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.

One thought on “ISCM Sydney/2010 Part I

  1. There are many interesting issues here. And perhaps lessons for those presenting future WNMD events. What do you do if there is no well defined new movement or voice in contemporary fare. Minimalism is forty years old and Piano Phase was performed in the Sydney Opera House in the eighties. Electronics have come a long way in the intervening years, but that represents opportunity for today’s composers rather than solutions. Videos and visuals have been around for a long time too. The stream of concerts thus seems a variety show of works without any apparent theme. Or direction.

    The geographic spread of concerts also presents problems. What are the people of Campbelltown to think of the current scene in contemporary music. Their exposure is a student orchestra, a burning piano (the work also forty years old), an” electric trio” . followed a week later by four mainstream string quartets from Australian masters and what looks to be a mixed bag of “Spectralism”, whatever that is, from, you’ve guessed it, the Spectra Ensemble presenting what “many believe will form the basis of musical practice over the next 50 years”. (Who wrote that? Presumable their PR agent. If there is a theme here for the good people of Campbelltown, it is difficult to see or understand. What this correspondent feels is a state of some confusion and a lack of direction. This of course may be what it is all about in contemporary music today. No one really knows where it is all going. This is probably true of the contemporary visual arts world as well. Post something or other.

    Do we get help from the program notes? For my part, very little. They are mostly very obscure, written in a style reminiscent of the explanations found in contemporary art catalogues. You have to be one of the in-crowd to understand what is intended, and this usually demands a couple of relevant specialist degrees and a high level of hubris. Where is Roger Covell when you need him. (He would have to be one of Australia’s best at writing accessible program notes). But the very nature of the wnmd festival excludes the use of any other than the composers themselves. They, however, are writers of music not communicators through the written word. So we have to rely on our ears alone. The result can be some befuddled thoughts on the long road home. For example, how do you relate a cello recital to the electro accoustic works of Ensemble Offspring. Was the juxtaposition just a necessary organisational matter. Or was there something else. And on a narrower level, how to relate Salonen’s YTAIII “testing the limits of the cello” with Rautavaara’s much more traditional and older work. Sure they were both Finns. Perhaps it was just a contrasting of the young with the old, works as well as cellists.

    Can good presentation help the overall effect. There seems little doubt it could, but when even the professionals at the ABC have two options for stage lighting: flickering or off, one has to wonder. The concerts where players have been involved in talking about the compositions or their group’s approach have been better than those explained away solely by the ABC presenter, in whose defence it must be said need to tell the radio audience what is in the program notes. The whole issue of stage presence and performance ought to be so simple. Dress well, enter the stage like you own it, look like you are proud of what you are doing and acknowledge the audience. The players are, after all, supposed to be communicating with their live audience. Most, if not all this stuff can be learned. Even dress sense. I suppose black is so easy.
    At the risk of digression, even our own Goldner String Quartet has its problems. At last Tuesday’s world premiere of Ross Edwards String Quartet No 2 the violins looked great. Dene Olding had a new cream silk shirt with Mao collar, and Dimity Hall looked absolutely divine in a new white pants suit and white toed shoes with her characteristic three inch heels. Would have made a great impression except that Julian Smiles had on his usual striped blue shirt. He wears it so often it is to be surmised it has lucky properties. And Irina Morosova stuck to the boring old black. Although they played with perfection there were no prizes for ensemble, if you get my drift. Drab audiences are another matter. Why should the players dress up if the audience comes in something sourced from Vinnies. It will be clear this correspondent is not one who understands fashion trends. Why, when a ticket to the opera costs a couple of hundred dollars, and the girlfriend puts on her party dress, do most of the fellas wear last decade’s jeans and a daggy shirt that didn’t quite make it to the ironing box. And this is a time when, if you can believe the advertising, guys are spending loads on their body image, toiletries and underpants with designer names on the elastic.

    One final worry. So the interval conversation is not about the music? It has been a concern of mine for some time why other art forms, particularly literature can garner mass support, TV shows, writers festivals with sell out events, and pages and pages of reviews and commentary, while music, in the broad, gets little coverage. It seems the average concertgoer, including most at contemporary events, does not have the vocabulary or thought processes in place to get much further than “liked it,” or “didn’t like it, now where’s the bar”. Literature is easy. Most people can read a book, understand a plot line and a character’s development. Even style and influences may not be too difficult. Most have been trained in this from earliest school days. Not in the music curriculum, however, if there is one. Often even now it is sing a few songs, bang a few drums and maybe try the recorder. Certainly that was how it was when most of today’s concert goers received their education. So where do you start the discussion? Structure. What? Counterpoint. Huh? Chord progressions. Eh? Phrasing. Sorry? Maybe today’s kids will be better able to converse about music when they are my age. Let’s hope so. And better dressed too.

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