Report on the 2018 ISCM World Music Days (Beijing, China)

Written By: Stephen Lias

WNMD Festival:

André Chini & Javier Hagen

The annual ISCM World Music Days Festival is a sprawling, diverse, and often overwhelming array of concerts, meetings, receptions, installations, and networking.  In my twelve years attending this event, it has taken me to such far-flung places as Hong Kong, Lithuania, Poland, Australia, Vancouver, and South Korea (to name a few).  It has (directly or indirectly) also introduced me to some of the most fulfilling artistic discoveries, most compelling travel experiences, and most long-lasting friendships of my career.

And so it was with great anticipation that I made plans for my first trip to Beijing for the 2018 World Music Days Festival hosted by the Beijing Modern Music Festival.  Not wanting to miss the opportunity to do some adventuring (and to clear my head after a long semester of teaching), I arrived a week early to backpack along the Great Wall and visit some of the villages in the region.  This proved to be a winning formula and by the time I returned to Beijing, I was refreshed and eager to see old friends and hear new music.  

With a festival as complex and multifaceted as ISCM-WMD, any report will (of course) be only one person’s experience, so I make no apologies for having missed some concerts and for not being the late-night social owl who populates the nearly-endless afterparties. My responsibilities as chair of the jury for the Young Composers Award required me to attend the majority of the concerts, though, and I formed some fruitful new relationships with delegates from other sections in the general assembly meetings. 

How best to write about a festival like this?  While chronologies are a typical approach, I find them deadly to read, and I’d prefer not to merely repeat what can easily be found in the program booklet.  Rather, the elements of the festival broadly fall into a few main categories for me:

  • The Concerts (compositions, performers, audiences, etc.)
  • The General Assembly (elections, planning, working groups, etc.) 
  • Matters Related to the Host (venues, organization, communication, etc.) 

So I will organize my summary of the event around these overarching topics.     ›     ›


By my count, this eight-day festival included 21 concerts featuring ensembles from seven countries (China, Germany, Japan, USA, New Zealand, Australia, and Russia). Together, these events presented roughly 144 pieces by composers from about 45 countries.  Since there was no comprehensive list provided in the program, I’ll include one here, but it may not be exhaustive since some composers have dual citizenship, and some nationalities were not listed.

Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, Cypress, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macau, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, Ukraine, USA

The programming was admirably diverse, and embraced a wide range of styles, genres, ensembles, and artistic approaches.  Some of the concerts, performers, and pieces that I found the most memorable were:

  • The opening concert at the magnificent Centre for the Performing Arts.  This wonderfully varied concert reminded me what ISCM is all about – diversity of programming and excellence in composition and performance.  Highlights included:
    • The exceptionally expressive and evocative suona performance of Zhang Qianyuan on Wenshen Qin’s Calling for Phoenix(China) at the opening concert.  The colorful orchestration and captivating performance drew an exceptionally warm response from the audience.
    • Ryan Latimer’s exuberant Antiarkie(UK) which I found irresistible in its tongue-in-cheek irreverence.
    • And (of course) the epic emotional climaxes and exquisite colors of Chen Yi’s Ballad, Dance and Fantasy(USA).
    • The engaging special techniques in Wen Bihe’s electronic piece Beyond(China/Macau).  
    • Dynamic and expressive playing from the Tokyo Saxophone Quartet.
    • George Christofi’s deft mixture of traditional and extended flute techniques in his Diplophonia(Cyprus).  
    • The energetic and fiery performance of Martin Blessinger’s Exordium et Infra Furorem(USA Texas) by violinist Jingye Zhang.
    • The Mivos Quartet’s uniformly excellent performance – I particularly enjoyed the dynamic contrasts in String Quartet No. 5: Time Motorby Ho Kwen Austin Yip (China Hong Kong).
    • Hu Yixuan’s chamber opera L’Accordeurabout a blind piano tuner.
    • The heartbreaking purity of the Youth Choir’s performance of Zhang Zheng’s That Time(China).
    • The German National Youth Choir’s whimsical choice of socks.  Little details like this make wonderful counterpoint to the often-stuffy world of concert music. (Of course their singing was great too!)
    • William Mival’s piece Correntandemente (Running-ly-ish)(UK).  I was fascinated by both the piece, and the story behind it.
    • Ligeti’s Métamorphoses Nocturnesas performed by the Australian String Quartet.  I didn’t know this piece, but it was a great reminder of why we honor Ligeti.  Variety, subtlety, rhythmic inventiveness, … what a master.  And so beautifully performed!  One of my favorite moments of this festival.
    • The evocative singing and microtonal elements of Saad Haddad’s Takht(USA) performed by the Hanzhou Philharmonic Orchestra.

