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ISCM World Music Days 2006 in Stuttgart - Joshua Chan



ISCM World Music Days
Stuttgart 14-29 July 2006

by Joshua Chan (Hong Kong)

A successful mega event - but as an ISCM festival there is room for improvement

It has been 11 years since the last ISCM World Music Days festival was held in Germany, a country with distinct reputation in producing and promoting contemporary music. With the theme Grenzenlos, or Without Borders, the ISCM World New Music Festival 2006 was a very successful mega event of 16 days curated by Christine Fischer and the team of Musik der Jahrhunderte under the supervision of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Contemporary Music. I was impressed by not only the vast number of concerts and events staged within this short period, but also by the quality and quantity of outstanding contemporary music ensembles and musicians participating in the performances. The concerts were well attended by some enthusiastic audiences consisting of composers, musicians, musicologists, critics, art administrators, students, and general public. The administration was outstanding in all aspects: marketing, publicity, scheduling, communication, stage management, accommodation, logistics, facilities, house programmes, etc.

In terms of programming, I could see that the organizer had tried very hard to produce a balanced programme of pieces of various musical types and styles written by composers of as many nationalities as possible. Programming is always the most difficult issue to deal with; one just cannot please everyone, because musical tastes may be more diversified than human languages and dialects. Nevertheless, Grenzenlos maintained a certain flavour as a whole; closely related to the general musical preferences of the European new music today. 

My first experience with new music festivals in Germany dated back to 1992 when I attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses of New Music. The last was the ISCM WMD 1995 in Ruhrgebiet. One common feature of the three programmes was the emphasis on musical works that feature extended instrumental techniques, unusual timbre, or sonic drama. Klaus Huber's Des Dichters Pflug performed by Ensemble Recherche and Evis Sammoutis' Dimorphism performed by the Arditti Quartet were just two of the plentiful examples. For many composers, especially those in Germany, sound exploration has always been a fascinating thing. I am impressed by the degree of attention one has to pay in listening to Helmut Lachenmann's Allegro Sostenuto and Toshio Hosokawa's flute solo pieces, for example. Sometimes I wonder whether these pieces are suitable to be broadcast on radio when the listeners cannot see the physical action of how the sounds are produced. In other words, the visual component of the live performance is a very important part of a musical work that features extended instrumental techniques. One common technique composers tend to use is to highlight timbral variety and/or harmonics on long sustained notes. Ludger Kisters' In Between, and Further for flute, violin and live-electronics performed by Ensemble Modern and Marko Nikodijevic's Gesualdo Transcriptions III - o vos omnes are two such examples. I am not sure whether this writing approach has become a tradition, but I cannot stop thinking these pieces have nothing too new or interesting because of that. The electronic parts of both pieces are not special either. There are of course very successful new attempts along this line. The Argentinian composer Edouardo Moguillansky's Límites for trumpet and small ensemble performed by Ensemble Modern has some very unusual and interesting ideas. The trumpet player, Valentín Garvie in this occasion, was asked to use the mutes strategically and play two trumpets simultaneously. The sounds are supported by a background of noises produced by other parts. Towards the exciting ending of the piece, the trumpet gradually takes over the whole ensemble even though the latter is also loud and busy. I think the success of this piece is largely on the employment of interesting figurations and the rejection of merely timbral variety on long sustained notes, no matter how beautiful they may look on notated scores.

