Music That Resists An Audience

Since my previous post, reflecting on a simple reason why audiences are so small for new music concerts, I’ve had a wave of comment come my way, either directly on the blog (you can read for yourself) or via twitter or rebloggings or facebook sharings, even emails sent directly to me.

It was fascinating to see the kaleidoscope of angles taken when referring to the piece. To some it was a piece about the fragmentation of audiences in the 21st century; to others it was about what a venue/artist partnership looks like; to others it was a checklist of great ideas for audience building. And the post has been shared by visual artists, choreographers, jazz musicians and pop producers.

Amongst the positive responses are lines like “I’d kiss you. But then people would talk.” (thanks Rebekah!) and “Well written punchy piece by @ElissaMilne delivers knockout blow to new music narcissism then picks it up off the mat.” (thanks Séan). And “What she said”, “Wow. Yes.”, “This.”, “Just read this.”, and “Duh!” and so forth (thanks to all for your endorsements).

But it’s the people who don’t quite agree, or who profoundly disagree whose comments prompt further teasing out of the issues in any debate; in this case, of the issues implicit in any examination of the slender appeal of new music concerts.

The first such issue to get my attention was this idea that some music resists an audience. Music that’s hard to hear. Complicated. The stuff admired for not rewarding a half-listening listener.

The fundamental idea here being that it’s the audiences that new music rejects that makes it the best.

I’m assuming this is what we’re supposed to leap-frog into understanding through this rhetoric: that some music is so muscular it just won’t cozy up with you on the couch, so serious it can’t have a laugh, and so ascetic it eats its gruel in private.

The irony being that music is anthropomorphised for the very purpose of stating its antipathy to people. And the raising of a discursive eyebrow is always in order when for-purposes-other-than-poetry anthropomorphising is in action.

See, it’s not music that resists audience at all. It’s artists.

One of my favourite stories about how music in and of itself is ever-willing to find an audience, if only the artist will allow it, is the story of Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. Only, it wasn’t called that to start with. It was called 8’37″. But when the composer heard the work he decided to abandon his Cage-like (or possibly Cage-homage) title in favour of something that communicated the human meanings Penderecki experienced on first hearing the work performed. Finally he settled on “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” and dedicated the work to those victims. But the music was not composed for that purpose; the composer found this purpose in the music he had already composed, and then presented his work to his audiences with this narrative and framing attached.

If the artist had wanted his music to resist an audience he would have refused to share his emotional insights and connections with others. But why would you want your music to resist an audience? (ah, that will be the topic of my next post, I believe…)

New art music, notoriously, has its largest audience amongst contemporary dance audiences. Not that the audiences for contemporary dance are massive; but they are gargantuan in comparison to the bedraggled twos and threes who gather in the name of contemporary classical music. The music is fundamental to the aesthetic experience at a contemporary dance event, but the dance frames, explains, illustrates and animates even the most complex compositional experience. And damn it, bodies are involved.

Yep. Bodies.

I know it goes against all classical musicians believe in when they are on stage, but bodies are where it’s at. Bodies tell truths and lies and share stories and reveal secrets.

And new music concerts do their level best to make the bodies disappear. “Just listen”, is the mantra, as if the eye is the doorway to aesthetic damnation, as if the music were only about the experience of the ear. Dame Evelyn Glennie would call you on that.

Performers don’t look at each other (often because they don’t dare look up from the score). The stage is a ramshackle of music stands and extra chairs, abandoned instruments from the last piece and with the instruments for the current piece all set at angles that make it hard for the audience to see what’s going on. Alternatively, the layout is the same as you’d expect for music written in the late 1700s. And if anyone talks it’s either in an unrehearsed mumble or in a haze of faux self-deprecation.

One of the best moments I’ve had as an audience member for a new music concert took place during one of the ISCM World New Music Days concerts held in Sydney in 2010. It’s a concert I loved for so many reasons I blogged about it. It was an Ensemble Offspring concert, and the overworked ensemble were performing an astonishing amount of new music within a week – it was just staggering seeing how much of the performing load they were carrying. This concert featured some of the younger composers selected for the festival, and even when works weren’t completely convincing they really did feel ‘fresh’, which was fabulous.

