The What and the Wow of Building a New Music Festival

David Lang on stage at ‘What? … Wow: David Lang’s Festival of Music’ at the National Concert Hall, Dublin.

The What and the Wow of Building a New Music Festival

The latest iteration of the New Music Dublin festival attracted good audiences, writes Anna Murray, but at what artistic cost?

The first New Music Dublin in 2013 was greeted with excitement and no small amount of optimism. Since the cancellation in 2009 of its predecessor – the RTÉ Living Music Festival – a serious gap had existed. Although new music does make it into the programming of the main Irish orchestras, and groups like the Association of Irish Composers and the Irish Composers’ Collective, and a small number of other groups, present concerts of the newest of the new, there is still a great deal of contemporary music from across the world that is rarely heard in Ireland. New Music Dublin seemed a perfect opportunity to address this.

Spread over three packed days, the first festival – an initiative of the Arts Council, the National Concert Hall, RTÉ Orchestras and the Contemporary Music Centre, and managed by Gavin O’Sullivan and Fergus Sheil – was a showcase of the variety of activity within new music both in Ireland and abroad, from large-scale orchestral works to pop/rock fusion and intimate chamber events. Though disjointed, I found it to be an elegant solution to the festival’s ambition to ‘offer audiences the opportunity to immerse themselves in many different types of new music’. Particularly noteworthy were the small one-on-one concerts, experimental projects-in-development and educational showcases receiving almost equal billing with large orchestral concerts and high-calibre chamber performances. The result was a celebration of the many threads within contemporary music, but with each pulling in its own direction – exciting to dive in and explore, but perhaps difficult to navigate as a whole.

The appointment of Donnacha Dennehy, a prominent figure within new music in Ireland and beyond, as curator to the second festival in 2014 seemed a positive next step, a chance to give the festival a greater sense of identity. The addition of installations and electroacoustic works upstairs in the National Concert Hall was a welcome development, true to Dennehy’s interest in this form of work, while Crash Ensemble also featured prominently. However, the curator’s hand was not felt in the shaping of the festival’s main programming, a mash of composers and programme styles that included all-Irish premiere programmes and music from Ligeti, Stockhausen and Xenakis as well as Birtwhistle, Hans Abrahamsen and Michael Gordon.

Continuing this thread of development in 2015, but with the festival being further scaled back (with fewer concerts happening and over two days instead of three), this year’s heavy-hitting curator David Lang would seem a logical musical step from Dennehy. Lang is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose work, often described as ‘totalist’ or post-minimalist, draws from rock and pop as much as from his New York twentieth-century predecessors. Along with Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, he is co-founder of the Bang on a Can group that now comprises a world-renowned ensemble, label and publishing company. His music has been a strong influence on Dennehy, who, in turn, has influenced many young Irish composers; likewise the energetic, rock-inspired approach of Bang on a Can All-Stars has influenced Crash Ensemble, and they in turn influence Irish performers and audiences.

However, with a now two-day festival focused on American post-minimalism and its close relations, has the New Music Dublin programming needle swung too far to the other end of the scale, becoming too exclusive, too limited, too personality-focused? Certainly, 2014’s festival was not known as ‘Donnacha Dennehy’s Festival of New Music’, whereas Lang’s name was in the title of this year’s. The involvement of Lang saw the festival’s own germinal identity subsumed almost entirely into that of its curator, and saw it distancing itself from its original remit of covering ‘a broad range of musical creativity from our time’. Certainly it’s difficult to conceive of a more American pop title than What?…Wow – a title that rang false with me in the run-up to the festival. A festival of the music inspired by American minimalism did not leave many people asking ‘what’ or – with the exception of a few standout moments – saying ‘wow’.

The festival, which took place over 6 and 7 March, featured just six concerts, though one was a four-hour ‘marathon’. Visiting US ensembles So Percussion and Bang on a Can All-Stars, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ ConTempo Quartet, Chamber Choir Ireland and Crash Ensemble all performed individually and in various combinations over the weekend. Also performing during the weekend but not taking part in the stage-sharing marathon was Dublin Guitar Quartet, vocal ensemble Trio Mediæval and percussionist Olaf Pyras, whose solo performance opened the festival. A series of pre-concert talks was curated by the Contemporary Music Centre, with broadcaster John Schaefer speaking to various composers, and the programme featured a number of world premieres, from Irish composers Garrett Sholdice and Linda Buckley to American Michael Gordon.

