since concert programs typically consist of 100% new material, often by completely unfamiliar composers. Given the somewhat reduced schedule, it should have theoretically also been possible for festival attendees to explore this small and extremely picturesque central European city, but since the hotel in which the delegates were put up (which was also where the assemblies took place) was alongside a highway on the city’s outskirts and getting back and forth required a chartered bus, it was a challenge to add on any activities that were not part of the official program of events.

During previous WMDs I participated in, there had usually been various symposia coordinated in relation to the festival as well as pre-concert talks with some of the participating composers. In Llubljana, there were only a few pre-concert talks and we were informed that some of them were being conducted only in Slovenian with no translations provided. While there was a musicological conference concurrent with the festival titled “From Modernism to Postmodernism” and some of the sessions looked compelling, they took place at the same time as the general assemblies and continued past the start of the first concert each day, so there was no way to get to any of it. I also was unable to attend any of the “Accompanying Programme” concerts which were almost exclusively devoted to Slovenian repertoire since they took place at inconvenient hours, mostly very late at night.

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

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

But at least I managed to attend every “Main Programme” concert (the ones that featured repertoire submitted by ISCM members) except for the very first one—an orchestral concert on Sunday featuring works by Claude Ledoux (Belgium), Helena Winkelman (Switzerland), Nicolai Worsaae (Denmark), and three Slovenians: Božidar Kos, Ivo Petrić, and Primož Ramovš. (I was particularly disappointed that I missed Ledoux’s Crossing Edges, a concerto based on spectral principals showcasing the erhu, the traditional Chinese two-stringed spike fiddle.) I could not arrive in Ljubljana until Monday morning, just in time to catch the tail end of the first general assembly. (Though not quite as off the beaten path as Wrocław, there are also no direct flights between Ljubljana and New York City, and there isn’t a lot of flexibility in terms of travel times.)

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

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

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

The first concert I attended combined chamber works scored for wind quintet with music for percussion ensemble at Slovenian Philharmonic’s Marjan Kozina Hall (named after an important mid-century Slovene composer who was also the first post-WW2 manager of the Philharmonic). Alternating the repertoire between Slowind and SToP (the percussion group) was much more effective than having each set of players perform half a concert by themselves, since the separation of similarly instrumented works allowed for greater clarity and aural digestion. That said, I remember precious little of Greek composer Vassilis Bakopoulos’s Wind Quintet No. 1 (2012) or Slovenian composer Corrado Rojac’s 2003 Clichés for wind quintet. Admittedly my clock was not completely adjusted yet. I was, however, quite taken with Motion/Emotion, a 2011 wind quintet by Sunleif Rasmussen, whom I’ve been told is the most successful composer from the Faroe Islands. Rasmussen was in attendance, and it was wonderful to finally meet him.

In Cloud Cluster, a four-movement percussion quintet of almost symphonic proportions by Xiaozhong Yang from Chengdu, China, the instruments are frequently used more for their sonorities than for rhythmic dexterity. According to the program notes by the composer, its four movements—“Drift,” “Assemblage,” “Surge,” and “Scattering”—are an attempt to depict the behavior of clouds, how they shape, change, and dissolve over time. The work begins with two players blowing into bottles and ends with them throwing stones into the air. Vibrant City, a percussion quintet by Chris Hung from Hong Kong, is a sonic evocation of that fast-paced metropolis in which shimmering melodies are woven across the pitched percussion instruments against an ever-shifting rhythmic backdrop of swacks and thwacks from unpitched instruments. But for me the most exciting piece was the insistent TWOMB: For John Cage for percussion sextet (2012), the sole work on the festival that was co-written by two composers, Peter Adriaansz and Maarten Altena, both from the Netherlands. Also quite compelling was when the two disparate sound worlds of winds and percussion came together—for Larisa Vrhunc’s The Rate of Decay, which was a sonic tug of war between two horn players and two percussionists—though neither of the hornists who performed in that piece were members of Slowind. Ultimately, though, Louisville, Kentucky-based Jacob Gotlib’s Portrait Sequence for percussion duo (2012) was the most unusual piece on the program. He describes it as an anti-percussion piece. I’ll let him explain it himself…

The second concert, held at the Ljubljana Conservatory of Music and Ballet, consisted of seven works performed by the Ensemble Neofonia under the direction of Steven Loy, an American-born composer and conductor who has lived in Europe for the past 20 years and is now based in Ljubljana. The program included works from Slovenia, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Slovakia, Poland, South Korea, and the United States. Unfortunately Lewisville, Texas-based Timothy Harenda was unable to travel to Ljubljana to hear his 2014 composition Purple Quartz for bass flute, bass clarinet, cello, vibraphone, and piano, which alternated traditional performance techniques with noisy percussive gestures in an attempt to sonically convey the duality of quartz stones. But thankfully Slovenian composer Uroš Rojko was on hand to hear a particularly satisfying performance of his 2003-04 Stone Wind for flute, clarinet, horn, percussion, violin, and contrabass; the off-stage flute and clarinet echoes at the very end of the piece were magical.

