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ISCM WNMD 2008 report


ISCM World Music Days 2008, Vilnius

Report by Eve de Castro-Robinson, New Zealand

The ISCM has formidable heft, its birth in Salzburg in the early twenties lending significant historical weightiness to all its endeavours. From the outside, the organisation has a hallowed United Nations aura. From the inside it's just like a less formal version, with a hierarchy of President, Exec Committee (ExCom) and delegates (40-odd, from the Faroe Islands to Venezuela), who sit at the five-morning General Assembly to deliberate on policy and procedure. As a first-time delegate to the GA I found the subtle, and not so subtle, political power play between member countries and their representatives fascinating and illuminating. It is clear that a major shift in vision has been necessary to drag the ISCM's previously Eurocentric gaze outward toward a 21st century world.
As a newer Member country, and the one placed geographically as far south as is possible short of offering a membership to Antarctica, it's heartening for New Zealand to be in the fold for various reasons. New Zealand music has long been taken seriously in the wider Asia-Pacific region, partly due to our lively contribution within the Asian Composers League which holds an annual festival (NZ has hosted two of these), but has not yet achieved that profile within the ISCM. NZ rejoined in 2003 having let an earlier membership lapse due to the not inconsiderable annual subscription.
Also our proximity to Australia, home to the newly elected President John Davis and host of the 2010 World Music Days, gives NZ a higher profile by association. Given that the previous Northern hemisphere focus of the organisation has meant that the WMDs have been held predominantly in Europe with a few sorties to Asia, this Antipodean slant will raise our musical voice higher.
Like most musical organisations, the ISCM relies on the energy and forward thinking of its ExCom and I was enormously impressed with the dedication and perspicacity of the team led by Richard Tsang, from Hong Kong. Tsang, (until 2008 President for six years), was often in the position of needing to move efficiently through the Agenda with crucial items such as Changes of Statutes to allow a greater representation of music from member countries, fielding all the while a variety of valid queries and objections from the ultra diverse GA.

First impressions of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius were bizarre juxtapositions of the medieval and contemporary, and of grinding poverty and gleaming opulence. As the young drug-and-anger-fuelled taxi driver hurtled into the Old City on an unforgettably dangerous dodgem ride, a bent old woman with scarf and long apron went about her duties painstakingly sweeping leaves in the park - with a long twig broom. A couple of hours later walking cobbled streets to the concert hall, I passed beautifully restored gingerbread medieval churches in yellows and apricots and nearby smelt the rarefied air of extreme prosperity, Versace mannequins beckoning from gleaming windows. A limping hustler, subsequently spotted every evening working the same tourist patch, became curiously like a familiar friend.
Centuries of occupation from East and West leave deeply disturbing political scars across this charming little river city. A block from the swish Congress Concert Hall, the old KGB headquarters is now the Museum of Genocide Victims, exhibiting the horrors that swept the land under Soviet rule, which one kept remembering was right up until 1991- engraved around the outside of the building are the names of those young men executed within.
Vilnius is this year's European Capital of Culture. Certainly there are some fine performance venues - I attended the newish Congress Concert Hall; the National Philharmonic Hall; the formal plush City Hall with its curved ceiling and rewarding acoustics; the funky multi-purpose Contemporary Arts Centre which clearly draws a younger crowd, the National Drama Theatre and the scruffy-but-versatile Arts Printing House.

