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Stockholm International Festival for New Music
19-26 February 2005

Spoken Sound was the theme of this year's International Festival of New Music, inaugurated at Stockholm in 1991 and now to be an annual event in the European calendar. It is unlikely that the borderland between speech and sound, poetry and sound art, has been explored elsewhere in such depth? [Click onto this link and the Union Jack to see the complete programme in English.]

The launch reception (all in English) was itself an innovative, light-hearted event. Artistic Director composer Ivo Nilsson introduced himself by entering with his trombone to play Berio's classic Sequenza which, he explained, was based on the phonemes of the word WHY; why this seemingly limiting theme for a whole week's music making?

The Minister for Arts welcomed the radical festival succinctly, and in the most positive and insightful terms, before formally opening it by climbing into an alluring music-machine, Carl Unander-Scharin's specially devised "midiharp" Vocal Chorder. It was a particular pleasure to talk with Unander-Scharin, a modern-day Renaissance man ("a more normal version of humanity than today's compartmentalised man", Financial Times 19/2/05) a composer fascinated by technology since childhood, also a regular tenor soloist in oratorio and as a member of Sweden's National Opera; some years ago I had reviewed and commended fulsomely his opera King of Fools.

Doubts about the adequacy of this musical by-way for a whole festival were quickly dispelled in the first concert by the seven members of Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart , the vocal ensemble in residence. They gave a brilliant exposition of the diverse approaches to speech/song by six composers, received enthusiastically by a large, very mixed audience.

The featured composer Georges Aperghis celebrated the 'indefatigable urge' of schizophrenic artist Adolph Wölfli to express himself in all the arts with a frenetic stream of vocalisation; Sciarrino explored 'dissolution of words into pure sound, with 'sighing, swelling phrases of Petrarc describing a desolate view of eternity'. Of lesser known composers, Walter's 'breathing, sighing and whispering' treated the 'veiled transition between Nothing and Sound of voice' and Tadjikistani Nurulla-Khoja made a mark with her poetic exploration of Sufi-related 'fragments of perfection at the outer limits of hearing'. Hoffmann explored the multifarious meanings of the word 'stimmen', and Bauckholt, with a composition built upon all possible nuances voicing current German phrases and words, Ja, aber, OK etc, brought the evening's proceedings to a hilarious finish, and although there were virtually no ordinary 'melodies' the precision and sheer musicality of all they did was incontrovertible and their contributions during the week left no room for doubt that each member of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart can sing 'properly' too.

Whether the French soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac (we missed her second appearance) could do so was left far from sure by her contribution, in an under-projected white 'little girl' voice, to Feldman's setting of Beckett's Neither (1977), heard next day in Swedish Radio's impressive Berwald Hall, the building carved out of solid rock. Under Love Derwinger the 90-strong Norrkopings Symphony Orchestra displayed full command of its interesting timbres and rhythms, but of the ten-line libretto we caught only the one word impenetrable from the line 'from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither', which established that she was singing in English and summed up aptly a daunting 60 mins experience.

American mezzo Christina Ascher deployed her rich operatic voice and theatrical skills in a solo recital at the Borsallen, an acoustically perfect ornate hall in the Swedish Academy. It began, as had the festival too, with a seminal Sequenza , the one Berio composed originally for his then-wife, Cathy Berberian. It was an exceptional rendering, followed by an hour of varied vocalisation. Dinescu's Quatrain, a setting of an angry François Villon expecting to be hanged (he wasn't), Stabler's gargling song and Cage's music-drama Aria (1958) were high spots in an entertainment of consummate professionalism, to remind us of the long history of this musicdrama tradition.

In Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart's lunchtime concert, broadcast live, the Cage Aria reappeared, and Berio's A-Ronne (1975), which they must have given innumerable times, too. Taking turns in some of Aperghis' Recitations , Gundula Anders was hilarious in a vegetarian ditty culminating in a guilt-ridden diner abandoning her scruples and tucking into an irresistibly inviting roast chicken. What chance of the   Neue Vocalsolisten being invited to participate in either of the Wigmore Hall's broadcast series? [According to their CV, UK is about the only European country the group may not yet have visited?]

One very special event was a remarkable choral concert, every item with electronics - that believed to be unique - corrections to the claim were invited. Stockholm Motet Choir under Olof Boman performed Rolf Enström 's Shakespeare setting Rama , featured in his monographic CD launched after the concert (Phono Suecia PSSACD 153) and then they gave way to children of the Södra Latins Gymnasium under Jan Risberg, an inspiring teacher of conducting and new music. Difficult pieces by student composers were performed with confidence, entries pitched with individual tuning-forks as is the custom.

