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The ISCM died last week at 90 (actually 85) - and then began to slowly rise from its ashes - Orlando Garcia



The ISCM died last week at 90 (actually 85) - and then began to slowly rise from its ashes

The title for this ISCM Festival report in addition to being an allusion to Morton Feldman's work is also a reference to the situation the ISCM has been undergoing during the last several years and a new beginning hoped for after this World New Music Days festival. What was once the premiere champion of new music has lost stature and importance as a result of the surge in major new music festivals around the world and its seeming inability to break away from the predominance and reputation for championing what many consider an older European aesthetic especially at the World (New) Music Days Festivals. Feldman, my mentor, often criticized this aesthetic. As a result of this loss of prestige, the executive committee and the general assembly have been working hard to transform the society and it is hoped that some of the changes and charges to the Executive Committee made during the 2006 WNMD Stuttgart Festival will see an ISCM World Music Days in the future with a wider aesthetic view, greater representation of music from around the world as selected by the sections, and an increase in impact and relevance.

What a better place to leave the old behind than at a festival held in Germany the birthplace and stronghold for what some refer to as the "Darmstadt aesthetic". Even before the festival began there were mass grumblings from the delegates about the wide spread lack of programming of works submitted by the sections (only ca 7% of the works programmed came from the international submissions made by the sections). When asked about this situation, festival organizers replied it would have been a very boring festival if they had programmed more of the works submitted by the sections. If this is the case then the ISCM has done a very poor job of selecting sections. But perhaps the problem lies elsewhere. It is no coincidence that the recent World Music Days festivals held in Hong Kong and Croatia had a much more varied aesthetics representation than those in Switzerland or Germany not to mention works submitted by the sections. It seems that geography and aesthetic prejudices go hand in hand.

Hopefully with the new measures being put in place forcing future festivals to be more inclusive of the New Music being created around the world as selected and submitted by the sections, the old ISCM has died and a new more proactive and more diverse society has emerged. Given this backdrop a limited aesthetic representation was expected and generally the festival did not disappoint in this regard. It is only to be expected that works selected by a jury of composers led by strong personalities with similar aesthetics would chose a certain type of work and indeed this was the case. 

Although aesthetic limitations abounded, the festival included excellent performances by some of the best performers and ensembles that new music has to offer and in this regard the festival was a big success. Although several venues in Stuttgart were utilized, most of the concerts were held at the Theaterhaus, a complex of halls that were expertly employed by the organizers during the festival. One oddity, none of the halls were air-conditioned and as a result the hot summer temperatures made sitting through a concert a steamy proposition; unusual when you consider the money spent on the festival and the strength of the German economy. 

The Sunday afternoon concert by violinist Irvine Arditti a staple at ISCM events and with good reason was a showcase for virtuosity even if the works presented were not exactly masterpieces. The most interesting possibility, a work for DJ and violin by Ari Ben Shabetai, turned out to be more of a work for composer running live electronics (with Max or similar software) and violin. There was none of the turntable scratching and other more typical sounds from electronica, dance, etc that you would expect to find in a DJs performance. Instead we heard a very commonplace interaction of loops, processing, and repeated gestures played by the violin recorded and played back into the hall. More interesting was the second half of the concert with pianist Heather O'Donnell's performance of Walter Zimmermann's Wustenwanderung. A truly fascinating work that includes declamations by the pianists, dramatic pauses, and requires a tremendous amount of virtuosity on the pianist's part. Ms. O'Donell was clearly up to the task showing excellent technique, musicality, and commitment to the music. She closed her half of the concert doing a committed job of performing one of Ligeti's etudes in memory of the late composer; a much appreciated gesture. 

