Composer Advocacy Journal: On The Road Again

It’s been two weeks since I returned from Aotearoa New Zealand where I was attending the overlapping International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days and Asian Composers League festivals in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and Ōtautahi Christchurch. But given all the things I’ve plunged into since returning, while fighting jetlag from the 16-hour time difference and the grueling 27 1/2-hour door-to-door journey back to New York City, I still haven’t been able to completely wrap my brain around everything I experienced during the 12 days I was there.

First, a little background. Part of my work for New Music USA, in my role as Composer Advocate, is to advocate for our programs and values both nationally and internationally through various member-based networks, such as the ISCM and the International Association of Music Centres (IAMIC). Prior to the global pandemic, the members of these networks met annually to compare practices for supporting and advocating for music as well as to share music with each other. ISCM meetings occur in a different city somewhere in the world every year concurrently with a multi-concert festival called the World (New) Music Days (WNMD) which features music from each of the countries represented in the network. (The “New” is in parenthesis since some hosts call the festival simply “World Music Days.”) Since 2019, I have served on the boards of both organizations but, since the pandemic, that has meant meeting on Zoom often at less than optimal hours (sometimes at 6:00 A.M. or after Midnight for me) to accommodate the time zones of all the participants. However, in May, IAMIC held its first in-person conference in three years, which took place in multiple cities in Germany (Hamburg, Bonn, and Cologne). And in August, the ISCM finally convened in New Zealand for the first time, an event that had originally been scheduled for April 2020. (Before I was elected to ISCM’s Executive Committee, I wrote several very detailed reports of these annual festivals; to get a better sense of what a WNMD is like, you might enjoy reading the last of these, my account of the 2016 Festival in Tongyeong, South Korea, in which I attempted to explain the cultural milieu of the ISCM by comparing it to the Wizarding world as described in the Harry Potter novels.)

My trip to Germany in May for the 2022 IAMIC Conference was the first time I had left the country since the pandemic, and I was filled with anxiety a great deal of the time. But aside from the discomfort of wearing a mask everywhere including on a long overnight flight, the suitcase containing clothing I had brought for the trip not catching up with me until the night before I flew back home (which offered me an experience I otherwise never would have had of very quickly shopping for overpriced poorly fitting clothing in a Hamburg department store–don’t ask), and one of the delegates getting COVID (thankfully everyone diligently tested every day and it didn’t spread further), it was an extremely worthwhile week. I am particularly proud of a panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn which focused on the extremely generous pandemic-era funding for creative artists based in Germany which made the delegates attending from everywhere else in the world extremely envious.

IAMIC Board of Directors and Cloud Chamber Bowls.

The IAMIC Board of Directors at the headquarters of Ensemble Musikfabrik in Cologne, Germany in May 2022. Pictured left to right are Deborah Keyser, Jonathan Grimes, Radvilė Buivydienė, Peter Baros, Diana Marsh, Stephan Schulmeistrat, Agnieszka Cieślak-Krupa, and FJO. (Note the replicas of Harry Partch’s Cloud Chamber Bowls on the far right.)

By the time August rolled around and I journeyed to New Zealand, I was a seasoned pandemic traveler. But nothing (not even having travelled there once before, 15 years ago, for a IAMIC conference) is sufficient physical or psychological preparation for a flight from the West Coast of North America across the Pacific Ocean and far down into the Earth’s other hemisphere to finally reach Auckland. It’s a 13-hour flight that, if coming from NYC, must be proceeded by a 6-hour flight to get to the West Coast as well as a massive trek between terminals which, even though there’s a more than two-hour layover, is a race against the clock, made even more challenging when masked. (In September, now that I’m back, Air New Zealand just introduced a brand new direct New York JFK-Auckland flight which lasts nearly 18 hours, though I’m not sure whether a direct flight or two long flights with a very long walk in between is worse.)

Maori sculptures surround one of the walls in the international arrival terminal of the Auckland Airport.

Among the first things visitors see after arriving in the Auckland Airport after an extremely long international flight. (They also pipe in a recording of Maori traditional chants.)

