The Wizards of New Music: Reflections on the 2016 ISCM World Music Days
If you think hard enough about new music and how it makes its way in our present society, there are striking similarities to the fictional wizarding community that J. K. Rowling has so elaborately depicted in her Harry Potter narratives.
Since returning from the latest iteration of the International Society for Contemporary Music’s (ISCM) annual World Music Days, which this year was held in the remote South Korean fishing town of Tongyeong from March 27 to April 1, 2016, I’ve been struggling to figure out the best way to describe what I experienced during those six days. Part of the problem, believe it or not, is that for the past eight weeks, every time I start having deep thoughts about contemporary music, my mind invariably strays to Harry Potter. Admittedly I had spent the two months prior to my Tongyeong journey reading all seven of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels for the very first time. (Yeah, I know, where have I been?) I’d also been warned that these books (and the subsequent cinematic adaptations of them which I’m finally getting around to watching on DVD now that I’ve finished reading the books) tend to incite fanatical obsession.
But I think there’s a deeper reason for this seeming takeover of my synapses. If you think hard enough about new music and how it makes its way in our present society, there are striking similarities to the fictional wizarding community that Rowling has so elaborately depicted in her narratives. So I thought it would be instructive to attempt to flesh out some of the parallels between these two worlds in the hopes of coming to a deeper understanding of our special corner of the universe and why it is the way it is. And, who knows, though the process I might even get some rabid Harry Potter fans interested in new music and vice versa.
First, some background for Potter novices might be required here, so bear with me. (If you’re as hardcore a Potter junkie as I’ve become, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs.) In Potterville, wizards perform most commonplace activities—everything from cooking and cleaning to commuting—by using magic. For example, they get around either through flying on brooms, using floo powder (stuff which enables them to travel through the fire in chimneys), apparition (focusing on a desired location in their minds), or—for very long distances—portkeys (strategically placed innocuous objects that, when touched, take you to a specific faraway location). But the majority of people in the world are unable to perform magic; these unmagical people are referred to as muggles. Muggles are almost completely oblivious to the existence of wizards. In fact, when directly confronted with magic, most muggles refuse to believe it exists. But that’s not totally due to their ignorance or indifference. Although there are some wizards who are fascinated with muggles and their customs, and some wizards even wish there could be a greater understanding across all social sectors, the Ministry of Magic and the International Confederation of Wizards impose a strict International Statute of Secrecy which forbids wizards from performing magic around muggles and, because of that, wizards go to great lengths to hide their world from folks who are not part of it. (E.g. one of the gateways between the muggle world and the wizarding world is a pub on London’s Charing Cross Road called the Leaky Cauldron but when muggles walk past it all they see is an abandoned shop front. Similarly, London’s King Cross Station contains an additional platform that is invisible to muggles, Platform 9¾, from which young wizards take the train that goes to their wizarding school. Etc.)
Ironically, despite the strict division of the world into wizards and muggles, there are very few remaining wizards in the world who are “pure bloods” (e.g. those having two wizards as parents). Most are “half-bloods” (having one wizard and one muggle parent). But there are also others whose magical abilities are not inherited at all; they are completely “muggle-born” and only later come to the attention of wizards. The villainous wizards despise these muggle-borns and engage in attempts to banish them from the wizarding community. The worst of these folks, who have no compunction about murdering those who don’t fit their ideal, are called Death Eaters.
The seven books and the eight films on which they are based, are a seven-year progression through the education of Harry Potter, a half-blood orphan who was raised by his deceased muggle-born mother’s relatives. Potter attends one of the most prestigious wizarding schools, Hogwarts, located in a remote northern corner of the United Kingdom, where young wizards are divided into one of four groups: Gryffindors (the brave), Ravenclaws (the very smart), Hufflepuffs (the loyal), and Slytherins (the sneaky/clever). There are also illustrious institutions devoted to the study of wizardry in France (Beauxbatons) and Northern Europe (Durnstrang) and, at one point, teams from them compete against Hogwarts in a Triwizard Tournament.
Okay, enough for now. I know that’s a lot of terminology to keep organized in order for us to proceed—but, to begin the comparisons, are these layers of jargon all that different from the extensive vocabulary we regularly use to explicate new music?
So, an indulgence: let’s replace magic with new music. After all, when we try to explain what we’re all so obsessed with, doesn’t it seem like we’re describing some kind of magic? From the way the music is actually created to the way it is performed before an audience, doesn’t it sometimes seem like impenetrably arcane hocus pocus? It certainly can to people who are not directly involved with it—e.g. composers, interpreters, behind the scenes advocates (funders, presenters, publishers, record label folks, journalists, etc.), or otherwise-not-directly-connected but equally-engaged fans. So, in order to flesh out the analogy, let’s borrow the word wizard to connote anyone who is a member of the new music community and the word muggle (in a hopefully non-condescending way) to describe anyone who is not directly involved with it.
Few of us would deny that most muggles have virtually no awareness of most of the music that we, the music wizards, find so compelling. Our concert venues, festivals, prestigious awards, etc., despite how important they seem to us, are—like the ministry that is so powerful in Harry Potter’s wizarding world—completely invisible to those who are not in the know. Some music wizards want to reach out and attempt to get muggles as excited about this music as we are. Some even go as far as incorporating elements of the music that muggles do listen to into their own brand of musical wizardry. But the wizards who have incorporated such muggle elements (fill in the blank with any pop music subgenre of your choice here) sometimes get castigated by other wizards who believe that doing so somehow debases new music. These wizards want to keep things separate and worry that wizardry as we know it would cease to exist if there is too much accommodation to muggles, so they prefer that things should remain as they have always been. While I will not go as far to accuse anyone of being the equivalent of a Death Eater here, I still continually witness attitudes and practices that could easily be interpreted as anti-muggle-born behavior (e.g. musical wizards who believe that new music must conform to certain stylistic paradigms that derive exclusively from a specific musical tradition). Yet, most of us, especially those of us who grew up in the United States, were not born into this music or the traditions from which it sprang (e.g. Western classical music). Rather, this music is something we came to after growing up primarily exposed to muggle music. Which is to say, American new music is mostly a muggle-born phenomenon.
