ISCM World Music Days in Wrocław, Poland, 2014

ISCM World Music Days

Wrocław, Poland
October 2014

At the ISCM General Assembly, a slide show was presented by Max Yin, Executive Director of the Beijing Modern Music Festival (BMMF).   There in that slide show, I was amazed to see a remarkable representation of a broad range of American composers—clear evidence of interest in the US scene.  Thank you, BMMF!  I never knew that the world cared about what happens with music in the US.   ISCM seems to be populated by delegates who are hired to get the music from their regions circulated abroad.   To see the remarkable efforts of the ISCM sections, as well as the unexpected and welcome interest of the BMMF in US music, suggests that the US sections might possibly entertain the possibility that being understood by the rest of the world is not a pipe dream.

What is going on the US? 

In short, the minimalist, neo-romantic and Bang on a Can contingents in the US have made an impact on American modernists.  The modernists complained for decades, but gradually the increasing relevance of new music to ordinary concertgoers drove the point home that reaching people is a good thing, and in fact, there is, perhaps, no turning back.   So did all the modernists die or join the other camp??

Absolutely not.  

There is a quiet group that includes Chet Biscardi (who appeared in the BMMF slideshow) who continues to stick to its modernist guns, AND do everything more clearly.   I would argue that even the oldest bunch—Carter, Babbitt, Davidovsky, Yehudi Wyner, and others—did what they did more clearly, and that this might not have happened if they were sealed off.    Even if the composers were dug-in, not all of their players were, and the players were quietly nudging their modernist heroes.   (I can supply anecdotes.)


Swan Song No. 1 (2002) 

gives up none of his modernist principles & techniques, but it is more user friendly because he balanced the 5th cycle very carefully with the chromatic cycle, leaving the impression that the work is very diatonic, when in fact it is floating through *everything* before landing in that comfortable diatonic territory.  He decided in this work (and others) NOT to discriminate against the 4th & 5th cycles and the diatonic hexachord.    Also important to note that Babbitt began using unisons and octaves as far back as the 1950s.  He once asked Schoenberg why he avoided octaves and unisons, and claims that Schoenberg responded, “I don’t know”.    So Babbitt, despite the fact that he was an in-your-face modernist was managing very early on to avoid Schoenberg’s *row density*, where common tones only exist between aggregates.

This middle ground between reactionaries and dug-in modernists was something that Frank Brickle (delegate from ISCM Mid-Atlandic to the Wrocsław WMD)  had defined very carefully for himself over the last 15 years.     See Open Space—“A Mannerist Maximalist”.   We now like to call this middle ground “post-maximalism”.   The post-maximalist is a modernist who gives up nothing, but accepts the challenge  to keep the audience that was built by those who did give up modernist principles.  

The impressions that I record below are definitely from a post-maximalist point of view—

..........Cannot find words to describe the remarkable conviction and skill of the

Camerata Silesia
Katowice City Singer's Ensemble
Anna Syzostack, conductor

Katarina Głowicka--her powerful Kyrie made me fight to maintain my composure.  Of course this begs the question of why was I in that receptive mode for her and not for others.  I admit that I lost it when I started seeing images  (in my mind) from Alfons Mucha’s Slovanská epopej (Slav Epic)  behind the singers.

I had never heard great new Polish music in Poland before, and I was deeply deeply moved by that experience.  Also, that her work is a Kyrie.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Penderecki Mass celebrates the fact that the Soviets could not succeed in eradicating Christianity in Poland.  And again, correct me if I’m wrong, but the church is now struggling to keep members?  There’s a joke— how to stop people from going to church?— give them an Episcopalian baptism….

This complex history creeps out of the Kyrie, especially when we realize that the words of the Kyrie are boiled down, reduced to phonemes, in Głowicka’s work.

Obviously, something was striking from the very beginning, and then she didn’t blow it.  It was finely paced.  I have no idea why the harmonies and melodies worked so powerfully--3 women sang, along with electronic processing of what they sang.

Eastern European composers are not afraid to evoke a religious tone.  This is what makes Arvo Part hot and Reich & Glass cool.  That is not a value judgement.   We like cool jazz, we like hot jazz.  Głowicka's music—was it either?  It was primal and that's hot, I guess.   It moved well.  It sustained itself.

Therese Ulvo (Norway)
The [Fool’s] Game
also performed by the Camerata Silesia

Trio for 3 women's voices, using extended techniques---

Fascinating piece. Many beguiling moments.  My favorite part came too early-- the powerful major 2nds that seemed to be shouted over Russian or Mongolian steppes.   That was the peak, for me, and it came less than 1/3 of the way through.

The arpeggiated triads that were introduced toward the end were a sharp turn.  I didn't understand that turn.  There were a few additions to the cast of characters that I did not understand on this first hearing.   I hope she keeps juggling the various elements until they all click, and in addition she could use harmony to sustain us through the length of the piece.  Harmony was overshadowed by the character of each vocal effect, but does that have to be so?   Or, if that is out of bounds, the piece could be tighter.