Pär Frid's unfinished work in progress (swinging loud-speakers yet to be incorporated) left the conductor alone on stage as the choir descended into the audience, and the ebullient Benjamin Staern broke the mould for polite acknowledgement of applause for his Through air and noise by thundering down to the platform, bowing deeply to his peers on stage and then to us, spreading his arms, leaping into the air and whooping with delight like a footballer who'd scored a goal; there's a model for our staid composers!

Football, with many other competitive sports and more peaceful outdoor pursuits, figured at the Swedish Royal Opera in an ambitious parable about life and death, Sports & Leisure by Thomas Jennefelt to a libretto of Niklas Rådström . This is a complex second opera by a composer of minimalist tendency, but much more than that; Jennefelt is adept at writing sympathetically for opera soloists and chorus.

Music theatre at its best, Sport & Fritid is a debating ground about ideas and ideals, moral conundrums and politico-social issues. In her office, Laura gets hit on the head by a football and knocked out.... Beneath some superficial jollity lurks a deadly serious critique of destructive social values and codes of conduct, inherent in   obsessive competitive sport, values that promote winning at all costs - costs to self and at the expense of one another and of 'the other' who must be put down to inflate self esteem. Jennefelt and Rådström toss the ball to the audience; do we continue to play according to destructive and restrictive rules, or is there another way? Their protagonist Laura, a part superbly embraced in all its complexity by lyric soprano Lena Hoel, works her way through the moral maze explored in depth by the creative team.

Sport & Fritid brought to mind the ingenuities of Jonathan Dove's Flight, and it has a worthy, ground breaking production in Stockholm on a set by Bengt Gomer which placed the orchestra behind an extended stage, raised up to dress circle level for the penultimate scene in which 'we' joined the 'losers' banished to an underground changing room. The orchestra, dressed as an ordinary unspecified workforce, exemplified social cooperation for a common aim, caricatured on stage by the Fiendish Referee (Lena Nordin) who tries to keep control with rules and boundaries, applying Catch 22 - to join in you have to first learn the rules, which is impossible unless you already know them...

A general impression of the total transformation of Stockholm's gorgeous, traditional opera house is provided by the rehearsal photo of the last scene, taken from the lavishly illustrated programme; it was particularly frustrating being unable to follow the extensive essays and dialogues.

Despite striking visual clues a-plenty to the thrust of the argument, language was a severe impediment for us, precluding a full review. The singers, dancers and gymnasts were excellent throughout, as was the choreography and movement co-ordination of the large cast.

Unquestionably, Åsa Melldahl 's astonishing and costly production of Sport & Fritid at the Swedish Royal Opera is deserving of a wider audience. We trust this was recognised and that the opportunity was not lost to film it for a DVD with the usual multi-lingual subtitles? A worthwhile project for a forward-looking sponsor.

Of the many presentations of electroacoustic music on display, the most grandiose was Ásko Rósmann's Mass (1988-2004), spread over five successive afternoons at the German Church. Previously a long serving cathedral organist in Stockholm, this Hungarian born composer has since the 1980s devoted himself to electroacoustic composition. His Mass, much of it being heard publicly for the first time, is a 'fresco of personal observations on the catholic Kyrie and Gloria' running to some seven hours. Negative destructive powers, represented by grotesqueries reminiscent of medieval painting, threaten the Positive, which recovers to dominate the final sections of the Gloria. The musical material is transformed from sound sources including organ, zither and human voices.

The vocal/instrumental ensemble Volker Stauss gave a semi-improvised 1¼ hour work Surrogate which seemed to be in several sections, but applause between them was suppressed and it all felt over-controlled.   Alongside voices and conventional wind instruments, they had developed several on display themselves from wood, steel string and engine sirens, all deployed with never a smile or feeling of any joy in music making or of warm relationships between the group members. Cage & Riley had done it all c. 1940, in their Constructions - imperishably, so it has transpired. The Volker Stauss musicians had their eyes glued to scores, the singers pitched entries with tuning forks, everything progressed painfully slowly; a dispiriting event which sadly left us too exhausted to set off to another venue for late night Henze (El Cimmaron).  

Next morning my participation in the festival was suddenly interrupted by fainting during Anna Pajunen's recital with video and electronics; I'd enjoyed her own work Memo about various aspects of memory, and an Aperghis Recitation was going well before I was hauled out to hospital, so I missed the third performance during the week of Cage's Aria! Two days on, the Battistelli concert by the extended percussion group Ars Ludi was a high point in the series of lunch time concerts in the very central Culture House, all taken by Swedish radio. Two drummers enacted a famous   ancient Roman duel between the Orazi and the Curiozi , with vocal interchanges and the crunch of marching feet giving the work a less abstract feel than most percussion duos. In the extended monodrama Aphrodite, Silvia Fanfani Schiavoni was utterly captivating reciting an Italian text inspired by Pierre Louÿs, supported lightly by three percussionist (fingers dancing on marimbas) harp and flutes (breathy sounds from a huge pan-pipe).

