ISCM Latvian section activities

Jan 7, 2019

Dynamic world of music – ISCM WMD 2017, Vancouver

There are occasions when, at the end of the day, the implacable passage of time leaves a lot of unfinished work behind, and there are days when time stretches out, as it seemed to me to be the case on 2nd November 2017, when the movement of seconds appeared to be reversed and a day lasted for 34 hours. I arrived from a cold autumn night into an unrealistic Vancouver day which was just as rainy, just in time to make it for the ISCM WCM 2017 opening concert.

This was a well-organized, carefully and long-planned festival, according to colleagues with many years of experience at the ISCM. I agree with this without any doubt, although I can only compare it with the festival held in Ljubljana two years ago.

One of the most controversial and essential aspects in terms of quality is the choice of musical pieces, so I asked David Pay, the Artistic Director of the WMD 2017 Festival, how the selection of works was carried out:

‘We (the creative team) trusted the musicians fully. We invited artistic groups  with different stylistic orientations and temperaments from Vancouver and its vicinity. We wanted to showcase our culture; besides, inviting musicians from Europe and Asia would cost very much. We asked them to select some works from the scores submitted to the ISCM and to include music written by Canadian composers in the second part. Balancing in this way was justified because the concert programs turned out to be uniform and well-coordinated. In other festivals, I’ve had the feeling that musicians do not have a special understanding and willingness to play particular music. I, in turn, supervised the selection of work, tried to make sure that a musical piece from each ISCM – Section was included. The involvement of musicians in the selection of musical pieces is not common practice at the ISCM festivals, we borrowed this idea from Belgium.’

To make sure this article does not turn into a list of composer names that would be empty and redundant without the presence of music, I will focus my wide-angle lens towards certain regions. I was interested in Canadian music, because of its sufficient remoteness from Latvia and because it is not often heard in regular concerts, and in the creative works of Baltic composers, because of the possibility to see it from a different angle.

The music of our neighbours from Estonia was performed in two concerts; both composers, Tõnu Kõrvits and Märt-Matis Lill, were present at the concert, including two WMD 2019 producers. It is planned to link the WMD 2019 Festival which will take place in Tallinn and Tartu to the 40th anniversary of the Tallinn Music Days. The Arvo Pärt Centre, one of the concert venues, will be opened in the autumn of 2018, too.

When the Buffalo Went Away, a musical piece by Märt-Matis Lill,  which has been performed around the world many times, is a scary fragment of the history of the American Indians, which seemed to be composed for this very occasion, specifically for these people (including musicians of the Standing Wave Ensemble), specifically for the place where, as the organisers of the festival gratefully said at the beginning of each concert, many indigenous tribes – the Muswueam, Squamish, Coast Salish peoples – once used to live.

The Song of Song of Songs (from the Song of Solomon), a bright cantata of radiant softness by Tõnu Kõrvits, was performed at the concert of choir music by the voices of gentle timbres of the Elektra female choir. The sound creation process of both the female choir and the mixed Vancouver Chamber Choir was velvety soft and caressing, and the listeners could feel it perfectly in two masterpieces by Canadian composers Jordan Nobles and R. Murray Schafer. Canadian avant-garde classic R. Murray Schafer was elected Honorary Member of the ISCM this year. I admit that I’m still charmed by the creative work of this outstanding composer. An outstanding performance was delivered by the Musica Intima vocal ensemble, especially the ethnically vivid, virtuoso performance by four male voices in the musical piece by Iranian composer Amr Okba.

Lithuanian music was represented by Egidija Medekšaitė, a composer currently living in Scotland. Megh Malhar, an architectural piece composed using the musical technique of repetition for the Bozzini string quartet, was based on Indian raga motifs dealing with the waiting for rain. Tonight My Shadow Sinks Into the Wall, a musical piece for the violin solo by Vytautas Germanavičius, matched the temperament of violinist Müge Büyükçelen in terms of its nature and vitality. The artist played finely, in a virtuoso manner, singing the Japanese haiku at the same time.