The United States has never had deeply ingrained new music institutions that have the power to dominate the aesthetic discourse the way they do in Europe. To name just a few extremely powerful entities, Europe has IRCAM (Beauxbatons), Darmstadt (Durnstrang—the name even sounds similar!), and Huddersfield (Hogwarts). There’s also a prestigious showcase for emerging composers, which is perhaps the new music equivalent of a Triwizard Tournament—Gaudeamus Music Week. But most things in the USA either feel much more locally-focused (e.g. Bowdoin, Cabrillo, June in Buffalo, Mizzou, Ojai, Other Minds, etc.), relatively small add-ons to larger entities (e.g. Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, The New York Phil’s Contact! Series, the various Composer’s Institutes held by orchestras around the country, etc.), or relatively DIY (e.g. the Bang on a Can Marathon and now Banglewood, or the New Music Gathering). The local vs. add-on vs. DIY trifecta plays out in the publishing and recording company spheres in this country as well. It’s not too much of a stretch to think of all the heroic self-starters out there as Gryffindors, all the super-smart folks who spearhead various local enterprises as Ravenclaws, and all the loyal troopers who lobby for new music at larger institutions for whom it is not always a main priority as Hufflepuffs. For fear of inciting a new music civil war, I won’t designate anyone here as a Slytherin. But you might find it a fun parlor game to ponder who is who, though please do it in the privacy of your own thoughts.
Anyway, now that we’ve set up this extremely elaborate metaphor, where does an organization like the ISCM—and its annual World Music Days—fit in? Established in Salzburg in 1922 and, since the following year, convening an annual new music festival somewhere in the world (except for a hiatus during World War Two), ISCM ought to be an even more significant “institution” within our community than a Beauxbatons, Durnstrang, and Hogwarts. In fact, it should be nothing less than the International Confederation of Wizards. It should be the entity that musical wizards all over the world turn to in order to determine what the best practices are for musical magic. But in our world, things don’t quite work out that way.
Each year, ISCM partners with a music festival in a different city which hosts the ISCM’s delegates from all over the globe and presents a series of concerts alongside its own festival’s programs entitled World Music Days. (Well, some call it World New Music Days, but let’s not get into that this time around.) Whereas the host festival’s concerts are curated by the festival’s artistic directors, the repertoire featured on the World Music Days is supposed to be chosen exclusively from submissions made by official ISCM “sections” on six continents although it is also possible, particularly to encourage composers in countries that do not yet have official ISCM sections, for individual composers from anywhere to submit works for consideration as well. Audiences for WMDs vary widely. Some years there is a significant local audience; other years it seems like the only people attending the concerts are the ISCM delegates. But shouldn’t an undertaking of this magnitude attract a significant number of cultural tourists from all over the world?
Despite the admittedly insular audience for these events, having your music selected for inclusion in the ISCM World Music Days could be a major career boost for a composer since among the delegates who attend each year there are important new music decision makers from around the world—really powerful wizards, sotospeak. There are also undeniable bragging rights for being part of a legacy that includes the world premieres of such magical works as Berg’s Violin Concerto, Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître, Hindemith’s Clarinet Quintet, György Ligeti’s Apparitions, George Perle’s Six Etudes for solo piano, Stockhausen’s Kontakte, Isang Yun’s Third String Quartet, and one sixth of Webern’s published output. Significant early performances of a great deal of many 20th century favorites have also taken place during WMDs, repertoire that is arguably canonical, at least in part, as a result of its being showcased in this international forum (e.g. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Britten’s Les Illuminations and Sinfonia da Requiem, Morton Feldman’s False Relationships And The Extended Ending, Jean Françaix’s First Wind Quintet, Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Ginastera’s first two string quartets, Gérard Grisey’s Partiels, Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Salvatore Martirano’s O, O, O, That Shakespeherian Rag!, Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, Ravel’s Violin Sonata and Left Hand Piano Concerto, Roger Reynolds’s Quick are the Mouths of Earth, three of Roger Sessions’s symphonies, Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and on and on). But perhaps, even more significantly, WMDs have had a laudable track record in embracing a wide diversity of new music aesthetics. WMDs have also been historically way ahead of the curve in showcasing tons of emerging composers and, in particular, some significant female composers relatively early in their artistic trajectories: Joan La Barbara, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Ruth Crawford-Seeger, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, Canada’s Barbara Pentland, Chile’s Leni Alexander, Serbia’s Ljubica Marić, Korea’s Unsuk Chin, etc. Zwilich and Chin have both credited WMD for helping to launch their compositional careers.
All in all, it is an extremely impressive history which has even occasionally reached general public consciousness—the muggle world beyond new music—from time to time. There was actually a significant amount of American media attention around the one time that a WMD was officially presented here in the USA, during our bicentennial year, although admittedly the most memorable press quote from it was a quip made by the late, usually sanguine Leighton Kerner in what was, by and large, a vitriolic pan of the entire festival in The Village Voice: “Better to have living music by dead composers than dead music by living composers.” The activities of the ISCM up to the year 1980 fills up a massive 700+ page book (in German) by the Swiss musicologist Anton Haefeli. If there were a book that gave the entire story, up to the present day, it would undoubtedly be nearly twice as voluminous. But here’s the rub. There is no other book and the Haefeli book, which has never been revised or translated into any other language, has been out of print for decades.
