Zagreb's Music Biennale No. 11  Wit has replaced pomposity

Priscilla McLean

From "Musical America" magazine, Oct. 1981, pp. 33-34

Imagine a fairytale opera sung and acted by clowns; two performers in pink body suits encased in a musical clock with stuffed birds and animals; three puppet-like comic performers on an unusual array of wooden percussion instruments; several mime groups and circus "street-theater" performers; a still-life opera of perverts. Such an atmosphere illuminated the eleventh international Music Biennale (Festival of Contemporary Music) that took place May 9-16 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.

First held in 1961 under the direction of Milko Kelemen, the Music Biennale was formed to expand the cultural horizons of post-war Yugoslavian composers. It has grown to become one of the very few major new-music festivals in Europe, and has commissioned and/or performed works of virtually every major contemporary composer. Recent festivals have been turning more toward younger composers and adding more local new music, perhaps due to general economic problems throughout Europe, but also from a desire for fresh ideas and new faces.

A timely theme
Each Biennale focuses on a theme, this year's being "theatricality and visualization"- a timely one indeed since it mirrors a recent European trend toward greater communication with the audience through a more accessible musical language, and the desire to explore European roots in street theater, traveling composer-performers, and the colorful acting, dance, and costume derived from the medieval past. This year's Biennale, directed by Igor Kuljeric, presented a colorful and varied series of programs, enjoyed by enthusiastic (and often too noisy) audiences participating in five or six hours of continual new music per day. Halls were crowded even at 1 a.m. on the eighth day of the festival-- listeners undaunted by the marathon of choices: three operas, three full and three chamber orchestras, three ballet companies, and a deluge of smaller ensembles or soloists from ten different countries, including the U.S. and Canada. Sixty-three composers from twelve countries were represented. Of these, twenty-three were Yugoslavs, a perhaps too-liberal sprinkling of native new music, not all of which lived up to the quality of the rest. The Yugoslav music was often less visual and encased in conservative, less interesting musical styles. Notable exceptions were the late Branimir Sakacís highly textural Matrix Symphony with organ, compelling narration, and folk melodies, and Milko Kelemen's orchestral work Mageia (1977), revealing intricate rhythms and trance-like repetitions, inspired by Mexican culture.

Zimmermann's "Schuhu..."
One of the week's highlights was the three-act opera (1975) by Udo Zimmerman (East Germany) entitled Schuhu and the Flying Princess and performed by the Dresden State Opera. The production was magical, with superb sets, costumes, fine singing, and a vivid musical score that used echo and repetition in complex textural interweavings as well as in simple lines. The libretto, based upon a fable by the poet Peter Hacks, describes the wanderings of a Schuhu, a kind of Peter Pan child-man bird, who is "wiser than ten thousand Mesopotamian scientists." Puppets, smiling paper moons, a stage calliope, jests and clowning abound. The opera won a long standing ovation.

Another "spectacle" was the production by Trevor Wishart, a young composer from York, England, who with his band of three performers (Melvyn Poore, tuba; Kathryn Lukas, flute; and Martin Mayes as improviser on the French horn in between pieces) put on three theater works of black humor. (There was hilarious appreciation from the few English-speaking members of the audience, and bewilderment from the others.) Wishart's ideas are basically grim: humanity crushed by technology and bureaucratic thought control. These concepts are realized through fantastic and stifling tuba mutes (in Tuba Mirum), boxes filled with "technology" taped flutes confusing the improvising soloist (in Fidelio), and in Adam and Eve (the tubist and flutist in body suits) trapped in a "utopian" giant musicbox clock with stuffed birds, animals and rain (in Walden II). The integration of message, wit, and music made for a memorable late evening.


Other groups contributed to the theme of theatricality. The Ballet of the National Theatre of Serajevo performed Kreature by Japanese composer Shin Ichiro Ikebe-- a dance of conception and life using texturally rich orchestral music and a setting which included a paper mache moon and huge mobile balls. The Le Cercle trio from Paris combined superb mime-acting, humor, and musicality in Mauricio Kagel's Dressure for Three Hooligans and Wooden Instruments. And there were stunning dramatic productions by the Italian Camerata Strumentale of Ligeti's Aventures and Nouvelles Aventures.
Of three seemingly endless "Non-Stop" concerts during the week, one was devoted to electronic music, which featured the only two American composer-performer groups. Daniel Lentz (California) with his pianist Gary Eister presented a forty-five-minute hypnotic, repetitive, amplified work entitled Dancing on the Sun, to the occasional accompaniment of thrown green paper balls by the uncomprehending, very noisy audience. At midnight, anyone still awake (and considerably quieted down) could hear the McLean Mix (Barton and Priscilla McLean from Austin, Texas) performing their virtuosic music for piano and tape. Another North American group, especially assembled for the festival, was Soundstage Canada, a group of about twenty artists presenting varied works of eleven Canadian composers. Unfortunately this reviewer, due to performance conflicts, was unable to attend their two ambitious concerts.

Current trends
How did the 1981 Zagreb Biennale reflect current music trends on contemporary music? One of the main threads seemed to be the new awareness of, and growth in, the audiences, brought about by more appealing performances-- visually, dramatically, and musically. Pomposity and intellectual posturing seem to be (almost) passe-- perhaps humor and a sense of the fantastic being their successors. Apart from that, and to quote from director Kuljeric, "certain recognizable schools... [are] giving way to an increasing number of independent musical artists who, in building up their own artistic micro-world, are stretching to the very extremes the broad spectrum of possible answers to the question: what is contemporary music today?"