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17 December 2007

Quality vs Democracy

International Society for Contemporary Music World Music Days 2007

Hong Kong Skyline Image: Hong Kong Skyline  

This year the International Society of Contemporary Music’s World Music Days 2007 Festival and Symposium was held, in tandem with the Asian Composers League festival, in Hong Kong (November 22 to December 1). Works by Australian composers Julian Yu, Andrián Pertout, Caroline Szeto, Lorenzo Alvaro and Daniel Blinkhorn were included in a program, which showcased over 150 compositions from over 50 countries. Composer Damian Barbeler attended the festival under the auspices of a two-year Ian Potter Emerging Composer Fellowship, hoping to gain an international perspective on aesthetic trends in contemporary music.

The large proportion of works from Asian countries was, for me, an interesting feature of this year’s ISCM festival, particularly because it’s clear that this was not merely a result of the host country being Hong Kong. The shift away from Europe has been a long time coming, as ISCM President Dr Richard Tsang explains:

The ISCM festival has a long history, since 1922, Schoenberg’s time…[It] went from being a regional pro-active force for serialism, [to] a European-based exchange platform. And during the '50s and '60s it was the only major platform for international attention, and a lot of canonised, great works by history book composers like Boulez, or Bartok, or Stockhausen…were premiered in the festivals. Eventually in the late '70s and '80s, the European avant-garde were seen as marginalising, and too protective in [their] programming, so it was then seen as [being] a small group [for] Euro-centric taste. It was only in the late '80s and '90s that the ISCM [was] revitalised [to become] a global platform of network and exchange. The festival is [now] an annual showcase of diverse styles by the 56 current member countries.

A demonstration of the creative energy coming out of Asia was evident in the very first concert of the festival. Performed by the long-established Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (made up entirely of Chinese instruments), the concert consisted of new and recent avant-garde works. I found the instrumental sonorities startlingly fresh, and the performances superbly authoritative.

The first Chinese orchestras were created by the communist regime in the '60s as a propaganda tool, to create a Chinese equivalent of the Western orchestra. Gradually the Chinese orchestra achieved an artistic life outside politics. In the 1988 ISCM World Music Days (held in Hong Kong for the first time), the festival embarked on a major project to encourage new compositions; the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra has since commissioned over 1,700 works. Almost all of the other soloists and ensembles in this year’s Festival were also experienced Asian-based performers.

The selection process for inclusion in the program is also an interesting aspect of the festival. The issue of quality versus democracy seems to currently be the major issue facing the organisation. The number of ISCM member countries is increasing fast, and it’s feared that quality is being threatened by the need to include pieces from all members in every festival. In an effort to address the issue, the ISCM has changed the process for choosing works. Previously, works were submitted by individual countries then judged by an international panel. More responsibility for selection will now be given to the individual countries, with the international panel merely ‘curating’ the works. The idea is to increase quality and make the festival more representative of the aesthetics and activities of each member country. I wonder, though, if this is the real problem? While the World Music Days might have once premiered iconic works from ‘history book composers’, there is not that same feeling today. But I wonder whether those pieces exist anywhere in the world right now?

Time, of course, will tell. For myself, I admit the quality of pieces was not as high as I had expected, but I did learn a great deal: the types of works people are composing, then more detailed aspects of elements such as structure and pacing. And I made some wonderful friendships. There was a fatigue factor too: after 156 pieces (and about as many dinner and drink engagements) and 23 concerts in 10 venues over 11 days, even works by Carl Stalling would have sounded stale.

There were some striking highlights though – works that, as most people I spoke to agreed, stood out from the pack. My favourite work was Eight Metal Strings (2007) for solo mandolin and mixed ensemble by Martijn Padding, a Dutch composer who studied with Louis Andriessen. The style of the piece was a cross between works by Donatoni and Copland’s Hoedown. Angular gestures were teased out with modernist rigour, yet the harmonies were bright and tonally generous. The percussion section featured a bicycle pump – an element the composer used with humour and interest without it seeming gratuitous. Other highlights included James Wood’s De telarum mechanicae (2007) – a forensic examination of self-similar textures for mixed ensemble, and Matsushita Isao’s A Time for Prayer (2005) – a reflective, beautifully economical work for two violins and orchestra.

Further Links

Damian Barbeler is a Sydney-based composer and music educator. In 2006, Barbeler began work on a PhD at the Sydney Conservatorium (Sydney University) with Michael Smetanin. He was also awarded the Ian Potter Emerging Composer Fellowship, supporting the creation of seven works over two years. He is a finalist in the prestigious 2008 Toru Takemitsu Award.


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Quality vs Democracy

10 years ago I was on an international ISCM panel in Manchester, choosing works to recommend for the ISCM Festival the following year. Fellow panellists included Pauline Oliveros, Simon Holt and, I think, Unsuk Chin, so quite a diverse bunch. Internally, we didn't have any problems with quality (in terms of looking for what we thought were the best pieces) or democracy (of graciously accepting defeat if our personal opinions weren't shared by other panellists.

Nevertheless, there were problems, and one was, of course, the matter of broad national representation. As Chair, Arne Mellnäs (sweet guy) kept saying: "but can't you choose a piece from country (X, Y, Z); they haven't been represented for years." And we would say: "But Arne, just look at the scores they've sent! People have to play this stuff, and even more importantly, others have to listen to it!" In such cases, Arne too graciously accepted defeat.

There's a related issue here: back in 1997 (I don't know what the rules are now), member countries submitted works, but composers could also submit works individually. This greatly increased the amount of music we had to look at, but it was well worth the trouble. A case in point: the USA branch of the ISCM had been complaining bitterly that their selections weren't being recommended, but that's because they were only sending dry 'faculty concert' pieces. Other US composers submitted much more interesting works, and we recommended lots of them.

That being said, the work of ISCM panellists is a breeze, compared to that of the people who actually have to organize the subsequent festival. For a start, the costs of such a festival are enormous, and can only be defended if there are at least reasonable audiences, and if listeners are stimulated in one way or another by what they hear. After all, the festival administrators also have dependents they would like to be able to feed the next year.

In the Manchester case, it was possible to fold the ISCM programme into a larger festival of 20th century music, which both facilitated the promotional process, and ensured that the organisers could appeal to an audience interested in what we used to call 'modern music' by also offering repertoire known to be inherently attractive.

In ISCM terms. that was a situation of pure luxury.

Australian Music

Australian music is awesome. I [heart] Resonate.

I live in Macau and I saw all the dudes go to the ISCM and wish I could have been invited

Keep on keeping on!