2009 ISCM World New Music Days

In 2008, the ISCM World Music Days were held in Vilnius along with that city’s Gaida Festival. In 2009, each festival was back to being its own separate thing, the ISCM in three towns in Sweden, Visby, Växjö, and Göteborg. It was interesting but probably not instructive to see that neither festival was quite as exciting separately as they had been together. To be fair, they were only together once, and the number of times I have attended each of them separately has been exactly one. (And, in the case of the 2009 Gaida, I was only able to attend a few of the concerts.)

Although the 2009 festival added the word “new” to the title, the programming tended towards the old. Not old pieces, just pieces that sounded old, as if they were from an earlier time, 1970 or 50 or even 1890 in a couple of extreme cases. This is part of what a far better critic than I has called “nostalgia music.” In her case, the reference is to younger composers of electroacoustic music reinventing the wheels of the 1950s, but it probably is even more apt applied to instrumental music, which can so easily turn old-fashioned, just because of hundreds of years of tradition rather than only decades. Winds do these kinds of things and strings do these kinds of things and the brass do these. The traditions of the instruments take over. I’d heard this in Ostrava and in Oslo weeks before the ISCM days, and would hear it again in Donaueschingen and Vilnius, as well as on dozens of the CDs I’ve purchased over the years.

Of course, as a fellow attendee reminded me, the contents of a festival are not “what’s being done today” as much as they are “what’s been selected for this festival.” True. I just wish Christina Kubisch and Miguel Azguime, whose music I admire enormously, had been more influencial with their fellow jury members!

But the experience made me do a lot of thinking about music, about contemporaneity. And thinking about music, I find, can sometimes lead to me enjoying it even more. I guess that’s a positive result. Looking at my notes, though, I’m reminded of the pain–why so much music that sounded as if the twentieth century had never happened? My grasping at straws–noting the things that sounded like Ravel or Bartok at the very least. And when I heard something new, writing “I’m so happy!”

I wanted to be happier. And so, probably, do you. So here’s a rundown of some of the new music of the festival, starting, where the festival started, in Visby.

Visby is a town on Gotland looking west across the Baltic toward the rest of Sweden. It is not only walled town but crammed with ruins. It would be quite a pretty town without them. With them, it is just about as picturesque as it is possible to imagine.

There was a lot of choral music in the Visby part of the festival. Choral music tends to be pretty traditional sounding, though there’s really no compelling reason for that to be. None that compels me, anyway. I suppose it’s like instrumental music–the voices, like the instruments, will take over if you let them. And a lot of the time, composers seem to just let the voices take over. (And sure, this is something that everyone faces. A turntablist must be no less on guard against the machine just taking over than someone writing an oboe concerto.)

It was a good thing that at least some of the groups who were perfectly at home with the traditional sounding stuff sang and played the more interesting, edgy, and novel pieces with equal aplomb and precision. Gordon Williamson’s Two Inuit Songs, for instance, which was really complex, with tons of subtle little things going on, lickety-split. Slowing down. Stopping. Starting up again. Intricate patterns and sudden dynamic changes that were pretty stunning, especially when mid-note. And everything sung razor sharp by the Swedish Radio Choir.

The saxophone quartet from Stockholm (who performed in the St. Nicolai church ruin) were no slouches, either, though the concert wasn’t quite as edgy as one might expect from a that kind of ensemble. Stratis Minakakis’ Ta Entos was pretty good, very soft, very tight harmonies. There was a lovely part where the saxes had been growling along and then a G.P. and the big wooden door squeeked as someone left and then the saxes growled again. Sam Pluta’s Mix – Deep breath – Remix sets up four independent lines and then goes in and out of being independent and coordinated. And Erman Özdemir’s Apocalypse, while not exactly apocalyptic, was certainly more various than you’d expect from three mouthpieces and one “complete” sax. Or maybe not. It was as various as I had hoped it would be.

The next day we had a concert in the Gotland Museum, a moving concert with sets in different rooms. The most interesting of this concert, and one of the more interesting of the whole festival, was Pui-Shan Cheung’s The Dragon, also played by the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet. We’re downstairs in a “shop” and the quartet is up in the “office” where we cannot see them. This was the perfect setup for this music of notes and mutterings and clattering and a few more notes and so forth. Pops and thumps and saxomoans and more notes. It was really good fun.

Tony Blomdahl’s Treprimotre, for all the ensembles that had played over the evening, and with electronics, was also pretty good fun. Long tones, tight harmonies, some very nice standing waves at times. Harshish electronics. Good ending to the evening.

In Växjö, the first thing was a cool little set up by Pe Lang called cl-loop. Unfortunately it was in the worst place possible for it to be, a crowded and noisy hall, under the worst circumstances, opening night cocktail hour. I’m only guessing that it was a cool set. No one really stopped talking when he started his very quiet performance. And no one but a few people in front (not where I was) could see anything. This really needed to be in a dark, quiet hall, with only Pe Lang’s little magnets and such lit up.