Marcel Wengler (Luxembourg)
for orchestra

A little gem.  Everyone was raving about this piece after the performance of the Świętokryska Philharmonic.  The harmonies were third-built, like Takemitsu's jazz chords--maybe #11s or #13s and such, and these harmonies shifted around in very sneaky ways, not at all like jazz.  A little nocturne. 

Marek Pasieczny is a brilliant guitarist.  He did a powerful version of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, with cello (played by Anderzej Bauer, who is an equally brilliant cellist).

Pärt's hot minimalism was followed with another duo-- Marek Pasieczny's *Anemnesis after Toru Takemitsu*.  Pasieczny is onto something.  He holds on to diatonic chords.  Each movement has one of these friendly diatonic chords, and he proceeds to surround them with a cloud of pitches that veer away from the chord, but the use of unisons between the instruments, with each arriving at the unison in different ways, provided enough in the way of pitch puns to make me very happy.   That put the elements into relief and created a satisfactory sense of depth and space.  Comprised of a set of three movements, the 2nd and 3rd were a bit too similar, but I did not get bored.  All the movements were of manageable, unpretentious length. I wanted to chords to be re-disposed a bit more often.

David Ho-Yi Chan (from Hong Kong)
A Retrospect  for three-voice female choir with piano
Not performed by the Camerata Silesia (conducted by the composer)
The name of the choir is not mentioned in the program book.

This piece starts with its feet on the ground before flying somewhere strange.  Chan began with music that has no pretensions-- public pop music moves, and from there he carried us to an extraordinary place before landing again back in public space.  The trick is to make the flight believable and original.  His flights were quite original, and the way he got there shows promise--plausible, yet I know for certain he will do better with the problems such as--

why--*that particular* modernist flight (extension) suits the starting material??
Or, was that *the most convincing way* to get to that cool, imaginative flight of fancy??

And maybe the performance needs to settle a bit too.  The choir has to sell those wild moments.  The program book does not name the group that performs this piece.

It takes courage to start in a sweet, familiar place, while some of the younger composers felt they have to prove their modernist meddle by whacking us with harmonically under-motivated volume and register saturation.  David is only 21, perhaps the youngest composer to be presented in the festival.  He is on track.

Albert Schneltzer
Crazy Diamond
a cello concerto

This piece was the strong and confident last work of the program performed by the Wrocław Philharmonic.  It was a favorite of Susan Sanders (ISCM Mid-Atlantic delegate).  We heard a beautiful diatonic ending with a good octotonic setup, like what Joan Tower sometimes does so well. 

by Joan Tower

Also compare with Lou Harrison's Suite for solo guitar, and everything by Leon Kirchner.

Crazy Diamond  & Snow Dreams both work very well.  In Crazy Diamond I remember some naked minor third transpositions of octotonic material, and I remember singing the notes before I heard them.  All I want is to have the 8tonic scale a bit further in the background with more continuous allusion to other worlds--certainly to the diatonic material that ends the piece.  Schneltzer did this better than Joan Tower does in *Clocks*.  (Her diatonic material is merely a Bach quote.)  But he must do the juggling act still more carefully to please those who have lived in this octotonic world for decades and have grown demanding.  He is young!  I expect great things from him, especially if he does not believe gushing critics and ambitious government agencies that are anxious to enfranchise & ensconce him--that is a danger to him, and a disservice to European music.   Pianist Leon Fleisher taught the members of his ensemble, the Theater Chamber Players, never to believe the critics *when they say good things*.  

Julian Anderson’s The Discovery of Heaven  shows a promising composer at work.  Something is going on there. Frank Brickle, ISCM Mid-Atlantic Delegate (US),  was impressed with the way the the composer arrived at a pedal point, and then adds an additional pedal point a whole step lower, something he’s noticed in the music of John Adams.   I was glad that heaven was not a diatonic collection, but teetering between two, if I remember correctly.  I’d like to see the score.

Sam Nichols
for string quartet

This is a bit as if Stravinsky finally learned how to do transitions.   Seriously.   I had to leave before the Wrocław performance.  Sam told me that they had a much different approach that was very exciting for him.  

I am listening to the California performance by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble--->

Very impressive transitions from one thing to another, brilliant use of microtonal glissandi and other microtonal inflections.  

Odd, that the mood, the tone of this work could almost be mistaken for an Eastern European composer.   Here, again, is an American distinction.   As I've said of the decadence of Djuna Barnes-- Oscar Wilde, Georg Trakl, Stephan Georg--their decadence was homegrown, of their own soil.   Barnes was an appropriator.   She appropriated all the decadence that she knew.   She made a point of knowing everything that she could. She also knew that Baudelaire and Mallarme and Marcel Schwob and Valery all got a shove from Poe.  Le Symbolisme has some roots in Poe. Djuna Barbes globalised decadence.  ( Using "decadence" here as it was understood in the aesthetic movement.--->  )

Sam's piece-- if there is an exotic quality, from what soil did that quality grow???   It reminds me of the work of David Claman's *gone for foreign* and the Steve Mackey of *Indigenous Instruments*.   Nichols, Claman, and Mackey all found, in their own way, "virtual exoticism".   An American exoticism that has no roots in any particular soil, but is nevertheless clearly exotic. 

