Getting past difficult pronunciations to answering some difficult questions — the 2014 ISCM World Music Days

WNMD Festival:

Although it has been established as an important urban center for more than 1000 years, Wrocław remains somewhat off the beaten path. There are few direct flights, not even from most places in Europe. Yet its history connects it to at least five different countries. Celtic tribes settled there in the 4th century B.C.E. although Poland is its earliest recorded claimant (a diocese having been established in the then-named town of Wrotizlava in the year 1000 C.E.). It was ceded to Bohemia (from 1336 to 1526) and then Austria (until 1741). A land grab by Frederick the Great made it part of Prussia and then Germany where under the name of Breslau it became the third largest German city. It was one of the last Nazi strongholds to surrender, but has been part of Poland again since 1945, hence its current name: think “wrought suave”… well, sort of. The President of the City (which is what they call the mayor there) claims that the correct pronunciation is “wroughts love” although that might just be an attempt at clever tourist sloganism on his part.

Given Wrocław’s history as a crossroads filled with conflict while nowadays being somewhat under the radar, it was a particular fitting host city for the 2014 World Music Days (WMD), the annual new music festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM). ISCM is an organization with an almost equally complex history, albeit one that goes back only a mere 91 years. Although WMD is the oldest continuous contemporary music festival (it has taken place in a different city every year since 1923 with only one period of hiatus—between 1940 and 1945—because of the Second World War), it too has been somewhat under the radar in recent years. This is surprising considering that 86 official editions of WMD have taken place on a total of four continents thus far and that the world premieres of several very significant compositions have occurred under its auspices—to name just a few: Béla Bartók’s First Piano Concerto (featuring the composer at the piano), Anton Webern’s choral work Das Augenlicht, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (a year after the composer’s death), and Pierre Boulez’s song cycle Le marteau sans maître. George Perle’s Six Etudes for Piano received its first performance during the first and only time thus far that this marathon event was officially held in the United States—in Boston in 1976. (There were supposedly “unofficial” WMDs in New York in 1940 and San Francisco in 1941, but attempting to track down any details on those two convenings is akin to searching for El Dorado.)

Sculpture of Girl with Globe Skirt

A sculpture of a ballerina wearing a globe of the earth as a skirt on one of the main streets in Wrocław was a nice visual metaphor for the World Music Days festival taking place in the city.

The way WMD is programmed is unique among music festivals. Repertoire is chosen by the host festival in tandem with a jury of internationally-known composers which selects works submitted by the various national “sections” of the ISCM which represent some 50 countries on six continents. (Most of these sections put out a call for scores in their home countries which are then also culled through a jury process.) If a “section” submits a total of six works in four different categories (a category being a specific instrumental combination that the host is able to provide), at least one of the submissions is guaranteed a performance. In addition, the host is responsible for covering the full cost of up to a seven-day hotel stay for a delegate from every section. It’s an expensive proposition. This year’s WMD cost well over a million euros. But it’s a remarkable paradigm, one that results in an overwhelming amount of music in a relatively short period of time—this year over the course of 10 days more than 60 different concerts were presented. Given this variety and generosity, finding a way to attend the World Music Days ought to be the equivalent to going on the hajj for new music aficionados.

But the reality of WMD and ISCM has sometimes been somewhat less transformative. The selection process from year to year is completely different; some years with seemingly no POV and other years with too pointed a stylistic bias at the expense of all others. While the 2011 WMD, which was hosted by the Zabreb Biennale, felt like a feast of sonic possibility; the 2013 WMD—which was co-presented by new music festivals in Košice, Bratislava, and Vienna—tended to veer mostly toward modernist aesthetics. And that’s when everyone plays according to the rules. Sometimes they don’t. Some of the delegates who attended this year’s general assemblies, the official business meetings of the membership held in the morning prior to each day’s glut of concerts, were still grumbling about the notorious 2006 WMD in Stuttgart during which most of the ISCM’s submissions were completely ignored.

While the 2014 WMD was much closer in spirit to Zagreb than Košice-Bratislava-Vienna, the feast sometimes felt more gourmand than gourmet. Most of the 2014 concerts lasted more than 2 ½ hours despite concerts in venues scattered across the city often being paced two hours apart from one another. This meant that it was impossible to hear everything. According to one of this year’s festival’s principal coordinators, Izabela Duchnowska from the Department of Culture of the Municipality of Wrocław, most of the works that had been submitted were much longer than they claimed to be. Never completely trust composers!

To further overload an already overloaded schedule, the ISCM concerts and general assemblies were concurrent with the 2014 Conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC). Although some events were coordinated for the attendees of both convenings, many were not.

Photo of motorcyclists

Motorcyclists awaiting the start of the Motorcycle Symphony.