That same evening a new opera by Julio Estrada was premiered. Once again justified or not, grumblings from the ISCM membership were heard complaining that Mr. Estrada formed part of the jury for the festival and wound up with one of the biggest works on the event. The opera titled Murmullo del paramo, is loosely based on Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Paramo. In the work Estrada presents a surreal world where dream states and angst filled fantasies collide. Extended vocal and instrumental techniques make up the sound world for the work. Unfortunately these loosely presented gestures with limited variations are not enough to maintain sonic interest over the nearly two-hour work. Perhaps this would not necessarily be a problem if the actions on the stage were more varied. The action on stage however, with few exceptions towards the end, is as limited and repetitive as the restricted musical gestures. Nevertheless there are some very strong dramatic moments and images in the work and a more concise version could be quite effective. And I am speaking as someone that is a fan of long static works given my mentor (6 hour long string quartets are not a problem if they are paced properly). Once again the performances were excellent, especially the contrabass work of Stefano Scodanibbio and the vocal work of Neue Vocalsolisten, which stood out as did the staging and lighting of Sergio Vela.

The following day we were treated to a lunchtime concert by the Isao Nakamura Ensemble an excellent student percussion ensemble from Karlsruhe that performed along with clarinetist Nicola Miorada and soprano Rita Balta. The first work presented, Sept Materiaux for soprano, clarinet, and 2 percussion by Jongwoo Yim, was one of the more effective of the day beginning with sustained notes in the soprano and clarinet and unfolding into flourishes and ornamentations. Later short ostinato figures and sonic fragments punctuated by dramatic silences were employed. The work ended with a slowly darkening stage adding to the drama of the piece. The audience response was extremely enthusiastic. Two other works on the concert for percussion were not as effective. Paranormal by Panayiotis Kokoras for 3 snare drums had some interesting lighting effects as the snare drums were lit from above and colored brushes were employed. But the musical gestures were not varied enough to sustain interest. And the final work, a la sombra de la higuera by Cergio Prudencio for 4 percussionists could have used some editing although it did contain some interesting fragments including an antiphonal section between 2 performers situated on either side of the stage performing on steel drums.

That evening a concert by the Ives Ensemble provided some aesthetic relief as several works that included a slowly unfolding more delicate sonic palette were included. Of note was, A slice through Translucence by Christopher Fox for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion, and piano. The work based on shimmering ostinatos reminiscent of those found in sections of Feldman's Why Patters, was expertly orchestrated and I only wish that it had lasted longer. Also of note was Marko Nikodijevic's Gesualdo Transcriptions, for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion, and electronics, which featured slowly unfolding fragments consisting of harmonics interspersed with silences. The work's attractive timbres were only slightly marred by the new age referencing electronic part prominent at the end. Less successful was Piet Jan van Rossum's Annette dans l'atelier for string quartet flanked by two violins and a tuba. The spatial and theatrical interest generated by the work could not overcome problems with pacing, the incompatibility of timbres and lack of balance between the tuba and strings. A similar problem with timbres affected David Young's A Leaf from the Book of Cities for clarinet, violin, viola, cello, tuba, piano, and percussion. Two eclectic and much more directional chamber works by Daniel Matej and a Gershwin referencing solo piano work by Richard Rijnvos, although of aesthetic contrast, could have been omitted as neither were of the level of the other works presented. The performances and interpretation of all of the works by the Ives ensemble were excellent and pianist John Snijders virtuosic performance of the Rijnvos solo piano piece was truly exceptional.