The esteem in which this organization and its annual festival were once held is greatly diminished nowadays. Like the Leaky Cauldron or Platform 9¾, it is invisible to the general public. Sadly, it’s also invisible to most new music practitioners. On a personal note, before I started attending WMDs five years ago, I was only vaguely aware that ISCM still existed. I had long known that it had been an important convener of new music activity in Europe in the early 20th century and yet, weirdly (thinking back on it now in retrospect), it somehow never had registered to me that ISCM was an organization I needed to learn more about despite my being actively part of the new music community in the USA in some capacity since the 1980s and being involved with other international networks—like the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC)—since the year 2000. Full disclosure, during the 2016 General Assembly in Tongyeong, I was elected to the Executive Committee (ExComm) of the ISCM which means I am now officially charged with strengthening the organization and ensuring that its esteem increases. To that end, it might seem that I’m no longer completely capable of objectively assessing the ISCM or its World Music Days. In all honesty, that is another reason why it has taken me such a long time to attempt to write about my week on Tongyeong even though my regular modus operandi for describing music has always been to keep personal opinion out of it as much as is humanly possible and to simply describe what I’ve experienced. So, attempting to keep that in mind, here goes.
This year’s host for the World Music Days was the Tongyeong International Music Festival (TIMF), an annual showcase for classical music heavily weighted toward contemporary music that was established in the year 2002 in the hometown of Korea’s most revered composer, Isang Yun (1917-1995). But Tongyeong is not one of the most practical destinations—it actually seems more remote than Hogwarts. While it is a port city and therefore is relatively easy to get to by boat (if you’re nearby and that’s your preferred mode of transport), Tongyeong has no rail station and no airport. The closest town with an airport is Busan, which is more than 90 minutes away by automobile, and no transcontinental flights land there. Basically to get from my apartment in Manhattan to the Tongyeong Concert Hall—a stop at the hotel would have meant missing the opening reception—took more than 30 hours, significantly longer than a journey via the Hogwarts Express. Late Friday night I met up at JFK with Missy Mazzoli whose travel to Tongyeong I had arranged because her music was chosen for performance this year. We arrived early Sunday morning in Shanghai where we waited for several hours before boarding a flight that took us to Busan. In Busan we had to hail a taxi because, due to delays in the Shanghai-Busan flight, we had missed the chartered bus.
When we finally arrived outside Tongyeong Concert Hall, the first person we saw walking on the street was one of the most celebrated musical wizards of our era—Philip Glass, who was scheduled to perform a solo piano recital there later in the evening. I’m sure at some point I was informed that he had been invited to perform during TIMF, but I had forgotten. So it was a totally surreal moment. We were as confused by seeing him there as he was when I called out, “Hi Philip” from the car. But then Glass resurfaced about 20 minutes later and (along with various festival dignitaries and local politicians as well as Korean composer Unsuk Chin) addressed the 2016 ISCM delegates at the densely packed opening reception. His words were extremely moving. At one point he described all music as being world music. I was extremely proud for American music at that moment, even though all I really wanted to do was check into my hotel room and pass out, which is all I was able to do about two hours later. After all, I needed to get some rest in order to make it through six intense days of meetings and concerts.
The first General Assembly (this is the part of ISCM that is probably most like the International Confederation of Wizards) started bright and early at 9 A.M. back in the concert hall complex, which was a less-than-quick zig-zagged chartered bus ride from the hotel. Traditionally during the first of the assembly sessions, delegates reintroduce themselves and their respective organizations and there is usually an announcement of significant composers from each of the delegates’ countries who had died since the previous convening followed by a minute of silence. It was particularly heartbreaking for me to announce the deaths of David Stock, whose Inner Space received its world premiere during the 1976 WMD, and Steven Stucky—which was news to many of the people there. Despite our all being connected now through the internet, and particularly via Facebook, news in our community still travels much slower than it ought to.
Later that afternoon, the first official WMD concert set the appropriate all-over-the-map tone for the week’s musical activities, featuring four stylistically and geographically contrasting works performed by the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa under the direction of Christopher Lee. The first, Steps (2009)—audio here, score here—by Israeli composer Yasmin Tal (b. 1981), was a series of three miniatures that seamlessly wandered back and forth between material that (at least, to my ears) sounded European and Asian. (Other attendees commented to me that they thought the piece sounded American!) I was very smitten with the Fünf Stücke um den Fluss zu queren (2012) by German composer Charlotte Seither (b. 1965). Another collection of miniatures, this dazzling work was chock full of dazzling and often unexpected sound effects, though it always sounded completely idiomatic and, imagine that, fun. It was originally composed for youth orchestra, but it strikes me as a piece that musicians of any age would enjoy playing. A variety of extended techniques were also foregrounded in Vuolle by Finnish composer Jouni Hirvelä (b. 1982). But this nine-minute single-movement 2014 piece, which was also chock full of quartertones and sixth-tones, was very different from what followed, the 1993 Divertimento (one of the oldest works featured during this year’s festival) by the Chilean Hernán Ramírez Ávila (b. 1941), a work which, by comparison, sounded downright neoclassical.
The entire concert lasted roughly an hour, as did most of the others throughout the week. The impressive ratio of gender and generational parity was also true for the majority of the other programs, too. All of this was an extremely welcome contrast with concerts on previous WMDs I had attended these past five years. I was told that 40% of the pieces programmed this year were by younger composers (which I think means composers under 35). I did not do the math to confirm whether or not this was true, but it certainly felt like the right balance.
Next I attended the Asian Composers Showcase concert, featuring the Ensemble TIMF, which was sponsored by the Goethe Institute. This was not officially part of the ISCM World Music Days, but I figured the alternative to attending it was passing out from jetlag, plus the concert consisted of four newly-commissioned works and I’m always up for hearing something new. The composers were allowed to write for an ensemble of up to nine instruments and most of them also experimented with extended techniques and various add-ons. One work, Hotei by Noriko Koide (b. 1982, Japan), even included balloons. At the end of the concert, a selected jury (which included ISCM President Peter Swinnen and outgoing Vice President Henk Heuvelmans) as well as the audience chose their favorite piece. Koide’s piece stole the show, winning both the official Asian Composer’s Showcase Goethe-Award and the Audience Award. At this point my memory is somewhat blurry about the other works: Quälend by Utku Asuroglu (b. 1986, Turkey); Mixtum by Seungwan Baek (b. 1981, South Korea); and Griefs for Nothing by Thatchatham Silsupan (Thailand). But I did stay awake throughout.
