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ISCM World New Music Days Come to Vancouver

Opening Night: Life Reflected. My Name is Amanda Todd. Photo by Fred Cattrall.

As far as contemporary music is concerned, it’s the Olympics and the World Cup rolled into one. The International Society for Contemporary Music’s annual “World New Music Days” comes to Vancouver for a hectic week November 2-8, with monumental implications for Vancouver performers, ensembles, and fans of new music.

The ISCM goes back to 1922 when a multi-national group devoted to sharing new music development was established under the aegis of the Salzburg Festival—part devoted band of enthusiasts, part affirmative action collective confronting the music establishment’s often tepid response to contemporary work. 

Canada has hosted the ISCM once before, in Toronto and Montreal in 1986 via the Canadian League of Composers. But our relationship with the international body goes back significantly before that, with a whiff of scandal. In 1956 the ISCM in Stockholm accepted a string quartet by Vancouver composer Barbara Pentland. She paid her own way to hear her work performed, only to learn on arrival that Canada had just resigned from the organization. The proffered rationale was that we couldn’t cough up the ISCM dues. Pentland didn’t buy that, believing the eastern old boy network was determined to sabotage an upstart woman from the West Coast.

That’s all water under the bridge these days. In 1981 the Canadian League of Composers re-joined the ISCM and our composers from both sexes and all regions have been heard at past jamborees.

Something like ISCM World New Music Days doesn’t happen spontaneously. Indeed many people have worked long and hard to bring the ISCM to Vancouver. “I first heard about the idea in 2009,” says Music on Main’s David Pay. “There was a big conference in Vancouver. Jim Hiscott of the Canadian League of Composers said wouldn’t it be great to host the ISCM in Canada? A committee was struck on which I served for at least five years.”

Instruments of Change. Photo by Jan Gates.

Just as with the Olympics, the organizers had to make a bid to the international body. “We travelled to ISCM events all over the world,” says Pay. Ultimately a bid was made and accepted. (After all, who doesn’t want to visit the rainforest in November? I understand all participants will be presented with a free umbrella). Then it was time for all the serious planning of how exactly to present one of the biggest new music shows imaginable. Morna Edmundson, better known as the long-time conductor of the Elektra Women’s Choir, signed on as Administrative Director in 2013.

Today’s ISCM now stretches to over 50 national groups from every part of the globe. What does this mean for our intensive week of performances? Well, explains Edmundson, it’s going to keep local performers and audiences busy. “There are 23 concert partner organizations, and then a few individuals who play instruments we hadn’t covered. It’s an amazing organizational feat to get all this embedded within our own performing arts groups.” The Vancouver Symphony, for example, not only performs November 5 in a concert that includes the premiere of Mohamed Assani /John Oliver’s Pressed for Time, a new concerto for sitar and orchestra but presents the November 2 opening night program featuring the National Arts Centre Orchestra. The NACO’s “Life Reflected” project (“An immersive symphonic experience celebrating youth, promise and courage, revealed in the compelling and diverse portraits of four women”) includes a performance of Jocelyn Morlock’s My Name is Amanda Todd.

Pay mentions a host of other national groups who will be in town: the Quatuor Bozzini, the Ensemble contemporain de Montreal, and WolfGANG, the NACO house chamber ensemble, just to name a few.

WolfGANG duo. Photo credit James Whittall.

Vancouver audiences get to choose from a fascinatingly complicated mosaic of performances and events. “We had over six hundred pieces submitted, from which we chose ninety-two,” says Edmonston. In addition, there are also commissioned works, premieres, and new-to-Vancouver pieces for every conceivable combination of musicians and in every contemporary style imaginable. And composers and new music stakeholders from all over will take part in the event. “We have composers from across the country,” says Pay, “and I have colleagues from Montreal and Calgary flying out.”

Again like the Olympics, the ISCM features many national champions. What happens when so many composers come together over the course of a single intense week of music can be very, very interesting. While there is a sort of international new music lingua franca, there are also surprisingly vital national traditions; composers from superpower nations probably need the ISCM platform less than those from smaller countries; levels of state support and encouragement are wildly dissimilar. The possibilities for compare and contrast are nothing short of astonishing.

For the full schedule of events, check out And start planning: our ISCM World Music Days are just moments away.


David Gordon Duke has degrees in musicology from UBC, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Victoria.  He is currently Academic Co-ordinator of the School of Music at Vancouver Community College and also writes for The Vancouver Sun, Classical Voice North America, and the American Record Guide.