During the festival, a jury appointed by the General Assembly examined the works of new composers (under 35 years of age). This year one of the main prizes, an assignment for a new musical piece for one of the next festivals, went to the Canadian composer James O’Callaghan, whose work was extremely sophisticated, multi-layered and full of subtle details, bustling continuously in a fusion of electronics, acoustic instruments and visual and spatial elements. A number of vivid claims for recognition were made by new composers Michael Taplin, Lachlan Skipworth, and Grzegorz Pieniek. The music of Martin Rane Bauck was characterised by peculiar and intimate semitones: grey, greyer, slightly more greyer.

I had expected a more breezy and powerful wave of new music in the concerts of symphonic music played by the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Vancouver Symphony orchestra. The musical aesthetics of these pieces was closer to American movie soundtracks, with a few exceptions. The average arithmetic: a classical texture, predictable form development and well-tested means of expression. In chamber music composers are possibly likely to take more risks, to be more courageous and more open than when facing large collective conjuncture. However, here this manoeuvring between the jungle of contemporary scores and public-friendly repertoire was a matter of tactics: tickets were sold out to ALL the 27 concerts. The Orpheum Theatre, the home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with 2780 seats, could hardly be filled without a popular player of the sitar like Mohamed Assani playing for the public. In general, the interest of general public can be explained by attracting locally (meaning: from the entire vicinity of Vancouver) recognised musicians and using a long-term marketing strategy; interviews, promotions, studies, radio broadcasts, several live video shows, workshops. One must also mention the touching and significant help from volunteers, including people with disabilities.

Some of the unconventional events were free of charge, for example, the performance of 18 guitarists who played in the colour-lit glass niches of the Vancouver Library. The original music composition for 18 electric guitars sounded psychedelically and surrealistically, like a giant organ. It seemed like we were listening to a single big composition consisting of several parts. The unusual atmosphere in the huge hall drew the attention of a very large number of people. In the Instruments of Change Project, children and young people had the opportunity to improvise on various musical instruments and create music together with professionals. In the Sound Walk Project, one could hear the sounds and noises of the city, this time on a new quality level: listening in, assisted by a guide. At the Driftwood Percussion Ensemble stand-up concert, musicians moved from one stage to another, with non-musical pieces – wooden boards, glasses, plastic pipes and a plethora of traditional percussion instruments – stacked on them. Although it is uncomfortable to stand waiting for more than an hour, the idea of an ‘open door’ event is exactly this – come in and go away when you wish.

The three-part closing concert, at which Mercurium by Gundega Šmite was performed, was created with imagination and fantasy. Here, each of the three pianos – a concert piano, a prepared piano, and a piano with electronics – had a function of its own. The question – when exactly to prepare the piano – that is always so difficult to answer was answered successfully here. Surprisingly, the three-hour long marathon did not seem uniform or tedious. There was a variety of textures and types of touches, as suggested by the name of The Art of Touching the Keyboard, a musical piece composed by Judith Weir, which was complemented by video installations, electronics, singing, and narration; besides, each of the four pianists had a different style of playing. The reading of Mercurium by Rachel K. Iwaasa seemed to be immodestly fragile, and more abstract and ethereal, compared to the interpretation by Latvian pianist Reinis Zariņš.

For the first time in the ISCM history, composers could send in graphic scores. Probably because Vancouver has the Now Society Ensemble. When I improvise myself, the sense that improvising is probably more exciting for me than for the liesteners often creeps in. Not this time. In the musical piece by Fredrik Gran, one could follow the graphic score in a projection, and this showed the ability of the musicians to react sensitively, diversely, with a uniform sense of the form of ensemble. There was no lack of humour, either, when the public was invited to play a synthesizer during the performance of Henri Augusto, which as it turned out produced no sound (this could not be noticed immediately in the overall whirlpool of sounds). This did not prevent the public from waiting in the queue for this entertainment and even to play four-handedly.

The improvisation of Gabriel Dharmoo at the composer-performer concert was memorable. A singer, dancer and actor drawing attention and eyes who built, in a tandem with a video story, a theatrical scene of the paradigms and clichés of contemporary music. A late night humour show for those tired of art. It was great!

