Music and Beyond

Music and Beyond

John McLachlan reports back from the ISCM World Music Days in Hong Kong.

The Sh’er Jie ensemble of Sichuan Music Conservatory 

On Wednesday 28th November Penumbra, by Irish composer Scott McLaughlin, was performed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong by the Luxembourg Sinfonietta, during a ten-day festival of new music from around the world.

McLaughlin’s music is concerned with presenting the kinds of sonorities that you may hear when a bell is struck or a cymbal is bowed – strange quasi-harmonies that arise when the upper overtones (of conflicting fundamentals) are caught by the ear. Normally such sounds can only be experienced fleetingly before they die off, but with spectral analysis by computer (i.e. a sort of sonic x-ray image) composers such as he are able to define the various notes that make up such sounds and then score out the notes for instruments (or synthesizers, etc.), in order to use them as musical material for extended works. As the intervals are from the very high partials they fall outside tempered tuning, and such music always requires great skill from performers. In order to capture the chords reasonably accurately, McLaughlin is brave enough to write his music in microtonal steps as small as ten cents (the smallest interval on the piano for example is the semitone, equal to 100 cents).

The broad category known as spectral music has been around for about thirty-five years, which is enough time for several composers to have developed their voices entirely within it, as well as for other composers to dabble in it. Usually the pieces proceed with slow, sustained, overlapping textures – to allow the players and listeners to connect with the sonority as an organic unity (rather than a freakish chance collection). Consequently, the spectral school has been accused of producing a limited kind of music; but every style shift based on a technical innovation gets the same response at first. It may be too early to call either way. In any case, Scott McLaughlin, being young, is not afraid to break with the almost doctrinaire approach of the stricter spectralists: so he works from more complex sounds sources, adds melodic elements, and speeds things up here and there while otherwise keeping close enough to spectral norms. So in Penumbra the colourful harmony was allowed to have melodic threads, mostly highlighting and colouring notes already in the texture, and in two places the harmonic rhythm sped up very markedly, causing a remarkable feeling akin to capsizing, as the texture seemed to fall in on itself. It appears that he is a composer who combines aural imagination, a strong desire to engage and surprise, and a dedication to absence of cliché. He was therefore a good choice to represent Ireland at this ten-day mega-event in Hong Kong.

The event, the ISCM World Music Days, brings together recent compositions from seventy countries on six continents: a feast of new music on a scale never experienced in Ireland. ISCM stands for the International Society for Contemporary Music, and the organisation has seen this festival return nearly every year since its foundation in 1922, when it started as a much smaller European grouping. The 2007 edition was in fact a co-operation with ISCM and ACL, the Asian Composers’ League, with Hong Kong as a very active member of both societies. Thus there were many participants from the Pacific Rim and Pacific island countries (Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, New Zealand, etc).

I was in the privileged position of attending as Chief Delegate from Ireland, as the Association of Irish Composers is the Irish Section of ISCM, and the society holds its annual General Assembly during the festival each year. Thus, as well as participating in the ISCM’s general assembly, I could go to all 23 concerts to sample over 150 works in a huge diversity of styles and type. One of the objectives of the trip is of course to find out what is going on in the world, and to make contacts with a view to possible international co-operations. (AIC has been effective to some extent in this: we have used our international network from ISCM to organise bilateral exchange concerts in the past with Romania, Switzerland, Denmark, Flanders, Britain, South Africa and Portugal. Needless to say with better funding we could do a great deal more, including perhaps one day becoming midwife to an Irish edition of the festival.)

The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra 

Here, briefly, are a few of my festival highlights:

From China: Gao Weijie with a piece for small ensemble of Chinese instruments, Shao II. From Russia a piece from young composer Antony Svetlichny: The Exploration Of Inner Space. From Switzerland: Jean-Luc Darbellay’s Oyama for large orchestra, performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Martijn Padding’s (Netherlands) Eight Metal Strings (look out for his name in future Crash Ensemble concerts). Gabriel Erkoreka’s Jukal (from Spain, he featured in 2007’s Sligo New Music Festival). Other composers whose work stood out include Cristian Marina (Hungarian-Romanian, living in Sweden), Helena Tulve (Estonian), James Wood (British), Kristan Blak (Faroe Islander), Stefans Grove (South African) and Peter Hansen (Swedish), to name just a few.