One of the works really wasn’t resonating with me at all, however, and I was making notes to that effect when the music trailed off; Roland Peelman, the conductor, had dramatically called a halt to proceedings and turned to the audience and apologised with words along the lines of “That was terrible, we’re starting again”, an apology that was met with gasps from the audience and a stentorian “Oh, ROLAND” from Geoffrey Gartner, the group’s cellist. It was funny, and it was honest, and it made the audience sit up and listen to the second play through. And that second play through was a revelation; the same composition, played well, spoke the volumes it had failed to communicate the first time around.

Here’s the thing… The conductor spoke clearly, directly, and almost conspiratorially with the audience: we were part of the success of this work! The performance had gone haywire somewhere along the way and that less-than-well-performed music had begun to resist the audience. The conductor had the courage to identify AND rectify the problem; and the cellist had also communicated a truth of the performance: the work was hard (especially in the context of so many performances, day after day)! And the performers had another gig to get to later that evening! It was context, framing, narrative that cleared the path for that music to be heard well. Nothing to do with quiet or small audiences; everything to do with a desire to connect.

Again, it’s not music that resists an audience; it’s artists who do. Are they shy? Are they unsocialised? Are they high functioning autistics? Are they so focussed on the values of the century that brought us high fidelity that anything that isn’t picked up by the grammaphone needle is considered extraneous? It’s the 20th century equivalent of Brahms saying he’d rather stay home and read the score than go to a (contaminated by humans) concert.

The Bible tells the story of Jonah, sent to Ninevah (reluctantly, and therefore via a whale) to tell its inhabitants to repent. He despises the people, preaches in a cursory manner, and is then disgusted when they all start worshipping his god.

I kind of get the feeling that’s how it would be for some contemporary art music practitioners if they looked up from their music stands and saw the great unwashed taking an interest…

Generation Gap: Thomas Adès’ “Asyla” and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1

It has taken me 13 years to finally connect with the sound world of Thomas Adès, with the moment of sonic truth happening last Thursday night at the second of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s most recent Meet the Music concerts (a repeat of the program from the night before). [Meet the Music is the SSO's high school student oriented concert series]. I had hurriedly bought a ticket that afternoon after realising that Asyla was on the program (although on discovering Adès was both featured in the program and conducting his work himself it really wouldn’t have mattered which of his compositions were slated to be played); with only 24 seats left unsold I didn’t have much to choose from, but that suited me well, as new work is always fun to experience with an excellent view of the percussionists.

This was to be my first experience of Adès’ music in live performance, but I’d heard some excerpts from his opera The Tempest five days earlier on The Music Show, interspersed through an interview he’d done with Andrew Ford. And sometime last year I’d done a bit of a youtube hunt, and heard and seen some bits and pieces; a laptop is far from a optimum means of experiencing a composer’s oeuvre, as is an AM broadcast played on a car radio.

But this was not by any means my first face-to-face encounter with the music of Thomas Adès. Back maybe in 2003 or even 2002, I found a fascinating composition in the half-price bin of a print music shop: this was a work for piano by Adès, published by Faber Music, but most notable for the fact that the notation was in colour, or more precisely a range of colours. Different ideas were marked by different hues, and turning the pages of this composition was pretty much the most exciting in-store print music retail experiences a pianist could have with their eyes. But even at the half-price discount I decided not to buy it: it was a lean year (it must have been 2002, or maybe 2004). And I’ve never seen the work again, and the people at Faber Music don’t seem to recall its publication…. I fear that my experience was apocryphal even as I was glancing through the musical text.

In any case, the impression was clear that this young (some four years younger than me) composer was doing some interesting-in-a-good-way things.

Fast forward to April this year. I was on a flight from Perth to Sydney, having presented some P Plate Piano seminars at the WA Piano Pedagogy Conference (a brilliant event by the way) that day and the day before. My schedule was so tight in April that I’d had maybe 8 hours sleep in the previous 48 hours, and the adrenalin rush from presenting at the conference that morning (and the day before) was completely gone. I turned to the woman beside me and made small-talk where we both agreed we were exhausted and wouldn’t try to make conversation through the almost 5 hour flight.

