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Why Bendigo’s exploratory music festival is worth trumpeting

Maxime Pascal conducts the Argonaut Ensemble at BIFEM. Jason Tavener

What, one might wonder, is the value of an international festival of exploratory music? And why is it in Bendigo, in north-west Victoria? In Australia, we have so many festivals featuring music, film, theatre and arts in general. Yet many larger city music festivals veer naturally towards the easy audience-bait of hackneyed classic or pop aspects of the art form.

Likewise, the major music organisations such as orchestras and opera companies have become over time ever more conservative, even to the point where they are now struggling to justify regressive programming practices in public debates.

The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music (BIFEM), finished for another year (on September 7), began as the vision of Melbourne composer David Chisholm in 2013, who has created a festival where he can hear the music that he wants to hear, played by the best specialist performers.

This might seem self-indulgent, but for the fact that Chisholm has a supremely good ear for interesting music and a gift for finding exciting young performers. The result is a program that has a strong coherence and integrity of vision, presenting a kind of music that is rarely heard in Australia.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Sirius.

The choice of Bendigo for this brave experiment was a stroke of genius. This grand old gold-rush town has many terrific venues for performance, comfortable hotels, beautiful spring weather, and a local community that is engaged with art and music.

The festival program is much more than just concerts, including workshops, master classes, installations, lectures and panel discussions. As a result of this breadth, it has become an important social gathering for composers, performers and listeners and many events had full capacity audiences.

Experimental, of course, does not have to mean contemporary, although it tends toward that. In this year’s festival we also heard Australian first performances of some major works from the late 20th century.

Especially powerful was a grandiose performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s demented and (at moments) magnificent 1970s space-opera Sirius. The problem of how to make sense of Stockhausen’s late music was a much-discussed topic, and musicologist Richard Toop argued in his festival lecture that Sirius is in some ways the key.

Bass singer and Stockhausen collaborator Nicholas Isherwood discusses Sirius.

Another highlight was a performance by the festival’s resident Argonaut Ensemble (lead by French conductor Maxime Pascal) of Claude Vivier’s beautiful and viscerally dynamic Zipangu (1980) with Geneva-based violin soloist Rada Hadjikostova-Schleuter.

This was another Australian premiere – and the Australian orchestral establishment should be ashamed of this – and took the audience’s breath away. Vivier may have been a strange man who wrote strange music, as Pascal said, but he shook the house that night and his musical presence loomed large over the rest of the weekend.

Claude Vivier’s Zipangu.

Among the many significant performances of more recent works, I can mention only a few personal highlights here. A premiere of Melbourne-based composer Elliott Gyger’s recent work for percussion quartet, Crystalline, a timely reminder of this Australian composer’s great abilities. His music is like a high-performance sports car: brilliant and beautifully designed.

Clara Maïda, a Marseilles-born composer now based in Paris and Berlin, was present for a performance of her remarkable Psyche Cité/Transversales, a work for live instruments and electro-acoustic sound derived from field recordings. Maïda’s work is strong, fiercely intelligent, and deeply affecting. She somehow manages to balance very careful consideration with an almost Varèse-like pleasure in the physicality of sound.

Also memorable was Ensemble Vortex, from Switzerland, who gave a compelling performance of Arturo Corrales’ theatrical Bug trilogy, featuring the extraordinary Chilean guitarist Mauricio Carrasco with live electronics directed by the composer.

Ensemble Vortex at BIFEM. Corey Hague, ABC

So, what is a festival like this for?

It reminds us that music is not just entertainment, and not only for fun. Music as an art form is also a unique and powerful way of thinking. It is no accident that many of the great anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers have been interested in music which, as French sociologist Henri Lefebvre suggested, seems to capture and record important aspects of the structure of human society.

Emphasising this structuralism (and echoing Goethe), Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis speculated that music may be understood as “architecture in movement”, but it also seems to be much more that.

Some prefer Igor Stravinsky’s notion that music is a tool for understanding the way humans relate to time, although many would find this similarly too limited.

Ultimately, what a festival of international exploratory music does is two-fold. First, it puts us for a few days in first-hand contact with music, composers, and performers from near and far who have a common interest in the leading edge of musical creativity.

Second, it inspires us to think about music, ourselves, and our world in new ways. Bendigo, for these few days in September, felt like the centre of the world.

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