By Mat Wilkins
VANCOUVER – The year is 1923 and Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, along with his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern, have created a method of musical composition that has effectively flipped the entire world on its head. The music flies in the face of its melodic, classically-influenced predecessors, with complex and challenging notation and theory like nothing the world has ever heard before. But what do these three humans and their art have to do with the World New Music Days? Well, they started it.
“Schoenberg wanted to find a way to bring peace through music… He made this very intellectually challenging music with the idea of getting rid of the kind of hierarchies we know of” says David Pay, current artistic director of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) World New Music Days, now in its 94th year.
This philosophy thrives through the festival’s performances each year. Composers from 50 countries around the world are asked to submit six of their compositions to the ISCM a year before the festival. From here they are selected, not by a committee or panel, but by the host nation’s participating ensembles themselves. Not a hierarchy in sight.
Music that is submitted to and played at the festival will be naturally varied by virtue of its worldliness, but simultaneously carries on Schoenberg’s tradition of “stuff that went weird in the Twenties” according to Pay. Besides breathtaking concerts played by traditional ensembles of diverse sizes and configurations, performances will also include an improvised adaptation of audience-led “graphic scores,” a composition played on an amplified household sewing machine, and other events that stretch the boundaries of contemporary music in delightfully creative ways.
Not only is the festival a must-see because of its unique performances, it is also just plain rare that it’s occurring in the city in the first place. “[The festival] is once in a generation… the last time it happened in Canada was in 1980,” says Pay of the ISCM’s host nation history.
With more than 90 participating composers, 30+ events and around 20 ensembles, the breadth of the festival is far too much to adequately cover in a single article. Those curious about this exceptional experience can visit the ISCM World New Music Days 2017 website for full concert listings and descriptions. Most importantly, those interested in but unfamiliar with the event should stick to David Pay’s simple but important piece of advice — “If you’re culturally curious, if you want to know what’s happening in the world, just pick a concert and show up.”
ISCM World New Music Days runs from November 2 to 8 at multiple venues around Vancouver.arnold schoenberg, classical, david pay, iscm, world new music days