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11 October 2016

From Darmstadt to BIFEM

Phoebe Green at BIFEM with her 10-month-old daughter Aoife. Image: Phoebe Green at BIFEM with her 10-month-old daughter Aoife.  

Phoebe Green recently attended and participated in two new music gatherings, in Darmstadt and in Bendigo - both perhaps originally unlikely towns for being a center for contemporary, avant-garde, exploratory music - and both now magnets for music makers and listeners for a few short days at a time.

In the Northern summer, every two years, music makers and listeners converge at the International Summer Course for New Music in Darmstadt, Germany. This year, in its 70th year and 48th course, there was a strong sense of history. The course was initially founded for the purpose of facilitating musical connections in a post-war world. The International Music Institute in Darmstadt houses more than 40,000 contemporary music scores and over 5,000 scholarly writings on the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

This year saw a return of many Australians who had attended the previous summer course in 2014 (including returning Stipendium prize-winners Alex Raineri, Joshua Hyde and myself). There were also some new faces from all over Australia, and some currently residing in Europe and the United States.

Over two weeks, the course offers instrumental and composer programs. With tutors such as Ferneyhough, Saunders, Steen-Anderson and Aperghis, participating composers can expect to receive 2-4 lessons, from their submitted list of preferences, before the course. Instrumentalists joining the interpretation course join classes of their own instrument, each run by specialist tutors. (The flute and violin classes fill up within a week of enrolments opening in January.) This year, the viola course was run jointly by Geneviève Strosser (formerly of Ensemble Intercontemporain, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Modern) and Dimitrios Polisoidis (violist with Klangforum Wien). Geneviève and Dimitrios prepared a course that focused on the role of the interpreter and interpretation. With classes and lessons every day, their contrasting approaches and styles were intense and inspiring. I came away reinvigorated in my role as an interpreter of new music, especially as, in my artistic practice, I am consistently preparing brand-new works for performance.

Beyond the interpreter/composer course there is a public program of concerts, lectures, installations and panel discussions, and the Open Space program which allows course participants to make presentations in the form of concerts, recitals, performance-lectures, open forum discussions, and so on.

Having been at Darmstadt in 2014, it was great to have the opportunity to return to familiar surroundings, see many familiar faces, and to have a little more knowledge of how the course worked. What I love about Darmstadt is the feeling that everyone has come with open ears. Everyone is passionate about their craft, about extending their performance practice, and hearing the new in new music.

There were many composers I had never heard of. There were works that I loved, some that left me feeling indifferent, some works I liked but felt were indulgent, and some I felt curious about even if I wasn't so into the performance. There were even pieces that I was completely bored by, frustrated at being stuck in the audience. But then there is the discussion after.

There was one performance by 2014 Kranichstein interpreter prize-winners, the Distractfold Ensemble: after their epic performance of Michael Pisaro's Concentric Rings in Magnetic Levitation (2011) I felt cocooned by the experience, as if I had had a long massage. When it was over, I wanted to retain that feeling for as long as I could, not wanting to chat after the concert, over-analyse, or hear other people's thoughts. I walked slowly to my bicycle at 11:30 at night, and rode back to my hotel room, quiet in thought. But then, after ICE's performance of Ashley Fure's The Force of Things. An Opera for Objects (2015/16), I couldn't stop talking about it - how much I loved it: the construction and materials used in the work, the hidden sounds, the intensity of the build-up, the role that gender played in the performance. I loved it all.

There were classics in the program. The Arditti Quartet performed Morton Feldman's String Quartet No.1 (1979), Grisey's Vortex Temporum (1994/96) was given a choreographic twist, and there was a series of lecture-performances, one for each decade of Darmstadt - including Brian Ferneyhough's String Quartet No.3 (1989/90), John Cage's Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), Wolfgang Rihm's Music for String Trio (1977), Helmut Lachenmann's Intérieur I (1966) and Isabel Mundry's Traces de moments (2000).