Later in the evening two excellent South Korean choruses shared the stage—the Incheon City Chorale and the Ansan City Choir (who had been featured in a showcase last year during the 2015 ACDA convening in Salt Lake City I wish I had caught). Luckily there are Soundcloud links (which I’ve affixed to the titles) for most of the repertoire (albeit performed by different groups). The Incheon singers (conducted by Jong-Hyun Kim) offered four pieces. Though a 2012 setting by Latvian composer Oskars Herlinš (b. 1980) of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet Nr. 28 frequently obscures the words by setting them with a variety of slides and percussive whispers, Paul Stanhope (b. 1969), one of Australia’s leading choral composers, took a much more direct text-setting approach in The land is healed, a movement from a much larger composition completed in 2014 called Jandamarra, which recounts Aboriginal folklore. Iris Szeghy (b. 1956), a composer from Slovakia who has written a great deal of choral music, struck of something of a balance between these two approaches in her Gratia gratiam parit (2014), which set five short aphoristic sentences combining traditional choral approaches with more experimental techniques. (Sadly the link here is to a more detailed description of the piece since I was unable to find anyway to listen to it online.) A moment (2013), a brief but immersive vocal rendering built from a single chord by Estonian composer Liisa Hirsch (b. 1984), is also not available for online listening although several of Hirsch’s other pieces, albeit nothing for chorus, can be listened to on her Soundcloud page.
Ansan (conducted by Shin-Hwa Park) performed a total of five pieces. Unleash the beauty of your eyes (2014) is a setting of Sappho by British choral composer and conductor Alexander Campkin (b1984). Für viele (2013) is a Christian Morgenstern setting by another choral composer/conductor Kurt Bikkembergs (b1963) from Germany. Chen-Hui Jen (b. 1981), who divides her time between her native Taiwan and Florida, employed sounds from the International Phoenetic Alphabet to convey the sonorities of spoken Chinese language in her extremely lush Twilight as a drifting islet (2013), which is a setting of her own text. Danish composer Toke Brorson Odin’s Ambulance-Helikopter is a fascinatingly intense and relentless six-minute non-verbal piece. According to his bio, Odin has composed extensively for theater, film, and software apps; based on Ambulance-Helikopter, I want one of those apps! Finally, I should describe their performance of Vesper Sparrow (2012) by Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980), the work chosen by the programming committee for the 2016 World Music Days from the six works submitted by New Music USA. The work’s original interpretation, by the eight-member vocal ensemble A Roomful of Teeth for whom she had written it, is deeply informed by the earthy and nasal singing techniques of traditional Sardinian folk music and it is mesmerizing. But the Ansan singers took a more classical approach which was equally effective. In addition, since they’re a much larger group, they decided to alternate passages between the full choir and a smaller group rather than only have a smaller group sing the piece. Mazzoli, who was able to attend rehearsals earlier in the day, was totally on board with this and the result was pure magic of a different order than the original. All in all, these two choruses proved that South Korean singers can tackle challenging music from all over the world and make it completely their own.
The next day began with the second general assembly meeting during which the attendees splintered off into working groups to discuss the future of ISCM—reimagining a new model for WMD, possibly hosting something more like a conference than a festival, how to more effectively harness social media, and whether the material on the ISCM website should be primarily targeted to ISCM members or to a more general audience. These talks were a welcome change from what has often felt like a de-facto, if not necessarily intentional, International Statute of Secrecy. Of course, if WMD were to truly represent all of the new music going on in the world, it would have to embrace a much wider realm than music whose instructions for realization is conveyed to interpreters through the cipher of score-based notation (or the even more seeming abracadabra realm of fixed media). But that would make such an undertaking much costlier and far more logistically complex. The thing about notation is that it has allowed music to travel around the globe with a greater speed and efficiently than individual musicians can travel (perhaps even if there were such a thing as floo powder) and, thanks to the internet and easily transferable PDFs and audio files, spreading music has never been easier.
The basic model on which WMD has been built is each country that is part of the ISCM network gets to have at least one piece of score-based music performed by local musicians (or a pre-recorded electronic/computer piece) over the course of a week-long music festival. But if the presentation was expanded to include music that is either predominantly improvisatorily-generated (e.g. jazz, Classical Indian music, etc.) or for which the interpretation as realized through a group dynamic is more significant than any preconceived game plan (e.g. rock, many traditional African musics, etc.), then individual musicians and entire groups from each of the countries in the network would have to be invited, accommodation provided, etc.—all in order to give a performance that probably couldn’t exceed 15 minutes if every nation is to be fairly represented. I did the math. ISCM currently has 65 members which hail from 47 different countries and several additional territories with various degrees of autonomy, both cultural and political. If, as per Andy Warhol’s dictum, all member organizations were allotted an equal “15 minutes of fame” (to which I’ve tacked on an additional—extremely optimistic, I know—10 minutes to allow for getting on and off stage), it would require at least 27 hours of concert time. If concerts were all 90 minutes, which would be ideal, that would mean a total of 18 concerts over the course of 6 days. This is approximately 1 ½ times the amount of music that gets played in the current WMD scheme. More importantly, asking and paying for an individual musician or a band to schlep to some remote city on another continent for such a brief appearance seems a waste of resources. So, in the final analysis, the present WMD model might be the most ideal if the goal is to represent everyone equally. Still, perhaps there are other ways to shine light of the wider variety of musical activities in each of these countries—a series of talks with recorded excerpts, perhaps inviting a small group of other kinds of musicians each year from just a handful of countries on a rotating basis, etc. This could also be away to bring into the ISCM network other underrepresented parts of the world (e.g. Africa, South America, South Asia, Oceania), all of which have vibrant, living musical cultures that are not predominantly score-based.