So it was the end of the flight before she asked me what I did for a living. I tried do explain the specific kind of composing I mostly do these days, and in an off-hand manner said something along the lines of “no one knows the names of living composers these days”. At this she perked up, and said, “are there any composers maybe I should know the name of?” I had no idea where she might be going with this, and said so. “Well”, she replied, “I was in Los Angeles a few months ago and was a dinner party where I met the most fabulous composer – charismatic, witty, unbelievably intelligent – and I just wondered if you knew anything about his music?” I established that he was English and in his 30s, and so I took a wild guess and said, “Did you meet Thomas Adès?” “YES! That’s right! Have you ever heard his music?”

It turned out she hadn’t heard his music either, but she was a fan simply because of the impression he’d left during the course of this dinner sometime in the previous year or so. “Very sexy man” she had emphasised.

So, with all these encounters and reports it was well beyond high time to see the man and his music in person.

But first I had the pleasure of hearing Paul Stanhope’s latest work – Variations on a Theme by Vaughan Williams. This sounded more a collection of themes in the manner of an overture than it sounded like a collection of variations on a theme, this piece did show the kids what the orchestra could do. All the mid-20th century orchestral mod cons, paraded one by one (sometimes on top of each other), and then at about the two-thirds mark the piece went all Twin Peaks – walking bass and vibraphone but missing the dwarf – before suddenly channelling the 1812 overture (a surprising stylistic segue), and then concluding with a variation that sounded as if it were striving for Turngalîla-lite status. But it had the best ending ever, with heavy chains being dropped onto a bass drum. FABULOUS.

Next I had the opportunity to hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 being played by a Justin Beiber lookalike. Disconcerting. From the seats overlooking the percussion and trumpets it was next to impossible to tell if Maxwell Foster was playing any of the right notes (the piano was next to inaudible), but he looked as if he was doing a good job. I’m quite prepared to concede that my ennui listening to this work was exacerbated by the poor acoustic situation in which I found myself, but for the duration of the work I kept being surprised by Tchaikovsky’s failure to develop his ideas – the concerto is a hodgepodge of melodic moments and harmonic meanderings, sequences that go the full gamut of the circle of fifths (or near enough), and chordal resolutions that suggest Pyotr Ilyich improvised the whole thing while stoned. I felt a little bad at my bored response to the piece – the teenage boy sitting beside me was moving in time, almost dancing, along with the themes, clearly loving every moment and wishing it could go on forever.

Thankfully, it didn’t and finally it was over. The young man beside me burst into desperate applause. So did all the other young men in the audience. The young women were pretty keen, too (and way more dressed up than 15/16 year olds used to be at Meet the Music Concerts back in 1997 when I was bringing along my Year 10 music class from Hornsby Girls High School). Teenagers were leaping to their feet. It was a standing ovation. Maxwell was coaxed back onto the stage five times. The place was electric with exhilaration. That’s if you ignored the response of all of the rest of us over the age of about 21 (admittedly, a minority in this audience). We clapped politely, enjoying the crazy-enthusiasm of the students, me still convinced either Tchaikovsky had had far too much weed when he wrote that piece or Maxwell had hit some dud notes along the way.

At last, first up after intermission Asyla, and Thomas Adès taking the baton. It began, and was immediately interesting and exciting. Tonal, certainly tonal in terms of the second half of the twentieth century – perfect cadences even, from time to time. Early on a percussionist plays (drums) a bag of knives and forks – brilliant, simple effect; and one of the pianos is detuned some audible degree below the rest of the orchestra – again, a simple and effective strategy for creating a layered experience of the music, almost like a Brechtian distanciation technique. But these sonic effects were dwarfed by the fabulous visual of seeing the composer himself engage with the music-making beast that is an orchestra. And this is where those cheap seats really do give value for money: I could see every expression on the face of Thomas Adès as he guided the ensemble through the rough-and-tumble as well as the moments of serene extremity that make up Asyla.

And then we hit the one ‘named’ movement of the work: Ecstacio. Doof-doof music and the art of the late 20th century DJ have never had so fine an orchestral exposition as they receive in this movement. It was seriously exciting listening. I was unable (and unwilling) to hide a broad grin. The program notes made a point of letting the audience know that Thomas Adès has been to a nightclub (and even engaged in some dancing while he was there), so one can only assume that’s how he knows what he’s doing. I waited for the young man beside me to show some enthusiasm for this music that reflected the sonic realities of the world in which he was growing up, but he seemed to have used up all his dance moves in the Tchaikovsky.