Another highlight of the festival for me was the exceptional concert by Alarm Will Sound – particularly Charles Peck’s Vinyl(USA).  Tragically, this ensemble’s participation at the World Music Days Festival came only two weeks after the unexpected death of founding member and horn player Matt Marks. The ensemble’s stunning performance, coming on the heels of such devastating news, was a testament to both their professionalism, and to Matt Marks’ memory.

One of my principal aims in coming to these festivals is to further my exposure to (and understanding of) musical styles and approaches that I might not otherwise encounter. Thus, as I read back over my marginal notes from the concerts, I’m happy to see comments like:

“I have no idea what that meant.”

“Not sure what to make of this.”

“Out of sync, but maybe very cool.” 

I’m always reminded that the presented pieces selected from the ISCM submissions all went through a rigorous, multi-tiered vetting process both within their own sections, as well as by the hosts and presenting ensembles. So when I encounter pieces that I’m unable to make sense of, I’m very happy to assume that the fault is mine. This festival (as usual) challenged my ears and mind in all the right ways.

Of course, one of the central elements of the concerts each year is the selection of a winner for the Young Composers Award.  This year, the jury (selected by Kjartan Olafsson) consisted of Olli Virtaperko (Finland), Samuel Holloway (New Zealand), and myself (USA).  As chair, I was deeply indebted to the dedication and thoughtfulness of my fellow jurors, and it was with great pleasure that we presented the award on the final night to New York-based composer Michael Seltenreich for his piece Sparks and Flares.

›     ›     ›


As is usual for ISCM, the general assembly meetings were positive and productive although sometimes slow, and occasionally heated.  The agenda for these meetings is (by necessity) always quite full, and it can be challenging to move through it in a timely manner with such a diverse and multicultural society.

Principal among the outcomes of the General Assembly meetings included the election of Tomoko Fukui and George Kentros to the Executive Committee (replacing outgoing members Kjartan Olafsson and Anna Dorota Władyczka), and selecting Shanghai and Nanning, China as joint hosts of the 2021 festival. There were also substantive discussions of budget, planning, policy, and working group topics, but I will not enumerate them here since the minutes will be a better record of those activities.  

It was unfortunate that there were a few moments during the general assembly meetings when things became uncivil – both in public and behind the scenes. While I understand the heated feelings that led to these outbursts, I don’t think it behooves the nature of this society to descend to private bullying or public shaming. Thankfully, the Executive Committee handled these matters with delicacy and tact.

›     ›     › 


I came away from the festival with a generally positive feeling about how it had been hosted.  As compared with previous years, though, there were a few things that could have been managed more effectively.