Little better was the crowded little room for the final concert of the first evening, put on by the Cikada Ensemble. In spite of the room, this was one of the better concerts of the festival, with fine new pieces by Karsten Fundal, Olga Bochikhina, Timothy Page, Iván Madarász, Fabio Nieder, and a piece for instruments and electronics by Åke Parmerud, a really gorgeous piece, too.

Next day started with a noon concert out at the Växjö University cafeteria. It was a terrible place for a concert, no way to see anything except from the first two or three rows, and the sound was pretty well lost in the big room with glass walls. But a couple of pieces shone through. Benjamin Schweitzer’s achteinhalb started out with the briefest smidgeon of “pre-concert noodling,” then a held chord. As the piece goes on, the smidgeon turns out to be the thematic material for the piece, which is a quiet, rustling, creaking kind of thing. The squeeky door behind us (another one!) and the awnings slapping in the wind outside fit in beautifully with this.

Dmitri Kourliandski’s Still life reminded me a little of the little Tarnopolski I’ve heard, so was one of my favorite instrumental pieces of the festival. In my notes, all I said about this was “nice way to make percussion and wind mouthpieces sound electroacoustic.”

The best moment was Octavian Nemescu’s Spectacle for an Instant. There’s a big, splashy intro and then silence. The big splash again (a little bit bigger and splashier). Silence. A short loud splash (all of the splashes are shorter than the silences). Silence. A big, swelling thing with the brass and low drums. Silence. A little Webernish lick. Silence.

What fun!

That evening was in the cathedral and back to choral music, mostly fairly traditional sounding. The exception was Gráinne Mulvey’s Stabat Mater, which opens with a nice, harsh chord (excellent echo in the cathedral, of course), then some layered open sounds (oooo, ahhhh, and eeee) and lots of interesting playing with closed sounds, too (mmmm). Some of the sounds are a bit like those in St. Luke’s Passion. A bit. Only harder edged. And they’re not treated in the same way at all. A very enjoyable piece. You feel safe with it, if that’s not an odd way to put it. That is, you know that you’ll always hear beautiful sounds, never merely pretty ones.

Later on, in the Palladium, was the eagerly anticipated miscellany concert with Kasem, Bédard, and Barrett pieces (the anticipated ones) and a couple of other things that were also good. Eagerly anticipated by me, anyway, who had heard and enjoyed pieces by all three. And who was interested to hear an instrumental piece by Maria Cristina Kasem, who is better known for her electroacoustic music.

I had met Cristina in Bourges in 2009, and even, at the gentle prodding of Ricardo Mandolini, made an interview with her for Asymmetry before ever hearing any of her music. Well, I trusted Mandolini, and when I heard an electroacoustic piece of Cristina’s at the Futura Festival in August, my trust was justified. Niebla y Luz is for solo violin, which Kasem plays commandingly. And the command is “You will pay attention, and you will like this.” And so I did.

In Natasha Barrett’s Sub Terra, lines wax or wane as they move from speaker to speaker, a quality that’s of course missing from the clip. Fortunately, there’s plenty to enjoy even with the spatial quality missing. Do try to hear this live, though.

Martin Bédard’s Excavations was as strong and fresh sounding as piece as every other I’ve heard from this composer.

Two other pieces were noteworthy on this concert, one by Oscar Bianchi, Crepuscolo, for Paetzold double-bass flute (played by Anna Petrini), and one by Ann Rosén called Candela, which was for candles, yes, along with a bowl and light sensors and a blue-tooth transmittor. The clip is from the beginning of the piece.

Next day at noon, we got even more electroacoustic music, along with some video and multi-media stuff. Most impressive was Robert Seaback’s Heavy Metal Variations, in which the metal sounds are used to make something new and excellent. The clip is imageless because there was nothing visual to film.

In the evening, the Malmö Symphony and the DR VokalEnsemblet performed, which meant the offerings were more conservative sounding. That is, it seems that that is often the case. But one piece that night was really very clever, Paula af Malmborg Ward’s evergreen, in which the vocalists are seated throughout the orchestra. This opens with some timpani rolls, then some isolated little gestures, becoming more continuous as the voices come in. At one point, the vocalists stand, slowly, with wine glasses in their hands. They sway about, occasionally taking a drink. Quite entertaining. The rest of the audience really liked it, too, recalling the conductor three times at the end.