Still, there were many amazing sonic experiences for those intrepid enough to wade through it all. There were stagings of two important Polish operas—Krzysztof Penderecki’s Paradise Lost (a U.S. bicentennial commission originally staged at the Chicago Lyric Opera) and Zygmunt Krauze’s 2011 Pułapka (inspired by the life of Franz Kafka)—as well as Peter Eötvös’s 2004 Angels in America based on the 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning two-part play by American playwright Tony Kushner. Two outdoor music events were particularly noteworthy. The first was Siren Chants, a mesmerizing collaboration between Christof Schläger and Marjon Smit involving 100 ship horns that stretched across a square mile along the embankment; the second, perhaps even wilder, was Sławomir Kupczak’s Symphony No. 2 for 100 motorcycles and rock band. It was pretty loud. There was even a late night concert by dance pop icon Peaches although admittedly her repertoire did not include any ISCM submissions.

There was a particularly fascinating concert that took place in the fabulously-named Sanatorium of Culture near the Old Town Hall featuring a group called Maly Instrumenty which performs on a broad range of “small instruments”—computer gear, various homemade contraptions, plus a wide range of toys including rubber ducks. One of the pieces on that program was composed especially for them by Paul Preusser, a Denver-born experimental composer who has been living in Wrocław for nearly a decade.

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Another concert, held in the historic 1894 Wrocław Puppet Theatre combined a fascinating array of works for soloists employing electronics. By intention, the pieces on the second half of the program ran together without a break thus making it impossible to determine when one piece ended and another began. Before intermission, however, a remarkably self-contained piece for electric guitar and electronics composed and performed by Boston-based Mike Frengel blurred the lines between contemporary music and progressive rock.

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(Note: This video is from a 2011 performance in Boston, not from the 2014 WMD in Wrocław.)

There was an entire concert devoted to string orchestra music in another curiously-named venue—a place called NOT—and another of wind band works performed by the Orchestra of the Polish Air Force, which featured the music of composers based on four continents including Fuse by Rob Smith from Houston, Texas.

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Another American, Northern California-based Sam Nichols, had a string quartet performed by the Lutosławski Quartet in Wrocław University’s Oratorium Marianum, the site of the premiere of Johannes Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. This was an occurrence that was not lost on him when he attended rehearsals.

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Since 2002, ISCM has also given a Young Composer Award that is adjudicated during the WMD by an international jury comprised of ISCM delegates who assign an award to a composer under the age of 35 whose work is performed in the festival. The winner gets a money prize and a commission for a new piece to be performed in a future edition of the ISCM World Music Days. Previous recipients of this award include Thomas Adès, Helena Tulve, Diana Rotaru, and Eric Nathan. This year’s winner was Flemish composer Stefan Prins for his 2011-12 Piano Hero #1 for MIDI keyboard, video, and electronics. (Malgorzata Walentynowicz’s extremely exciting performance of that athletic work opened the aforementioned Puppet Theatre concert which also featured Mike Frengel.) Honorable mentions for the 2014 ISCM Young Composer Award were Hannes Dufek (Austria), Yair Klartag (Israel), and Dmitry Timofeev (Russia). The judges for the 2014 award were Stephen Lias (ISCM USA Associate Member, Stephen F. Austin State University, Texas, chair), Tomoko Fukui (ISCM Japan Section), Javier Hagen (ISCM Switzerland Section), and Eva Irene Lopszyc (ISCM Argentina Section). The award is supported by Music on Main in Vancouver.

Photo of tram with ISCM WMD signage

It was clear that the ISCM World Music Days was really an important event in Wrocław. Even some of the trams sported the festival logo and colors. Now the question is how to make this annual festival equally important every year wherever it takes place.

Events like all of these make the ISCM and its World Music Days international treasures. But there’s still a long way to go. Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that the debates that currently rage among its membership are all par for the course. According to the ISCM entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

From its inception the ISCM was plagued by internal disputes concerning its purpose and operation. There was conflict between those countries that felt that it should promote avant-garde music (principally Germany before 1933 and Austria and Czechoslovakia before 1938) and those that considered any contemporary music to be worthy of the society’s interest (principally France, England, and the USA).

Then again, if this is the way things always were and still often are, how does this bode for the future? As a contemporary music festival, the future is—of course—what should be first and foremost on everyone’s minds.

photo of sculpture of people sunk into and rising out of the sidewalk

One of the most eye-catching art installations in this city filled with extraordinary public art is Jerzy Kalina’s Przejście which consists of 14 life-size human sculptures, some of which are sunken into the sidewalk while others seem to rise out of it, spread across two sides of a busy pedestrian crossing. It is a testimony to the pro-democracy movement in Poland which, after many years, ultimately triumphed over martial law. But it is also tempting to reinterpret it as yet another apt visual metaphor for the transformative role that new music can have in our society if only we can find a way for it to reach as many people as possible and that people pay attention to it once we do.

More reports from 2014