After all that heady talk, it was difficult to focus on the first of the day’s concerts—a performance by the Changwon Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Tae-Young Park—but the music inevitably grabbed my attention and took my mind off of everything else, as it ought to. Well, mostly. I was particularly smitten with the opening work O Freunde, let others speak (2013) by Henrik Strindberg (b. 1954, Sweden). Strindberg was formerly active as a progressive rock musician—he’s a founding member of the band Ragnarök—and his rhythmically-charged orchestral writing is clearly indebted to his years of rocking out. Fresh from the morning’s discussions, it demonstrated—to me at least—that though WMD is, by design, currently limited to score-based music, there are a vast number of aesthetic possibilities that still can (and should) be mined within that rubric. Zoetrope (2015) by Korean composer Yejune Synn (b. 1991) also partook of a sound world that was beyond what is usually performed by symphony orchestras. Synn’s generative music was inspired by pre-film animation devices that speed through a series of images to create the illusion of motion (think of the phenakistoscopes and other inventions of late 19th century British-born American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose pioneering output I first learned about, as luck would have it, via Philip Glass). It so mesmerized the members of the committee that adjudicates the ISCM’s Young Composer Award that at the end of the week Synn was declared the winner. But the “forte, piano” concerto (2013) by Volodymyr Runchak (b. 1960, Ukraine) had an even more unusual structure. Rather than being cast as a conventional piano concerto in which a virtuoso soloist interacts with an orchestra, often seeming like a sonic metaphor for an individual struggling within or against a society, here the orchestra and piano actually never perform together at the same time. In fact, the piano is completely silent until the very end of the work when it finally commands the foreground for only about a minute. It is, pardon the pun, quite disconcerting. The other works on the program were significantly subtler in their impact. There were some hints of Messiaen in Prayer of the Firmament (2011), by Isao Matsushita (b. 1951, Japan), a work composed in direct response to the tragic earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Despite the Memory of the Lost Silence (2012) by Zeynep Gedizlioglu (b. 1977), a Turkish composer currently based in Berlin, is a somewhat aphoristic tone poem that seems inspired by exile. In her somewhat elusive program note, Gedizlioglu states that the work is the output of “a journey I have made” and that “The Silence—which has never existed; which is lost—could be hidden in an unmasked melody that the orchestra shouts out loud. … Despite the memory of the lost silence, the orchestra shouts.”
Two of the ISCM delegates—George Kentros (president of the Swedish ISCM Section) and Susanna Eastburn (the Chief Executive of Sound and Music, the United Kingdom’s ISCM section)—hosted a meet and greet event called Composer Collider which was designed specifically for the composers of pieces featured during WMD who were able to make the journey to Tongyeong. Unlike the ISCM delegates, who are required to attend the daily General Assembly convenings, the featured composers are mostly left on their own, except for the rehearsals and performances of their works, so it was a great way to make them feel more welcome and involved.
I should point out here that although most of the musicians who perform during WMD festivals are local, Tongyeong offered some unique challenges. Despite it being the birthplace of Isang Yun and its now being the home of a spectacular music complex which houses two excellent concert halls (where all of this year’s programs were held), there aren’t a lot of local musicians on hand to tap for such a presentation. The aforementioned Chanwon Philharmonic is as close as Tongyeong gets to having a local orchestra since Chanwon is only a little over an hour away by car. The choruses from Ansan and Incheon are both not too far away from Seoul which means an hour by plane to Busan and then the requisite ground transportation. But I’m not sure how the folks from Kanazawa, Japan, got there, unless they had access to a portkey. It looks relatively close on the map, but flight routes are extremely convoluted. The best route might just be by boat, but at close to 500 nautical miles it doesn’t seem like a fun trip.
And then there’s the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble (HKNME) which was on hand for two entire programs. It takes longer to get from Hong Kong to Tongyeong than to get from New York City to Los Angeles, but I’m very glad they made the journey. An extremely versatile, modular ensemble which, for the purposes of the repertoire they were called upon to perform, morphed from a “Pierrot-plus configuration” (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion) to a full string orchestra under the direction of Sharon Andrea Choa. And the repertoire was equally varied. They opened the first of their programs with Reflections on Arirang (2013), a trio for clarinet, violin and piano by Joyce Wai-chung Tang (b. 1976, Hong Kong), which was inspired by very famous South Korean folk tunes. As the snowflakes return to the sky, a 2010 string orchestra work by Japan-born, now Vancouver-based Rita Ueda (b. 1963) was designed to induce various auditory illusions.Monolithe (2010) by Jean-Marie Rens (b. 1955, Belgium) seems somewhat strangely titled to me since the piece is chock full of lush harmonies. But there is a considerable amount of repetition and harmonic stasis which is intended, as per the composer’s own description, to explore “the perception of time through the dialectical relationship between stillness and movement.” Into the outer (2014) for 13 strings by Taiwan-born, Australia and New Zealand-raised, and San Diego-based Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh (b. 1984) is, according to her, about “propagation versus consumption” something which is considerably more difficult to aurally process than the relationship between stillness and movement so I just focused on it as pure sound.
