18 June 2019
ISCM World Music Days in Estonia, May 2019
A report from 'the Forest of Songs'
The 2019 ISCM World New Music Days took place, last month, in
the cities of Tallinn and Tartu, Estonia. AMC's Anni Heino
attended the festival and the General Assembly of the
International Society for Contemporary Music, and reports here
about her experience and the cornucopia of new music she heard.
During the last day of the assembly, and significantly for our
region, the ISCM Executive Committee member, New Zealander
Glenda Keam was elected unanimously as the ISCM's next
President following the term of Peter Swinnen. This appointment
is also well timed in that the 2020 ISCM World New Music Days
will be organised in New Zealand in the cities of Auckland and
Christchurch in April.
> Read more about the many Australian works presented in Estonia in this article on Resonate. See also: Call for works for the 2020 World New Music Days in New Zealand.
The idea of a new music festival where composers and other people intimately involved in the creation and presentation of new works turn up in big numbers to listen to achievements of their peers might sound a little insular, and in certain ways of course it is. What was striking from the very first moments of the 2019 ISCM World Music Days (Tallinn and Tartu, Estonia, 2-10 May 2019), was the rare degree of active interest that composers and sound artists from around the world afforded to the work of their colleagues. I'm thinking, for instance, of the free mini-concerts of the first weekend of the festival: despite the crowd filling all chairs, corridors and corners, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
As a composer, you'd be odd indeed if attending performances of so many contemporary works would not also make you reflect on your own work. Still, as a first timer at ISCM festival, and as a strictly non-composing member of the audience, I found the level of interest, particularly by younger composer-participants, intriguing. It was not simple curiosity, it was a kind of hunter-gatherer mentality, towards new sounds and new combinations of instruments.
An example of this was the 'Metamorphosis and resonances' concert on Saturday 4 May. Due to the inclusion of Estonian kannel in the call for works categories, the festival program included a couple of concerts featuring this zither-like instrument. The trio Una corda, consisting of kannel, harp and harpsichord (Kirsti Mühling, Liis Viira, Ene Nael), and their program in the gilded, historic hall of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, perched up on the highest hill of Tallinn with spectacular views all around, attracted an unusual level of compositional interest. And frustration, as the event was sold out well before the start of the concert. 'When will I ever have a chance to hear those sorts of overtones again!' seemed to be a big cause for concern. I understood soon enough: you only have to imagine the effect of hitting the strings of harp, harpsichord and a zither simultanenously with a flat palm, and letting the sound ring out in a good acoustic. For those of us who'd managed to get in, this is the sort of unusual and fascinating sound world we were exposed to. For me, the Croatian work Ištaratu by Margareta Ferek-Petrić, presented in this concert, has to be singled out as one of the highlights of the festival - a churning, exciting work named after a Babylonian goddess embracing all genders, unleashed a wild energy and the whole spectrum of overtones from inside the harpsichord.
Of similar interest was the concert on 7 May at the amazing Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, with Kristi Mühling's kannel joined by Naoko Kikuchi's koto. Of the works in the program it was Violeta Dinescu's On the Mount Yoshino (official submission by the Romanian Arfa association) that made most of the trademark luminous and loud ringing tones of kannel - though it's not fair to criticise Daryl Jamieson's skill in this respect, as his duo Shakkei was composed for koto and guitar, transcribed to fit this program. We were also treated to a premiere of a work by Märt-Matis Lill, the artistic director of the Estonian Music Days - a calm and elegant piece, creating a sense of space; an individual submission Alla luna by the Irish composer John Buckley, a slow-paced work exploring the potential of the instrument; a koto and voice work Burning House by Liza Lim, and, as an encore, Arvo Pärt's Summa, with the composer sitting, as incognito as possible under the circumstances, in the audience.
Networking is a major part of an event such as the ISCM World New Music Days, and business cards and mobile numbers are exchanged, and Facebook friends frantically made, as the days go by. I took part in post-concert conversations, and answered the question 'Are you a composer?' more than a dozen times during the week. On a few occasions, I shamelessly eavesdropped. Being fluent in a couple and really quite terrible in some other European languages, and generally better at l'esprit d'escalier than formulating an opinion soon after an event, I overheard a fair bit without necessarily contributing. There were a few occasions where I was left thinking, afterwards, of what had been said and what had been meant.
