World New Music Days 2010 – Thoughts from a (relative) Neophyte


After an intense, hectic and tiring ten days of new (and not so new) music it is important to sit back quietly and reconsider the events and their personal impact. It is a tough review for the dilettante (probably also for the professional). The scale of the event and variety of the offering presents challenges.

On the organisational aspects it is fair to give all the organisers, under the guidance of Matthew Hindson(Artistic Director) and John Davis (ISCM President) full marks for producing a varied and stimulating program which ran very smoothly. This was no mean feat considering the geographic spread of concerts, direct broadcast or recording for broadcast of all performances and the number of performance groups and individuals involved. Indeed, even the delegates were to all accounts well disciplined. One young Icelandic delegate, less than impressed at interval with the Spectra Ensemble concert asked our advice where he could get a quiet drink until his bus departed after the concert. We pointed out the nearby hotel and its boutique brewery. It was a surprise to see him back after interval. It seems he had asked John Davis when the bus would depart, only to be told in no uncertain terms that his presence was expected in the audience.

While the geographic spread of concerts presented logistic difficulties for some attendees, particularly those such as interstate visitors, or those relying on public transport, this aspect was far outweighed by the exposure of the event to arts centre audiences in the west and south west of Sydney. If the incorporation of the regular “living composers” Aurora Festival into wnmd appeared strange at first, its reputation in regional Sydney could only have been enhanced by the association. It would be interesting to know how many tickets were purchased by locals in Campbelltown, Penrith and Parramatta. A piano burning would have been unlikely to gain approval in the Sydney Botanic Gardens or built up Ultimo. This was Campbelltown’s gain. The Annea Lockwood event was a highlight of the audio visual elements of the event, probably because of the sense of unease it evoked in at least this observer, happily unexperienced in the deliberate destruction of means of creativity.

Like any festival the nature and variety of contacts and connections made can be cornucopian. There was the New Zealand chamber music presenter, the educator from Melbourne, a Wollongong violinist, a handful of composers, some delegates, some not. And, of course, there was meeting up in person with some bloggers and cyber-communicators.

As at any varied event there were highlights and moments less enthralling. Clearly these will vary widely with personal taste, experience and background. For me, the particular highlights in a complex whirlwind of aural and visual impression, were the NZ Trio and the brace of New Zealand composers they introduced; the saxophone, emerging as a serious exponent of contemporary musical form; the two choral concerts I attended which, while not extending greatly the concept of where contemporary music may be heading, were glorious for their musicality, variety and discipline. The inclusion, in a touch of brilliance, of a Mongolian throat singer with the Sydney Children’s Choir was so amazingly disparate, it added a special tonal splash to the choir’s beautiful sound in Ross Edwards’ reworked ‘Dawn Canticle’. The experience will not be easily forgotten. Two solo cello performances also rate a particular mention. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s incredible ‘YTA III’, and then Alex Pozniac’s ‘Mercurial’ were fascinating in the way they both extended the boundaries of contemporary cello playing. Memo to Janis Laurs (Artistic Director of the Adelaide International Cello Festival 2011): these two works should be featured back to back. The work of wnmd resident group Ensemble Offspring also needs special mention. In just one concert, three wildly contrasting works were presented, including the Pozniac cello work, the evocative ‘Under Construction’ for violin and piano (a work whose deconstructed form I did not initially warm to, but one that keeps coming back in a strange haunting memory) and Stephan Thorsson’s ‘Shore Leave’. The latter had the benefit of two performances. In a fine display of authority, conductor Roland Peelman felt the very accomplished ensemble had not done the work justice, and announced: ‘From the top’! It was a tribute to his standing as one of Australia’s foremost exponents of contemporary works that the ensemble complied without murmur, except for a brief, yet understandable, expostulation from hard working cellist Geoffrey Gartner. He knew he had yet to perform the Pozniac’s solo cello work.

Lesser moments for this correspondent were only two, and one of these, the performance by Spectra Ensemble, may have been as much about intellectual exhaustion as anything. The public forum titled ‘Building a New Music Culture’ produced nothing in the way of real ideas for the future. It was, in a sense, hijacked by the two first speakers who gave a potted history of music in Australia since white settlement, with copious referencing of the great job the ABC has done along the way. There was some discussion after the first three presenters about whether the ‘issue’ was policy or availability of funding. Given that the presumed intent was to develop ideas for a future in which new music may be embraced, it was surprising the word ‘education’ was not mentioned once. The only oblique reference to the power of education was mention of the Venezuelan experience with ‘el sistema’, but even this success was perceived a problem ‘because all these orchestras only want to play great [for which read mainstream classical] repertoire’. It seems they don’t play the work of Venezuelan contemporary composers. Perhaps we are lucky in this country. The youth and community orchestras here have a long and continuing history of supporting Australian composers.

