Looking for the El Dorado of New Music

Journeys at home and abroad.

In July 2006 I was involved in quick succession in new music events in South Africa, Ireland and Germany. Inevitably this prompts me to compare the new music scenes in these three places. The thing that all new music scenes everywhere have in common is that they achieve focus and energy from the work of individual organisers. In towns and cities everywhere there is usually a handful of parallel scenes (or often just one scene), depending on the work of a few individuals. Therefore comparisons between such places may be due to the differences between these individuals rather than general societal or political differences: general points from such comparisons must be tempered by this fact, or else account speculatively for individuals’ actions as reactive to their background circumstances.

My month started in South Africa, at the New Music Indaba, which is part of the National Arts Festival held annually in Grahamstown. The Indaba is a festival of contemporary music within this wider festival of national scale, and although Grahamstown is a small place (pop c. 50,000) the main festival ensures that people, including those coming just for the new music, travel thousands of miles from such cities as Johannesburg, Durban and Capetown, mostly by road. Such effort is one of many aspects that make the South African new music scene stand out in comparisons with Europe.

My main reason for being there was to curate a concert to showcase Irish contemporary music, so I had organised a string trio (the Gillespie Trio: Leonie Curtin, Brendan Lawless and Kate Ellis) to travel and perform in two concerts. I was also co-opted into assisting at workshops run for South African composers writing for the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet, and this was one activity that gave me an insight into the quality of the new music scene.

The key concept in the case of South Africa must be inclusivity. And this cuts across everything in a way that can hardly be imagined without direct experience. The new music community shows a diversity of age, race, gender, sexuality, and especially type of musical education, that is not really permitted (for want of a better word) in Europe. For example, one of the composers workshopping was a forty-something female folk singer-songwriter; she had worked before in composition, however, and produced both a graphic score and a complex written realisation for the same piece. Such a participant seems much less likely to turn up in such an event were it held in Ireland, and she was not the only exemplar of diversity.

I was struck by the fact that the country has not just black and white populations, but numerous tribes: English, Indian, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu, to name only a few, each with its own language and culture – but since just 1989 a spirit of co-operation between all these is the dominant political and societal force. Here education is valued as the engine of reform, and you simply can’t run a programme, even a short-lived new music workshop, without reaching out to all, with funding assistance and so forth. This is because there are just two directions in the whole life of South Africa: away from, or returning to, Apartheid.

In European countries such workshops can more or less assume that the participants will have some third-level music education and be young and white. And nobody minds. It seemed somewhat ironic, then, that Europe was represented in the workshop by the invited professional musicians and composers (myself and Ulrich Süsse, from Stuttgart), as if Europe were the El Dorado of contemporary music.

Through this snapshot (plus attendance at concerts) of South African music I discovered that there is a general avoidance, conscious or otherwise, of the standard ‘conventional avant-garde’ sounds. Hopefully this can be put down to a rejection of cliché and a respect for imagination and (re-)invention. The established and interesting figures in South African music may be small in number, but there is a vigorous awareness of, and rejection of, the standard European sounds among this group. This is apparent in both the stylistic position(s) and in the questioning articles that appear in the Bulletin of NewMusicSA, the festival organisers (who are also the national section of ISCM – International Society for Contemporary Music – in South Africa). There is certainly the possibility that Kevin Volans is a central figure in this, since he was Stockhausen’s teaching assistant for five years, which led to his rejection of European conformism. He has taught some of the currently emerging young composers in the country, and influenced others. Of the established composers, the sound-worlds of Michael Blake, Jürgen Braüninger and Mokale Koapeng seemed to relate back to that of Kevin Volans in various ways.

My analysis of the situation there is that younger composers tend to assume the validity of viewing Europe (especially Germany) as a Mecca of new music that they should orient themselves to, whilst the more experienced composers reject this view. Therefore can one say, at least for South Africa, that viewing Europe thus has been reduced to an immature ‘phase’?