Before I continue, I’d like to offer a small disclaimer. Given the role I now have within ISCM, it seems somewhat of a conflict of interest for me to be singing the praises of the World New Music Days in an expansive report, so this should not be construed as that. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate to offer some information here on each of the American pieces that were performed, offer a few observations about what made this particular edition unique (especially since it is the first one that took place in more than three years), and to give readers here a sense of what I’ve been up to recently.

Although it had to be somewhat scaled down from what had originally been planned for 2020, the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days, which took place concurrently with a festival of the Asian Composers League, was a major undertaking that seemed to happen through sheer force of will, mainly on the part of the festival’s Artistic Director, Glenda Keam, who also happens to be the President of ISCM. All in all, 20 of the submitted works that had originally been chosen for performance (among them, sadly, Katherine Balch‘s extraordinary string quartet drip music which was a submission from the League of Composers, the official ISCM USA Section), could not be presented this year, plus two additional works listed in the program (that were not from ISCM submissions) had to be cancelled. In addition, due to the ongoing uncertainties of the global pandemic, many delegates could not attend (our general assembly meetings were an often challenging hybrid of in-person and Zoom), so many of the concerts were not as well attended as they should have been. Still, as in previous editions of the WNMD, the festival offered a fascinating cross section of music by composers hailing from six continents. (Despite a fascinating exhibit devoted to Antarctic exploration in the Canterbury Museum, which was around the corner from some of the concerts in Christchurch, a viable new music scene has yet to develop there.)

The members of the ISCM Executive Committee sitting around a table, all masked.

The ISCM Executive Committee met in all day meetings during the weekend before the 2022 World New Music Days began. (Pictured left to right are David Pay, FJO, Oľga Smetanová, Wolfgang Renzl, Irina Hasnaş, George Kentros, and Tomoko Fukui.)

In both cities where the festival took place, before any of the concerts there was a formal welcome (Mihi whakatau) featuring speeches and music from members of the local Māori community, the indigenous people who have inhabited Aotearoa New Zealand long before the en masse arrival of British settlers in the early 19th century and the Māori still make up approximately 16.5% of the country’s population.  It was thrilling to hear live performances by Māori musicians on taonga pūoro (the traditional musical instruments of the Māori which have only been revived in recent decades), particularly (and, for a contemporary music festival, very appropriately) the blaring tone clusters that resulted from the simultaneous blowing of pūkaea and pūtātara, trumpet-like instruments made from wood and conch shells respectively, during the first of these welcomes which took place in the courtyard outside the School of Music at the University of Auckland. Admittedly, though, it was somewhat frustrating to listen to the speeches in Māori which were mostly left untranslated. But the solution to that is to learn the language one day! (I must point out that NZ’s overall embrace of Māori heritage and its attempt at establishing a bicultural society is extremely impressive and it has gone well beyond what I previously witnessed when I visited Wellington back in 2007. That said, apart from a few exciting compositions by composers of Māori heritage, such as Takarei Komene, whose 2019 Ngā Roimata o te Tūrama for unaccompanied mixed chorus and whistling was a highlight of a performance by the Auckland Chamber Choir, members of the Māori community did not seem to be part of the “contemporary music” scene in New Zealand. It should be pointed out, however, that the composers from New Zealand whose music was featured on the festival come from extremely diverse cultural backgrounds, ranging from Greece to East Asia.)

Māori musicians playing taonga pūoro

Here are the Māori musicians who greeted all of the ISCM delegates with marvelous tone clusters on taonga pūoro.