HKNME opened their second program with Dérive (1984), a Pierrot-plus-percussion sextet by the recently deceased Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). It was the oldest piece on the official concert program and was, in fact, older than many of the composers whose works were performed this year. But Midsummer Song for string orchestra, though composed by Raminta Šerkšnyte (b. 1975, Lithuania) in 2009, hinted at much older music, late 19th/early 20th century European romanticism, whereas >Fragmenti v «Ja gulyala veselo» (2014) by Balázs Horváth (b. 1976, Hungary) suggested an alternative present tense. A double bassist, playing way above the instrument’s usual register, pursues a relentless ostinato that microtonally descends ever so slightly with each additional iteration as strings and percussion explore a wide range of sonorities. I was at the edge of my seat until the very last moment. But perhaps the most wonderful thing on that concert was the world premiere performance of Woodland Heights, an extremely unusual 2014 string orchestra piece by Irish composer Nick Roth (b. 1982). The musical materials for the piece are culled from data about the growth of trees in an ideal forest spanning a 720-year period. According to his program notes, “each crotchet” corresponds to “one year in ecological time.” To further drive the point home, branches occupied seats next to the string players who, upon occasion, rubbed them. At a climactic moment toward the very end of the piece, some of the players went off-stage to bring back a tree which they mounted in a large flower pot on the middle of the stage. While most of these tree-based shenanigans did not actually make any sound, it made for a fascinating visual counterpoint with the process music the strings were performing.
In between the two HKNME concerts was yet another incredible local seafood meal with some of the delegates (writing about the food in Tongyeong would require me to write something twice as long so I’ll resist), a very brief night’s sleep, and the third of the ISCM’s General Assembly sessions. Among the agenda items that morning was the election for an ExComm position which was vacated by Gaudemus director Henk Heuvelmans. I am deeply honored to report that I was elected unopposed by acclamation. It would be disingenuous for me to claim that it wasn’t the highlight of the morning for me, but there were other really exciting things that transpired as well. There was a captivating presentation by Javier Hagen, president of the Swiss ISCM section, about recorderology.com, a website that synchronizes notated scores to musical performances, as well as an informative survey of composers of Basque origin (“a nation without a country, actually a country without a nation”) by Mikel Aingeru from Musika Gileak. There was also a lively and, as of yet, not completely resolved discussion about the best way to represent composers who were born in one country but currently live in another. As it stands now, music by such composers could be submitted for consideration for WMD either by an ISCM section based either in their birth or adopted countries. Perhaps what was most exciting, however, were talks about future WMDs which included an offer by S’fisokuhle Xulu (from New Music South Africa) to host World Music Days in the ISCM’s centenary year, 2022, on the African continent for the very first time. It is too soon to confirm that this will actually be the plan (since a concrete agenda will need to be presented that then must be voted on by the delegates), but plans are already in the works for several other upcoming WMDs: 2020 in Auckland (and hopefully also Christchurch), New Zealand (in late April and/or early May); 2019 in Tallinn, Estonia (during the second week of April); and 2018 in Beijing, China (from May 19-25, 2018). The very next incarnation of WMD, which is a co-presentation by Music on Main and the Canadian League of Composers, will take place in Vancouver in November 2017. Music on Main’s Artistic Director David Pay emphasized that the festival will be diverse and inclusive in its programming and ensure not only gender parity, but a fair representation of composers of diverse age groups, races, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations. It promises to be a great opportunity to knock down the barriers between musical wizards and musical muggles and, since it’s a much shorter distance for people in the United States to travel to than most WMDs (certainly any that I’ve attended thus far), I hope that it could attract a huge and diverse audience from this country as well as from all over Canada.
On the other hand, the next concert of the day, a program that juxtaposed string quartets and brass quintets, felt like the kind of program that keeps new music as hermetically sealed from the outside world as the wizarding realm is. On first encounter, the four works performed by the Gaia Quartet—String Quartet No. 4 “Alphabet in Whirly Music” (2006) by Dan Dediu (b. 1967, Romania), Bagatelles (a work composed in honor of the Webern centenary) by Matej Sloboda (b1988, Slovakia), Rhymes (2012) by Evis Sammoutis (b. 1979, Cyprus), and Saenggak (Thinking about) (2015) by Jae-Goo Lee (b. 1977, South Korea), a composer who has studied at Queens College and the University of Chicago—seemed to all speak the same musical language although clearly their composers didn’t (speak the same verbal language). Theirs is, by and large, a musical language that is extremely difficult to translate to anyone who doesn’t speak it and the players, an active chamber group from within the Seoul Philharmonic, often seemed to be getting lost in translation. This was sadly even truer for the brass players, which as far as anyone was able to determine was an ad-hoc ensemble assembled expressly for the purpose of performing the works on the program: Varius Multiplex Multiformis (2004) by Robert Lemay (b. 1960, Canada); Praying Mantis III (2015) by Roché van Tiddens (b. 1990, South Africa), The sound a gemmed light (2014) by Neville Hall (b. 1962 New Zealand), and Three Polish Dances by Ewa Fabianska-Jelinska (b. 1989, Poland), though Fabianska-Jelinska’s quasi-folk piece was a stark and somewhat jarring contrast to the rest of the offerings. I tend to eschew musical judgments and I am willing to listen to every one of these pieces again, but at the time I was extremely eager for the concert to end.
I felt equally unengaged at a concert later in the evening featuring members of the Ensemble TIMF (which really were local musicians) which was devoted to chamber and solo instrumental works, though admittedly it didn’t start until 9:30pm on an already packed day. It also really didn’t help that one of the pieces involved silence and turning off the lights before it ended. I actually heard someone snoring. While I did not fall asleep, my memories of In the distance (2013) by Kristoffer To (b. 1990, Hong Kong) and Lágrimas (2014) by Francisco del Pino (b. 1980, Argentina), both for solo cello, Fluchtlinien for solo flute (2015) by Henrik Denerin (b. 1978, Sweden), and Pedma Dorje, a 2011 string trio by Li Liu (b. 1986, China) are extremely hazy. Thankfully I was able to reinforce my memory of Strade della città tumultuosa, a 2015 quartet for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello by Simone Fontanelli (b. 1961, Italy), through hearing a different performance of it on YouTube and could appreciate what sounds (to me at least) like an evocation of contemporary urban life. On the other hand, I do still remember the 2010 Obo kvartett by Faroese composer Kári Bæk (b. 1950), which was reminiscent of much mid-20th century neoclassical chamber music, because at least it offered a pleasant respite from the preponderant modernism of the rest of the program.
