Last Friday night I attended the opening night of this year’s ISCM World New Music Days, held in Sydney (and Australia, and the Southern Hemisphere for that matter) for the first time.
It’s been a while since I attended a wholly ‘new music’ event, so I was prepared for a gear-shifting sensation as I eased back into the particular mode of being that best copes with presentations of entirely new (but frequently not entirely fabulous) music in the classical/art music tradition. In fact, it’s been a while since I attended a chamber music event of any kind, so the gear shifting involved both genre and tradition.
Added to this, I was scooting off at the conclusion to join my husband at the Walkley Press Freedom dinner (Qantas had invited the 2UE breakfast hosts to their table, both immediate past – Mike Carlton – and present – my husband, John, and Sandy Aloisi) so I was slightly too dressed up for contemporary ‘art’ music. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I suspect I listen differently when wearing high heels.
Mind you, the first listening experience was not that of music; Julian Day (of Classic FM employ, and with requisite beautiful voice) was the host for the evening, introducing each piece, and its composer, for the most part reading these introductions from the program notes. There is something about saying stuff out loud that makes what seems almost reasonable on the page giggle-worthy in the ear. And I found myself stifling many a guffaw at the hilarious descriptions (of both pieces and people) Julian intoned prior to each new presentation. There’s a combination of self-importance and stating the obvious in many a program note that would be best left unspoken.
Next the musicians (students from the conservatorium) entered the performing area. Young. Super-young. Gen Y Central. Then, amongst the teenagers and early twenty-somethings, their conductor Darryl Pratt walked out to join them, seemingly grizzled and weary, but with enough vigour to raise the baton, and the evening began.
The first piece, Ivan Brkljacic’s Jinx, took me back to my student composition days; like so many student works it seemed to me full of assumed gesture in search of genuine content and organic form. Henrick Strindberg’s Timeline was much more to my liking, a more sculpted experience, with lovely little epiphanies of tone colour keeping my interest throughout. By the time we reached Joachim Sandgren’s Instrument contandant I felt as if we were in time-warp: none of these three pieces in the first half of the concert had anything to distinguish them from music written 25 years ago, and since this was the opening to a week of new music from around the world I wanted to hear something that actually felt new. Which is not to say that Sandgren’s work was not well-made or well-performed, simply that by that stage in the evening it felt like a failure to fulfil the brief.
Each of these performances was separated by a long spell with stage hands consulting complicated diagrams while setting out the music stands, chairs and percussion paraphernalia required for the next piece. Much busy work, and it highlighted the lack of ‘production’ that is a marker of these presentations of new music – no lighting (much), no set, no costumes, no context (unless you count Julian Day reading the program notes), no drama – just back to that student workshop sensation of composers being grateful their ideas are getting any kind of a hearing at all.
Intermission: an opportunity to size up the crowd, and again I felt transported back to student composition days – lots of men, mostly daggy/dowdy (men and women), with Andree Greenwell’s fabulous green trench standing out amongst the undulating shades of glum being worn by most of the rest of us. [Glam I may have been, but in unequivocal black.] And I know that facial hair is de rigueur for men in their mid-twenties, but even so there seemed to be a lot of it about no matter which age group the male of the species belonged to. People were enthusiastically greeting each other the way people do at international conferences, and little of the chatter related to the music we had just heard. The Music Workshop venue is troublesome when it comes to intermissions: one climbs the stairs of the raked venue only to descend another set of stairs in the foyer – the drinks are sold at stage level, but the venue in this concert mode does not facilitate direct access. Many audience members unfamiliar with the venue finally found a drink before the start of the second half.
Back in the performance space and the return of Julian Day to the podium for more introductions, only this time I’d had a chance to peruse the program so I knew what we were in for. I should have already noted that Julian wore the traditional black garb of performers and new music audience members, but he did so in a way that was a homage to the irony of the revival of early 80s black – skinny jeans, pointy shoes, layers of ebony, charcoal and jet. If he could have just borrowed Andree’s trenchcoat he would have definitely been best-dressed at this opening night.
I have to confess that having the program available for perusal in this second half was a complete distraction: instead of focussing on the music (which I was finding less than engaging) I was flicking through the listening options outlined for the week ahead. Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s Song for piano and ensemble was fine, but I struggled to stay involved; Carl Bettendorf’s Inner Life referred to Japanese Gagaku, apparently, and after the performance Julian Day was enthusiastic about how clearly this was evident to the listener, so maybe I just need to brush up on my Gagaku. I found myself second-guessing when the musicians were looking at the end of the final page of the music.
By way of crazy contrast was the final element in the concert, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Village Idiot. Now I’ve been a bit of a sucker for ensembles that anachronistically feature the electric guitar amongst the other chamber music instruments ever since I got hooked on some Tippett back in the 80s – can’t explain it, it always seems so wrong it’s right. But having Julian announce in advance that the guitarist in this ensemble was the ‘idiot’ seemed like more information than was strictly necessary. Apparently the piece was an example of profundity emerging from incoherence, but honestly, there was little incoherent about any of it – an energetic rhythmic drive throughout, straight-forward and only slightly post-diatonic harmonies, with lovely uses of the instrumentation to create a work that definitely felt like it was by Elena Kats-Chernin, not any old random student composer.
The audience responded to the conclusion of this work with enthusiastic applause (in part applauding the whole event, and applauding in anticipation of the week ahead), and conductor Darryl Pratt looked suitably pleased as he sauntered off the stage, leaving the young performers still at their places basking in the enthusiasm. But after a short burst audiences members started thinking about how far they had to walk to get their post-concert drink, and the applause began to taper off, leaving the young members of the ensemble thinking they’d better get off the stage before the applause ended altogether. They meandered away, with most of them in the wings before Darryl Pratt got around to returning for another bow. Of course, he then didn’t bother, and what dying applause was left was killed by the complete lack of stage craft exhibited at the end of a series of challenging performances.
It might seem like a side-note quibble irrelevant to the music being presented, but this kind of failure to manage the performance of new music contributes to its [usually poor] reception, and even though the tickets were inexpensive (and I had a comp) the music deserves better.
Because it was an exciting musical finish. In fact, the energetic expression in Village Idiot was of a different ilk to that of the other works to such a degree as to render them somewhat pastel in its supersaturated wake. But like all the other works in the concert, Village Idiot could have been written some years earlier – maybe not receiving such a warm response back in 1985 as it received this past weekend, but still, it featured nothing that could not have transpired in music 25 years ago.
Of course, it’s hard to see what is new at the time it is happening, and new music has no culture of packaging itself, apart from often dreadful program notes. Fashion Week is happening right now in Sydney also, and those attending are actively looking for what defines new in a way that is completely absent from this ISCM week. Is it that composers are too jaded to really believe in the new anymore? Or is that the fashionistas are so devoted to novelty that their time is spent repackaging 80s innovation in a way that makes Julian Day the best-dressed man at ISCM?
But I wonder if there is a better way of exploring ‘new’ new music, because this opening concert, no matter what positive things I can think of to say about it, really did feel a bit old.