The penultimate wnmd concert by the Spectra Ensemble was the other event which failed to ignite. The ensemble, from Belgium, were serious (very serious) musicians presenting what the program told us was a recent development, Spectralism, which ‘many believe will form the basis of musical practice over the next 50 years’. Having never heard the term (I’m a neophyte, remember) a quick Google search was necessary. Apparently Spectralism is a French idea dating from the 1970s, and involves deconstructing sounds into their most basic, sonic, elements, as in a light spectrum. All well and good, but I believe many works performed by other groups during wnmd produced sounds and harmonic structures that were every bit as elemental as those produced by the Spectra Ensemble. A Financial Times correspondent summed it up in a 2008 article: ‘…while many of the world’s most important contemporary composers — Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, Peter Eötvös, Julian Anderson, Jonathan Harvey, Ligeti — all absorbed [Spectralism’s] language, most left labels behind’. Perhaps that is why, having expected some grand innovative approach, I found nothing particularly new here. There were two other moments that made me wonder. First, the passage where the violist and cellist blocked their right ears to protect from a particularly intense passage. Yes, this is the future of performance music: OH&S above all else. Second was the moment in another piece where the violist circulated his bow some two centimeters above the fingerboard for a few bars. Strangely, I heard no change in the ensemble’s sound! For my part, I prefer the work of the likes of Ensemble Offspring.

If there was anything lacking at wnmd it was, perhaps, the involvement of a performance or two by an orchestra. The short leadtime available to the Australian organizers would have precluded an SSO or ACO participation. What great benefit it could have brought, however, to hear some new orchestral work or concerto from the fertile minds of contemporary composers. One only has to recall the excitement of the ‘Cellissimo’ concert by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in April 2008 as part of the Adelaide International Cello Festival. The concert incorporated world premieres of works by Matthew Hindson and Tonu Korvits, as well as a concerto by Friedrich Gulda.

And so the direction and future of contemporary music is there to ponder. This neophyte is prepared to risk the scorn of musicologists and professors to make these superficial observations. From the varied program presented at wmnd, there are no  obvious new movements currently apparent. Diversity seems the name of the game. No doubt the organisers would have announced a theme had this not been the case. I sensed the following:

  • Standard ensembles such as string quartets and piano trios are seeing a slow continuing development of more traditional structures. Electronics and video are slow to penetrate these venerable forms. (Examples such as John Adams first string quartet noted, but not performed here). New Zealand composers were, however, shown to have new and sometimes exciting ideas. Perhaps developments are accelerating.
  • Solo instruments: Exciting things happening, as evidenced by unaccompanied cello works, fascinating saxophone (such as ‘Soundbox’, Katia Beaugeais’ ISCM 2010 Young Composer prize winning work) and Georgy Dorokhov’s ‘Under Construction’ (which could be classified as solo violin with piano accompaniment.) The piano may be an exception here, constrained by its harmonic make up.
  • Pure percussion: Maybe the Reich retrospective was limited in demonstrating a way forward. But the impression left was that there is limited scope to move ahead without the addition of instruments with more complex acoustic capabilities, incorporation of melodic percussion instruments notwithstanding.
  • Electro-acoustic ensembles (including video): Lots of new ideas appear to be  developing in this arena, some more successful than others. A fascinating aspect is how the works can be driven by different elements. In some the lead is electro, in others the acoustic or the video itself. In the latter case, where speech is incorporated the same applies. Speech may lead or may be mere accompaniment. Clearly this is a segment in full cry.
  • Video/electronic: The world is so bombarded by visuals nowadays, this is a tough gig. My impression is there is not much scope for the future. Certainly Annea Lockwood’s ‘Bow Falls’ seemed pointless, and how many visuals of shadows passing over rock faces can be endured, irrespective of the musical accompaniment. It is also difficult to know whether the works belong in a visual arts or musical setting. Some of the Campbelltown Art Gallery’s Shaun Gladwell exhibition, surely curated without thought to wnmd, is a case in point
  • Radiophonic works: This segment seems to be the laboratory for the industry. Developments continue, but perhaps will most likely remain the domain of the academic and specialist, while producing a continuing wealth of ideas for incorporation in future compositions for wider instrumentations.

The greatest arena for development would seem to lie with compositions for the varied instrumental ensembles such as Ensemble Offspring, Chronology Arts, Topology, and even Spectra Ensemble if they’d lighten up a bit. Although not exactly fitting the bill, The Song Company  (which I did not hear at wnmd) and Halcyon, a perhaps surprising omission from wnmd, also demonstrate the variety of innovation available for the future. The possibilities for combined instrumental, electronic and video works are immense, and developments appear to be fast moving. That space is the one to watch in the future.

In the meantime, composers might keep in mind the mainstream listener. We still need to fill the concert halls.

10 May 2010

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About johnofoz

An occasional correspondent, with particular interest in music.
This entry was posted in Chamber Music, Music, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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