In one sense, the festival certainly benefited from a stronger curatorial stance: Lang’s approach to the weekend’s programming was to explore the threads that arose from the composer’s own New York, from Cage and Carter to the minimalist music that spread from there like wildfire. This provided a narrative thread to the six concerts of the weekend that gave context to its content and made the whole easier to navigate. This thread meant that older works – such as George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970) – made sense in programme alongside premieres of works by Garrett Sholdice (b. 1983), Michael Gordon (b. 1956) and Linda Buckley (b. 1979). Indeed, the headlining event itself, the culmination of the Marathon, consisted entirely of works composed before 1980: the arrangements of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports for which the Bang on a Can All-Stars have become known, and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. This last piece was a neat microcosm of the festival itself: old music, but performed so brilliantly as to seem to be made anew, and received by a rapturous full house, much as it was when performed there in 2006 in the composer’s presence.

The Bang on a Can Marathon (a shorter version of the annual New York event) was a compelling mixed programme, with changes of tone and pace keeping the audience’s interest over four hours. Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings (2013) opened the concert with an absorbing exploration of rhythm and texture, performed by So Percussion on specially constructed instruments with an intensity that almost immediately gave way to gentler works by Pelle Gudmundson-Holmgren (performed by Chamber Choir Ireland) and Garrett Sholdice (RTÉ ConTempo Quartet). Though the latter was a more rhythmic venture than the work this Irish composer has been known for over recent years, it maintained his characteristic precision and careful consideration over the placement of every note. These fluctuations between the energetic and intense, such as Dennehy’s Streetwalker, to the delicate, such as Sean Clancy’s Fourteen minutes of music on the subject of greeting cards, or Meredith Monk’s St Petersburg Waltz, and dense, evocative soundscapes like Linda Buckley’s Torann, were beautifully judged: just enough to keep the audience from predicting where the programme was going but avoiding any jarring changes in gear. These mixed programmes were placed alongside single large-scale works such as as Julia Wolfe’s Steel Hammer (2009) and Tom Johnson’s Nine Bells(1973).

The fluidity with which the invited performers interchanged and joined one another on stage across the weekend made for compelling concerts, and was a real testament to the ideals of collaborative music-making that is the legacy of the Bang on a Can composers and performers. The All-Stars are known for their welcome irreverence to the traditions of formal concert performance, and this weekend proved that it is this legacy that Irish performers have taken most to heart – and indeed perhaps improved upon in Crash Ensemble. Their performance of Andrew Hamilton’s Music for people who like art (2011) was a festival stand-out, a stunning, obsessive and witty work performed with real energy and brilliance – in particular by vocalist Michelle O’Rourke – and it left many other performances seeming grey and aloof in comparison. So Percussion were similarly vibrant and compelling whenever on stage, though their gentle parody of performance convention in David Lang’s own man made (with the RTÉ NSO), which saw breaking twigs, wine bottles and trash cans played as instruments with a theatrical and wry seriousness, was almost instantly negated by some rather straight orchestral works in Anna Clyne’s rewind and Irene Buckley’s Stórr. The former was a juddering piece based on tape or video rewinding, while the latter a constantly shifting textural piece inspired simultaneously by Gaelic psalmody and electronic music. John Luther Adams’ award-winning Become Ocean, which received its European premiere at the festival, was a rich, undulating work: a remarkable mass of sound that draws the listener in slowly but deeply across its forty minutes.

If the measure of the success of a festival were purely statistical, based on audience figures, ideal demographics and ticket sales, then What?…Wow would be an undeniable success. The enduring attraction of minimalism and its descendants among the younger generation of music practitioners and listeners meant that a full house for the headline concert at least was almost a guarantee. This is all positive, but also safe, and the cost of this safety, these names and this exclusive curatorial approach was certainly artistic: far from the all-encompassing explorations of previous festivals, there was scarcely a nod to anything that was challenging, experimental, or even simply short of a safe bet. Sorely missed too were the small events that made previous festivals so successful: the installations, the projects in development, the small chamber concerts, and the smaller, rarely-seen rooms of the Concert Hall. These things are what made the previous festivals feel like unique events, and more like a festival than simply a group of concerts.

This third iteration of the New Music Dublin festival clearly shows a trend away from broad spectrum programming and towards a limited but directed one. The question that needs to be asked is what does this festival want to be. Is it the all-celebratory, all-encompassing festival of 2013, or the focused, personality-based festival of 2015? Or perhaps there is a balance, a sweet spot in the middle that the organisers have just yet to hit.

Published on 1 April 2015

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