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ISCM World New Music Days 2009 - Stephen Lias



ISCM World New Music Days 2009
September 24 through October 4, 2009
Visby, Växjö, and Göteborg, Sweden
“Listen to the World”

Report by Stephen Lias
(Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas, USA)

As I sit down to write a report on the 2009 ISCM World New Music Days festival, I realize once again, what an unmanageable task it this really is.  Each year, this lengthy, varied, and prestigious new music event is held in a different location around the world, and the 2009 installment was impressively hosted by three cities in Sweden: Visby, Växjö, and Göteborg.  This is my third year attending this festival (having been in Hong Kong and Vilnius in the previous two years), so, while I am still relatively new to the “family”, I have gained a modicum of perspective from which to view things.  Although written as an official report, this account is, by necessity, only an individual perspective of an extremely multi-faceted event.  To get a clear idea of the scope of this festival, many such accounts would be needed, and surely each would show a unique, but equally true, experience.

I’ll begin with a “by the numbers” summary.  By my calculation, this eleven-day festival in three cities included 42 concerts, 5 seminars, 25 sound art installations, 44 separate venues, hundreds of performances, and countless individual composers, performers, and other participants.  Added to this were 15 hours of general assembly meetings with 75 delegates representing about 50 nations and arts organizations from all over the globe.  It was, in every respect, an incredibly large undertaking which fully lived up to the scope and diversity that has come to be expected of the ISCM World Music Days.

Much of the credit for this success belongs to the organizers, Magnus Lemark, Ramon Anthin, Björn W. Stålne, Thomas Liljeholm, and Nils Wiklander. Their efforts and organization over the six years of planning was evident at every turn, from the seamless integration of local media, to the visually striking publicity that seemed to be displayed everywhere we looked.  As a delegate I felt extremely well looked-after by the exceptional accommodations, the well-organized transfer between venues, and cities, and the friendly staff who answered all our questions and kept us in line while always smiling.

Ultimately, though, the World Music Days festival is about music, and I’m pleased to report that Sweden did not disappoint in this area either.  I attended as many of the events as schedule and stamina would allow.  Even though there were some that I missed, I still heard over 125 new works performed by an impressive array of highly skilled and well-prepared performers and ensembles ranging from solo instrumentalists, up to symphony and full-scale opera.  Indeed, I repeatedly found myself in conversation with other composers and delegates about the impressive the level of commitment and artistic mastery seen in the performers.

My preference as a listener is somewhat eclectic, and I found the inclusive nature of the programming very commendable and quite in keeping with both the festival theme (“Listen to the World”), and the values of ISCM which aims for musical diversity and a plurality of styles, genres, or media.  In some cases, the juxtaposition of approaches was quite striking as in one concert where works for violin, trombone, and percussion shared the program with a work for bowl, candles, light sensors, and Bluetooth transmitter.  In other cases it was the contrast between the setting and the content that was unique, as was the case when we listened to 21st century works on a 18th century organ in a 14th century church on the island of Gotland. 

Of course, diversity was also amply demonstrated though style and genre.  Bearing in mind the hundreds of excellent and thought-provoking works that were programmed, I am somewhat reluctant to single out individual works, but as I have framed this report deliberately as a personal viewpoint, I hope I may venture to list (in no specific order) some of the pieces that I found particularly memorable. 

  • The Malmö Symphony Orchestra gave a gripping world premiere of evergreen by Paula af Malmborg Ward (a native of Göteborg, Sweden).  The unusual use of the choir, both spatially and dramatically, gave this fascinating piece a very unique quality.
  • Dancing by Ukrainian composer Sergey Zazhytko displayed a sense of reckless fun with its use of boogie-woogie and implications of polytonality.
  • The French composer François Sarhan had the audience captivated with Lear Summaries.  This was partially due to the enthusiastically theatrical presentation of the VOX Vocal Quartet, coupled with the unique surroundings (the Gotland Museum) and the unconventional concert approach (the audience moving from room to room hearing sections of this work interspersed with others).
  • Two choral works from New Zealand particularly impressed me – Carol Shortis’ Tangi included exceptional use of the choral ensemble, both in terms of vowel sounds, and placement of soloists.  Hoquetus Sanctus by Pepe Becker had a shimmering density to it with long soaring lines and the fragile sound of tapping stones.
  • Rarely have I heard such ferocity in a piece as was found in Hong Kong composer Pui-Shan Cheung’s The Dragon for saxophone quartet.  In the eerily-lit museum where it was performed, it had much the same effect as being in a blind alley with a ferocious animal – no doubt this was her intent.
  • Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson’s Open Mind provided a dynamic finale to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s concert and showed an impressive command of the nuances of orchestral writing.
  • The Horses of Saint Mark by Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan, performed by the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra, was filled with energy, emotion, and humor.
  • Yannis Kyriakides’ piece mnemonist S. (the selected piece from The Netherlands) was one of the most memorable of the festival.  I was enthralled by his use of mixed meters and minimalism to accompany a captivating and clever text (displayed as video).    
  • Ora by Iceland’s Áskell Másson, in addition to being a very dynamic and effective piece, also provided a great vehicle to showcase the percussion by putting them in front of the orchestra, rather than behind. 
  • Another Swedish work that generated a lot of discussion was Anders Hillborg’s Peacock Tales performed with theatrical flair and stunning virtuosity by clarinetist Martin Fröst with Musica Vitae.  It was a dynamic and varied piece of music, combined with unusual lighting and choreographed movement.   
  • The members of the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet tackled the complex, intoxicating rhythms of Mexican composer Enrico Chapela’s piece La Mengambrea with incredible accuracy and commitment.