Artistically, the highest peak of the Festival was the concert of the Montreal Contemporary Music Ensemble under the artistic direction of conductor Veronique Lacroix. The Festival programme can still be found on , so I will not mention the names. The contribution of all the performing artists and the true and fair attitude towards the interpretation of complex music deserves quite some respect and recognition. Great performing artists: the Bozzini Quartet, the Emily Carr Strings Quartet, the Land’s End Ensemble, the Aventa Ensemble, the Victoria Symphony, violinist Müge Büyükçelen, flutist Mark Takeshi McGregor. Composers from outside Canada: Jay Schwartz, Madeleine Isaksson, Veli-Mati Puumala, Lotta Wennakoski, Injaki Estrada Torio, Talia Amar, Kristian Blak; composers from Canada: Jordan Nobles, R.Murray Schafer, Zosha di Castri, Omar Daniel, Philippe Leroux, Hildegard Westerkamp, Ana Sokolovic.

Canadian music is characterized by freely individualized but clearly readable development of form, which is most often combined into a single thread on the basis of the conceptual idea. I happened to ear-witness a professionally solid style of writing, a wide range of ethnic expressions which was not an end in itself but rather as a means of expression bringing warmth and the sense of personal closeness. It’s a promising and dynamic world of music in search of new ways, traditions and its own self.

Intensivo massimo! ISCM World New Music Days 2018, Beijing, China

            From the Asian perspective, Latvia is a small exotic country. Getting to know the cultural habits of another country obviously stimulates us to reassess our perceptions and assumptions, since we are all placed in the centre of our subjective reality, looking at the world through the prism of our personal and collective heritage. It seems to us (meaning all European countries) that we are the cradle of culture. Indeed, we are. There are many historical facts serving as evidence for that. As we watch the processes going on in China – huge investments in culture, new concert halls being built, progressive rate of overpopulation, booming economy – the shift in the centre of gravity of culture from Europe to Asia is quite real, even natural in the future. Does this sound too apocalyptic? In China, the air is filled with desires and expectations driven by the huge expansion. The Asian region is/will be full of commitment, ideas, and future investments. This was also confirmed by the presentation of the 2021 Festival plan by the Shanghai and Nanning delegations and the subsequent vote of the General Assembly; the 2021 WMD Festival will be held in the cities of Shanghai and Nanning in China. ‘Yes, we have concert halls; yes, we have financial backing,’ representatives of the two ISCM Chinese Sections claimed.

The success of the Beijing Festival is due to the close cooperation with the Beijing Central Conservatoire, the unusual architectural forms of the beautiful, spacious concert hall, and musicians invited from the whole wide world. A wide range of different genres and styles – from electronic music to solos and duets, from choral music to the symphonic magnitude – was performed in three concerts every day.

The sound of all the orchestras that performed at the concerts was marked by its scope, density and distinct grandeur. Misunderstanding of the stylistics of contemporary music and use of exaggerated means of expression could be perceived in the performance of certain pieces by 20th century classics, such as Three Postludes by W. Lutoslawski or Three Intermezzi by H.W. Henze.

There were problems caused by the lack of proper communication. The composers whose music was performed by guest musicians were in a privileged position. Many Chinese musicians do not understand English, are not particularly familiar with the means of expression of contemporary music; while they have learned how to read the score, they fail to decipher the content and meaning in its entirety. However, no matter how hard it was to communicate during the first rehearsals, musicians tried their best to do everything possible at that moment. The fact that so many artistic collectives – Ensemble Modern, Alarm Will Sound, the Mivos Quartet, the Australian String Quartet, the Tokyo Saxophone Quartet, the Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble – were invited from Europe and the United States, specifically demonstrates the willingness to collaborate, understand, and integrate in the circulation of the 21st century music.

Like all countries which have hosted the Festival, China presented its national composers extensively, including those who have studied or now live abroad. Ink Splashing II by Denqing Wen, a concert for the Chinese traditional instrument suona and orchestra by Wenchen Qin, musical pieces for a saxophone quartet by Yang Xinmin, Guo Yuan, Yang Xiaozhong, Bright Light and Cloud Shadows by Gao Ping, Blast by Zhong Juncheng for the Alarm Will Sound Ensemble, these are the names and pieces I can readily recall. These musical pieces were colourful, professionally forceful music, with a gentle national touch at times.