Motions, Stases by Polish-born composer Krzysztof Wołec (who currently teaches composition at the University of Louisville) was an exciting concertante work in which pianist Małgorzata Wałentynowicz was sometimes clearly the aural focal point but at other times was engaged in sonic combat with the ensemble in order to remain in the foreground. Fata Morgana, a work for a somewhat unusual combination of five instruments (violin, viola, doublebass, oboe, and bassoon) by Hong Kong-born composer Kai-Young Chan, who is currently a doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, is an attempt at creating sonic mirages with some effective melismatic flourishes.

Sadly I found myself zoning in and out for most of the remainder of the program, jetlag getting the better of me by that point. There was a third concert back at the delegates’ hotel at 10 p.m. (part of the “Accompanying Programme”) which consisted exclusively of Slovenian works that were all composed this year. Much as I wanted to hear the work on the program by Brina Jež Brezavšček, having been entranced by pieces on a disc devoted exclusively to her music that was given to me a few years back by my friends at the Slovenian Music Information Centre (SIGIC), instead I gave in to the jetlag, returned to my room, and passed out.


The stage at the concert hall at Ljubljana Conservatory.

The stage at the concert hall at Ljubljana Conservatory.

By Tuesday, however, I was perfectly acclimated to the time zone. So I was totally ready for the first concert, again at the Conservatory, which featured solos and duos involving piano, clarinet, euphonium, and pre-recorded electronic sounds. Curiously, each piece with an electronic component used different language to acknowledge it. New Zealander Chris Cree Brown’s 2012-13 Sound Barrel was described as being scored for euphonium and “fixed media.” Icelander Rikhardur H. Frideriksson’s completely electronic Brons, a mesmerizing work created in 2004 and revised in 2008 which was constructed exclusively from pre-recorded sounds of gongs and tam-tams, was simply listed as being “for electroacoustic.” Janez Matičič’s 1970 Cosmophonie, an acknowledged Slovenian electronic music classic, was described, as were most similarly scored works from that time, as being for piano and “magnetic tape.” But South African composer Michael Blake’s Tombeau de Mosoeu Moerane was listed as being scored for clarinet and “four-channel tape” despite the fact that it was completed in 2013 and the equipment on stage looked more like a laptop than a tape recorder. Perhaps in the future the ISCM can take an official position on the proper taxonomy for such repertoire.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual music. I already described the sound world for Brons. Sound Barrel offered some really exciting interplay between the flabby low brass sonorities of the euphonium and crunchier electronically generated sounds, some of which were even lower. The reedy sonorities of the pre-recorded electronic material in Tombeau provided a very empathic sound bed for the live clarinet sounds. (Blake’s work was actually originally scored for birbynė, a Lithuanian aerophone traditionally performed by shepherds that can be played with either a single or a double reed.) The electronic sound world in Cosmophonie, on the other hand, was a real blast from the past—vintage bleeps and bloops interrupted virtuosic piano runs and clusters, which were played with extraordinary grace by Nina Prešiček. Matičič, who divides his time between Ljubljana and Paris and who turns 90 next year, was in the audience and, since I’m a huge fan of his three piano sonatas (thanks again to another disc I got from SIGIC), I was delighted to briefly talk with him. In addition to those electro-acoustic compositions, other concert standouts were Contemplation, a daredevil solo clarinet piece by Taiwanese composer Chien-Wei Wang, and Dialogues, a rhythmically charged solo piano showcase by Venezuelan Osvaldo Torres which was also very convincingly delivered by Prešiček.

