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Ed McKeon: A Postcard from South Africa


Staff member
Feb 16, 2024
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Music programmer, producer and commissioner, and ISCM British Section Board member Ed McKeon recounts his experience at the 2023 South Africa ISCM World New Music Days festival as delegate for the British Section.

Many musicians and composers have felt that the UK’s new music scenes have “shrunk” in the last decade or so, and perhaps become more introspective. Brexit, travel restrictions during COVID, and reduced inclinations to fly due to its contribution to climate change have inhibited exchange and encounters with new music from other and especially more distant parts of the world, whilst the availability of materials online and the continued draw of UK universities and music departments for international students has provided only partial compensation. In this context, how do composers expose themselves to scenes in other countries? How do we avoid becoming overly “provincial”?

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) was founded about a century ago, in 1922-23, with the aim of addressing similar concerns in the wake of the First World War. After the cessation of “hostilities”, could sharing in music provide a vehicle for geopolitical harmony and peaceful coexistence? The forum for this ambition was the ISCM’s annual festival, an itinerant event hosted by a different member “section” each year; the British section last presented it, in Manchester, in 1998. Marking its centenary year, the World New Music Days took place for the first time on African soil, in Johannesburg and Cape Town from 24 November to 3 December 2023.

Members of the ISCM – like Sound and Music, Tŷ Cerdd, the Contemporary Music Centre Ireland, and Associate Members like the Scottish Music Centre – are entitled to expect one selected composition to be presented from an extensive Call for Scores. The convention is that each member announces the call set out by the Festival host, and selects a shortlist from which the host organiser (like New Music South Africa) and advisers choose pieces for performance. Individuals can also submit independently, although a fee is charged for this. For this occasion, composers from the UK included Soosan Lolavar, Rufus Isabel Elliott, and Nathan James Dearden, with Deirdre McKay representing Ireland.

The festival itself has a distinctive character, then—even more so this year. For one thing, the sheer volume of music presented was extraordinary, usually with between five and seven hours of live performance each day. The festival’s artistic director, Lukas Ligeti, was keen to balance the “ISCM pieces” with a wide range of music by composers from, living in, or connected with the African continent. In addition, it incorporated programmes developed with European partners aiming to integrate and feature experimental music from Africa. Oluzayo—Zulu for “what lies ahead”—had taken place in Cologne earlier in the year alongside a conference on African Futures. A similar collaboration—supported by Miso Music (Portugal)—was fostered between New Music SA, the International Music Festival of the Canary Islands, and the ensemble Vertixe Sonora, bringing together world premieres by Iberian and African composers.

I wrote about the programme for the Berlin-based journal Positionen and will be writing for the ISCM’s World New Music Magazine—possibly also for my next book—and I just want to highlight its potential value for composers. First, whilst the programme takes shape from multiple selection processes, it remains relatively “uncurated”. It is assembled largely in response to submissions received and shortlisted rather than from projects solicited from particular composers or musicians.

This brings surprises as well as quite different values or perceptions of quality into the same space. As a consequence, second, it doesn’t foster a musical “in crowd” but instead offers the possibility of encountering composers with difference sensibilities operating in disparate contexts. There is not one idea of what “contemporary music” is or should be. It offers the possibility of forming community with diverse musicians, composers, institutional representatives, and occasional other producers, agents, and interested travellers alongside those from the host country—a possibility enabled in particular by the “Composer Collider” event hosted (this year, at least) by Tŷ Cerdd and Music on Main (Canada). In its early years, the Festival contained an implicit competitiveness over which country or composer produced the “best” music; that has eroded to a near-vanishing point, fostering a contrasting sense of humility.

Pluralism does not by itself produce harmony, of course. If anything, performances often resembled something like an aquarium or zoo with minimal enclosures, a multitude of varieties of music jostling side by side in cramped timeframes and often inconvenient conditions. A few works almost swallowed up others. Abstracted from their habitat (or milieu), it was hard for individual pieces to construct a musical world that audiences could co-habit even for the duration of their performance. Those few that achieved this minor miracle tended to emerge from collaborative processes—something the New Music SA team was keen in principle to foster, including with the unique category of collaboration with African musicians, although in practice this came together very late in the day. Nevertheless, UK and Irish composers made the most of this opportunity, not least because they were able to attend in person. The reward of making lasting connections with other musicians and of presenting their music in astonishing and historically-significant surroundings—like the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, at the Norval Foundation, and at Johannesburg’s Holocaust and Genocide Centre—will stay with them for many years to come. Future World New Music Days could (I would argue should) learn from this approach.

The 2024 Festival will take place in late June on the Faroe Islands (the chosen British work is Zoë Martlew’s G-lude) and in 2025 it will arrive in Portugal. Whether you have a work being performed or not, I recommend it as a unique event to meet and hear music by an almost bewildering variety of composers. Not everything will touch you. Not everything will be perfect. But with a touch of humility, you might discover a world of music with neither centres nor provinces.

The 2024 World New Music Days takes place in the Faroe Islands from 22 to 30 June 2024. The British Section will be represented by composer Zoë Martlew.

The 2025 World New Music Days takes place in Portugal from 30 May to 7 June. Applications are now open until 11 April. Apply on the Sound and Music website.

Ed McKeon is the founder and Director of Third Ear Music, and a research fellow at Goldsmiths University. Keep up to date with Ed by following him on X.

The post Ed McKeon: A Postcard from South Africa appeared first on Sound and Music.
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