Short of listing the pieces I experienced (due to only attending the first week and sometimes selecting rather than devotedly hearing every work in a concert), I offer a subjective view of a collection of works which for a variety of reasons made a strong impression.
Heiner Goebbels's abstrusely-yet-memorably named Eraritjaritjaka was the standout Festival experience - a masterly collage of music theatre featuring the Mondriaan String Quartet playing Bach to Bryars and more (check Goebbels on Youtube explaining the work). French with Lithuanian surtitling would certainly have been challenging for any mono-linguists yet even without literal understanding the work somehow conveyed its meaning through a strikingly controlled blend of drama, text, music, film, lighting and design.
French actor Andre Wilms, oddly namechecked in the Festival's own publicity as demanding in his comfort requirements, must have redeemed himself to the organisers with his passionate and eloquent central role. It is rare to be kept in suspense in a multimedia work, let alone experience an epiphany, but Goebbels and his outstanding team achieved both and much more in this extraordinary tour de force.
If this work sat squarely in masterpiece territory, Goebbels's other offering, the overly simplistic Ou bien Sunyatta, for voice, kora and orchestra was disappointing in its musical attempt to emphasise the cultural differences that arise when traditions collide; in fact the attempt was successful, thus confirming my scepticism about such bi-cultural contrivances. On the other hand the incongruity of two charming Senegalese musicians in full costume sharing the stage with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra on a chilly night was the sort of experience that a WMD can throw up.
That these were the only black faces in the Festival was in itself a strong reason for the ISCM to loosen further its geographical apron strings both in terms of membership and festival venue. The ISCM would then become a truly international organisation.
Of the Festival's two signature composers, Jonathan Harvey and Peter Eotvos, the latter had a much higher profile in the first week due to Harvey's ill health, which unfortunately delayed his arrival. The Hungarian Eotvos' presence as conductor and composer in the opening concert kicked things off with a hiss and a roar, literally, with his own Jet Stream featuring the flamboyantly talented Swede Haakan Hardenburger who stood downstage and screamed through his horn like a free-jazzer. I relished the ambience of the moderately-sized Congress Concert Hall, its wide blonde interior featuring a deep balcony projecting right over the stalls allowing circle-dwellers to be immersed in the music.
A couple of nights later Eotvos was conducting the superb Ensemble Modern in the traditional 'shoebox' National Philharmonic Hall including his own Octet Plus and Snatches of a Conversation, both featuring the vivid presence of Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. Both pieces were clever and engaging but perhaps due to under-amplification of the voice failed to quite deliver.
This set did deliver two of the Festival's finest works by representatives of the 70s generation: Mask from Michel van der Aa (Netherlands) and Splattered Landscape II - Cloud's Echoing by the Malaysian Chong Kee Yong. While the former offered the memorable opening of masking tape being slowly torn from along a table with double bass drone, and concluded with a gradually wrapped metronome, Chong gave us a compelling melange of stylistic sources with brilliant gestural control of far-flung instrumental resources.
The Arts Printing House, up a side street and set back behind an unnamed façade and pockmarked courtyard provided some of the quirkiest programmes of the Festival. Some of my most memorable experiences were modest in scale. The solo recital by Swedish virtuoso Magnus Andersson was a case in point. Julio Estrada's (Mexico) intimate A box with braids for solo guitar amply demonstrated the less-is-more maxim. Short in duration but as affecting as anything I heard in the Festival, this theatrical piece was brought to chilling life by Andersson, who must've all but destroyed a set of strings to perform it. While coaxing otherworldly sonorities from the body of the instrument, the guitarist skilfully detuned the strings one by one until he was able to wrench them about in a visceral and violent depiction of traumatic inner turmoil. One admires a risk taker like Andersson, who presented just four carefully chosen contrasting works, from Christopher Anthin's (Sweden) witty Playmaster featuring a wry out-of-sync video sequence of the performer, to the Slovenian Uros Rojko's Passing Away. This touching little study of eroticism based on a gentle oscillation was a subtle charmer of a piece.
Another striking concert in the old Printing House, a programme truly in keeping with the Festival's In-between subtitle, was Turba/Solo Duets, which eschewed standard concert practice and played out from a retro quasi-living room complete with lamps and cacti. Classics including Berio's Sequenza X for trumpet and piano resonance and Scelsi's Mantram for double bass rubbed musico-theatrical shoulders with newer intriguing works by Beat Furrer and Dietmar Wiesner. My favourite were the unassuming but captivating phonetic poetic miniatures of Gerhard Ruhm's sound-texts.

The Cello Octet Conjunto Iberico was an utterly disciplined, tightly honed ensemble of equal parts - four each of ardent young men and women, playing inscrutably under the direction of impresario Elias Arizcuren who started the group in 1989. A fulltime ensemble is a rarity indeed, and its professionalism was persuasive. The programme too, was one of the festival's more superior offerings, encompassing Kagel, Gubaidulina, Kutavicius, Loevendie, Donatoni and Harvey and noteworthy was the fact that each work was either written for, or dedicated to them. The General Assembly, movingly, began with a minute's silence to Stockhausen, Tristram Carey and the Argentine-German Kagel who died just a month before the festival. His presence was felt here in Motetten, a full-bodied and bold work, the women of the octet forcefully slapping the fingerboards with rhythmic gusto. Gubaidulina's Mirage: The Dancing Sun, in contrast, was revelatory in its reticence, the light and dark of its achingly beautiful lines, and the ebb and flow of its repeated notes. The senior Lithuanian Kutavicius has been dubbed the country's minimalist, but the style of his charming Andata e ritorno had a quirky individuality, especially in the players' unison vocalisation overlaying the music.