If you haven’t heard this work there’s not much point me describing it further – go out and discover it for yourself. But what I particularly liked about it was the assured sense of architecture married with moments of fine detail and all wrapped up in a coherent sound-world crafted out of restrained (although numerically vast) orchestral possibilities. It was intelligent music about the world we live in today using a medium from the past, all without the weight of history for a moment distracting the trajectory of the musical message. What more could you ask for?

The piece even ended at exactly the right time (no twiddling your thumbs waiting for a self-indulgent composer to finally stop yabbering on), and I found myself repeating the wild applause the teenagers had demonstrated at the end of the Piano Concerto. The other over 30s (mostly over 50s, if truth be known) in my section were the same – we clapped loud and we clapped long. The enthusiastic youth to my right, by way of contrast, could not have expressed his disinterest more eloquently: a slow, vapid applause that one expects of those with chronic fatigue. I glanced around the concert hall and was horrified to see the same response from teenagers in every part of the audience; an aggressive tedium being radiated from row after row at the orchestra.

The orchestra didn’t seem to notice, thank goodness, too busy adjusting their instruments so they could applaud the conductor/composer with the same intensity and joyfulness that everyone of the age of consent and over was expressing. What a brilliant experience, you could almost hear them thinking.

We post-high-school audience members worked hard in our applause, and Thomas Adès graced the stage again and again to acknowledge our appreciation while the other 80% of the audience engaged in a Mexican wave of eye-rolling.

When Andrew Ford appeared to talk to the student-audience about the Nutcracker Suite (the next item on the program) I took the opportunity to escape. I’d heard what I’d come to hear, loved it, and it was time to make my exit before the teenager in the seat beside me started bopping to the dance of the sugar plum fairy.

ISCM Thursday May 6 lunchtime (a belated commentary)

Much delayed: my review of the fabulous (but not so fabulously named) “Young and the Restless” concert given by Ensemble Offspring as part of the ISCM World New Music Days.

Middle of the day, middle of the metropolis, this concert was programmed at the Riverside Theatre complex in the smaller sized of the two theatres. This meant that the quite large (by contemporary music standards) crowd really did fill the space, and one found oneself making both eye contact and conversation with fellow audience members – not the norm, by any means, at a new music concert.

The concert was a sampling of music by composers under the age of 35. Once upon a time someone the age of 35 would consider themselves far from young, but for at least the last decade youth has been bureaucratically bestowed upon anyone under the age of 40, so this representation was certainly youthful by these standards.

The first work Item 1, 2, 3, by Braam de Toit (for marimba, cello and bass clarinet) was from South Africa, and sounded like it: the cello evoked a thumb piano (in the best sense) and the whole work was enjoyable listening (and I do hope that that’s no longer considered faint praise). Julian Day was again hosting the event, and before this first performance he wondered aloud at the paucity of music emanating from Africa. I would think a simple demographic analysis (how many music schools are there, how many composition students, what access to African composers have to ISCM, how many African composers are working in this rarefied musical environment, and so forth) might yield some answers on that front.

This first piece was presented in such a way that one might have thought the marimba was to be the featured instrument in the work (the marimba was the visual focal point), but in fact the bass clarinet and cello deserved to be positioned in a manner that reflected their equality in the music-making. This might seem like quibbling, but the meaning of the music is communicated in a myriad of ways, and the physical placement of the instruments contributed a bewildering element to the listening experience.

Mind you, there weren’t a lot of placement choices available to the musicians: the stage was cluttered with chairs and music stands, with no rhyme or reason seeming to apply to where these objects found themselves. The music in this concert emerged from a visually raucous ensemble of gear.