The next day at the Kunstmuseum in the center of Stuttgart, Mihaela Stanculescu-Vosganian presented her work, Dreams Through Sounds. Although an interesting and alternative concert space the entrance and lobby to the museum are located next to the stage area and the crowd noise from those coming to the museum was problematic. Fortunately the work was loud enough that the noise was for the most part not an issue. Vosganian's work is a multi cultural - mixed media presentation that includes video projections, live electronics, and featured a pianist and cellist each performing multiple instruments. The pianist also performed on accordion and Asian percussion including small hand held crotales, which along with other small percussion instruments were at times struck and/or placed inside the piano. Meanwhile the cellist also alternated between cello, tuba, and small wooden flute. Video images were projected on 2 screens flanking the performers. These consisted of processed images of the reflection from the surface of a lake as well as video images captured live by a third "performer" whose task was to move from cellist to pianist and back while capturing a close up of the musical instruments being utilized. As with many of the pieces heard at the festival extended instrumental techniques, the use of non-pitched materials, and controlled improvisation were evident throughout the work. Although an interesting juxtaposition of images and instruments, the work was somewhat uneven especially in the transitions. However, it ended with a very attractive section of tranquil images and sounds providing a nice contrast to the materials presented earlier.

That same evening the chamber ensemble musikFabrik performed an excellent concert of very interesting works. Beginning with the Post-Webernesque, Blick aus der Entfernung, for chamber orchestra by composer Sergej Newski, the ensemble and very talented young conductor Johannes Debus, quickly showed their high level of musicianship and technical prowess. The work by Newski, although in what some may consider a more traditional Post Webern European aesthetic, was expertly crafted and included attractive timbres and instrumental combinations. Martin Smolka's fascinating Solitudo for guitar, harp, piano, cello, percussion, and winds followed next. The work began with a fragmented microtonal figure presented by the harp, guitar, and piano, which was repeated and brought back throughout the work. The dramatic use of silences and the varying attractive fragments that made up the work were very engaging. Vykintas Baltakas' Ouroboros was equally well crafted and interesting. Scored for oboe, soprano saxophone, flute, and clarinet encircling 3 violins, the work took advantage of the spatial and timbre possibilities of this arrangement to the fullest. Thoma Simaku's Reflexions de la Croix III for violin and chamber ensemble closed the concert. A tour de force for the violinist, Hannah Weirich was the featured performer and she was up to the task and more. Her excellent technique and interpretive abilities were on display in this work. Simaku who has been labeled by some as the prototypical ISCM composer due to his European influenced aesthetics and regular appearance on the World Music Days Festivals, once again showcased his orchestration skill and craftsmanship. As with most of his music the work was well written and the only possible drawback was in the very romantic traditional approach to the use of the violinist as the protagonist. Paganini would have been proud.

On Wednesday evening the highly regarded Antipodes ensemble from Switzerland performed. This eight member ensemble (the instrumentation is taken from the Schubert octet) has the distinction of being the first ever ISCM ensemble, a title that supposedly includes assistance with obtaining performances from the ISCM and its sections. Unfortunately since this ensemble is the first one chosen it must also experience the "bugs" in the new system and as a result instead of one year it was given a 2nd year by the ISCM to make up for the lack of organization and support with concerts. As one would assume these are talented and serious performers. The repertoire presented on the other hand was some of the least interesting of the festival. Outside of Wing Wah Chan's short and elegant string quartet, the music was unimaginative and uninspired. Perhaps the instrumentation (Schubert octet) is a drawback in which case works that feature subgroups from the ensemble should be considered (the Chan quartet was the only such piece as the rest of the works featured the entire ensemble). Hopefully this talented group will try to expand their repertoire to include more diverse and interesting music, as it would be a shame to waste their musical abilities on unattractive works.