But the next concert, a program back at Kozina Hall performed by the Slovenian Philharmonic String Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Simon Krečič, offered some of the most persuasive performances of the entire festival. In Chartres (2012), by Parisian-based Lithuanian composer and vocal improviser Justina Repečkaitė, a slowly moving chain of drones and microtonal slides attempts to evoke the south window of the Chartres Cathedral. Although Bratislava-based Oľga Kroupová’s 2014 Gryllus Musicalis is a concerto for solo violin and strings (the first of two that was presented during the concert), many of the individual players act as co-soloists throughout. In Paolo Geminiani’s Imminenze (2000), one of the cellos initially takes on a seeming concertante role, but by the end everyone is a soloist to some extent.

I was really smitten with Rituel Bizarre for prepared string orchestra (2010), a visceral exploration of timbres that are midway between tones and noises created by Swedish composer Ansgar Beste, who after living for many years in Germany has been pursuing a PhD in Norway. Equally stunning, but for very different reasons, was Páll Ragnar Palsson’s deeply emotional Supremacy of Peace which was inspired by the stark contrast of abandoned factories and pristine farmlands in northeast Estonia. (I learned later in the week after talking with Palsson and other WMD attendees from his home country, Iceland, that he came to notated composition after performing for most his youth in the highly successful Icelandic indie rock band Maus.)

The remainder of the program was devoted to two mid-20th century Slovenian classics: “Ne, jaz nočem še umreti” (“No, I Do Not Want to Die”), an extremely sentimental aria composed in 1951 by Alojz Srebotnjak (1931-2010) that was milked for full impact by baritone Gabriel Lipuš; and Inventiones Ferales, an extraordinary 1963 violin concerto by Uroš Krek (1922-2008) which deserves to enter the standard repertoire. Yet again, thanks to my SIGIC friends, I already knew and admired this piece from a recording; but hearing such a strong live performance of it, particularly the stunning solo passages played by Janez Podlesek, made my belief in the piece even stronger.

Can There be Peace and Love Among All Beings in the Universe?

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

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

The first of Wednesday’s concerts, both of which took place at Kozina Hall, was a short choral program performed by the Slovenian Philharmonic Choir under the direction of Martina Batič. While I was not as wowed by them as I had been by Anna Szostak and the Camerata Silesia Katowice, a Polish choir that performed on the WMD for two consecutive years (in Vienna in 2013 and then closer to home in Wrocław in 2014), I was still extremely impressed with how the Slovenian choristers were able to (mostly) effortlessly handle the variety of extended vocal techniques that were featured in some of the repertoire, particularly in Portuguese composer Nuno Costa’s 2014 Pater Noster, an idiosyncratic setting that made the audiences hear the familiar words of this famous hymn in a completely different way. The work ultimately fetched Costa the 2015 ISCM Young Composer Award (YCA), a cash prize funded by the Vancouver, Canada-based concert presenter Music on Main which enables the ISCM to commission a new work by the winner that will be performed at a future WMD. (The members of the ISCM’s 2015 YCA jury were Alejandro Guarello from Chile, Gudny Gudmundsdottir from Iceland, and Glenda Keam from New Zealand; Stephen Lias, who runs a Texas section of ISCM, served as the jury coordinator.)

Other highlights included Ako ko čuje glas moj (If You Hear My Voice) a mellifluous setting of a New Testament passage by Serbian composer Ivana Stefanović and a chromatic, mostly homophonic setting of the hymn Omnia Tempus Habent by Hungarian composer Péter Zombola. Hommage a Papaji, a tribute to Indian mystic Hariwansh Lal Poonja by Romanian composer Gabriel Mălăncioiu contained some extremely lush harmonies that seemed to float beyond consciousness; but by the end its spell was completely broken by all the singers interminably reciting one line over and over again (“Let there be Peace and Love among all Beings of the Universe”). Denmark was represented on the program by a lovely two-movement work from 2010, Singing – Swinging, by the most famous living Danish composer, Per Nørgård. At the conclusion of the concert, brass players and percussionists joined the chorus for Seventh Angel, a cantata by another elder statesman, Slovenian Pavel Mihelčič, who served as the artistic director and president of the program committee for the 2015 WMD.

Mihelčič is also the artistic director for the new music ensemble MD7 which took the stage for the Wednesday’s other concert. This concert, featuring repertoire from three continents (Europe, Asia, and North America), was again conducted by Steven Loy with whom I had a chance to speak briefly about what brought him from Virginia to Slovenia.