The first two concerts of the festival were devoted to music involving electronics. Seven fixed media works (two involving video as well as audio) were presented at the first one, in Auckland’s Audio Foundation, a sub-basement venue located in a neighborhood that is a steep walk from the University. One of the two works involving a video element was Lithuanian composer Albertas Navickas‘s fascinating Silences (2016), which featured fragments of footage of an older woman speaking accompanied by a pre-recorded ensemble which re-enforced the pitch content of her words (a la Scott Johnson’s John Somebody or Steve Reich’s Different Trains). The other was White Heron Dance, a haunting 2017 studio piece by American electronic music pioneer Alice Shields, accompanied by abstract animation (created by Thomas Barratt), which was submitted for inclusion in the festival by the Roger Shapiro Fund for New Music. It was a challenge to distinguish the other pieces since they were not clearly identified during the presentation, which perhaps was part of the gestalt of this very DIY space, but it was nevertheless somewhat frustrating. The second concert, back at the University, involved live electronics and included two works from composers based in the United States: In the Middle of the Room, Jeff Morris‘s 2017 audio-video manipulation of a song by Elisabeth Blair, submitted by ISCM’s Full Associate Member, based at Stephen F. Austin State University, which promotes the music of Texas-based composers; and PS Quartet No. 1, also from 2017, by Korean-born, Michigan-based composer Joo Won Park, in which four performers manipulate audio and video via PlayStation controllers–which was very entertaining both to see and hear. Full disclosure: the latter was the piece among six submitted by New Music USA (it was funded by a Project Grant) which was chosen for performance in the festival. (All ISCM member organizations can submit up to six pieces for consideration in each year’s WNMD and if the submissions are in at least 4 different instrumentation categories, the festival must perform one of them.)

Computer terminals with visuals and audio triggered by 4 PlayStation controllers during a performance of Joo Won Park's PS Quartet No. 1

An action shot from the performance of Joo Won Park’s PS Quartet No. 1 at the University of Auckland during the 2022 ISCM World New Music Days.

On the second day of the festival there were two concerts, both at the University of Auckland. The first was a tour de force afternoon recital by percussionist Justin DeHart, a transplant to New Zealand who originally hails from Sacramento, California. In a group of seven pieces from Canada, Portugal, and New Zealand, he demonstrated the extraordinary range of sounds that can be made by just one person striking many different kinds of objects (though at times the sounds he made were enhanced by pre-recorded electronics). The evening concert was devoted to mostly unaccompanied choral works (for one, a harp was added) performed by the aforementioned Auckland Chamber Choir, a group based at the University. The concert opened with the inventive and challenging Sonata form denatured prose (2014) by Swedish-born Norwegian-based composer Maja Linderoth (b. 1989), who was named the winner of the ISCM Young Composer Award at the end of the festival; the first time a female composer had received the award since 2011.

The next day the ISCM delegates travelled to the West Auckland suburb of Titirangi for a concert, again devoted to electronic music, in the Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery. Lukas Ligeti, an Austrian-born composer who currently divides his time between Florida and Johannesburg, South Africa, performed his Labyrinth of Stars: The Far Southeast (2014), an improvisatory solo for the Donald Buchla-designed marimba lumina. The material for the piece is derived from the composer’s earlier concerto for marimba lumina and orchestra titled Labyrinth of Clouds.  In his prefatory comments, Ligeti stated that this new version of the music was inspired by his seeing stars that are visible in this part of the world which are not visible in the Northern Hemisphere and the resultant music juxtaposed a series of diatonic ostinatos with some surprising chromatic intrusions. (I was hoping to see some of those stars, too, but most of the evenings I was there were cloudy, plus most of the time I was too close to city lights to be able to appreciate them.) That concert also featured Interdependencies (2018), a trippy live manipulation of eight interconnected tone generators by Danish composer Christian Skjødt which he said was just part one of a work that is twice as long; I’m eager to hear the rest of it one day. Unfortunately, because I failed to sign up for it in time, I missed Polish composer Mikolaj Laskowski‘s 2018 Deep Relaxation No. 4: Self-Care, an audience participatory piece involving sound objects and yoga mats that was presented twice but was limited to just 12 attendees each time.

A very large tree in Auckland NZ

While I never saw many stars in NZ, I did see this amazing tree in a park while walking from my hotel to the University of Auckland for ISCM meetings and concerts.