From Amsterdam two excellent concerts by INSOMNIO, ISCM ensemble-in-residence. The Luxembourg Sinfonietta played and programmed two very fine concerts. From Argentina: the very theatrical presentation of 400 kilos of ethnic South American instruments by the group Fronteras del Silencio (this strange way of describing it in kilos became a festival catchphrase because the group’s conductor announced this fact in a very deadpan way at the concert). Fronteras would have to feature in both highlight and lowlight lists, because although literally spectacular in delivery, there was a hollowness of content to their programme – they would go down a storm in any arts festival here.

* * * * * *

What is difficult to convey in writing is the diversity of music, even in such a festival that is not about world music or crossover or jazz or other popular genres. Even within ‘classical art-music’ or whatever it is called, there are composers using all kinds of instruments (western and non-western), computers, multimedia, and they are writing in many styles: from really strangely film-scorish orchestral music, to old-fashioned 1970s avant-garde styles, to spectral music, to new minimal (and beyond); music which can be epigrammatic, long-winded, meditative or sizzling. From music thick with ideas to music with one good idea, to music with seemingly no idea!

The ISCM also produces a publication in tandem with each festival, the World New Music Magazine, and this year’s edition focused on Hong Kong and Mainland China. In the first article Richard Tsang, Wing-wah Chan and Joshua Chan discuss the history of new music in Hong Kong, and it is interesting to note their assessment of it as having all really started in about 1981 (there was some activity from about 1971). They go on to discuss the various ways in which there is not yet any strong rootedness for contemporary music there: such things as an absence of elder figures, poor understanding from performers, and thinness of quality from composers under pressure due to rapid development of commission opportunities are discussed openly in a three-way interview. But in that time they have also set up a Composers’ Guild, a very good composer-friendly collection society (which rejoices in the name CASH: Composers’ and Authors’ Society of Hong Kong) and hosted the ISCM and ACL festivals three times (ISCM: 1988, 2002 and 2007; ACL: 1983, 1986 and 2007). Would that we in Ireland had their problems!

They contrast this scramble to evolve with the more organic developments in Japan and Korea, which are the Asian countries with the longest contemporary music traditions. And just as we hear every day of ‘Mainland China’ developing economically at breakneck speed, there are many signs that this area is the one with currently the most rapid growth in new music. It is also evident that whatever we see in the west in terms of music technology and ‘underground’ music is mirrored in Asia. And speaking of mirroring, the festival provided visitors with the chance to hear the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, which is made up entirely of Chinese instruments laid out in groups we know: strings, winds (with and without reeds) and percussion, with bass to treble versions of the instruments. The festival also introduced the instruments (Liuqin, Xiaoruan, Souna, Guan, Sheng, Dizi, Hulushi, Bawu, Yangqin, Xiao, Guqin, Pipa, Sanxian, Zhongruan, Zheng, Erhu and Gehu) individually and in their traditional contexts, spread through the festival as five-minute demonstrations before the concerts. This was very illuminating as one came to hear very clearly the distinction between pitch (which conforms mostly to our tempered tuning system) and inflection (the styles of bending, sliding, vibrato and ornamentation that are very consistent, and impart all the flavour of Chinese-ness – it seems crass I admit, but a parallel with ingredients and technique in cuisine is valid).

Getting such a vantage point on music in the world is a heady experience, and one of the most illuminating aspects is watching the psychology of other festival-goers from the major areas: Latin America, North America, Scandinavia, Western / Central / Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia (old and new) and Australasia. Each tends to respond critically in somewhat predictable ways: openness to finding unique artistic voices – one of the core reasons for the festival – can be lost by knee-jerk stylistic pigeon-holing and a ‘mine is bigger than yours’ view of contemporary music tradition. Not to mention critical shut-down brought on by sheer exhaustion!

Next year’s ISCM festival will be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, in October. For those inspired by this account, why not consider going for some of it? The ISCM festivals always have a full programme available on line at least a few months before, and for details watch See also; and for info on the 2007 festival just past see

Published on 1 January 2008

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

comments powered by Disqus