I was particularly intrigued by a statement uttered by a composer attendee of a mature age, who made a comment on a young composer's well-received solo piece involving electronics. "But this was all done and heard in the 1960s", is approximately how he put it. It's difficult to convey the exact tone of voice - incredulous comes close - but while the words had everything to do with young people reinventing the wheel and having the nerve to present it as new work, the tone of the commenter's voice also cried out, 'I wish I'd had the guts' or 'Why didn't I think I of revisiting that'? (For a composer born around the turn of the millennium, it's probably entirely irrelevant if something was perhaps done, once or twice, in the middle ages that was the 1960s.)
And yet I found myself thinking along those same lines on a couple of occasions - certainly somewhere between fixed-media works at a late night concert where my jet lag prevented me from giving the program the attention it deserved (hence no report of Afekt Soloists' program with its several submitted works, including Australian Paul Clift's Shadow Art II for flute, voice and electronics - other concerts not covered here I did not attend, or not in a suitably awake state). I felt I was definitely on the losing side of the generational divide myself when, in the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra concert on the 2nd day of the festival, a composer of an individual submission stated in his program note: "I found that the outdated technology such as radio can be quite poetic." I checked the date of birth of Ho-chi So, and found it to be 1994. So, for a 25-year-old, radio can seem outdated enough to evoke tender feelings, something I found puzzling but delightful. The work in question, I wrote in my notes, was "a fragmentary work, given a great rendition; integration of radio not entirely successful; clever, moderate use of forces available". Make of this what you will.
Based on those same notes (I'll spare you direct quotes from now on), in the same concert Lotta Wennäkoski's Susurrus for guitar and orchestra (official submission by the Finnish ISCM section) was an accomplished work with subtle dynamic scale, displaying wonderful rustling sounds and unusual effects. I was also taken by the clever, downward-spiralling shapelessness of Down the Rabbit-Hole by the Netherlands composer Mayke Nas and the impressive orchestral writing in the French Alex Nante's La pérégrination vers l'Ouest (Journey to the West).
This concert, like most others, included some non-ISCM Estonian works - new as well as old - as part of the program. Over the week my knowledge of this music was satisfactorily updated (it's been about 30 years since I took a course on Estonian music at the University of Helsinki). As a result of running two festivals on top of one another, with a common theme 'Through the Forest of Songs', the concerts did gain a healthy component of regular concert-goers - they also gained in length, which was a disadvantage (and made it difficult to get from one concert to another without skipping meals).
The festival certainly provided an important window for the younger generation of Estonian composers, now heard, some for the first time, by an otherwise informed international audience. The same can be said by young - and older - Estonian performers, whose talents were indeed considerable and preparation meticulous.
The topic of cultural appropriation was something that, unsurprisingly as this is a frequently discussed and debated area at the moment, came up in post-concert conversations. What had the composer done to secure permissions to use particular material? How did we, as audience members, feel about the inclusion of elements - music, myths, themes, language, instruments, ideas - from other cultures in the works we heard? Program notes by participating composers were rich with cultural references and sometimes it was possible to walk straight to the person responsible and find out more (if a common language could be found). Often it wasn't, and that's what we had to live with.
A final piece in a concert at the Lutheran cathedral was a case in point - a major festival commission from the prominent composer Peeter Vähi, whose music often uses religious and spiritual texts and influences from other cultures. Siberian Trinity Mantra for choir, recitative, shaman drum and fixed media was a result of recent, extensive ethnological research by the composer, and included elements from shamanistic rituals, Russian Orthodox faith, Buddhism, and nature sounds, among others. The use of a shamanistic drum as part of a choral work, as I was reminded by an Estonian ISCM participant, is not without precedent in Estonian choral music, indeed there seems to be something of a tradition involving the instrument. Still, I'm guessing that a younger-generation Estonian composer might have chosen a very different way of approaching other cultures via musical means.