Principal among these is the official program booklet.  It had a surprising number of problems, mistakes, or omissions. I realize that in a document of this size and complexity it is almost impossible to get everything right, but there were some central matters of concern to me.  These included:

  • No list of ISCM sections and associate members. The funding and resources that each of the members devotes to supporting the World Music Days festival is considerable, and being able to show our local organizations that our name is listed in the official program booklet goes a long way to generating ongoing good will. It may seem like a small oversight to the organizers, but I’m sure many of the members were also unhappy about this.
  • Errors in the country listed for some composers.
  • No indication in the program of which pieces were eligible for the Young Composers Award. I believe this is actually a written policy for the host, and helps raise awareness of this important international prize.  Likewise, there was no indication in the program about when the award would be announced.  
  • No indication of which pieces were official or individual submissions.  Related to an earlier point, many of us depend on the program to show the benefit of our involvement in ISCM.  Our single presented piece was listed only as “USA.” 

The society looks to the program booklet for the definitive archival record of what took place at these festivals, and some of these omissions seem quite significant to me.

The concert venues were beautiful and I was very pleased at how well-attended the concerts were, although I was a bit surprised at the frequent lack of concert decorum – particularly at the conservatory.  People were constantly coming and going during the music, and creating a considerable amount of extraneous noise and whispering.  At an institution preparing high-level musicians for professional international careers, I would have expected a higher level of respect for the performers.

I don’t recall ever having been to a World Music Days festival where there were so few receptions. Networking is the foundation on which this society is built and there has always been a strong tradition (to everyone’s benefit) of providing social/communal spaces before or after concerts where people can interact and form relationships.  The composer-collider reception, organized by a number of sections, served as a wonderful example of what could have happened almost every day.

Also conspicuously absent were guides to help delegates and composers navigate to the various venues. This has also become a welcome tradition with these festivals and manyof the delegates were disappointed to find that no such help was forthcoming.

There was clearly a lot of excellent work being done by some of the people in leadership, but I think everyone felt particularly thankful to Max Yin and Joseph Butcherwho kept their heads and were always helpful and friendly, even when obviously overextended.

›     ›     ›


I’ll close my account by including some “snapshots” of impressions that other people had during the festival. I hope it will help provide a more well-rounded view, and demonstrate how multifaceted this festival was.  


“If there is one thing I have learnt from my time in Beijing, it is that there is nothing quite as intense as sitting waiting for the China National Symphony Orchestra to perform your music, than trying to hold yourself together as you crunch through a fiery Szechuan peppercorn—an exhilarating and memorable experience all round.”

(Ryan Latimer, Composer, United Kingdom)

“Before Beijing, I never thought that I would become the ExCom. Moreover, until now I never thought ExCom’s work was so hard.”

(Tomok Fukui, Composer – Japan)

“The 2018 ISCM World Music Days Festival in Beijing was an uplifting and invigorating experience from start to finish.  Being immersed in China’s political and historical epicenter, and surrounded by the best of music-making in the 21st century, I could trace connections across cultures and across centuries, and I formed bonds of artistic kinship with musicians from around the world.” 

(Martin Blessinger, Composer – USA)

“The Composer Collider event was a delight – a wonderfully warm, collaborative atmosphere as delegates (composers, performers, producers, promoters) mingled and made connections. Connectivity – and the development of new relationships – is one the most potent forces of the ISCM network.”

(Deborah Keyser, Cyfarwyddwr Director – Wales)

“It was very moving to hear this gutsy and infinitely sensitive group of performers, touching beyond music to Asian-Pacific cultural identity and spirit, especially in the work of my mentor for engagement with the Asian-Pacific, Peter Sculthorpe in his String Quartet No. 11: Jabiru Dreaming. I almost cried.”

(Bruce Crossman, Composer & Associate Professor – Australia)

“WNMD 2018 it was a  great experience from the point of view of the high level of the performers and of the works included in the concerts. We met music and musicians from all over the world. For me it was interesting the gathering of many cultures and traditions. Besides this I discover a lot of connections in between several traditions. Also I have to mention that in my opinion it was special to listen to music and musicians specialized in Chinese, art and tradition, deep tradition of the Empire. Most of the concerts and meetings were really Events. Thank you for such an experience.”

(Dr.Irina Hasnas, Composer, Musicologist and Journalist – Romania)