Later in the week, Polish-born New Zealand-based pianist Gabriela Glapska gave a very convincing recital comprised of nine works from eight countries, the most intriguing of which, at least for me, were three selections from Japanese composer Matoharu Kawashima‘s 2017 Action Music, in particular the last one in which the pianist mimics the famous opening of Tchaikovsky’s overplayed first piano concerto, ultimately closing the lid and continuing to play. I was also very taken with a duo recital by violinist/violist Andrew Beer and pianist Sarah Watkins at the hip Loft Q Theatre on Auckland’s busy Queen Street. Everything they played they turned into something extraordinary, but I really loved the brave beauty of Canadian composer Rodney Sharman‘s 2016 viola/piano duo Gratitude and Swiss composer Esther Flückiger‘s often jazzy 2017 Guarda i lumi for violin and piano and will want to hear both works again many times. (Luckily three of the NZ pieces featured on the program were on a CD of the duo I bought the last night of the festival, though I was already familiar with the 2011 miniature Tōrua by Gillian Whitehead, one of NZ’s most prominent composers, since it was one of the Encore Pieces commissioned and recorded by Hilary Hahn.)

I skipped the concluding Auckland event, a screening of a virtual concert by the Australian new music ensemble ELISION who were originally scheduled to participate in person before COVID-related travel restrictions threw a monkey wrench into the plan. But since they plan to post all their virtual performances to their YouTube channel, I hope to catch up with it when they do. Unfortunately the few other programs I wound up missing for a variety of reasons, some having to do with the complexities of navigating Auckland’s challengingly hilly terrain, were mostly not streamed and archived online. After a couple of years of virtual performances becoming a lifeline to musical experiences with the concurrent benefit of these concerts being able to attract audiences from all over world who otherwise could not have experienced them, it seems a shame not to set up even a smartphone (many of which have better audio and video reproduction capabilities than some so-called professional camcorders from 20 years ago) to preserve all performances and make them available to as many people as possible.

Tables filled with CDs and tables filled with LPs further in the back.

The days and nights were pretty tightly packed with meetings and concerts, but there was a gap of a couple of hours one morning so of course I went shopping for LPs and CDs at Penny Lane Records, which thankfully opens quite early.

Although the Festival program in Christchurch lasted a mere four days, it seems like there were twice as many concerts. This is because in addition to concerts featuring repertoire selected from ISCM submissions, there were also concerts devoted to repertoire chosen from the member organizations in the Asian Composers League. It’s far too much music to write about here in a way that won’t seem completely overwhelming, but I would like to call attention to a few things that left a lasting impression.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra played a very short concert (only about 37 minutes) consisting of five works. Still it was nice to see and hear such a group performing on an important international music festival in front of an audience of people from all over the world and two of the works–Ogham (2018) by Irish composer Ryan Molloy and Distant Lights (2017) by Hong Kong composer Richard Tsang–contained some really exciting orchestration that I’d love to study in greater detail. Another of the pieces, Surcos a la tierra by Chilean composer René Silva, would be a big hit at The Midwest Clinic if Silva were to rearrange it for wind band. Two of the nation’s leading chamber music groups, the New Zealand String Quartet and the NZTrio, offered very wide ranging concert programs. The former, which took place in the 19th century Great Hall in Christchurch’s historic Arts Centre, a real time portal, included an intense 2015 quartet, inside voice, by Kurt Rohde, submitted by ISCM Full Associate member Florida International University, which brought everyone back into modern times. The latter concert, which took place in a posh new venue called The Piano, which was built since the massive 2011 Earthquake, did not include any American pieces, but British composer Joe Cutler‘s clever 2016 McNulty was inspired by the American TV drama series The Wire. Other works on the program included the very effective ACL-commissioned Elehiya Para sa mga Biktima ng Masaker sa Maguindanao (Elegy for the Victims of the Maguindanao Massacre) by Philippine composer Ryle Custodio, winner of the ACL’s 2018 Young Composer Prize, and the rhythmically intriguing Der Tanz by NZ composer Tabea Squire, one of the only works on the festival that was composed this year (since most of the programming was carried over from the postponed 2020 festival).

An orchestra onstage in a concert hall.