October first’s concert, in Göteborg, was also one I had looked forward to, including as it did a work by Simon Steen-Andersen, whose pieces I had heard recently in Ostrava and in Olso, all of them quite imaginative and quite good, and all of them quite different from each other. And with a work by Horváth Balász, whom I had met in Vilnius the year before, but whose music I had not heard yet. Simon’s Ouvertures, for amplified gu-zheng and orchestra (with Liu Le soloist), was a real treat. Lots of unusual sounds and not just from the gu-zheng; something that sounded like a running down turntable, for instance. Indeed, a keen sense of sound throughout–Steen-Andersen is not one of those who lets the instruments take over.

Balász’s piece is in two parts, which may be played in either order, and which are to be played in different parts of the concert. First they played part A of the piece (named Visszatekintve or Looking Back), then there was a piece by Isidora Žebeljan and the Steen-Andersen. Then they played part B. This worked very well for me. I found I listened very closely to the first part, in case I needed to remember anything for later. Then I listened even more closely to the second part, to link up what I was hearing with what had happened in the past.

This concert was played twice, once at 18:00 and once at 21:00, so I went to both. And Horvath’s split piece was even better the second time around, as was Steen-Andersen’s, naturally. I’ve arranged the next clips to mimic the concert experience for you.

That evening was an electroacoustic concert that I selfishly did not take any notes of. Sometimes I just need to listen and enjoy. So I did. I liked Gilles Gobeil’s Vol de rêve the best, but the whole concert was pretty good. Hanna Hartman, Night Lock, Daniel Teruggi, Spaces of Mind, and Frederic Bergström, Drone.

The early afternoon concert on the second of October was a jazz concert with the Bohuslän Big Band that I came within an ace of not attending. “Jazz” can mean so many things, and not at all compatible things, and this festival had made me wary. But I decided to go. And was hit right between the eyes (ears) with one of the coolest pieces of the festival, the world premiere of Andrew Hall’s Under the Skin. “One, two, three, four,” Bam! Click, tap, click, slap, tap. “One, two,” Bam! Slap, click, click, tap. A blat and then furtive, scurrying, lovely stuff. Utterly surprising and delightful. Big band licks in a contemporary context or contemporary licks in a big band context. Either way, it was cool.

This was quite a good concert overall, with solid pieces by both Jukka Tiensuu and Tommy Kotter. But Andrew’s was just too cool. Having said that, I have to add that it was really intriguing the way Tiensuu’s piece (Umori) created its own validity. That is, everything that started out as a novelty or a cute trick turned into an actual musical gesture just by the piece continuing on until we’d had everything several times.

That evening was a chamber concert, by Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, that had a real hard edge to it. Gérard Grisey’s Talea was set up so that the tuning of the other instruments made the piano sound like it had been detuned. Jesper Nordin’s Undercurrents used a simple idea that, like lots of other simple ideas, was very effective–sticks lying on the marimba as it’s being played. Sounded like there were a few sticks left over for the piano harp as well. Certainly there was aluminum foil on the strings, activated by playing rolls on the strings with mallets, all of it heavily amplified. Lovely sounds.

On the afternoon of the third, we got to hear the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble live. Their recordings are all fine, of course. I know. But this was the first time I’d heard them live. Ivo Nilsson’s Toccata was exactly that, mostly touching: scraping, tapping, no pounding or beating. And there was pulling tape off of a roll and turning desk lamps on and off for that little click. (They’re all sitting at a long table for this.) So a nice bit of natural theater as well. And all I wrote at the time about Giovanni Verrando’s Memorial Art Show was that it was hideously gorgeous (unheimlich schön)–rich, lovely, gritty sounds.

The evening concert with the Bit20 ensemble included Strange Loops by Adam Roberts, with interesting little noises from the instruments and interesting little noises from the speakers, not always easy to tell apart, either. And then came the concert I’d been looking forward to the most, the one with Philip Jeck, whose work I had only recently become familiar with. And it was the most consistently satisfying concert, too. Very fine moments in many of the other concerts, as you’ve read. None so good from start to finish. Per Anders Nilsson’s Trialogues, Sidsel Endresen’s Solo and Philip Jeck’s Turntables, more like named sets than “pieces”; the kind of thing I could easily have had more of. The clips are from the Nilsson and the Jeck, respectively.

Anna Einarsson’s piece in the first concert of the last day (Third mind) was a satisfying conclusion to the festival. Very delicate sounds, perfectly performed by Genre X. Tiny, tiny little sounds, no hesitation, perfect control. Literally perfect.

There was another event after that, a so-called brunch concert with dine and talk, the talk to be spurred by some questions handed out before the brunch. Near the beginning of the festival, this might have been OK. Even at the beginning of the Göteborg section, maybe. But the very last thing? Well, it was funny, and we all had a good time with it. One of the questions was something like what was our most important aesthetic experience. I said I had several a week; how could I choose? Which Miguel Azguime topped by quipping that he didn’t recall ever having had even one.

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