The second piece in this Young and Restless program came from Russia. Weird, but wonderful, Under Construction by Georgy Dorokhov was a 2-hander (violin and piano) in the style of Beckett.  Yes, I know, Beckett is theatre not music, but honestly, this was a radio play begging to be adapted for the stage. Julian Day appeared at the end of the performance to intone that it had been a ‘contemplative’ work, but in fact it was far from that, an active dialogue between the two parties, a series of urges and efforts, throwaway lines and points to ponder. Both instrumentalists engaged with their instruments in what are still desperately non-conventional ways, and while the fascinatingly-named Zubin Kanga created music for both the ear and the eye on the piano, I’m not sure the same can be said for the violinist, who lurched about in a wild effort to snatch her notes from the ether (one felt maybe she didn’t always succeed).

The third work, Shore Leave by Stephan Thorsson (Sweden), incorporated national songs from north east Asia, each one of these national songs naturally unrecognisable to the international and Australian audience and therefore possibly lacking any appropriate semantic depth. This piece was apparently a manifesto regarding politics and pop culture, but it sounded like old-fashioned new music to me. Roland Peelman made a spidery presence conducting this work, although the piece began with the ensemble members tuning under his direction, with the squeaks and tones sliding into a performance; an impressive sleight of musical staging.  This effect may have been amplified by what appeared to be a temporary loss of the cellist; the ensemble members had gathered on stage, admittedly after a change to the order of program, and after some longer than short period Roland wandered off-stage, re-emerging with the tardy cellist, who had apparently been mid-cigarette when the performance was announced. This unexpected narrative thread gained credibility as the performance drew to an end, with Geoffrey Gartner (said cellist) coughing in pleuristic fashion as the final notes sounded and the first applause began.

And then we had an interval.

Now by this point I was feeling as if one more work would do me. The idea of returning to another three brand new works (let alone a barrage of concerts that other audience members would have been up for through the later afternoon and evening) seemed too much. Thankfully the idea of including a work by Philip Glass when he was under 35 had been abandoned (an odd programming notion the more one thought about it), so it was only three more works.

And in the intermission I had two lovely conversations, which made me wish I had been able to participate daily and extensively in these ISCM events: a sense of community was there (if one had just been around long enough to join in).

So the second half began with a work entitled Mnesique by Nicolas Tzortzis, and yes, this piece was ‘about’ short term memory (or maybe that’s just what the title means/refers to). And if the work had been performed the way it started out I am afraid that it would never have made it into my long term memory at all – it seemed like so much blippety blopity music we’ve heard before at these kinds of concerts, a lot of bluster and effort for not much musical result. In pieces like this one starts to monitor the pages left to turn on the performers’ or conductor’s music stands as one wills the work to end.

But a few pages shy of the end Roland Peelman (again conducting this work) suddenly stopped the performance and announced to the ensemble “We have to start again”, explaining to the audience that with the volume of new music the ensemble had performed over the preceding days it was almost inevitable that the wheels would fall off at some stage. “This is the only performance we get to give, and we must start again”, he continued in great earnestness, and I found myself wryly contemplating the prospect of sitting through all those blips and blops again while calculating if I had put enough money in the meter for this now-extended second half.

The members of the ensemble seemed as taken-aback as the audience, turning their pages back to the start as their conductor did the same. “Oh, Roland” issued forth from Geoffry Gartner, his head shaking back and forth. An irrepressible laugh amplified its way around the audience, til everyone was chuckling at the unexpected respect being given to the composition.

And hoo-boy, was Roland right.

The piece we heard the second time around was nothing like the clichéd blips and blops of the first effort; there had been a harmonic moment the first time around that I’d rather fancied, and the second performance was so different that I never even noticed it that time around. Which makes me want to hear it again, and makes me wonder what we don’t get to hear most of the time when we hear new music. Maybe it’s blippety blopity music because that’s the best performance we ever get, not because that’s what the composer had in mind.

Two more pieces to go. And the penultimate performance was of Australian Alex Pozniak’s new work for solo cello, Mercurial, although a work less like Mercury I can hardly conceive of. Although that, I suppose, might come down to one’s perception of mercury (as much as anything else). Gartner has a distinctive physical style, an inimitable glumfulness he wears, and with his serious downturned mouth firmly set he took off through the Mercurial score. I won’t pretend: it’s not my thing; interesting, but for me failing to connect to anything in my daily or interior life.  Apart from that, it was a substantial work running a gamut of cellistic expressions and intentions, but three weeks on I really can’t remember anything beyond a technical ennui.