This same concert featured several other, submitted works - a big program for the Estonian Collegium Musicale Choir. Out of these, the Gotland section's submission Strings in the air above by Catharina Palmér, setting early poems by James Joyce, was a fine, strong piece, demonstrating the composer's skill in writing idiomatically for voices.
While there were lots of choral concerts in the program and several churches as venues, the use of varied concert spaces - from busy crossroads with traffic lights, to elegant, historical halls with Greek columns - was a theme that lent the festival a particular flavour. Some of the spaces had their challenges, including the vast, vaulted Niguliste Church - a building rich in history, now a museum for religious art and artefacts. Even the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir was in trouble with its mighty echo. Submissions in the program included Slovakian Lukáš Borzik's solemn Credo and Wim Henderickx's (Flemish section) fascinating work Blossomings. Three prayers for a better world - this composition, with its extensive trumpet part, was well chosen for the venue, regardless of the fact that any text in the space was nearly impossible to convey to the audience.
The Latvian Radio Choir was lucky to perform in the slightly less imposing St John's Church in Tartu in the afternoon of 6 May. Mārtinš Vilums's work was an official submission by the ISCM Latvian Section, and the various vocal techniques, richly used by the composer, were masterfully realised by his compatriots. There was no question of other works not getting the same treatment, though, and the composers by Serbian and Australian submissions (Jug K. Marković's Nirvana - brilliant, exciting work though somewhat broody, and Australian Rósa Lind Page's strong, evocative work Horizon, based on visual art by the Latvian-born painter Imants Tillers) can count themselves lucky for the attention to detail and dedication by the performers. Page's work was preceded in the program by Alfred Momotenko-Levitsky's Still Darkness to Boris Pasternak's words - an individual submission and a similarly strong work demonstrating craft and skillful text-setting.
An event at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu earlier on the same day showed off the skill and the range of expression of the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra, with standout works including New Music USA's submission, Katherine Bergman's Dream Machine - a melodic, indeed dreamy, work cleverly making use of the lyrical and agile potential of the wind ensemble; and the Ukraine section's submission, Ostap Manulyak's Oracle for wind quintet, a moving work where tapping gestures by players turned into flapping wings of birds.
Another wonderful choir sang at Tallinn's Lutheran Cathedral on that same evening. The Estonian Vox Clamantis and flutist Monika Mattiesen had put together a program with standout numbers including an amplified bass flute solo Dreams by Fang Fang (Chengdu section's submission) - a work imitating the sound and gestures of a bamboo flute; and American Jessica Meyer's individual submission Ring Out, Wild Bells - an entirely original work, at once deep and light-hearted, using field recordings of church bells. Paul Stanhope's Agnus dei/Do not stand at my grave and weep has already entered repertoire of Australian choirs, and got a beautiful performance as part of this program.
I have a particular fondness for the sound of a (mature-age) male choir, having heard a lot of it all through my childhood as a result of my father's involvement, and so was absolutely delighted that the famous Estonian Male Choir had a concert in the program. As it turned out, they shared it with a string quartet. I'm glad to have been to Yxus Ensemble's live performance of Onutė Narbutaitė's sparse just strings and a light wind above them, and confess to being captivated and slightly disturbed by the video accompanying Kristine Tjogersen Mysteries of Body, but I didn't get quite my fill of contemporary male choir works, despite a fine premiere of Finnish composer Vladimir Agopov's Prayer (an individual submission) and the Slovenian Vladimir Hrovat's Man's not alone. The other male choir works in the program were a 2016 work by Estonian Tõnu Kõrvits and, admittedly, a classic of the genre, Litany to Thunder by Veljo Tormis.
As far as unusual venues are concerned, the opening night concert took us to the Seaplane Harbour maritime museum, a cavernous, dimly lit space that felt like walking in Jonah's footsteps straight into the belly of a mighty whale. Even more memorable than the building was the very young children's dance group whose free-flowing, yet obviously meticulously rehearsed performance was unlike anything I've ever experienced. The dancers formed part of Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes's work The Beauty of Decay. This brooding, symbolic piece involved dance, poetry reading, sound objects and mostly stringed instruments played by an Estonian Composers' Ensemble situated on lecterns above the audience. It was the first one of many Estonian Music Days commissions heard during the 1.5-week festival.