Navite North American decadence exists in the south. George Crumb gets this in his treatment of Monk's Round Midnight for solo piano, where he spoofs Debussy's spoof of Wagner.  Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Gillian Welch

Ravel is the honorary founder of virtual exoticism-- his Chansons Madécasses postulates an exotic music of which he could no little or nothing--speculative exoticism, with colonial baggage, like Babar.

Virtual exoticsim can be found in New Zealand too.  I am thinking of Dylan Lardelli's oboe & guitar duo, which Dina Koston heard at Merkin Hall, and admired for its exotic microtones.

This brings to mind the fact that some people call both Schönberg and Stravinsky *American* composers.   Stravinsky's Russian flavors can't take root here, but a distilled, "virtual exoticism" did indeed emerge in the country where Stravinsky took refuge.  Virtual exoticism goes hand in hand with global decadence.

Coming full circle--thanks, again, Beijing Modern Music Festival (BMMF), for exploring recent US music.  It is a tricky business, but it is heart warming to BMMF take the challenge.


In 2009 at WMD in Sweden, many of the young composers were talking about throwing away their theory books.   I get that, however, leaving pitch to instinct too often devolves into banal octotonicism.  Instinct is indispensable in the end, but we are not born with it.   Instinct must be honed to avoid falling into ruts.

And the orchestra is a rut.  It is like the Steinway piano, suffering from its own success.  We have heard it before.  It's all been done, over and over again.  We become deadened to its timbres, and so the old masters must do a better job teaching the young composers about pitch, so that we make timbre serve pitch.  Otherwise, we too often miss the richness of pitch puns over diverse time scales & registers.  We miss subtle shifting between interval cycles.  How do the 12 trichords lie on the various interval cycles? Which ones are ambiguous?  How do all the tetrachords lie on the interval cycles?  Which tetrachords M5 back to themselves (equal parts chromatic and 4th cycle, like 0127), and what does that mean?  In short-- how to sharpen the focus on harmonic things of greater specificity than the interval cycles--Schoenberg did not stop at op. 9 (where there is at least one tune for every interval cycle).

Yet we do not want Schoenberg as our model at this point, because we have all tired of music of that *row-density*.  We want more local common tones, not solely common tones between aggregates.  Why?  Because everyone is sick of that.  Never mind that it can have much greater profile than octotonic music or other interval cycle-oriented music.

When Alex Ross reviewed Leon Fleisher's Bridge Records disc, he tossed the three modernists into the "Shoenbergian" pigeon hole. He was wrong, of course, but he did indicate something about the public sentiment in the US at the moment.  I think the crude gloss was deliberate.  He & Taruskin want to *encourage* that segment of the public that is tired of a tired sound.  (I admire those 3 modernists  even while I have issues with them, and I find all of them almost as different from each other as they are from Schoenberg.)  

Living with the removal of the Schoenberg Institute from California to Vienna

Our maximalists became de facto post-maximalists when this move occurred.

We mourned, but getting over Schoenberg is no longer a choice in the US. Ross/Taruskin must be thanked for liberating our modernists by putting them in chancery.  (cf Kafka's Hunger Artist)  Getting over Schoenberg is like Debussy getting over Wagner.  We are better off for getting over Schoenberg.  Let the Austrians seal themselves up with him.  ( cf. Monsieur Croche, the Dilettante Hater, by  Claude Debussy )

I applaud Milton Babbitt for finding his way out of "row density" in his last works, in his own way, in a way that would still annoy Ross & Taruskin, who need to be kept on their toes. In short, he found a way to avoid "row density".  First through arrays, and finally through super-arrays (counterpoints of arrays).   Each instrument still has its own array, which which gives each part something that is already different from Krenek-like row density.   The ensemble is 6 arrays in counterpoint,  packed with lovely unisons and octaves, with each *pitch* having its own unique context in the ensemble.

And David Ho-Yi Chan’s approach works. It is heading in its own direction, which is a bit Ivesian. Ives knew how to keep a sound going (a tune/harmony), and he was good about sticking to a manageable number of harmonic moves. The *manageable* catalogue of moves for each piece gives each piece its particular profile.   Some of the works I heard in Wrocław kept giving us too much, introducing new material and starting new arguments.   Sometimes one work would have been better off as 2 or 3 works.

David works with choirs. It is really interesting to see that the composers who touch a nerve are so often organ & choir people. They work in areas where the composer is in close contact with those who will use the music.  I am thinking of Dariusz Przbylski as well as David Ho-Yi Chan.

I had to miss the big finale on Saturday night, October 11.  Frank Brickle reports that it was spectacular.  Overall the 2014 WMD was a smashing success and a victory for ISCM.   Many thanks to all the performers for their hard work and commitment, and to all the organizers, especially Anna Dorota  Władyczka.

--William Anderson