But the last work really did get my attention. Two Sides by the curious Fabian Svensson was factually named, with the musicians lining up on two sides (marimba, flute [and variants] and violin versus piano, bass clarinet and cello), each side giving a different account of the musical gesture in question – an ascending arc made up of a three-note descending motif; simple and addictive, Seurat for chamber ensemble. I loved it. I want the opening as my ringtone. And the musical gestures still resonate joyously in my memory.

On the other hand, this piece lost its way as it struggled to a conclusion: while the exhilaration of the thing was in the persistence of the motif, the kaleidoscopic treatment didn’t seem to provide a natural end point. The two sides ended up taking their arcs in opposite directions til the instruments ran out of notes, imbuing a sense of inevitability (and interminability) on the final 30 seconds or so of the composition. As much as I want the opening as my ringtone, I want this composition to get a new ending that doesn’t involve the kaleidoscope unwinding and all the bits falling out: when something tastes this good you want the engineering to hold it together til the end.

But I came out of the concert thinking “That’s what I’m talking about” – genuinely new music, being performed by a musicians genuine about making new music. Anything to do with the age of the composers? Maybe. Maybe this was just an excellently programmed event. But I think it also had a lot to do with the performers, who presented this music with glee and intensity and the commitment to play it twice, if that’s what it needed.

ISCM Sydney/2010 Part I

Last Friday night I attended the opening night of this year’s ISCM World New Music Days, held in Sydney (and Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere for that matter) for the first time.

It’s been a while since I attended a wholly ‘new music’ event, so I was prepared for a gear-shifting sensation as I eased back into the particular mode of being that best copes with presentations of entirely new (but frequently not entirely fabulous) music in the classical/art music tradition.  In fact, it’s been a while since I attended a chamber music event of any kind, so the gear shifting involved both genre and tradition.

Added to this, I was scooting off at the conclusion to join my husband at the Walkley Press Freedom dinner (Qantas had invited the 2UE breakfast hosts to their table, both immediate past – Mike Carlton – and present – my husband, John, and Sandy Aloisi) so I was slightly too dressed up for contemporary ‘art’ music. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I suspect I listen differently when wearing high heels.

Mind you, the first listening experience was not that of music; Julian Day (of Classic FM employ, and with requisite beautiful voice) was the host for the evening, introducing each piece, and its composer, for the most part reading these introductions from the program notes. There is something about saying stuff out loud that makes what seems almost reasonable on the page giggle-worthy in the ear. And I found myself stifling many a guffaw at the hilarious descriptions (of both pieces and people) Julian intoned prior to each new presentation. There’s a combination of self-importance and stating the obvious in many a program note that would be best left unspoken.

Next the musicians (students from the conservatorium) entered the performing area. Young. Super-young. Gen Y Central. Then, amongst the teenagers and early twenty-somethings, their conductor Darryl Pratt walked out to join them, seemingly grizzled and weary, but with enough vigour to raise the baton, and the evening began.

The first piece, Ivan Brkljacic’s Jinx, took me back to my student composition days; like so many student works it seemed to me full of assumed gesture in search of genuine content and organic form. Henrick Strindberg’s Timeline was much more to my liking, a more sculpted experience, with lovely little epiphanies of tone colour keeping my interest throughout. By the time we reached Joachim Sandgren’s Instrument contandant I felt as if we were in time-warp: none of these three pieces in the first half of the concert had anything to distinguish them from music written 25 years ago, and since this was the opening to a week of new music from around the world I wanted to hear something that actually felt new. Which is not to say that Sandgren’s work was not well-made or well-performed, simply that by that stage in the evening it felt like a failure to fulfil the brief.

Each of these performances was separated by a long spell with stage hands consulting complicated diagrams while setting out the music stands, chairs and percussion paraphernalia required for the next piece. Much busy work, and it highlighted the lack of ‘production’ that is a marker of these presentations of new music – no lighting (much), no set, no costumes, no context (unless you count Julian Day reading the program notes), no drama – just back to that student workshop sensation of composers being grateful their ideas are getting any kind of a hearing at all.