KammerensembleN is a flexible group equivalent to UK's London Sinfonietta and, on their showing during the festival under Frank Ollu, of comparable standard. Lisa Lim's ecstatic Sappho setting creates ambiguity between singer and instruments, with Ivo Nilsson's trombone notably as vocal as the voice. Unsuk Chin's Acrostic Wordplay (1991-03) deconstructed texts including passages from Alice in Wonderland against coruscating microtonal textures. Olga Neuwirth's ecstaloop confronted listeners with 'a cosmos of multiple layers abuzz with a whirlwind of sound and speech - - highly demanding of the listener's perceptive abilities....'. Henrik Strindberg was more approachable in text settings which were framed by Lachenmann-like sounds from the instruments giving way disconcertingly to more populist musics.

Electric Guitar Experience attracted a crowd which crammed the space of the little Galleri Agueli with many more people than any fire officer could contemplate permitting, but Marten Falks's mixture with videos (best, a woman endlessly peeling a leek) was insufficiently developed for an international festival, its pretentious claims to have created 'electric aesthetics' far from justified.  

James Wood conducted the crack Swedish Radio Choir in an exciting tour of contemporary choral writing. Ligeti's Holderlin Phantasies were commissioned by the choir and premiered by them in 1983. Wood's own Incantations (1991) use a complex web of sounds from 'sung' through 'sung speech' to 'spoken' in an imaginary 'composed language', its melancholic coda reflecting the composer's feelings about the massacre of the innocents in the Gulf War. Kent Olofsson's newly completed 40-mins setting of Poe's The Bells plus other texts for choirs and instruments (with percussionists and soloists moving around the platform so that sounds 'can swing to and fro over the stage') was long in gestation and redolent of the '80s, the time when it was conceived. The sound was duly thrilling in what must be one of the greatest radio concert halls in the world.

At the closing reception, Ivo Nilsson explained that he had seen his role more as facilitator than director. The final event, conceived as a cabaret-type entertainment with drinks at the tables in the festival's centre Nalen, turned out to be an over-serious four-hour concert with four intervals - hits and misses!

John Cage, a 'father figure' for the festival theme, was ill-served posthumously by a deconstructed film of his face and voice taken from an interview that would better have been excerpted straight. Bjorn Granath delivered some more Aperghis Recitations and Irish composer Jennifer Walshe, a real original, gave a virtuosic rendition of the esoteric languages of several frog species as well as persuading the Stuttgart Solisten to demonstrate the monotonous tedium of the actual life of media-romanticised cowboys.

Soprano Ibba Andersson with her regular collaborator Kristine Scholz impressed greatly in an extended group of songs and music-drama pieces by composers Holliger, Persson, Jennefelt and Gefors.

We left before the very end, but with the haunting memory of James Wood's Autumn Voices (2001), violinist Hae-Sun Kang (who had given Unsuk Chin's Grawemeyer prize-winning violin concerto earlier in the week) expounding a subtle score with the composer as triggerist mediating his electronic counterpart with the 'songs of many birds'.

As explained earlier, our coverage had necessarily been less balanced than hoped and we wer unable to attend any of the ancillary event, seminars, master classes etc, many of them given in English. The atmosphere was notably friendly and informal and the arrangements and dissemination of information excellent. We found the calibre of Swedish contemporary music and musicians, and the preparation and presentation of their programmes, was as high as anywhere.

A word of appreciation for the fine programme book (in Swedish and English) with good, legible black-on-white print (Editor & PR, Lena Roth). The Festival pointed us towards a very advantageous hotel deal which, in combination with Ryanair travel, made the venture affordable. Stockholm is a small, uncrowded capital city, exceptionally beautiful to walk around, with far more to see and do than time allowed (including the legendary display of the 17.C ship Vasa in all its resurrected glory)

Next year's Stockholm New Music will have as its theme Place and Space , under the artistic direction of Magnus Anderssohn; pencil it in your diary for February.

Sweden, in common with many smaller nations, does have difficulty in promoting its new music and recordings, several of which were received during the festival. Most unusual of them in concept and presentation was Rotorelief by Ivo Nilsson, to texts by Marcel Duchamp, recorded by KammerensembleN/Frank Ollu. The substantial output of contemporary music can be explored on the websites of Phono Suecia and Caprice Records. It is hoped to review a wider selection of these on Musical Pointers in due course.

© Peter Grahame Woolf