Typically, the biographies of many Chinese composers start with a list of positions held in the political party and very vague and general descriptions, for example, stating that the composer has received awards at ‘many’ contests, the composer’s music has been performed by ‘many’ famous performers. There were also a few pieces a la Strauss-Mahler-Shostakovich, full of praise and pathos. Piatti, played wholeheartedly on a high pitch, made one start well before the anticipated ‘blast’. The Chinese like pathos and magnitude, this is what they appreciate, but the burst of applause after the performance is short and formal.

Eating, walking, talking on the phone during a concert is part of the code of conduct of a well-behaved average Chinese person (by this I mean people who are interested in contemporary music at all). Later on I started poking those who were talking loudly (a nasty thing to do on my part) with a finger but it helped. During the last concerts of the Festival, the situation seemed to have improved, or maybe I just got used to such behaviour.

However, one can only learn from experience, and the Beijing Festival of Modern Music, the desire and commitment of the organisers of the Festival to raise the interest in contemporary music, must be praised. One must simply recall how limited contacts with the rest of the world were just recently.

The concert by the Mivos Quartet, in which Trataka. Point Noir by composer Andris Dzenītis was played, was surely the best in this Festival! Does this statement contain notes of pathos inspired by socialist slogans? Just a tiny bit. I’m learning from my colleagues from other countries how to recognise own talents, how to avoid condemning and complaining. In fact, the statement that the concert by the Mivos Quartet was the best, or, in a more impartial approach – one of the best, was backed by many professional arguments. Firstly, the repertoire was selected by the ISCM jury, while the programmes of other ensembles included compositions that they liked and had already become familiar with. It should be noted that concert programmes did not always provide complete information as to the country represented by the composer, whether the composer is a candidate for the New Composer Award. String quartets composed by Marcelo Ajubitta (Argentina), Jean-Pierre Deleuze (Belgium), Yip Ho Kwen Austin (China Hong Kong), Nicolae Teodoreanu (Romania), Gyula Bankovi (Hungary), individually bright in character, different in temperament and playing techniques, were performed.

An uncompromising expression, contrasts of large fields of colour in the musical piece by Andris Dzenītis which was performed at the end of the concert created a distinct peak of culmination. Those who formerly had the impression that Latvian music was a contemplative form of expression inspired by the landscape, found the musical piece composed by Andris surprisingly charged and dynamic, even destructive, yet memorable as a consequence.

The doubt that the only rehearsal in the morning of the concert might not be enough to produce a high-quality performance was not substantiated. The musicians were familiar with the score and adapted individual details of the score working together with the composer. Details does not necessarily mean things that are less important; details serve to create the overall picture and provide for a credible interpretation. Importantly, Andris’ music has very precise notation, which should be taken into account when submitting works for festivals and competitions. In fact, when submitting them anywhere.

The Quartet’s performance was excellent throughout the programme, with a markedly well-placed balance. Unintentionally, I compared this performance of Trataka. Point Noir to the interpretation by the Sinfonietta Riga string quartet which was the first to discover the musical piece; their interpretation created an even more marked feeling of the lack of compromise, the feeling of being ‘on the edge of a knife’. Yet this time too the bow hair broke as a result of the concentrated very strong bow pressure, and there was no shortage of drama – intensivo massimo!

After the excellent presentation of the 2019 Festival by Estonian colleagues, I was asked when exactly Latvia planned to host an ISCM Festival. I was only able to mutter ‘we’re thinking about it, we’re considering it’. The most important prerequisite is appropriate infrastructure: at least one large concert hall is required. Latvian musicians cause the least doubt, and this conviction is confirmed by the experience we’ve had at the Vancouver and Beijing Festivals; performing artists tend to differ in their professional ability.

I wish to thank the Latvian State Culture Capital Foundation (SCCF) and the Latvian Composers Union (LCU). It is very important for the composer to be present in person. No one has a particular interest or questions where the composer is invisible, unfamiliar, and ‘intangible’. We are here, we hear, we talk – più intenso!

Piatti  – Crash Cymbals
very strong bow preasure
intensivo massimo!  most intensely
Più intenso!   more intense
(The terms were taken from the score of Trataka. Point Noir by composer Andris Dzenītis)