The following morning the delegates were transported by bus to the ZKM in Karlsruhe. Towards the end of the ninety-minute ride one of the 2 buses transporting us smashed into a parked car. Fortunately no one was hurt and only the parked car suffered damage. Things could have gone downhill from there but fortunately the ZKM is an incredibly fascinating place. After an overview of the facilities we were given a brief tour of the engaging Light as Art exhibit and then some of the excellent sound/video interactive installations found in another part of the center. After lunch in a friendly Chinese restaurant we were treated to a concert by the Insomnio ensemble from Holland. Selected as the ISCM ensemble for 2007, this mixed chamber group presented two works both with recorded sounds. The first was an older work by Magnus Lindberg which in my view was far more interesting than his much more recent quasi romantic music and the second a work by Dutch composer Roderick de Man which although well written was relatively conservative in musical language; albeit given its veiled references to Stravinksy it was removed from the aesthetic of many of the more Darmstadtesque works presented at the festival. These and several other tape pieces by Ligeti, de Man, and Ludger Brummer were presented as part of the concert to showcase the ZKM's sound cube where the concert was held. And the cube is impressive with over 40 speakers surrounding the listener. The works by Ligeti from the early days of electronic music were meticulously preserved and presented and the work by Brummer, one of the directors of the center, used the diffusion capability of the space very well. After a long but satisfying day in Karlsruhe, we had to endure a two and one half hour bus ride to Stuttgart thanks to the heavy traffic and bad weather.

That evening I was able to attend a performance of Fausto Romitelli's video opera, An Index of Metals. Featuring musikFabrik and soprano Barbara Hannigan, the work was one of the highlights of the festival. From all accounts Romatelli was a very talented and up and coming star in the new music world who died at a relatively young age in 2004 after a prolonged illness, a huge loss if this opera is evidence of his music. The work, which is less opera and more chamber music with soprano and video, was presented with 3 video screens suspended adjacent to each other above the performers. The chamber orchestra, which included strings, winds, keyboards (acoustic piano and electric keyboard triggering samples), and processed electric guitar and electric bass was set up in orchestral semi circular fashion underneath and behind the suspended screens. The soprano was placed behind the orchestra center stage on a small podium surrounded by microphones and music stands. Although placed back behind the ensemble and video, Barbara Hannigan's vocal interjections and stage presence were so striking that she became the center of attention each time that she stood up and sang. As a result just about any other staging would have detracted from the video in the work. The music is very imaginative and expertly crafted. Static passages consisting of repeated blocks of sound or sustained sonorities, sections with large clusters, polytonal segments, repeating arpeggios and scalar patterns, extended techniques (including the soprano singing through a megaphone at the end of the work), fascinating variations in densities, registers, and colors are evidenced throughout the piece. The pacing between the changes in sound world and video is done in an expert fashion and although the video is not as consistently strong as the music, the work as a whole presents a highly engaging experience. The level of performance, as was the case throughout the festival, was extremely high with the performers in musickFabrik doing an incredible job. Talented conductor Andre de Ridder was in control and his interpretation was flawless. Barbara Hannigan's singing as alluded to before was stunning, as she was required to sing in straight tone (like a pop singer) and in a more operatic style (with vibrato). Her vocal range, sound quality, and control were very impressive. 

Friday proved to be problematic in so far as attending concerts as the general assembly met most of the day and I was not able to attend some of the afternoon events. At the same time it turned out to be one of the most productive meetings as many difficult issues were raised and solutions discussed. Only time will tell how fruitful these meetings were. That evening we were treated to an excellent concert by the Berlin based, Mosaic Ensemble. Once again the level of performance was very high and although the aesthetics were somewhat limited, the works on the Mosaic concert showed more variety than those heard at some of the other events. Of note was the piece by German Toro-Perez, which showed the interesting use of repetition, timbre explorations, and finely crafted angular gestures. Also of interest was Luis Antunes Pena Anatomia de um Poema Sonoro for chamber ensemble and live electronics, which I had the pleasure of conducting with my NODUS Ensemble in Miami this April. The work includes a narrator, soprano, alto saxophone, piano, and percussion, and is a dramatic and engaging work. Perhaps the most varied work on the concert was Lars Indrek Hansson's, Flicksphony for chamber ensemble and recorded sounds. The work features a more consonant palette than most of the music presented at the festival but the treatment of the musical materials is much more static and so a clear tonality is never really established. Instead an allusion to the pacing found in post-minimalist music is more the course. At the same time the material on the tape adds a layer of interest as it consists of samples of dialogue from popular films. Unfortunately the tape part was not loud enough to hear the samples clearly and only snippets of the dialogue could be made out. And although the work could use some slight revisions especially with regards to structure and pacing, the combination of sonic material with the dialogue from popular films was very interesting and I hope the composer will continue to explore this.

