ISCM 2017: Canada's largest-ever gathering of new-music composers embarks on an aural adventure

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      It’s all new, and almost a hundred years old. When the International Society for Contemporary Music convenes World New Music Days 2017 in Vancouver, it will present 35 concerts, soundwalks, and seminars, along with several hundred compositions, almost all of them previously unheard in these parts. But the society itself dates back to a time when giants walked the earth—giants with names like Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg, and Leoš Janáček, who convened the ISCM in Salzburg, Austria, circa 1922.

      Somewhat surprisingly, given who was involved, it wasn’t all about the music.

      “These legendary figures in European art music, back in the 1920s, saw this as an opportunity to work towards peace,” explains Music on Main artistic director David Pay—who, along with the Canadian League of Composers’ Jim Hiscott and Elektra Women’s Choir artistic director Morna Edmundson, is responsible for bringing the world’s largest new-music festival to Vancouver. “So of course it was aesthetic; it was music; it was about sharing what’s going on between countries. But in every country, whatever our overriding desires are around sports or culture or music or food, we think that’s the best. We like that other people do what they do, but we think ours is the best. And one of the ideas of ISCM is that we can actually all hear what each other is doing. And this is one of the founding principles—that somehow, through listening to each other, we’re all going to get along better.”

      It’s not that there haven’t been battles between serialists and minimalists, atonalists and neoclassicists, or spectralists and champions of aleatory music: lively debate has been one of the ISCM’s hallmarks since the beginning. But there’s a growing consensus in contemporary composition that all forms have value, from music for prepared piano, found objects, and sewing machines to more conventional symphonic and chamber styles.

      Pay argues that this makes Canada—and Vancouver, in particular—the perfect place for the world’s composers to hold court. “In Canada, we try to be transparent about aesthetic diversity and geographic diversity,” he contends. “Do I think there is a distinctly Canadian sound? No. I think there are diverse sounds. But I think perhaps there is a distinctly Canadian method or feeling around how we can create music.

      “Improvisers in Vancouver will go to scored concerts; people who play and write more modernist music will be showing up for something that is more melodic… This embracing of people who are making the music, I think, is what defines us—this embracing and support of everybody wanting to find their own voice.”

      Music on Main’s programming, under Pay’s direction, has been emblematic of this approach. It’s not uncommon to find, on a single program, a work by Johann Sebastian Bach snuggling up to something newly composed for the occasion, or an electric guitar sharing a stage with a harpsichord.

      And while one of the functions of World New Music Days is to showcase works from the ISCM’s 50-plus member nations, Pay and his associates have taken pains to celebrate several different streams of particularly Canadian creativity. Featured will be three symphony orchestras, from Vancouver, Victoria, and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. The province of Quebec’s impressive and comparatively well-funded arts scene will be represented by, among others, Montreal’s immaculate Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal and Quatuor Bozzini, a string quartet with a particularly ambitious commissioning program that has resulted in work for composers from coast to coast. Closer to home, there will be concerts by Vancouver chamber ensembles Standing Wave, Turning Point, and Driftwood Percussion; by the NOW Orchestra Ensemble, the flagship group of an improvising musicians’ collective that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year; and by Red Chamber, a seriously underrecognized quartet specializing in new music for Chinese instruments.

      Getting the word out about Vancouver’s flourishing contemporary-music scene is one of Pay’s aims. So is learning about all the other amazing music out there; he cites rising star Stefan Prins, a Belgian composer, as an artist he was introduced to by sitting on an ISCM jury. And he looks forward to learning what the next few days will give him in terms of renewed energy and expanded possibilities.

      “There will be a number of legacies,” Pay says. “At Music on Main, we’ve worked for the last four years to leave us in a transformed position, where we can have more international relationships and do more international copresentations—and where we can have enough staff to do the 30-odd concerts we do each year.

      “The more important legacy for the Canadian League of Composers and the musicians is establishing these international relationships for people who are from Vancouver who don’t necessarily have the chance to showcase around the world…and then also another legacy is that there are more collaborations. This festival could never happen without our concert partners: the Vancouver Symphony, the Powell Street Festival, the NOW Society… All these people are partnering with us, and that level of collaboration, with that many different Vancouver musicians and ensembles in one festival, I don’t think has ever happened before.”

      ISCM World New Music Days 2017 is at various venues from Thursday to Wednesday (November 2 to 8).