Highlights of the MD7 program included the otherworldly Pangaea Ultima by Canadian Gordon Fitzell, British composer Nina Whiteman’s The Galaxy Rotation Problem which was chock full of microtonal inflections, Pan by Heera Kim from South Korea which alternates passages of relentless freneticism with stasis, and Tlesk vode (The Snap of Water) by Slovenian composer Tadeja Vulc in which one of the percussionists makes various sounds with a vat full of water. As Vulc acknowledged in her program note, “These sounds have been explored to the finest detail by composer Tan Dun, but that does not mean that others are not permitted to use them. I have woven some of them into my work, in which Tan Dun’s name is also concealed.” But, judging from audience reactions, the showstopper of the evening was Yao Chen’s extremely dramatic O… What an Awakening! for soprano and Pierrot quintet (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano), a work funded by New Music USA that was chosen for presentation during the 2015 WMD from the six repertoire choices we submitted. Below is a video recording from the premiere performance of the work, by the San Francisco-based chamber ensemble Wild Rumpus, which to my ears is even more riveting than MD7’s spirited performance of the piece in Ljubljana.

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

Missy Mazzoli

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

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


Thursday’s first concert, the last one that took place in Kozina Hall, was another chamber music program. The concert opened with a set of four songs for soprano and piano by Jakob Jež, an octogenarian composer who is a sort of Slovenian Ned Rorem, and the first half ended with the almost neo-romantic sounding Two Concertante Duos for cello and piano by Ljubo Rančigaj. But I was most impressed with the work sandwiched in between them, Chilean composer Juan Manuel Quinteros’s deft piano trio, Macondo, named after the fictional town described by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his landmark magical realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

There was a work that sounded even more indebted to magical realism, Nemico Orfeo by Canadian-born, U.K.-based Cassandra Miller scored for soprano voice, cello, and two flutes which were situated out of sight in the balcony. The effect was enchanting, though I’m not sure how it would have come off if the concert hall had been full and there were audience members sitting up there. Since the music hinted at a Baroque aesthetic sensibility, I also would have preferred to have heard it sung by a singer with a less pronounced vibrato. Soprano Jerica Steklasa, though extremely personable and fluent throughout, sounded a little too verismo for this subtle, somewhat surreal music. I have to admit I could not hear the references to jazz pianist Bill Evans that were supposedly strewn through Israeli composer Ziv Cojocaru’s Do You Like Bill, a 2013 work scored for Pierrot quintet, but Latvian composer Renāte Stivriņa’s often extremely quiet but sometimes very noisy Composition 10, which was inspired by a 1939 non-representational painting by Wassily Kandinsky, sounded requisitely abstract.

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

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

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


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

One of the doorways of the extremely ornate Orfejev Salon

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

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

The Last Day of the Festival

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

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

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

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

The immense lobby of Gallus Hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the Radar of the World Music Days

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

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

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

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

Johannes Simetsberger

Johannes Simetsberger

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

Martin Theodor Gut

Martin Theodor Gut

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

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

Helena Tulve: Trust, Discovery, and the Creative Process

The academic portion of my Fulbright experience is situated within the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. Although I am not enrolled in coursework (I have ABD status at Boston University, and Fulbright does not technically require a course-load), I have had the opportunity to sit in on lectures and speak with other students about their educational experiences. EAMT is a unique institution: it has gone through various stages of management, including an adherence to Soviet pedagogical ideals during the occupation, over the course of its 95 year tenure. Currently, EAMT offers bachelor and graduate degrees in a variety of areas, including a Masters in Contemporary Improvisation run by professors Anto Pett and Anne-Liis Poll. I have met several really fascinating students from this program, some of whom do not have traditional music backgrounds, who not only study improv in the Academy but are also active performers at various clubs within Tallinn.

The entrance to the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater

The Estonian Academy of Music and Theater

The improv scene is perhaps the most rewarding surprise about my Fulbright experience in Tallinn. Improvisation has not been stressed in my education, so to be surrounded by people who are actively making music is a curious change. As a composer, my music lives within my head for much longer than it exists acoustically. Needing to compose ‘in real time’ at an improvisation workshop was a vital exercise that forced me to consider sounds and gestures that emerged from my body without the filter of my thoughts. Many performers of contemporary music in Tallinn also participate in improvisation, and I see a lot of the same audience members at both types of concerts. I believe that this setup provides a very proactive attitude: members of the community seem to be constantly organizing different projects and concerts that happen without much difficulty.