Halfway through the first week, a panel including Georgina Born (Oxford University), Jennifer Walshe (Composer, Ireland), and Thomas Schafer (Director, IMD and Artistic Director of the Summer Course) was led by Ashley Fure on the Historage project which evolved into GRID: Gender Relations in Darmstadt. After trawling through the archives in the IMD, Fure charted gender breakdowns of male/female presence for each year of the festival. After Fure presented data from her findings (all available here) a lively discussion, including an awesome smackdown of the contemporary music industry by Walshe, responded to the disproportionate results (a podcast of this panel discussion and many other lectures during the course are available here). Notable Australian women on the list include Liza Lim, who is in the top ten list performed works by female composers at Darmstadt 1946-2014, and Moya Henderson who was one of five winners of the Kranichstein Musikpris in 1974.

GRID became more than just a panel discussion at this year's Darmstadt - it became a movement. Open Space presentations and further discussion opportunities were made, a website was created where people could access the data and digest it, flyers of female composers featured at Darmstadt were plastered on everyone's bicycles (on mine, I had Dika Newlin, the only woman programmed at the Darmstadt summer course for New music in 1949 - a pianist, professor musicologist, composer and punk rock singer, 1923-2006). There were lively and passionate discussions on GRID at lunch, over coffee, in line for concerts, after concerts, over beer. I chatted to one guy from London who curated a new music series and felt spurred on to include more women in his series. GRID was a global perspective on a discussion that has been brewing in Australia (read Rosalind Appleby Women of Note: the rise of Australian women composers (2012), hear Vanessa Tomlinson's Amazing Women concert series at Griffith University Brisbane, check out Sally Macarthur, Cat Hope and Dawn Bennett's article in The Conversation).

Half a world away but conveniently at home, BIFEM (Bendigo International Festival Exploratory Music, 2-4 September 2016) may only have been be in its 4th year but this festival's presence has grown swiftly. Bendigo is a similar-sized town to Darmstadt, and BIFEM has become a similar meeting place for music in the Southern Hemisphere, drawing its audience from across the Asia-Pacific region. This punchy, packed program is held over three days, thoughtfully curated by Artistic Director David Chisholm. Both Darmstadt and BIFEM have a focus on premieres, and the latest in 'new' music, including acoustic music, electronic/electroacoustic music, music theatre with elements of choreography. The emphasis here is 'exploratory' music - premieres, and rarely performed long-form works with 'virtuosity in musicianship and innovation in composition'. (Incidentally a relatively healthy 25% of the works performed were by female composers, with Liza Lim, a featured composer, having two major works performed, including the premiere of How Forests Think for large chamber ensemble.)

As a dedicated music festival (situated in the arts precinct in the heart of Bendigo), there is no 'course' as at Darmstadt, however this year's edition featured a writers' workshop (reviews of festival events can be found at https://partialdurations.com) and a valuable workshop and recording opportunity for Monash University student composers with the Argonaut Quartet.

Chisholm invites the audience to come with an open ear: see what's here. Where else would we hear double concertos for guitar and harp (Chisholm) and viola d'amore and percussion (Symonds), or a Xenakis keyboard marathon followed by large-scale works by Liza Lim and Enno Poppe? In contrast to Darmstadt's 16-day program, the shortness of BIFEM generates a feverish pace. The Festival Hub at Rocks on Rosalind was bustling on the Friday and Saturday nights with a community of musicians and listeners from across Australia and beyond, eager to congratulate composers on their premieres and dissect what they had found intriguing, beautiful, surprising and challenging.

Many of the musicians involved in BIFEM also revel in being a part of the audience. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst those involved in the festival. As well as concerts, BIFEM presents performance-lectures that seek to unravel some of the mystery in the relationship between composer and performer as a new work is learnt, and also a composer colloquium (led by Liza Lim this year), a Sunday morning highlight to further digest the weekend's activities.

There is a growing sense that BIFEM is becoming a bit of a pilgrimage. It is an adventure between colleagues and audiences that creates openness in music-making. Haven't been yet? The next BIFEM will take place on 1-4 September 2017.

Further links

Darmstadt International Music Institute (www.internationales-musikinstitut.de/en/)

BIFEM (www.bifem.com.au)


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