I did not attend the previous concert that evening, a program by the Barcelona-based Quarteto Casals featuring two quartets by Beethoven along with music by Webern and Kurtag plus the world premiere of NALDA by South Korean composer Hyunsuk Jun (b. 1978). It did not seem like a WMD program. (It was not enumerated as such in the program outline and had I attended it I would not have eaten dinner.) But it turns out that the Jun premiere was a bona fide ISCM piece that had been selected by the international jury (and not, as I had posted earlier here, a TIMF commission. Thank you to TIMF’s artistic planning manager WonCheol Kim for clarifying this and thanks to the internet’s ability to function as a time turner for enabling me to correct this here). Phooey. I also never got to check out the two sound installations that were selected for presentation—Train Re Mix (2009) by Miroslav Miša Savic (b. 1954, Serbia) and It was so quiet that the pins dropped could be heard (2011) by Hui Ye (b. 1981, China, currently based in Austria). By the time I was able to carve out some free time for them, I couldn’t figure out where they were located. After looking through a printed collection of Savic’s process pieces scored for solo piano, I would have loved to have witnessed this installation which he described as a mash-up of musical fragments reconstructed from scores that he lost on a hard-drive that mysterious disappeared. Thankfully Hui Ye posted a two-minute video excerpt of her work, in which a spinning magnet circles around jars filled with pins thus triggering sound. I would have love to have experienced this live, alas.
As per tradition, the final ISCM General Assembly session was largely devoted to assessing this year’s WMD. (It was somewhat premature since there were still an additional four concert programs to attend, but it was our only option to have such a discussion since it was the last time we were scheduled to officially meet altogether this year.) Complaints ranged from ISCM signage not being visible enough on TIMF’s promotional materials to problems with amenities and internet connections. Regarding more specifically musical matters, concerns were expressed about there not being greater opportunities to learn about Korean musical life and there being very little connection to Korea’s most revered composer, Isang Yun, despite the fact that the festival took place in his birth city and that he was one of ISCM’s Honorary Members. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which works were submitted by ISCM delegates and what countries the composers were from. But all in all, most of the delegates seemed quite satisfied with their experience overall.
So, the final four concerts… The first was a program called “Music for Children” and the audience for it actually included a ton of young children who were mostly fairly attentive throughout which is somewhat miraculous considering that a lot of the program didn’t strike me as being particularly appealing to children. But, hey, what do I know at this point? The program opened with a group of solo piano pieces that were not hard-edged modernism but nevertheless did not scream out youthfulness: Album per la fanciullezza (2013) by Paolo Rosato (b. 1959, Italy); Cahier d’explorations for piano (2012) by Gaël Tissot; Makapaka (2008) by Viktorija Cop (b. 1979, Croatia); Once Upon an Alphabet for Piano (2015) by Patrick Friel (U.K.); and Three Bittersweet Burlesques by Sunghyun Lee (b. 1995, South Korea). Although at one point there was some narration, it wasn’t spoken in Korean—which is the language that the children in the audience would have felt most comfortable with. In fact, the German pianist Michael Meyer, a fine musician but an older man who was dressed in formal concert attire, spoke the text in English with a thick accent. I could barely understand him myself. The ensemble pieces which followed, however, seemed much more in spirit with the purpose of the concert. Swiss composer Claude Berset’s La Ménagerie de Tristan (2002), which was based on poems by surrealist Robert Desnos, involved dancers and was as much a spectacle for the eyes as the ears. But the most effective piece by far was Gorilla (2013), by Jihyun Kim (b. 1988, South Korea), which also involved costumes and narration, this time in Korean, thankfully for the children though not for me since there were no subtitles. I was however able to glean from her program notes that the piece was about a little girl’s gorilla doll which comes to life. The young audience was ecstatic. But overall this concert seemed a lost opportunity. It was a chance to recruit a whole new generation of musical wizards.
At least there was much more for already indoctrinated new music wizards to be ecstatic about at a concert later in the afternoon by the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra (another ensemble based in the environs of Seoul) under the direction of Shiyeon Sung, a dynamic female conductor who has conducted the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The five works were startlingly different in stylistic inclination as well as in inspiration. Hallucinations (2013) by Randolph Peters (b. 1959, Canada), took as its departure point Oliver Sachs’s account of John Corigliano’s—who is identified in Sachs’s book Musicophilia as John C.—problem with tune worms. With Corigliano’s permission, Peters borrowed one of Corigliano’s melodies (from The Red Violin Caprices) and used it as the basis of a series of his own musical hallucinations. Areas in outer space surrounded by black holes, from which nothing—not even light—can escape was the inspiration for event horizon (2010) by Won Suk Choi, a Korean composer who received Master’s and DMA degrees from the University of Michigan. At times, the rumblings of the orchestra were quite intense, which I imagine is a sonic parallel to all the pent up things trapped in such space since, of course, the only possible sonic parallel to how anyone outside such a space would perceive it would be complete silence. By comparison, the muse that triggered Elementi (2013) by Nina Šenk (b. 1982, Slovenia) was somewhat more down to earth—Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe from which many surrounding nations can be seen. She rendered this multinational vantage point through juxtaposing contrasting material in the different sections of the orchestra. The Five Miniatures (2013) by the Polish-born, Paris-based Elzbieta Sikora (b. 1943) were fascinating timbral studies. At one point one of the percussionists dropped what I think was a ping pong ball, a trick that might seem gimmicky but it was a thoroughly musical gesture and as such made it seem all the more daring. But the most daring piece on the program was Fuoco e fumo, e.g. “Fire and Smoke” (2013, revised 2015), by Richard Rijnvos (b1964, Netherlands). It was music that seemed to constantly move and stay completely still at the same time. Rijnvos, who has previously blown my mind with the staggering variety of music which he meticulously derives from magic squares, is an extremely powerful wizard. Overall, this well-curated program very effectively demonstrated what a great variety of sounds an orchestra can make.