The extension of extended instrumental techniques is of course the use of electronics. It was amazing to see how Julio Estrada incorporates electronics which works nicely with the live instrumental sounds on stage in his music theatre work Murmullos del Páramo in the well set-up Theaterhaus T1 of Musik der Jahrhunderte. Despite the length and slow pace, this two-hour production tried to use space to further explore other sonic possibilities, e.g., locating guitar, percussion, double bass, male singers, female singers at various parts of the stage. Not all pieces employing electronics are effective, however. I could hardly hear the electronic sounds and did not understand the rationale of employing amplified noise at the background in Piet-Jan van Rossum'sAnnette dans l'atélier which is also a piece featuring timbral contrast of, e.g., harmonics, pizzicato, bowing on the instrument body, etc. A much more interesting attempt was made by Mihaela Stanculescu-Vosganian in her Sogni tra Suoni (Dreams through Sounds) for tape, video and 2 musicians doubling various instruments, performed by INTER-ART in the Arts Museum in town. The concert was well attended by the general public. In this piece, timbral variety is achieved by not only the employment of two Korean instruments, but the rapid change of instruments (piano, cello, accordion, piri, hun and Asian percussion). The tape part works closely with the live parts, while the video shows the musicians' actions picked up live by the camera. This piece is full of unexpected, extreme excitement and exaggerated gestures. However, the strength of its timbral variety may also be the weakness of this piece: the sound materials seem to be disorganized while putting many kinds of sounds together.

There were many pieces premiered in this festival. One of them was Arthur Kampela'sAntropofagia for e-guitar and 16 musicians, performed by Wiek Hijmans and Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, conducted by Titus Engel. I admired the composer's innovation in formulating such an interesting instrumentation, especially in featuring the electric guitar, an instrument not many contemporary music composers dare to write for. Perhaps because of the balancing need between electric and acoustic instruments, all parts were amplified in this piece. I am not sure whether the composer has specified the balancing requirement in the score, but the actual result in the concert was not satisfactory. We could see all the musicians busy playing many notes, especially the mandolin player, but we could not hear them individually because the combined result of all amplified parts in the mixing was simply a noisy sound mass, unless this is what the composer actually meant to achieve. This piece may be regarded as an example of pushing extended instrumental techniques to one extreme - thick and mixed colours of simultaneous sounds.

The ISCM delegation was invited to visit the amazing Karlsruhe ZKM (Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe) on 20th July. We were systematically introduced to its facilities, especially the Sound Dome and the ideas of Time-based Arts, by the Director of its Institute for Music and Acoustics Ludger Brümmer. An afternoon concert performed by Ensemble Insomnio was given inside the Sound Dome. Unlike the idea of using electronics as the means to extend the instrumental sounds, the Sound Dome utilizes sound localization and mobility for sonic drama, as demonstrated in Ludger Brümmer's Glasharfe which is full of powerful, sharp, pointillist sound attacks projected by numerous loud speakers mounted on various 3-dimension locations of the Dome.

The second main type of music in this festival was that featuring texture, with or without phrasing. Berkant Genckal's 2 Views Orient for large ensemble, performed by Ensemble Modern, begins with a very interesting texture featuring very high woodwind figurations with punctuated chords by piano and keyboard percussion. Employing the extreme high register, dense texture with fast figurations in all parts seems to be the main focus of this piece. One just cannot hear the individual instruments as a result. The World Premiere of Sergej Newski's Blick aus der Entfernung, performed by musikFabrik, was impressive. The piece begins with interesting broken sounds, featuring high pitches with punctuations and various waves of individual instruments. This short, almost textural piece has clear phrasing and sufficient events to maintain the musical interest. In the same programme, Vykintas Baltakas' Ouroboros is worth mentioning. Firstly, it comes with some fascinating programme notes. Secondly, it has many pauses which subdivide the piece into some short phrases. Repeated notes are used wisely as a textural device. The way the accordion is featured in this piece is well worked out. Richard Rijnvos' 'Cross Broadway for piano solo is a very exciting piece full of textural changes and interesting phrasing. The left hand part is as busy as the right hand.

Another major world premiere was Georges Aperghis' 90-minute work Wölfli Kantata for vocal soloists and mixed choir, performed by Neue Vocalsolisten, SWR Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble, conducted by Marcus Creed. This is an intense piece having a great variety of texture and colours, even though it is written for a capella voices only. The six soloists (two female and four male) were especially outstanding; it seemed not to be difficult for them to produce all kinds of strange sounds in extreme registers, fast rhythm and contrapuntal texture. The a capella choir, consisting of 19 female and 17 male singers, is divided into multiple sub-groups; some carry long notes while some have spoken words. They also had no problem in pitching and articulation, even though some movements are very intense with long duration. The last movement is quite beautiful in terms of pitching, harmony, sound effects, and textural variety. It was an amazing experience to hear such a substantial work performed by such a large collection of excellent vocalists.