The shoebox-shaped 'Blackheads' hall in the centre of the old town of Tallinn was not ideal for seeing much of the performers, unless you were seated in the first couple of rows, but its acoustics worked well for Kadri-Ann Sumera and Talvi Hunt's piano duo concert, with memorable performances of official submissions by the ISCM Nanning section, Japan Confederation of Composers and the Prague Spring Festival, USA, New Zealand and Romanian Sections, as well as several Estonian works. Douglas Knehans's (USA/Australia) touch for solo piano and electronics, a work evolving from a well-behaved 'conversation' into an intense wall of sound, was well suited for a program of duos, even if the pianist's duo partner on this occasion was a fixed media source. Another standout work was NZ composer Simon Eastwood's duo Interference, where one performer played the instrument in a more conventional way, while the other reached inside the same instrument - this may sound like a gimmicky idea, but as I was in a position to hear this with no line of vision to the performers, I can testify the work sounded fresh from a purely musical point of view. It was also very well received by the audience. A powerful work by Romania's Livia Teodorescu-Ciocănea, Magna Mater. Cybele, concluded this very successful and again well attended concert.
The same venue was used by the excellent Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, whose program on 5 May included another one of my personal highlights of the festival. DaeSeob Han's curiously titled Point Pooints Pooointss for strings was the South Korean section's submission, and judging by the program note, the composer is not interested in explaining any programmatic background (if it exists) for her work. The monumental energy inherent in it, however, was unmatched in the context of this concert. This was probably partly due to some similarities between the other works included, with composers exploring slightly similar kinds of ideas in the music chosen for this program. I remember also being impressed by Polish Adam Porębski's strong and well-written Semi-Ouverture.
Another feature of the festival was the inclusion of performers and ensembles from neighbouring countries in the Baltic sea region. I did not hear all of these, but I made it to the Swedish Norbotten NEO's concert of vocal works at the Estonian National Opera's chamber music hall. I was taken by the Musikagileak's submission MadUren Malkoak by Isabel Urrutia - a composer based in the Basque country - and the interesting effects created by Greek composer Costas Tsougras in his energetic trio Monograms for cello, clarinet and piano.
Another Swedish visitor was the duo 'There are no more four seasons', consisting of George Kentros on violin and Mattias Peterson on electronics, performing as part of the free mini-concerts mentioned earlier. The three events included several beautiful - to employ the word quite deliberately - pieces that stood out for me. These included ebb by Dutch-Australian Anthony Leigh Dunstan - an individual ISCM submission, brilliantly executed by the Swedish duo - and Guo Long's clarinet duo Dufu 'Quatrains" Artistic Conception, a submission by the ISCM Chengdu section. I don't pretend I understood the program note included, but the text associated with the work is by the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu, and the extraordinary perfection of the melody lines in Long's work, at once ancient and new, could not get lost in translation.
The young clarinettists Helena Tuuling and Signe Sõmer deserve a special mention for their preparation of four duets for their mini-concert. The last one of these, young Marta-Liisa Talvet's (b. 1998) Breaking through the Silver Surface for clarinet and bass clarinet was another strong work by a young Estonian composer, with its breathy, reedy, icy sound world and a message related to the sinking of the Titanic and the climate catastrophe.
The first mini-program by accomplished percussionists Vambola Krigul and Madis Metsamart included the Swedish section's submission, Patric Simmerud's work - with its two movements, featuring bells, gongs and bowed percussion, selected for the program out of the six optional ones - and Krigul's dedicated and moving realisation of John Cage's Child of Tree for amplified plant materials.
Before and in between festival events, I found myself sitting in the ISCM conference room with its square table, name tags for delegates from various countries, and an international roll call that went on for some 10 minutes. I felt as if I was a participant at the United Nations General Assembly, and thank everyone involved for this very interesting ride.
> International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) (www.iscm.org)
© Australian Music Centre (2019) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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