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A Report on the 1995 ISCM World Music Days in Essen - Kyle Hoepner



A Report on the 1995 ISCM World Music Days in Essen

Kyle Hoepner, Boston (USA) Section

At the front of the program book for the Weltmusiktage '95, Michael Finnissy wrote: "Welcome to Essen, the Ruhrgebiet, and what promises to be a stimulating, adventurous, extravagant (and doubtless also controversial) Festival." I had no inkling at first of how prescient that statement was. But over the course of a very hot week-and-a-half, each of those four adjectives, and various combinations of them (e.g., stimulatingly adventurous, controversially extravagant, and-oops-extravagantly controversial) came to dominate the proceedings. In retrospect, they collectively very nearly circumscribe the entire experience.


The festival stimulated in a number of sometimes conflicting ways. On the one hand, a considerably greater range of styles and individual voices was evident in Essen, compared to Stockholm the year before. Embedded in an overall mitteleurop. isch matrix (to which I, alas, remain rather allergic) were numbers of sweets, antiquities, odd artifacts, and the occasional gem. A short and unordered list of notables would include:

Henry Cowell's infectiously manic Piano Concerto (performed with great . lan and steel forearms by Anthony de Mare)

the striking rhythmic ostinato of Rolf Riehm's Odysseus aber h"rte ihr Schweigen nicht

John Adams's Two Fanfares for Orchestra-possibly taking the week's prize for sheer energy

Steve Reich's Clapping Music (not listed in the program-a welcome late addition)

Gy"rgy Kurt g's unashamedly beautiful Stele

the percussion antics of Vinko Globokar's Tribadabum extensif sur rhythme fantome

Andrew Toovey's unutterably crass but viscerally pleasing Come and Go

the several works by old-timer Edgard Var`.se

On the other hand, there were times when, although I was happy to hear another contrasting style, the effect might not be wholly successful-examples that come to mind are Bruno Maderna's annoying inflations of Giovanni Gabrieli and Desprez (which suffered even more from the insuperable distance between the performing groups) and the juxtaposition of echt-Morton Feldman (Piano and Orchestra) with neo-Morton Feldman (Jo Kondo's A Shape of Time). And on still a third hand (a mutation resulting from pervasive industrial pollution here in North America, perhaps?), there were unfortunately still many times when what was stimulated most was my hur-tger ilor more composers who are not bogged down in opaque business-asusual, and especially for composers with greater personal range. Why must so many obviously talented musicians hew so closely to a single row-or form or pitch collection or texture or school?

adventurous, extravagant

The adventurous and the extravagant were inextricably linked during our time in the Ruhrgebiet. The number and range of venues used for concerts was interesting and admirable, although some sites seemed to have been selected more because they were fashionably industrial than because of any useful intrinsic qualities. (Questions: How many pairs of shoes and other articles of clothing were ruined by coal dust during the trio recherche concert in the Wipperhalle of the Zeche Zollverein? Does anyone else find memories of cooing pigeon-mating and the stalking cameraman from K"ln overshadowing any recall of the music itself?)

Then there were Eberhard Kloke's two frankly extravagant-nay, monomaniacally grandiose Babylon Soundscapes programs. To an admittedly jaundiced American eye, these evenings, despite some first-rate music, veered far into the territory of the simply silly. The Hilliard Ensemble on scaffolding singing postapocalyptic Perofin, bursts of sunlight at the minister's entrance in Leonore No. 3, airplane headlights during the Lohengrin prelude, the grotesquely bloated parody of Charles Ives's intimate Unanswered Question: this was all, pseudo-profound metaphysical rumblings notwithstanding, just P.T. Bamum-esque showmanship. And successful showmanship, I must say, to judge by the huge and enthusiastic audiences.

A more insidious form of extravagance was also sometimes on view, one not in any way confined to this particular festival: composerly self-indulgence. Composing per se is profoundly egotistical-to say to yourself "this product of my mind is so interesting and important that complete strangers should feel obliged to sit quietly and pay careful attention to it" is not the act of a humble person. But if we expect complete strangers to sit quietly and pay careful attention, and we all do, we have a corresponding responsibility not to take their sacrifice lightly, not to bombard them with music that embodies indifference, contempt, or condescension. Otherwise, there will develop at best an audience who listen and applaud out of a sense of duty or a need to be au courant, or at worst an audience of masochists who mistake a whipping for an authentic musical experience and return to be spat on again and again. Needless to say, I will refrain from nan-dng pieces I suspect of falling into this sin.


Controversy, of course, was no stranger to this festival long before June 1995. The various oddities of the score selection and programming process, the funding difficulties, the somewhat secretive, high-handed, and Germano-centric atmosphere (occasionally giving some of us the impression that we should consider ourselves lucky to have been allowed to observe an essentially private, local affair) eventually led to a climactic, petulant (on both sides) showdown between the artistic director and the General Assembly of the ISCM. But these controversies are in no way limited to the Ruhrgebiet festival alone, and are just extensions of the underlying disagreements that threaten the stability of the organization as a whole: What are the festivals for? Who chooses the programs? When and how are which countries represented? Who pays for it all? Who gets 'aid for? Lost in the general cacophony is a larger question: What is the basic mission of the ISCM, and why should it exist at all? Or perhaps: Why should humanity give a damn about contemporary music?

Nonetheless, the 1995 festival in Essen was by almost any reasonable measure a resounding success. We all experienced a multitude of delightful, fascinating, and/or enraging works, we all met or re-met a multitude of delightful, fascinating, and/or enraging musicians, critics, publishers, and listeners. The organizers of the Weltmusiktage '95, and especially Gerhard St. bler, deserve our thanks. After all, in the face of enormous difficulties they succeeded in creating a festival that was not just controversial, but also stimulating, adventurous, and-yes extravagant.


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