Without borders?
A few days later I was in Maynooth University assisting in the running of the Irish Composition Summer School. Here the students were from a tightly homogeneous background and a narrow age-range (though that is not always the case). I think it is safe to say that for Ireland the view of Europe is not as straightforward as I have presented it for South Africa (which in any case is just a sketch). We are far too close to be able to set up such independence. We have a more complex and possibly dysfunctional relationship with continental Europe. We certainly seem to have more composers working within or partially within a European aesthetic, and positioned here we are more usually/easily influenced by French, Dutch or Italian developments than German. The influence of the US is not as great as might be expected, but there is a natural iconoclasm in Ireland that resonates well with the pioneer spirit of American music at its best. Our relationship with any notion of German hegemony, though, might be summed up as: ‘we don’t do empires’.

As if to encapsulate the Irish position today, the Summer School combined the presence of Simon Bainbridge (head of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London) and Donnacha Dennehy. For Bainbridge, sonority and flowing development are central while for Dennehy energy and experiment are more important. The young composers were thus shown that there is not one right way, as the aesthetics and sounds of Bainbridge and Dennehy actually clash quite violently.

One week later I was in Stuttgart for seven days. This was the ISCM World New Music Festival, presented by Musik Der Jahrhunderte, the new music organisation for the city. As it should, the festival featured the music of composers from six continents. Despite this apparent broadness, however, there was a narrowness of aesthetic coming from the artistic director of the festival, Christine Fischer.

A year before the festival, composers living around the world were invited to submit scores through the ISCM network. However, scores from the 500 or so gathered through this system accounted for just 26 of the 178 works presented. So it turned out that the majority of the 50 ISCM member countries were thus ‘represented’ by invited composers who already live in or have links with Germany. This was extraordinarily ironic since the theme of the festival was Grenzenlos (‘without borders’). Having spoken to composers who are either living in or from Germany I had been forewarned that Musik Der Jahrhunderte follow a narrow, tightly defined aesthetic. It seems that the special context of the year’s association with ISCM made absolutely no difference to MDJ’s autonomy. Any variety in the programme came from the programmes presented by ensembles from outside Germany. It was hard, therefore, not to feel that the view of the organisers was that the only worthwhile composers in the world are those who have made the effort to come to Germany (Mecca) to absorb the one true path in contemporary aesthetic development.

On the positive side, it was at least a chance to hear the current German avant-garde in its natural habitat, and that for me was informative. The first concert that I could attend was a 110-minute opera by Julio Estrada, Murmullos del páramo, in which neither pitch nor rhythm play significant roles, rather timbre, noise, gesture and duration shape the sounds. This piece (Estrada was one of the International Jury who managed to avoid the scores from outside Germany) set the tone for the festival – at least for me, as I saw it on my first day.

If the key concept for South Africa is inclusivity then for Stuttgart it must be exclusivity. This seems to leave Ireland somewhere in the middle. The question then might be: are we actually doing anything interesting or provocative in this country? As usual, context is everything, and what seems interesting and provocative here can blend in with the scenery in Stuttgart (I am thinking of Jennifer Walshe’s music here, which featured three times in Grenzenlos). Also, speaking of context, the most interesting thing I heard in South Africa was Alvin Curran’s Inner Cities, a four and a half-hour piano solo piece; post-modern, post-cage, sometimes intensely annoying, sometimes astonishing, and I suspect unthinkable in MDJ’s world (but by no means unthinkable here). The broad reach of the Indaba made the string trio programme of Raymond Deane, Elaine Agnew, Kevin O’Connell, Ian Wilson and myself sound a little quaint, to be honest.

We have quite a good scene in Ireland, but it is only a beginning, and the way forward must still involve foreign travel for our young composers. However, what is more important, and must happen here first, is a concept of cultivation of the imagination. A really thorough questioning of assumptions is the only likely route to a genuine existence without borders.

John McLachlan and the Gillespie Trio travelled to South Africa with the generous assistance of the Arts Council’s Travel Award Scheme. Ireland was represented at the World New Music Festival by Jennifer Walshe and Andrew Hamilton: passenger (performed twice) and meanwhile back at the ranch from Walshe, and music for people who think by Hamilton. In addition, Ireland’s Ailís Ní Ríain won joint first prize with Streetsong in the electro-acoustic music competition, ‘Short Cuts: Beauty’, run by ZKM/Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe as part of the Festival.

Published on 1 September 2006

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info

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