This is probably why the next concert, which was devoted to works using electronics—a realm that is all about sonic possibility—felt somewhat anticlimactic, and somewhat unmagical, to me. A total of seven works were presented ranging from an exclusively fixed media score—Light Rain, Laganside (2009) by Eric Lyon (b. 1962, USA)—to a work for electronically enhanced violin (which to me sounded mostly like amplification)—Marionette (2014) by Elena Rykova (b. 1991, Russia). The electronic sounds that accompanied the live clarinet in Tempora mutantur (2013) by Chin-ting Chan (b. 1986, Hong Kong) were largely derived from pre-recorded clarinet sounds and in Cellolar Synthesis (2010), by the Spanish-born, Switzerland-based Helga Arias Parra (b. 1984, Spain), the electronic sound world seems to emerge from the spectra of the live cello’s sustained utterances, whereas in Beyond the eternal chaos (2014) by Takuto Fukuda (b. 1984, Japan) the live flute at times seemed to imitate the various clicks and clacks of the electronic sound scape in which it was enveloped. Frames #87 (2011) by Igor C. Silva (b1989, Portugal) added video to an electronic score that dueled with a live clarinet, whose skronky virtuosic licks at times reminded me of Eric Dolphy. According to composer Yuanyuan (Kay) He (b. 1985), a Chinese-born composer now based in Texas, her On the Pivot of an Abandoned Carousel for flute and Electronics (2015) was inspired by the TV show American Horror Story. The music is occasionally eerie and unsettling, but since I’ve never watched the series I should let her describe it herself.
The final concert of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days, which inexplicably was held at 10:00 p.m. the following day on a day that had no other official ISCM-related activities, was a showcase for the Paris-based Ensemble 2e2m conducted by Pierre Roullier. With the exception of the Casals Quartet (whose concert I missed had included only one piece programmed specifically for WMD), these musicians travelled further than anyone else to perform for us, so thankfullly—despite being extremely tired and anxious for outgoing flights early the next morning—most of the delegates still showed up. After the intensity of Die Niemandsrose (2012), three songs by Carmen Cârneci (b. 1957, Romania) for baritone and ensemble based on poems by Paul Celan, A Game of Fives (2013), a playful and somewhat silly trio for soprano, flute, and viola by Yie Eun Chun (b. 1985, South Korea) was a welcome respite. But Alter Ego (2013) for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and electronics by Jung-eun Park (b. 1986, South Korea), while also somewhat whimsical, took itself a lot more seriously. Requiem for Nature for tenor and ensemble (2011, orchestrated 2015) by Takehito Shimazu (b. 1949, Japan) was also extremely serious—it was another work inspired by the earthquake of March 11, 2011. Shimazu, who is based in Fukushima (which was the epicenter of the tragedy) was a first-hand witness and, according to his program notes, composed this requiem so people will “not forget what had happened.” Sakubel Osil for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, and cello (2009, revised 2014) by Tomasz Skweres (b. 1984, Austria) is a mysterious, ritualistic piece based on a poem by Mary Bautista written in the Native American language Tzotzil. Finally, Aquae for clarinet, 2 horns, piano, and string quartet (2014) by Valerio Sannicandro (b. 1971), an Italian composer based in Germany, involved a variety of extended techniques—various mutes on the horn, playing inside the piano, etc.—to evoke the flow of water.
I probably shouldn’t have just complained about having free time for the entire day before this concert, because it allowed me and two of the other ISCM ExComm members—president Peter Swinnen and treasurer Walter De Schepper—to explore the city of Tongyeong. Among our goals of our intense walk all over the town (and this might not have been the easiest thing to accomplish considering the overall lack of Roman-alphabet signage) was to visit the Isang Yun Memorial. As we were walking in the general direction of a museum we also wanted to visit, there it was, suddenly right in front of us, conjured almost by some supernatural power. It was extremely inspiring to learn more about Isang Yun’s life and his ideas about music and community. Though much of the music he composed might initially sound extremely peculiar to a musical muggle, Yun strived to create a musical language fusing Eastern and Western sensibilities. It was music that he hoped could be appreciated by everyone. Since returning home I have felt even further charged to do whatever I am somehow able to do to help create a greater awareness for all the magical new music I have encountered throughout my life. I am convinced that the magic that is new music will be even more powerful if more people can discover and appreciate it.
1. Just in case, I want to point out that there’s no such place as “Potterville” in the novels or the movies (Rowling calls her own promotional website for the universe she created “Pottermore”), but I couldn’t avoid the construct, though now it’s making me wonder if some constructive insights can be gained by comparing today’s new music scene to George Bailey (played by Jimmie Stewart)’s nightmare vision of a town actually called Potterville in which he doesn’t exist in the classic Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but I digress.
2. Well, to be fair, the U.S.A. does have something of a parallel to Gaudeamus Music Week in the more grassroots MATA Festival, an annual NYC-based festival which showcases music exclusively by composers under 40. In fact, MATA and Gaudeamus now regularly collaborate. And, of course, though they do not offer the same kind of exposure as a performance on a music festival open to the general public (even muggles), there are also those annual ASCAP Morton Gould Awards and BMI Student Composer Awards, both of which are announced at private ceremonies.
4. The ISCM Young Composer Award—now sponsored by ISCM Associate Member Music on Main, from Vancouver—is given annually to a composer who has written what a committee comprised exclusively of ISCM delegates determines to be the most outstanding work presented during the festival among the works by composers under the age of 35.