The Christchurch Youth Orchestra conducted by Helen Renaud during their performance at Margaret College’s Charles Luney Auditorium in Christchurch NZ.

Another concert held at The Piano the night before the NZTrio appeared there featured seven very different compositions including the melancholy 2009 What gathers, what lingers by American composer Anna Weesner, another Roger Shapiro Fund submission. A concert at the tiny Recital Room in the University of Canterbury’s Arts Centre, which with two grand pianos seemed like very tight quarters, offered a variety of works which explored inside the piano sonorities. I loved Lauschgut (2019) by German composer Charlotte Seither whom, as luck would have it, was on the panel I moderated at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn during the public day of the IAMIC Conference (small world). And though it was completed seven years before Putin’s invasion, Forest Cover (2015) by Ukrainian composer Mykola Khshanovskyi, in which the explosive sonorities emanating from the piano are enhanced by pre-recorded and live electronics, sounded extremely timely. Yifan Yang, a piano student at the University of Canterbury, gave a breathtaking account of it.

Charlotte Seither and Frank J. Oteri

From my panel talk with Charlotte Seither during the public day of the IAMIC Conference at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn back in May (photo by Nathan Dreessen-of the MIZ)

On the final day there was another concert in the Recital Room devoted to eleven string trios from young composers based in 11 different countries represented within the Asian Composers League. The simultaneously deft and fun handling of numerous extended techniques in bouncing, sliding, spinning (2019) by Thai composer Piyawat Louilarpprasert, who is now based at Cornell, earned him the YCL’s 2022 Young Composer Award, but I was also quite taken with New Zealand composer Glen Downie‘s almost static Two Variations on an Original Chorale (2019). The performances, by two different string trios, felt like a triathlon, particularly when Johnny Chang and Mark Bennett as well as Mark Menzies (who was a ubiquitous onstage presence at the Christchurch concerts) and Rakuto Kurano switched between violin and viola, though at one point Menzies forgot which instrument he was supposed to play. But maybe he was just joking. Either way, it was as compelling visually as it was sonically.

Taonga pūoro displayed on a table.

The taonga pūoro that Alistair Frasier performed on during his duo concert with flutist Bridget Douglas.

But the real highlight of the Christchurch events for me was the duo of Alistair Fraser and Bridget Douglas performing on taonga pūoro and Western (silver) flutes, also in the Recital Room. Particularly intriguing were Gareth Farr‘s Silver Stone Wood Bone and Briar Prastiti‘s Terra Firma, both composed in 2019, the latter of which contained passages in which it was sometimes hard to tell which instrument was playing what. It was nevertheless a shame that no members of the Māori community were involved in either the composition or performance of a group of works which were all about bridging the divide between Māori and European cultures. Is it possible that no one in that community has created any music like that yet?

A billboard with a poster that says "I WILL NOT SPEAK MAORI" in all capital letters.

Once upon a time Māori people were forced to recite the line “I will not speak Māori” as part of the Anglicization process during their early schooling. It is something that still haunts the current population of Aotearoa New Zealand.

As I wrote at the onset, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all of this. In particular, how a festival of contemporary music can truly be representative of what is currently being created all around the world and how such a festival could reach a broader and more diverse audience. Also, are such festivals, which, in the case of the ISCM, have been going on for a century, still feasible in a world that can be shut down by a global pandemic as well as by war and the vagaries of climate change? The ISCM was created a few years after the end of the First World War in an attempt to bring the fractured world together through music, yet in the beginning that world consisted just of countries in Europe plus the United States. As time went on, the ISCM eventually brought in members from South America, Asia, Oceania, and Africa, but 2022 marked only the second time in its history that the festival took place in the Southern Hemisphere. We’re hoping, to mark the centenary of the very first ISCM festival, to meet next year in South Africa, the first time on the African continent, an undertaking which has a great many challenges. But maintaining a festival that takes place every year in a different location in the world might prove to be an even greater challenge.

Flight departures at Auckland's international terminal.

Of course, the trip back home is as long as the trip there…



From Darmstadt to the Shopping Mall

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.