Intermission: an opportunity to size up the crowd, and again I felt transported back to student composition days – lots of men, mostly daggy/dowdy (men and women), with Andree Greenwell’s fabulous green trench standing out amongst the undulating shades of glum being worn by most of the rest of us. [Glam I may have been, but in unequivocal black.] And I know that facial hair is de rigueur for men in their mid-twenties, but even so there seemed to be a lot of it about no matter which age group the male of the species belonged to. People were enthusiastically greeting each other the way people do at international conferences, and little of the chatter related to the music we had just heard. The Music Workshop venue is troublesome when it comes to intermissions: one climbs the stairs of the raked venue only to descend another set of stairs in the foyer – the drinks are sold at stage level, but the venue in this concert mode does not facilitate direct access. Many audience members unfamiliar with the venue finally found a drink before the start of the second half.

Back in the performance space and the return of Julian Day to the podium for more introductions, only this time I’d had a chance to peruse the program so I knew what we were in for. I should have already noted that Julian wore the traditional black garb of performers and new music audience members, but he did so in a way that was a homage to the irony of the revival of early 80s black – skinny jeans, pointy shoes, layers of ebony, charcoal and jet. If he could have just borrowed Andree’s trenchcoat he would have definitely been best-dressed at this opening night.

I have to confess that having the program available for perusal in this second half was a complete distraction: instead of focussing on the music (which I was finding less than engaging) I was flicking through the listening options outlined for the week ahead. Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s Song for piano and ensemble was fine, but I struggled to stay involved; Carl Bettendorf’s Inner Life referred to Japanese Gagaku, apparently, and after the performance Julian Day was enthusiastic about how clearly this was evident to the listener, so maybe I just need to brush up on my Gagaku. I found myself second-guessing when the musicians were looking at the end of the final page of the music.

By way of crazy contrast was the final element in the concert, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Village Idiot. Now I’ve been a bit of a sucker for ensembles that anachronistically feature the electric guitar amongst the other chamber music instruments ever since I got hooked on some Tippett back in the 80s – can’t explain it, it always seems so wrong it’s right. But having Julian announce in advance that the guitarist in this ensemble was the ‘idiot’ seemed like more information than was strictly necessary.  Apparently the piece was an example of profundity emerging from incoherence, but honestly, there was little incoherent about any of it – an energetic rhythmic drive throughout, straight-forward and only slightly post-diatonic harmonies, with lovely uses of the instrumentation to create a work that definitely felt like it was by Elena Kats-Chernin, not any old random student composer.

The audience responded to the conclusion of this work with enthusiastic applause (in part applauding the whole event, and applauding in anticipation of the week ahead), and conductor Darryl Pratt looked suitably pleased as he sauntered off the stage, leaving the young performers still at their places basking in the enthusiasm. But after a short burst audiences members started thinking about how far they had to walk to get their post-concert drink, and the applause began to taper off, leaving the young members of the ensemble thinking they’d better get off the stage before the applause ended altogether. They meandered away, with most of them in the wings before Darryl Pratt got around to returning for another bow. Of course, he then didn’t bother, and what dying applause was left was killed by the complete lack of stage craft exhibited at the end of a series of challenging performances.

It might seem like a side-note quibble irrelevant to the music being presented, but this kind of failure to manage the performance of new music contributes to its [usually poor] reception, and even though the tickets were inexpensive (and I had a comp) the music deserves better.

Because it was an exciting musical finish. In fact, the energetic expression in Village Idiot was of  a different ilk to that of the other works to such a degree as to render them somewhat pastel in its supersaturated wake. But like all the other works in the concert, Village Idiot could have been written some years earlier – maybe not receiving such a warm response back in 1985 as it received this past weekend, but still, it featured nothing that could not have transpired in music 25 years ago.

Of course, it’s hard to see what is new at the time it is happening, and new music has no culture of packaging itself, apart from often dreadful program notes. Fashion Week is happening right now in Sydney also, and those attending are actively looking for what defines new in a way that is completely absent from this ISCM week. Is it that composers are too jaded to really believe in the new anymore? Or is that the fashionistas are so devoted to novelty that their time is spent repackaging 80s innovation in a way that makes Julian Day the best-dressed man at ISCM?

But I wonder if there is a better way of exploring ‘new’ new music, because this opening concert, no matter what positive things I can think of to say about it, really did feel a bit old.