While Helena Tulve is not directly associated with the improvisation scene in Tallinn, the notions of immediacy and composing from the body that prevail in improvisation manifest in her creative process. Tulve and I spend a good deal of time in our lessons talking about the creative process. In my experience as a student of composition, these types of conversations are often the most enlightening. Not only am I fascinated by how different people create, but also I tend to experiment with new modes of operation in each new project because I still have not found a practice that feels right. I think that part of my recent ‘musical identity crisis’ has to do with my process’s unsure footing. Speaking with Tulve about her methodology has the dual benefit of opening a window into her personal musical world and helping me to discover my own.

In the earlier stages of her life as a composer, Tulve used pre-compositional methods such as charts, drawings, and graphs to guide her work. She experimented with different compositional techniques that many students continue to learn today. Yet she so often found herself deviating from her plans that she eventually decided to see what happened if she let them go. The result was a deeply intuitive compositional process that she still relies on today.

Helena Tulve

Helena Tulve

Tulve approaches each new piece as a blank slate of sorts; perhaps she has a small idea, either sonic or metaphorical, but nothing more. She then works out the essence of the entire piece in an improvisatory fashion, often in as little as two hours. The essence is a bit difficult to grasp. Tulve describes it as a bright line that runs throughout the music. Yet this line is not necessarily what one imagines when one thinks of a musical line. Rather, I understand Tulve’s line as the energy flow of the work. Her focus on this singular element stems from her study of Gregorian chant while at the Paris Conservatoire. In chant, importance is placed on one voice, one organic, simple line that is flexible and malleable yet follows laws of tension and gravitation. Many of her biographical sources cite chant as an important influence on her music. While she does not deny these claims, Tulve has stressed to me that the art-form is not a stylistic influence but rather her “musical mother-tongue” which directs her way of thinking.

Working out the piece’s line is an act full of discovery for Tulve. She does not want to compose that which she already knows. This is another reason why she avoids pre-composition exercises that can often rely on habits. Discovering the line happens quickly; the time-consuming part of the work lies in carving out the details of where the line resides. Tulve describes this process as creating a mental space to navigate within. She observes the colors, shadows, proportions, and dimensions of the space. Obviously the space changes as she continues to work on the piece at hand. Internal consistency instead comes from her constant observations of the space; while the space changes, her observer role remains stable. It is a process built on discovery, exploration, and confidence. The process is deeply personal and difficult to articulate or understand, yet when I listen to her music I can hear the internal logic and physics of the world she created.

Tulve’s ability to approach each new project as a blank slate is the result of her experiences and an intuition built on years of musical training. It is highly unlikely that this process would work for someone in the nascent stage of a compositional practice. Tulve is careful not to place a value judgment on her process. What works for her will not necessarily work for everyone. When Tulve brought her Contemporary Performance and Composition student group to visit the Seto woman that I wrote about last week, she explained that she wanted to expose us to another way of living without stressing that one way was better than the other. I read her approach to compositional process in the same light. She knows that she functions in a more intuitive realm rather than one of discrete structures, but that is not to say that the latter place falls short. Formalized music builds what she calls a “help structure”; essentially, a preconceived framework that governs the piece of music. Yet Tulve maintains that music’s abstractness allows it to take shapes and forms that stand against the laws of so-called intellectual physics. For her, finding these new shapes would not be possible if she did not approach each piece as a new and undiscovered world.

What is there to take away from learning about Tulve’s compositional practice aside from personal interest? While I do not want to mimic her process verbatim, I do plan to attempt to adopt her powerful sense of self-awareness and the proactive attitude I have witnessed in the improvisation students. I often catch myself succumbing to feelings of inadequacy about my music because of a lack of intellectual rigor. I search for justification for my compositional choices in the often used extramusical places of science and philosophy, but these places exist outside myself and I occasionally feel like a bit of an imposter. I often think about Tulve’s assertion that the act of composing is an exercise in trust, and feel empowered to trust my instincts and internal musicality with more force in the future.

Using extramusical models and precise planning is a fantastic toolset that works in many instances, yet relying on a musical intuition built on years of study and practice can also be a powerful and fruitful working method. I often feel that academic study of composition places emphasis on the former methodology. Although my intention is not to pick apart the merits of music’s place in the university system, I do think it is important to take a step back and measure how one functions within the system. Creating art within academic structures can easily cause one to overthink, overanalyze, and exist only on the horizontal axis that I described in the second article. Yet for me, music is not an exact science; the meaning I derive from listening, performing, and composing is not quantifiable. Perhaps the best thing to take away from Tulve’s discussion of process is to do the often difficult work of finding your own way and not simply relying on the “help-structures” that working within a university system tends to create.

*The views presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.