Report on Zagreb, 2005
My interest in this event lay less with the annual ISCM festival, which more or less represented the entire ISCM membership though still plagued by a lot of second-rate music, but more with the Zagreb Biennale, one of the great contemporary music festivals of the post-war era, which started in the then Yugoslavia during the communist years and continued unabated through all the unrest and wars of the 1990s. And is now, as a distinguished British music critic commented, “run by the men in suits”. Not necessarily a good omen for the more interesting paths of new music, but there were enough such paths to attract an enthusiastic audience and to add lustre to the parallel ISCM programme. And the festival went off very smoothly.
Although I never got to this particular festival before 2005, I had always been aware of its existence and its programming and had heard broadcasts at various times on BBC Radio 3 during my years in London. And what drew me to this particular festival was the presence of Sofia Gubaidulina and a concert of her works, plus several concerts devoted to or including works of the Italian recluse Giacinto Scelsi, which marked his otherwise un-noticed centenary.
I was disappointed by the former and elated by the latter. Guibaidulina has an enormous reputation and is widely performed in many parts of the world. I had previously always heard a single work of hers in the context of a concert of new music, but an entire concert of her works (sadly) revealed the flaws in her conception and technique. As one of my ISCM colleagues noted, you could hear all too easily when she had taken her lunchbreaks.
Most of the works featured musicians very close to her including the German That Ensemble, and all of them included the bayan (a kind of folk accordeon) in their instrumentation, which did at least give the concert a particular flavour. In De Profundis there simply seemed to be too many ideas, while In Croce worked better but seemed too inevitable in its outcome. Having movements in Silenzio felt like a copout and another excuse for constantly introducing new ideas. John Cage admired her, and perhaps she could have learned a thing or two from him about economy.
By contrast her “press conference”, which was basically a series of detailed answers to 3 or 4 questions, gave us insights into the thinking that never found expression in the compositions. Hosted by the Croatian Composers Society with cameras rolling throughout, Gubaidulina started by telling us that between 1975-81 she had been a member of an improvisation group called Astrea, a direct response to the intellectualism and structural organisation of twentieth century music. These performances that she had noticed in other countries too, were basically “home concerts, which are more like conversations, judged by the musicians themselves”. Freedom from notation was an important factor, and it was more of “a spiritual music experience that I couldn’t reach by writing at a table”.
A concert by the Quartetto d’archi di Torini gave us a rare treat in the form of all five string quartets of Scelsi, played without the usual tough and business-like style of the Arditti Quartet (who usually appear at ISCM festivals, though not this one), but with far greater warmth and passion than the English ensemble can normally muster. The early First Quartet is the only one that is almost a conventional string quartet, whereas by the Fourth Quartet one is into familiar Scelsi territory: the exploration of single pitches through colour and articulation, here intensely accompanied by the heavy breathing of the players. This piece is one of the best in terms of Scelsi’s refinement and concentration of his technique and language. A “Hommage à Giacinto Scelsi” featured all his exquisitie short pieces pieces for flute, percussion and double bass, performed by a trio of distinguished Italian players including the flautist Roberto Fabricciani snf the highlight of the final orchestral concert, given by the legendary Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, was once again a work of Scelsi, Hurqualia, in which each of the four movements brilliant explores just a single pitch. Even in his first orchestral work, dating from the early 1960s the composer is already emerging as a true original.
Aside from the featured composers, it was refreshing to hear some of the classics of the twentieth century. Steve Reich’s Drumming outshone everything around it in the light of its freshness and originality, though this concert by Studio Percussion Graz also included a piece by Lukas Ligeti, Stroboscope, which wisely explored one idea.
And then there were some very exciting late night improvised concerts: the Franz Hautzinger Regenorchester XI from Austria, led by quartertone trumpeter Hautzinger in very minimal music — reminding one almost of the music of Scelsi — and fine jazz singer Maja Ratkje with fellow Norwegian electronic musicians John Hegre and HC Gilje and accompanied by a beautiful video. Also late one evening we heard Miguel Azguime’s O ar do texto opera a forma do som interior (The air in the text operates the form of the inner sound), 45 minutes of electroacoustic theatre and sound poetry for a performer (Azguime) and live electronics. This is an intriguing marriage of words (Azguime’s own poems), electronic sounds and physical gestures that articulates beautifully the composer’s concept.
