On today’s concert programmes, there’s often space made for modern music. However, new works all too often serve as a support act, the warm-up for the canonical classics that the majority of the audience are there to see. But what about that section of the audience that comes especially to hear those new sounds? Who is catering especially for those adventurous listeners who want to be among the first to hear a work, and who aren’t bothered when traditional forms and genre distinctions start to melt away? Luckily, across the world, there are a range of festivals which combine forward-thinking programming with a commitment to instigating new kinds of cultural experiences.

<i>Music for 18 Musicians</i> at Bergen International Festival © Paal Audestad/NMH/Bergen International Festival
Music for 18 Musicians at Bergen International Festival
© Paal Audestad/NMH/Bergen International Festival

In the Nordic countries, one can look to Finland, where this year’s Tampere Biennale (running in mid-April) presents an exciting programme that places contemporary composition alongside new opera, improvisation, sound art and more. The concert with Finnish new music group defunensemble, featuring works by both Stockhausen and psychedelically-minded contemporary artist Jan Anderzén (the man behind the fêted avant-folk/electronic project Kemialliset Ystävät), is a particularly intriguing proposition. Meanwhile, the UK group Riot Ensemble present a concert in cooperation with Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. While the latter has yet to announce the programme for this year’s instalment, this too should be an exciting prospect for 2018, with last year’s festival featuring world premières from the likes of improvisatory Early music practitioner Laura Cannell. For a similarly genre-busting programme, one can look to this year’s Holland Festival, which includes opera by composer-in-focus George Benjamin alongside world music and performances that blur the line between musical theatre and video games (check out our recent preview of the festival). Elsewhere in northern Europe, this year’s Bergen International Festival seems to thrive on juxtaposition, with octogenarian sacred music icon and festival artist-in-residence Sofia Gubaidulina sharing programme space with theatrical black metal outfit Ulver, and new music specialists like Colin Currie with traditionalists like András Schiff. 

defunensemble © www.alexbp.dk
© www.alexbp.dk

There are also opportunities for widening musical palettes back in the UK. Since 2013, Glasgow’s Tectonics festival has been pairing the world’s leading lights of free improvisation with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and this year is no different, with free jazz firebrands like Mats Gustafsson joining in the noisy fun in May. Founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, the Aldeburgh Festival has a slightly more established reputation, with a significant portion of the programme dedicated to the classics. This year’s instalment in June explores the links between Britain and America by way of the pinnacle figures of Britten and Bernstein, but that’s not to say it will be a completely 20th century-focussed affair: there’ll be new works by Harrison Birtwistle and Simon Holt amongst others. What’s more, inviting Patricia Kopatchinskaja has significantly raised Aldeburgh’s contemporary credentials. The Moldovan-born violinist will be presenting her Bye Bye Beethoven concert, which juxtaposes a panoply of musical giants from Haydn to Cage and incorporates video and sound design.

Ojai Music Festival © Timothy Norris
Ojai Music Festival
© Timothy Norris

PatKop will also be flexing her new music muscles across the pond this summer, as Music Director of the long-running Ojai Music Festival in California in early June. As can be expected from Kopatchinskaja, Ligeti and Kurtág feature heavily on the programme, but what’s most striking is the propensity toward ancient/modern juxtapositions. John Dowland and Pauline Oliveros sit together in one concert, as does William Byrd and modern turntablist Jorge Sanchez-Chiong. There are also children’s concerts featuring the music of Cage, Berio and Honegger. Who said new music was for chin-strokers? Another festival mixing laid-back Californian stylings with cutting-edge composition is the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which runs in Santa Cruz through July and August. With a statedly globalist outlook – manifested in performances of new works from composers from Macedonia, Romania, China and Korea amongst other countries – the festival sees performances from the likes of Kronos Quartet and a West Coast première of Nico Muhly’s song cycle Impossible Things.

Colin Currie © Marco Borggreve
Colin Currie
© Marco Borggreve

The oldest festival mentioned here waits till summer’s end before unleashing its programme of modern works – including opera, sound art and even tango – upon the people of Venice. The Venice Festival of Contemporary Music goes back to 1930, and will run in late September and early October. A major strand in this year’s edition is the inclusion of composers from outside the consensus boundaries of the classical world, with a major concert being Parco della Musica Contemporanea Ensemble’s performance of avant-rock prankster Frank Zappa’s piece The Yellow Shark, which was completed shortly before his death. Meanwhile, the festival’s lifetime achievement award goes to polymathic pianist Keith Jarrett, who has been just as much at home in free improvisation and jazz fusion as classical music throughout his career. As this and the other festivals listed here prove, it seems that melting boundaries is the way forward for modern music.