Local wunderkind cellist Mindaugas Backus set the bar high with his coruscating performance of three striking works programmed back to back near the beginning of "Procession", a controversial four-hours-plus smorgasbord of musical and culinary consumption. It was a thrill to be in the presence of this committed young musician who had us galvanised merely on his upbow. Japanese Ichiro Hirano's offering Yume no matsuri, while poised and beautifully crafted, benefited enormously from Backus's elucidation, as did the in-your-face grunt of the ensuing gutsy Ad Naan (Jacek Grudzien/Poland) and Terra tecta (Vytautas V. Jurgutis/Lithuania). I hope this soloist goes on to an international career.
Procession was a bold innovation by the organisers. Billed as a four-hour process of music and culinary heritage it was certainly challenging to the jet lagged or sonically overloaded. There was an appealing anarchic spirit to the caprices of the evening though and a chance to socialise with fellow audience members from around the world. Having been ushered into a large room featuring a mysterious long central table, we were offered a glass of wine and treated to the installation Vatska, by Swedish Ivo Nilsson; four disembodied heads materialised from the dim light, their made-up deadpan gazes unnerving. This was a cleverly controlled piece, enhanced by the actor/singers' skill in delivering strangely compelling grunty vocalisms.

Much awaited was the concert by those denizens of the avant-garde, Les Percussions de Strasbourg. There was a slightly unnerving sixties time-warp in their aesthetics and delivery - surely their experience should have prevented the decibellic overload of Cendo's raucous Refontes - but for me a single work vindicated this. The late Gerard Grisey's Tempus ex Machina was a gripping half-hour of sustained brilliance. A warm glow of bass frequencies emanated from bass drums, timps and gongs, the usual cliché of distant thunder transformed to enchantment in the French master's hands. Having experienced Grisey's complete Les Espaces Acoustiques a few weeks previously in London, I was keen to hear him in this more limited sonic palette. Grisey's normally compositionally shrewd compatriot, the urbane Gerard Pesson exhibited a more-is-less extravagance in Ur Timon, nevertheless wittily showy with its percussive paraphernalia.

It was a shame that Jonathan Harvey was unable to be present for the first week and I was sad to miss the Signature concert featuring his choral works. The acclaimed British composer was represented by seven works during the fortnight, one of which was his 1980 Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. The striking peach and white St Catherine's Church with its twin rococo towers was an astute choice of venue for the Harvey classic. Restored beautifully on the outside, its once fine interior had not yet been completely renovated, the ravages of destruction making the presentation of such a powerful spiritual work utterly apposite. Nearly thirty years on, the exquisite blending of bell sonorities and voice of Harvey's chorister son rang truer than ever, especially with the 2008 contextualisation of a floor-projected video by hip Belgian crew Visual Kitchen.

The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra concert programmed the old and new in novel fashion, kicking off with the bold and vivid colours of Yuasa's Cosmos Haptic (2003). It was significant to have the senior Japanese composer present, especially since his contemporaries Berio and Ligeti are literally no longer with us. Segueing from the Ligeti masterwork Atmospheres straight into a smart remix (Spheres) by hot young composer Vytautas V. Jurgutis was a salutary experience for the listener and a courageous experiment for the Lithuanian. It paid off by the skin of its teeth, since the original is one of the classic small-but-perfectly-formed exploratory acoustic works of the 20th century, but Jurgutis's deft handling of the electronic component as well as a certain playfulness in keeping with the Ligeti aesthetic rendered it a valid retake. His peer, the 33 year old Chilean Oscar Carmonas contributed En dehors II, whose gradually morphing waves and blocks of sound and betrayed the influence of electronic sound heard in so much orchestral writing of the past 50 years. So compelling were the four above-mentioned works, that John Adams's Century Rolls after interval came across (not just) to this listener, as New Music-lite from the New World.

Overall, the WMD experiences I had were refreshing and stimulating, with the usual Festival gradient from tedious, neutral, positive, uplifting to sublime. A welcoming ambience prevailed and the festival was smoothly arranged, notwithstanding the usual minor organisational glitches. I felt the public discussions were perhaps the least successful aspect of the Festival. An invited panel being asked spontaneous questions is not the best format for truly in-depth consideration on such topics as Composer and State, Composer and Agent etc. I would have preferred symposium type sessions featuring prepared papers following which discussion is open to the floor. Few people, even experts in their field, are as eloquent spontaneously as they are in considered print.
But the opportunity to experience a city and culture far removed from one's own was one to treasure and of course it is an incalculable pleasure to meet people from all over the globe and to hear their music. As we say in New Zealand/Aotearoa: He aha te mea nui? He tangata. He tangata. He tangata. What is the greatest thing? It is people. It is people. It is people.

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