A striking feature of the festival programming was the conservatism of the orchestral works. I asked myself two questions: Do (even radical) composers write conservatively for orchestra, maybe because orchestral musicians are conservative? Or do ISCM juries choose conservative orchestral works for ISCM festivals, maybe for safety reasons? Scelsi’s Hurqualia mentioned earlier was by far the most (only?) radical orchestral piece on the festival programme. All the other pieces rather reminded me of something else, especially French music.
Zygmunt Krauze’s orchestral Adieu, in which the soloist (Krauze) played a very out of tune piano (pianino), seemed to inhabit old soundworlds which were reimagined in a typically Krauzian off the wall manner. But it all seemed a little too easy for the listener and it was over before you knew it. This rather French evening included Australian Richard Meale’s Three Miró Pieces and left one wondering if this was perhaps a French composer living down under in Australia. Like so many composers of that generation worldwide, Meale has retretated into a kind of easy listening, while another Pacific composer, Joji Yuasa merely recycled old clichés from the mid-twentieth century in his never-ending Chronoplastic III — between stasis and kinesis — in memory of Xenakis.
One of the better orchestral works was Thoma Simaku’s Hyllus. The opening was not very striking (not the best way to start a piece) and led me to wonder if composers are so over-awed by the sound of the orchestra and the ‘animal’ itself that they often produce quite benign music for it. Simaku has become something of an ISCM composer, and on the strength of previous showings his chamber music is far stronger than this. On the whole though I found Hyllus quite an imaginative and captivating piece, despite an overlong coda.
Also on a large scale was the opera production, a Hungarian socialist realist piece from the early 1960s. It seemed an odd decision not only to revive Emil Petrovics’ C’est la guerre, but to bring it over to this festival along with János Vajda’s more palatable Mario and the Magician. The singers were really not great, but the orchestra sounded good. I found the music simply too facile and dramatically poorly paced. And I felt cheated that there was no aria for the soprano.
Among the most interesting chamber works that were new to me was Wolfgang Rihm’s Chiffre VI which drew the most original sound — an orchestral quality with horn soloist — from the Schubert octet medium (bass clarinet included). I looked forward to Czech composer Martin Marek’s String Quartet No 1, but sadly it was cancelled because of illness in the ranks of the Zagreb Quartet — though the composer was present and still acknowledged the audience. I last heard the Zagreb Quartet in a marvellous concert back home in South Africa, but on this occasion they were not on form, though their programme yielded exquisitely beautiful exploration of harmonics and glissandi in the fragile soundworld of Lithuanian Raminta Serksnyte’s The Oriental Elegy, and a rather conventional pre-Bartók language in the 25-year old Venezuelan Oswaldo Torres’ String Quartet (2003).
I had hoped to be introduced to and thrilled by music from all the former Yugoslav states, music which one does not often hear outside the region. But on the whole there was little memorable among the Croatian or other former Yugoslavian composers that we heard. Worst among these was the programme of Serbian composers — late romantic sounding pieces — given by the Belgrade Trio. A Serbian musicologist with whom I had lunch assured me that this was the worst of her country’s new music and even of the composers themselves. Why present it? The solo flute piece by conservative South African Hendrik Hofmeyr sounded positively outrageous in this regressive company.
In between all this, the ISCM General Assembly discussed a host of matters — some interesting new topics, some revivals. Happily, ISCM president Richard Tsang was re-elected unopposed for a second term of office. Hong Kong was chosen to host the 2007 ISCM World Music Days, and at least three countries are currently fighting over who gets 2008. Sweden is the only contender for 2009, and three countries are again squabbling over 2010. While Australia would like 2011, and the ISCM General Assembly would probably enjoy a rare trip to the Southern Hemisphere, it appears that Croatia would like an encore of 2005.
I would agree up to a point with general director Ivo Josipovic’s feeling that this festival was about representing all music and not just what he likes, but the amount of new music that was past its sell-by date far outweighed the quantity of cutting-edge music which I feel should be the focus of contemporary music festivals. Nevertheless the presenters should be congratulated in having a strong enough element of music that challenges the listener. I for one would have come just for the Scelsi.
Perhaps we should all remember Wing-Wah Chan’s (Hong Kong ISCM) adage in closing: “Only music can transcend the barrier of language with love and peace”. And perhaps this is the real reason why we all get together year after year at the ISCM World Music Days.