Of course, there were countless others that I enjoyed, and more beyond that that I missed, so I hope that my failure to list something here will not offend any of the other excellent composers or the countries they represent. 

One thing that is particularly worth pointing out is the admirable involvement of the local audiences in these events.  A special effort was obviously made by the organizers to foster this relationship.  Holding a concert in a local parish church; inviting a men’s choir to sing sentimental songs between modern saxophone quartet pieces; Involving local groups to participate in the ISCM Songbook project; having a concert with dancers in a museum where children could sit on pillows on the floor; these careful choices (coupled with the remarkable publicity and live radio broadcasts) paid off in obvious ways that I hope will last far into the future.  Too often this is not the case and I think it behooves ISCM to be actively fostering this sort of audience growth.

As if producing a world-class series of new music concerts were not challenge enough, the hosts also must provide for the needs of a large group of delegates, and arrange for them to have a series of general assembly meetings.  This is the more personal and intimate aspect of the ISCM World Music Days, but one that is no less difficult to accomplish.  Again, I have nothing but praise for the organizers in this respect.  I have already mentioned the excellent lodging and transportation between cities (including a chartered flight from Visby to Växjö), but I should mention a few other things as well.  The preparation of tickets, directions, schedules, etc. were all handled very well.  I really appreciated the useful “shortcut” pages that were provided to us at each city.  These became an invaluable tool as we learned our way around, and we soon found ourselves quite dependent on them.  Likewise, providing guides to take everyone to the more difficult locations was also very helpful and they were uniformly good-humored and patient with our talkative, late, and wayward delegates.

By far the most dramatic manifestation of how we were cared for was the food!  Oh, the food!  I will forever think of Sweden as a magical place where buffet tables of endless variety pop up at every turn and no one is made to wait more than three hours between meals.  I will remember with particular fondness the sausages Ramon Anthon used to lure us to VICC, and then the wine he used to draw everyone inside.  Other memorable meals included the farm on Fårö, and the Teleborg Castle in Växjö.

Along these lines, I must say that I think that one of the most valuable things about the ISCM World Music Days is the way that the collective housing and meals foster real relationships between people.  I am only in my third year at the festival (my second as a delegate), but already I have developed genuine friendships that are, in turn, leading to meaningful collaborations.  Since collaboration between sections is an often-expressed priority of the ISCM, I think it is doubly important that these festivals continue be organized in such as way as to foster the social networks that lead to these collaborations.   

There was a noticeably lighter tone between the general assembly meetings of this year and last year.  In Vilnius, long-prepared changes in the statutes generated heated debate and some disagreement.  I felt a sense that the vote on these things represented a culmination of years of work by some of the outgoing members of the Executive Committee, and so there was an underlying seriousness to the proceedings.  This year, felt more like a beginning.  The executive committee had a new makeup, and the agenda items were less controversial.  Issues like the definition of “regions” and the best official name for the festival (it has recently been unofficially morphing into “World New Music Days”) were discussed, and reports were made regarding future festival locations.  I was encouraged by the number of collaborating organizations we heard about.  ISCM’s ability to interact with Re:New Music, ECPNM, ACL, and many other groups will be a key part of its future effectiveness in this increasingly interconnected world.  We are all eager for the pending online enhancements to become realities.  Certainly, electronic score and report submission, as well as an online database of works, will be very welcome improvements.  In all, the assembly meetings were informative, useful, and collegial.  I commend John Davis for his clear and effective leadership, and for his genuine warmth and wit.

In comparison to all of this, the drawbacks to this event were quite minor.  The discrepancies in the program order between the booklet and the Swedish paper programs, while understandable, were sometimes confusing to the delegates.  We frequently found ourselves consulting with one another to make sure we understood whose piece was being (or had just been) played.  We all enjoyed the guided tour very much, but I wish it had happened a little later rather than the day after we arrived.  This was probably unavoidable, but after five or six days of concerts, seminars, and meetings, the break would have been even more welcome.

I am probably one of the only delegates who is not an evening person, so the difficulty I had with the late-night concerts was really a fault in me, rather than the festival.  Given that many days included back-to-back concerts from noon until almost midnight, I’m sure it would be impossible to avoid such late concerts and still include the required number of representative pieces.  It didn’t seem to bother anyone else, though, and I felt a little sorry to have missed some excellent works (and parties) that came after my brain and body had already shut down.

Finally, I turn to the people of Sweden - particularly the three host cities.  I put this last as a gesture of the honor they are owed.  They welcomed us with such warmth and sincerity.  While all three cities had their own character, the genuineness of the people was consistent.  I look forward to my next visit to Sweden so that I may sample more of this hospitality.

And so we look to the future.  The 2010 ISCM World Music Days in Sydney is fast approaching – works are already being reviewed and travel plans being made.  Visby, Växjö, and Göteborg (and Vilnius, Hong Kong, and many others) have given us yet another model of what this festival can be – an incarnation that was uniquely suited to its setting and resources.  I know that Sydney will be different, but memorable in its own way.  As I write this report, I am sitting in a hotel in Stockholm, still wearing the clothes I put on in Göteborg, with the echoes of this year’s festival still ringing in my ears.  And yet, I confess that I am already eagerly looking forward to see what Matthew Hindson and the other Sydney organizers have in store for us.  Whatever else it may be, I’m counting on it to be new, and challenging, and exciting.