The third major production of this festival was the premiere performance of Younghi Pagh-Paan'sMondschatten, a full-length chamber music theatre in seven parts commissioned by Staatsoper Stuttgart. Unlike Aperghis' Wölfli Kantata, Pagh-Paan's work seemed to emphasize quieter, slower, and less rhythmic sounds. But the singing was also outstanding. An extended vocal range is used in the tenor part, sung by Nigel Robson. The soprano Katarina Rikus has a very high, strong and beautiful voice. The vocal parts in general are quite dramatic, and it was amazing to hear the chromatic singing in all parts and their tone clusters, even though there is not much textural change in the music. The only drawback in the production is the constantly slow speed in music and theatrical action.

One new feature of this festival was the incorporation of the project Global Interplay, a one-year programme sponsored by Deutsche Bank Stiftung, DaimlerChrysler and Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung, which enabled 40 young composers from five cultures to share their concepts on tradition and media, and work together for a year in workshops and conferences taken place in six cities around the world. Two concerts devoted to premiere pieces by these young composers were held. We heard pieces incorporating national instruments, such as pi'-pa'and sheng in Liu Huan's Merge - a dialogue between light and shadows; erhu in Lei Huang's Night-Farewell; guzheng in Kun Liu's Beyond the Sky, etc. Although there was no common musical style in these concerts, one could easily experience the energetic writing spirit of these young composers; Todd Tarantino's Haziri was very loud, busy and dense throughout, for example.

The inclusion of a significant proportion of Asian composers' works in the festival was encouraging. Lin Wang's Jawohl "Herr Präsident"! I am here!!! provided a great, effective contrast to the rest of the programme of Ensemble Modern's concert on 16th July. This piece of theatre music based on a poem by E. E. Cummings has not only humorous elements in the vocal and actor parts, but some very brave attempt of mixing non-instrumental sounds and musical elements of jazz and Peking operas, which is slightly more sophisticated that the mere instrumentation setting in some Global Interplay pieces mentioned above. Jongwoo Yim's Sept Matériaux, for soprano, clarinet and two percussionists, performed by Rita Balta, Nicola Miorada and Isao Nakamura Ensemble, bases its text on the five elements of Asian philosophy (Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth) and the Sun. This is an exciting piece full of interesting musical gestures and clear phrasing. The very active physical movement of the musicians, especially the percussionists, was greatly contrasted by the black out of the stage at the end. Shi-Rui Zhu's In Umbra is another work incorporating not only Chinese percussion, but also musical gestures found in pieces written for traditional Chinese instruments such as the qin and pi'-pa'. Unlike some typical pieces of extended instrumental techniques, Zhu's work seems to highlight linear connection between various sounds.

Featuring microtones has been another issue of contemporary music, but it was not featured much in this festival. Martin Smolka's Solitudo, performed by musikFabrik, is one of the very few. With a distinctive motif, this piece is very successful in drawing the listener's attention to the temperament discrepancy of three different forms of perfect fifth. The use of 1/4-tones and 1/6-tones did not seem to bother the ensemble even though guitar and harp are used as well. There were very effective textural effects; one could appreciate the subtle sounds of microtones clashing between notes in the high registers of flute, oboe and clarinet.

As a festival of new music, Grenzenlos was quite successful in many ways. But as a World Music Days managed by ISCM, there is room for improvement. For example, it should provide a fairer opportunity for ISCM member countries to present their works. Instead of selecting pieces submitted officially by the national sections of the ISCM, the organizer mainly chose or commissioned new pieces on their own without much consultation with ISCM.


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