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Curating New Music: The ISCM Delegates

Shanghai girls

Curating New Music: The ISCM Delegates

29 May 2018 / William Anderson / On the Beat

In Search of the Obvious Good

Robert Levin, master pianist and Mozart expert, was fond of telling his students that Beethoven’s music caused people to run out of the concert hall and vomit. He told us the story of Haydn telling Beethoven to tone it down, in connection with the C minor piano trio, I think. And then there was Schoenberg. The ISCM delegates are gatekeepers, ready to throw money and resources at anything, and hope that something sticks. The delegates are in the odd position of having to contend with composers who are eager to step in those shoes and shock us. And the delegates are also working with composers who want to be loved, who want to please. Paul McCartney obviously loved to please.

I worked for years with Milton Babbitt. His music was an inscrutable mystery to me, as it is for most people who happen to hear it. I caught the bug editing the recording of my mentor David Starobin’s recording of Babbitt’s solo guitar piece. Something grabbed me. I went on to commission works from Babbitt, which got better and better, culminating in Swan Song No. 1 (2001), which I find a remarkable, unprecedented, and, for Babbitt, relatively accessible work. I would say that it takes a player, someone engaged in the dirty business of making the music happen, to get inside that music. Perhaps a gate keeper, an ISCM delegate, can get into that space.

I love Babbitt’s music, and I love Tan Dun. Tan Dun is an integrator. He learned some modernist tricks, and he figured out how to make them work in music that is suitable for mass consumption. Delegates: we are interested in consumption, mass, or otherwise, but we also might become smitten by music that has little hope for mass consumption. There’s the devil in all of this.

For some of the delegates who attended the 2018 World Music Days in Beijing, the 4pm concert presented by Alarm Will Sound on the last day of the festival, was the summum bonum; for others it was the Shostakovitch-like Quintessence; for me it was the surprising works by Chinese composers Zhang CHUN, LIANG Nan, and LIU Li. One might imagine that for the EU spectralists, all was tiresome except for their rarefied distillations. Music is an obvious good, yet we cannot agree upon what is good or better music. The delegates who come together find friends who share their frustrations, but any work that annoyed one was a work that was being championed by another. Contemporary music is supposed to innovate, but at any one point, few delegates can agree on what is a good innovation, and what is tantamount to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The Beijing Modern Music Festival got around this problem by including much traditional Chinese music. A traditional good is tried and true. (In Sweden, on the island of Visby at WMD 2008, music for traditional male choir was alternated with crazy new works.) I caught two pieces at the Beijing Concert Hall on Monday and Tuesday nights. The first was a concerto for cello and orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments. It was very well done, a bizarre hybrid of Western and Chinese idioms. On Tuesday I caught a work for two singers, a man and a woman. The man was dressed like Atilla the Hun, or maybe Genghis Kahn, and the woman could have been his consort. They sang with a Western orchestra. The music was again a blend of John Williams and traditional Chinese idioms. The man sang in a Western style, while the woman sang in a more Chinese style.

These two concerts were packed, and it seems like this kind of traditional music is very popular—an obvious good. Can’t argue with it, just like we can’t argue with John Williams. And yet we do. We say, well, it’s all based on other stuff (Bruckner); clever rehashing of old material. Yes, that’s true. Points off for being in debt to a predecessor? That’s a question. It’s a matter of degree. For me the answer varies from case to case. For some it’s a no brainer to go the safest route, and so if not for risk takers we would have nothing but John Williams on our programs.

Another concert featured a group of expert young players of traditional Chinese instruments. I was shocked that the music for traditional Chinese Instruments was developing in such interesting directions. This music was presented by the National Music Chamber Orchestra of Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The National Music Chamber Orchestra of Shanghai Conservatory of Music

The performers were dazzling, often playing their traditional Chinese instruments from memory. The music had great breadth, and I was struck that traditional Chinese music is moving in the direction of the world of Zhang CHUN, LIANG Nan, and LIU Li, whose music is defined in part by a knowing sense that its audience is international, and informed by music from all over the world. The traditional composers move into the octotonic space, and are at home in quartal harmony (more or less nearby extensions of the pentatonic subsets-think Copeland).

There was a work that began with a spacey modernist texture, only vaguely tonal. It made me think of Bao-yu and the cosmic frames that exist in traditional story telling. The modernists do not have exclusive rights to that spacey a-temporal or pre-temporal realm. It is ubiquitous in traditional cultures. So it is a mistake to call that texture “modernist”, although that was the first comparison that occurred to me.

The music is by turns charming and edgy. Always wildly imaginative. The composers were very happy to be bringing their music to this audience. The response was mixed, but many of the delegates were as happy as I was. The composers were unfazed. One was dressed like a cowboy, wearing blue jeans. He emanated great joy as he strode confidently onto the stage for his bow. His music earned him that.

The Rest Is Worthy of Your Consideration

All of we delegates come with baggage. We are holding fast to certain principles. For some it is a curatorial principle—David Pay’s admirable achievement of gender parity at Vancouver’s 2017 WMD. We all need to get there, one way or another, and I salute David Pay. Other delegates cleave fast to an aesthetic vision. Others feel that a curator must treat various aesthetics within their communities equally, and yet we can, nevertheless, see where their hearts are; we see delegates form convictions that they are onto a real and indisputable good, one where anyone who resists must be considered unreasonable. When curators agree on the next thing, that confidence can build an audience, which, at this moment, is the most respected measure of a music’s success. This is the Taruskin/Ross paradigm that rules the day—only music that has an audience is worthy of study, or critical examination, the rest is noise. No, it is your curatorial duty to consider it. I stand with the hunger artists, misfits, & mavericks. If a new sextet is working in 7 brains (the brains of the composer and the six musicians), those 7 will work on spreading the message.

Consider this curatorial strategy (and compositional strategy)—seek maximum diversity of compositional techniques working harmoniously together, not resorting to pastiche or collage, but cohering organically. This leads to a reconciliation of the cheap trick and the fancy trick. (See my note about Tan Dun’s Passacaglia.) Those were segregated in the 20th Century as the innovators were so proud and had to exclude the familiar. We are over that pride. So we embrace the simple, clean, the tried and true, but we also embrace what the minimalists (both the EU and the US varieties) cast away—the great profusion of 20th C. Innovations. These are innovations that do not have to keep sounding 20th C; techniques & sounds are two different things. I am as tired of certain nasty, tired 20th C. sounds as any minimalist. There is a lifetime of work in consolidating.

–William Anderson, RSF delegate to the 2018 ISCM World Music Days