C0 note (16,35 Hz) — vibrating on liquid surface

D0 note (18.35 Hz) — vibrating on liquid surface

C0 note (16,35 Hz) — vibrating on liquid surface

F0 note (21.83 Hz) — vibrating on liquid surface

G0 note (24.50 Hz) — vibrating on liquid surface

A0 note (27.50 Hz) — vibrating on liquid surface

ISCM World Music Days & Music Biennial Zagreb - Andreas Engström



Zagreb 15–24 April 2005 
Andreas Engström
andreas.engströ[email protected]

When it was Croatia's turn to organize the annual ISCM festival, entitled World Music Days, the customary tradition of staging this festival in the autumn was abandoned in favor of a spring festival. This was done so that the World Music Days (WMD) could be staged together with what might be Croatia's largest cultural event, the Music Biennial Zagreb. The first World Music Days was presented in 1923 and, except for an interruption during the Second World War, has ever since played a major role in the dissemination of contemporary music, with several festivals staged outside Europe in recent years. The Music Biennial Zagreb began in 1961 and has long been the most important venue for contemporary music in the Balkan region. In short, contemporary music world witnessed the simultaneous presentation of two important festivals in 2005, the WMD and the Music Biennial Zagreb, which attracted large audiences during ten sunny days in April. 

On the whole the program was intensive without being overloaded. Starting with a lunch concert at noon, at least four daily concerts were staged, affording ample opportunity to listen to lots of good music and excellent performances. That most concerts were held at venues within walking distance of each other made it easy for enthusiastic listeners to attend everything. 

A word of welcome in the program book by the president of Croatia and the minister of culture indicates that this manifestation was important to the city of Zagreb and to the whole of Croatia, a young nation striving for membership in the European Union. It seemed important to Croatians to organize the WMD. The fact that the Music Biennial served as a kind of host was further proof of the high standards of Croatian culture and organization. Judging by the sizeable audiences attending the concerts, it was apparent that those attending got the message. In public and even political terms these two festivals appeared to be of major significance in Croatia. 
Audiences probably did not give much thought to which composition belonged to which festival. Although most concerts were co-produced, the program book clearly indicated to which festival each piece belonged. This unusual arrangement - the unification of two 'classical' festivals, each with its own history and ideology - poses several questions concerning programming and aesthetic attitudes. 

If one takes a closer look at the program, it becomes obvious that the two organizations differ quite extensively. The Biennial program may be characterized as wide-ranging, while at the same time this program was rather 'safe' and did not take many risks. Many composers and performers were already well known to the contemporary music connoisseur, especially if he or she had attended previous festivals. If one did not have much knowledge about contemporary art music, attending the Biennial concerts afforded an opportunity to become acquainted with most genres and styles. In this respect the program was excellent. 
Several concerts indicated that the Biennial certainly is a significant cultural event in Zagreb, almost popular, one might say. The organizers should be given credit for their ability to put together a program that - although not at the cutting edge - corresponds rather well to the state of contemporary music today. On the other hand, a clear vision about concepts concerning the program as a whole seemed to be lacking. 
As said above, most ensembles were engaged by both organizations. This favored the ISCM, who, if on its own, would not have attained such a high performance level. In a festival as extensive as this one, lots of excellent music certainly was performed, which one would expect. I don't think this is the place to criticize individual pieces or performances. The main problem is basically at the organizational level. The creative and artistic problem the ISCM faces is more a question of programming and festival concepts. While the Biennial presented a wide variety of genres in their programs, the WMD programs mainly consisted of chamber music concerts in which pieces were simply presented one after the other without any structure or encompassing artistic idea. It also made me wonder if this is the highest quality, the most contemporary or most important music that a total of about fifty countries can produce. I do not believe this to be true, and I do not think anyone else believes this either. The problem the ISCM has to face concerns ideas about representation at its festivals. This festival was too much of a smorgasbord, consisting of many dishes with a very neutral and similar taste. 

We all know that the works are selected in part by an international jury and in part by the national juries of the respective member countries. Although the ISCM has never taken an outspoken aesthetic stance, it is more obvious than ever before that this organization represents a kind of central European modernism, in part grounded in the past. In today's aesthetic climate, which is more open and broader than ever before, this is not a problem in itself. As long as a standpoint is presented, this can be subject to discussion, which in turn may provoke interesting polarities and artistic questions at a festival like this. An aesthetic standpoint benefits the plurality of music. 
There was indeed considerable variation in both musical styles and genres in the WMD program, which may seem to contradict what I just have stated above. However, I think this variety is the result of great uncertainty as to the aesthetic viewpoints within the various juries. Some of the contributed works point to extremely different approaches, both with regards to ideas about contemporaneity and to art music. However, if the festival's general approach is simply a standard definition of contemporary music, these deviations from the norm do not necessarily render interesting aspects of contemporaneity. Rather they may be regarded as anomalies which display a lack of focus. There seems to be confusion about what contemporary music is today and what role it might play, for instance at a festival such as this one. 
A major issue that needs to be analyzed is to what extent the selected works are representative of musical life in the member countries. The selection procedure within the different national juries varies. The fact that people speak about these procedures and that some composers prefer to send their works only to the international because they lack confidence in their own national jury, is an indication that there is a gap between the aims of the organization and the realization of these aims. The status of the World Music Days is different in each member country and it is a fact that many established composers do not even care whether their works are performed at the World Music Days or not. In what respect is this type of festival representative, and if so, representative of what? And what role could this kind of festival play today, when contemporary music is to be found almost everywhere in the world, and with a spectrum that is broader than the spectrum of the ISCM? The ISCM may latently have a broad spectrum, but this kind of representational festival is not the right forum to demonstrate this. 

