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ISCM III – Brickbats and bouquets

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World New Music Days

Eugene Goossens Hall, May 7
Campbelltown Arts Centre, May 8

Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham
Published in Sydney Morning Herald 11/5/10

Eight days into the International Society for Contemporary Music’s 2010 World New Music Days, the festival shifted to the Eugene Goossens Hall. ‘Young Guns’ was a showcase of new chamber music performed by the Sydney Symphony Fellows. These impressive orchestral apprentices, conducted by Roger Benedict, presented four ISCM submissions plus an Australian contribution from composer Lachlan Skipworth. Latvian composer Santa Ratniece’s Alveoles was the most adventurous in terms of sound, using sticky textures and gritty note clusters to describe honey, while Hubert Stuppner’s Mahler-Bilder was the most entertaining. Indeed, the rich string tones and tantalizing shards of Mahler buried in the orchestration of this string octet (which was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet for the Mahler Festival in Toblach, Italy) felt like a wicked indulgence after the bloodless esotericism of other works on the program.

NZTrio brought with them a program of new music from either side of the Tasman, much of it commissioned by or written specifically for them. It made for an interesting contrast with programs generated from the mixed bag ISCM submissions: while there were few surprises, NZTrio’s performances were consistently well-polished, persuasive, enthused even. Jack Body’s Fire in the Belly was the highlight for me in a consistently fascinating range of works. Bravo.

Much of World New Music Days has been powered by Sydney musicians but, with the financial help of the European new music network, Re:New, the penultimate concert featured the Spectra Ensemble from Belgium. As their name suggests, much of their work is in exploring Spectralism, where music is generated from computer-based sound analysis. The theory behind the music heads into the outer realms of physics and philosophy, boggling the mind and, sometimes, enchanting the ear. The most successful works on this program, however, went beyond the theory, adding a playful human element. Lettre Soufie: Sh(in) by Jean Luc Fafchamps was a moving fabric of murmurs and outbursts, while D’un reve parti, by French composer Bruno Mantovani, made a pragmatic elision between complexity and techno music resulting in an engaging aural workout.

By the time you read this most of the ISCM delegates will be on their way home, and Sydney’s first ever World New Music Days will be over. It has been an impressive ten days with consistently good performances, sold out venues full of engaged audiences, plenty of rewarding discoveries and much energetic debate. Best of all, it has been a music festival which maintained a firm focus on listening rather than talking. For while discussing the theories and challenges of music at the bleeding edge of creativity is all very well, in the end the music has to speak for itself. So congratulations to artistic director Matthew Hindson and congratulations to the performers, composers and audiences who venture into the uncharted and sometimes unfriendly waters of new music. There are many treasures out there.

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