On Saturday, my last day at the festival, I attended the afternoon Global Interplay concert. Given what had transpired over the rest of the week, I was not expecting that there would be much aesthetic interplay. Nevertheless, I am pleased to be able to say that although there were several works that had their globe centered in Germany, some of the works actually integrated segments of ethnic music from the composer's part of the world. Of note was Chinese composer Liu Huan's Merge for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, pipa, sheng, and percussion. The work included a very effective mix of Asian and Western musical gestures especially when the pipa and sheng played in counterpoint to the western instruments. Egyptian composer Wael Sami's Speechless Mask, for seven players began with thunder outside the building and a bass drum roll mimicking the thunder; it couldn't have been planned better. The work unfolded slowly at first with string glissandi and ostinatos then moved to sections that included Middle Eastern scales, and chanting, clapping, and stomping by the performers. The work ended very effectively with the composer singing a quiet Middle Eastern folk song from the side of the stage. A third work Ocean Dialogue by Benedict Sackey from Ghana was well written in spite of the fact that it included simple harmonies and pulse oriented rhythmic patterns. While this work might be thought of by some as being less advanced than the other works presented during the festival, it came across as a breath of fresh air considering the overwhelming aesthetic orientation of the other works heard during the week. The other works although well written had less to do with the aesthetics of Global Interplay and more with the fact that the composers lived in other parts of the world. Having said this it should be noted that the composers presented as well as the performers, namely the Ensemble Modern Academy, are all students and the level of both composers and performers was extremely high. Aesthetic concerns aside the showcasing of excellent young composers and performers, is extremely important at the WMD and I congratulate the festival organizers for this initiative. I hope that other WMD festivals will continue the trend.

That evening the Neue Vocalsolisten and the SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble conducted by Marcus Creed performed composer Georges Asperghis' Wolfli Kantata. The work is based on the text and images of Adolf Wolfli and consists of sections sung by the Neue Vocalsolisten followed by those sung by the choir. Although the work included moments of brilliance, it was somewhat uneven given that on first hearing it sounded more like several works placed together rather than a large cantata. The performers were excellent throughout, especially the Neue Vocalisten. Consisting of seven vocalists the ensemble is extremely adept at creating unique vocal sonorities using a large catalog of extended and other vocal techniques. Their performance in both the Estrada and the Asperghis work were extremely impressive. 

In addition to the more traditional concert formats and alternative late night events at the Chill out lounge, installations were presented at the Sound Park Killesberg. The Sound Park is a truly inviting setting spread over several acres of rolling hills, as long as one avoids the midday heat. Two of the more interesting installations were by Andres Brosshard from Switzerland whose sound tower with sound whirl and two sound lakes provided a unique combination of sustained sounds in a continually changing spatial setting. Although I was not able to attend the Chill out lounge events I did hear some positive comments about them. My experiences with similar events at other festivals is that this type of alternative venue can be very effective in attracting additional and alternative audiences and provides a setting for programming offbeat works that might not work as well in a more traditional concert format.

Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the lack of ISCM sections submissions on concerts, I felt that the festival was interesting, well attended and organized. Musik der Jahrhunderte and Christine Fischer should be highly complimented for their efforts in presenting such a large and well run festival. But perhaps of most importance even beyond the music, was the work the Executive Committee and the General Assembly completed during the week. Many changes and concrete proposals were made designed to strengthen and make the organization more relevant and responsive to its members and its members more responsive to the organization. Hopefully as a result of some of this work, the 2006 WNMD will be the last time that the ISCM is part of a festival that does little to represent it and its membership and the organization as a whole will emerge renewed and refocused.

Orlando Garcia