Another point of criticism concerns the performance level of the selected pieces. Sometimes this can be blamed on the late arrival of the scores, but this time the reason was probably more often the lack of sufficient rehearsal time. 
In contemporary music, a piece is very much a result of the musicians performing it. We are all aware of this. This is perhaps also true at a kind of constitutional level: when performing a work it changes from a scheme or a map of orientation into a living organism. The ensembles and musicians, each with their own preferences, knowledge and profiles, are indispensable in the process of shaping a work. This process might start with a commission and end with a performance. For interpreters it is not always easy - and not always enjoyable - to be assigned a piece that for some reason was selected by someone somewhere. This is a general problem in new music, especially at festivals where a tricky equation has to be solved, that of juggling different variables such as the festival concept, the represented composers, and the ensembles, each with their own specific talents. Although the ISCM does take this complex situation into account, I imagine that the gap between musicians' preferences and possible influence and those that are in charge of the selection procedure, is wider than in other situations, where there is usually either one person or one association that sets up and organizes the program. 
The World Music Days is a huge festival that at every step engages many people in many countries. One result is that the works are not always well executed and sometimes lack the engagement and focus one often experiences at concerts and smaller contemporary music festivals. With this kind of representative system, with national juries who work on their own and without a general concept serving as a basis for their selections, it does not matter if the ISCM is open to current approaches to contemporary music. 

The ISCM has about fifty member countries, in addition to a few associated members. One of the founding principles, also relevant today, is that the festival should represent its member countries. But one ought to remember that today's objective as well as the criteria for representation must be different than those in the past. Given today's postmodern discourse and the subsequent loss of the concept of progress, there is always something in musical, structural terms that is contemporary, and something that is not. This has made today's music more multi-facetted than ever before. What were once considered as outdated musical styles can from today's perspective be considered as contemporary as any other style. The question of contemporaneity is a tricky one that needs reflection at a festival such as the WMD. But as mentioned above, sidesteps from the general modernist ideology seem more the result of a lack of focus rather than a presentation of the plural status of contemporaneity. 
Moreover, the source of heterogeneity in today's music is to be found in the general process of democratization in the languages and techniques of composing and working with music. The current wide variety in the electronic avant-garde subculture shares venues and compositional tools with the academic tradition, while at the same time only partly inheriting its aesthetics from its electro-acoustical predecessors. This example must suffice. These contact points with subcultures - perhaps not always considered as contemporary art music from a generically or aesthetically and purely musical perspective -, is something that is also missing in the general approach of the WMD. 
With over fifty years of western contemporary music in the third world, in former colonies and in Asia, one might ask what direction the various indigenous contemporary musics are taking today. In these global times, contemporary art music is no longer a Western art form that exists worldwide. It is a once-upon-a-time Western art form that is evolving by discovering new traditions derived from different times and contexts, depending on the specific cultural situation. It is time to shift focus from the goal of spreading a culture to the rest of the world. Instead, we should aim at integrating cultures by extending the definition of the heritage of contemporary art music. This is a truly postcolonial perspective and may give rise to interesting programs, programs that may also position contemporary music at the zenith of our world culture, a position it hardly has today. 

Let us return to the actual festival in Zagreb. As stated above, there certainly were many great works performed, sometimes by excellent executors. But a festival with the pretension of representing a global musical culture needs to have a focus and a clear idea or vision about the nature of contemporary music and about what it takes to create a relevant festival from a global and even political perspective. This is certainly not an easy task as many situations are involved at various levels in numerous countries that differ considerably from each other. 
The discussion concerning representation versus artistic concept has been going on for quite a while within the ISCM, and the 2006 festival in Stuttgart has as its theme: 'Grenzenlos' /Without Borders'. We must wait to see what this actually means. There are many good reasons to base future World Music Days on an artistic idea instead of primarily on representation and a vague idea about artistic quality. The WMD could play an important role in today's cultural and artistic discourse. As mentioned above, I feel that the WMD indeed fulfilled this role in Croatia to a certain extent. More generally, I also believe that this is true for those countries where Western art music is a recent phenomenon, relatively speaking. However, this is not always the case. And no wonder. The fact that one piece is from Venezuela, another from Japan, and yet another from South Africa, is not a point in itself. So what! And it is not every year that the WMD is helped by the Music Biennale Zagreb. 

Andreas Engström


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