About us

Vision and history

for all

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) was founded almost 100 years ago, with the aim of supporting contacts between composers, performers and organisers in the area of contemporary music, and helping to promote current musical production. Although its founders were representatives of organisations active on the music scene, its establishment was driven by the “from the bottom up” principle. This can be seen by the fact that its first – or rather zeroth – international festival in Salzburg in 1922 took place before its “umbrella” organisation was founded. Yet it was no festival of “unknown names”: the programme included Béla Bartók, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Karol Szymanowski, Gustav Holst and others. Since then, the festival has been held every year in a different country with an ISCM member section.

The society was established at a time when across Europe efforts were being made to revive artistic activities thwarted by the First World War. The early years could be characterised by their “humanistic enthusiasm” and the communication between musicians and organisers was truly lively. In the words of a contemporary from that time: “There are no more borders. That is the meaning of Salzburg.” Of course… the Second World War came along, and with it another lull in international activities (and even a ban on them, for example in Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Italy). During the war, only 2 festivals were held, and those were only in a limited form, in the USA (1941 New York, 1942 San Francisco). Wartime also brought such drastic consequences as the closure of sections due to the emigration of their active composers! Activities were resumed fully in 1946 with the festival in London.

Today, ISCM is the umbrella organisation for 60 organisations in almost 50 countries, and it still follows the principle of supporting contemporary music regardless of aesthetic tendency, nationality, race, religion or political opinion. Since the Second World War, it has not missed a single general assembly, until 2020, when the first virtual assembly was held.

Let us take a closer look at the concept of “contemporary music”. Why is it highlighted? Why does contemporary music need such “support”? One of the founders of the ISCM, Rudolf Réti, marked out contemporary music with the attributes of revolutionary or even rebellious; the German music critic and academic Paul Bekker defined it as modern and young; the first president of the ISCM, Edward Bent, described it as deviating from the tracks of the known. Why are such labels needed? Until the popularization of recording equipment and radio broadcasts, only contemporary music – that is music that was produced in the given period – would be presented in the main. This means that listeners (whoever they were) in the Renaissance, Baroque and Classicist periods could listen to the “freshest” music immediately after it was composed. The technical advances mentioned above, however they might be able to promote today’s contemporary music, often complicate it, deliberately or not; today’s contemporary music has to “compete” with the contemporary music of past periods.

We should not deprive ourselves of the adventure experienced when we discover it.

It may appear that Slovakia joined the ISCM “family” in 1994 with a rich and relevant history. In 1922, Czechoslovakia was one of the ISCM’s founding members, and at the first (zeroth) ISCM festival in that same year, the works of Czech composers were played, and it was the organiser or co-organiser of the international festival on four occasions. Alois Hába, Vítězslav Novák (both also becoming honorary members of the ISCM), Bohuslav Martinů, Otakar Ostrčil, Alexander Moyzes (as the very first Slovak composer), Eugen Suchoň, Ilja Zeljenka, Roman Berger, Miroslav Bázlik, Tadeáš Salva and others presented their works here. However, it became clear that catching up with what had been missed as a result of (cultural-)political developments, was literally a long-distance run.

While the events of the Second World War affected almost all those countries represented in the ISCM to a similar extent, the developments following WWII resulted in more individual fates of each ISCM member country. Periods of optimism and destructiveness alternated in Czechoslovakia, copying the milestones in history: the beginning of the Stalinist regime, the political thaw of the 1960s and the Prague spring, the invasion by the Warsaw pact armies, emigration after 1968, normalisation… and in effect the nationalisation of professional – associations such as the Association of Czechoslovak Composers. From 1937 to 1989, Czechoslovakia’s membership was by turns active, formal and unclear; everything was influenced by political circumstances.

Let’s stop for a while in the 1960s, since – as the following lines will make clear – the influence which this period exerted is in a certain manner indelible. The ensemble “Hudba dneška” [Music of Today] was established and worked for six years under the leadership of Ladislav Kupkovič; the Experimental Studio of the Slovak Radio was founded; from 1968 to 1970 composition and performance seminars were held in Smolenice, attended by György Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel; there was also a group visit of composers to the Warsaw Autumn festival (including the first performance by the Slovak Philharmonic at this festival, playing the music of Kolman, Šimai and Zeljenka).

of course”

Perhaps now you’ll be under the impression that you are reading a piece of science fiction: every year, a relatively large, two-week long overview of “new Slovak music” takes place, including the latest works, as well as older, “tried-and-tested gems”, concert halls packed with listeners discussing how “awful it was to listen to”. The reality was this: the same as the above, except that the only people doing any discussing were a few students, and a few cowardly review articles were published in the press about compositions the existence and performance of which we have no memory of today… but a good “comrade” wrote them. As a precaution Godár’s piece was sent for a premiere in Košice to avoiding insulting those elderly “gentlemen” by its very existence and the fact that it diverges from their own life-long work… (as we know, no-one goes to Košice… but that has changed, too).

Then something happened that nobody had expected. The house of cards collapsed, and with such speed and preparation that no-one had time to notice that in this “new environment” people had already come up with the idea that culture doesn’t really need to exist because, as we know, it only sucks up money pointlessly, money that we can no longer steal. Suddenly, in the “new environment” and new post-1989 reality, no-one needed culture; it was a case of letting those who believe that it can make money under capitalism and “cover the costs” take care of it. (If you don’t cover the costs, you don’t exist, that much is clear…).

And now let’s go to the heart of the matter. In those wonderful times, anyone who played or composed contemporary music was something of a madman, but not a dangerous one, so there was no need to worry about them. But nevertheless, initiatives such as Dano Matej’s VENI ensemble came about; suddenly people realised that people were interested in it, even though our “comrade” had been writing for twenty years that this wasn’t the case; concerts and activities were organised, some of such standing that the stars of contemporary music started coming from abroad: John Cage, Gavin Bryars, Jon Rose, Otomo Yoshihide, the Zeitkratzer ensemble; the establishment of the Slovak section of the ISCM was suddenly no longer an anti-state activity, but a reality. And the “abominable and perverse” electronic music which our “comrade” had succeeded in describing for thirty years as the most sordid thing which western music could give us, was all of a sudden being produced by young (!) people at home on their laptops (yes! on laptops!!!). Or in the U klub. The secret police starting following other people.

Those who know me understand that we are approaching the grand finale. Everyone would hesitate to praise something so matter-of-course as international exchange activities in the field of culture. But those of us who remember other times (namely those when, for example, my sheet music was lost “definitely by the post office” on its way to Warsaw – because it probably had “some mysterious link” with the Solidarity movement), we don’t consider such activities as self-evident. So far so good. But please take care not to let lobbyists appear. Because even if it doesn’t look like it, I’ve had my fair share of those myself. And yes, in music and in culture, not just in sport…

~ Martin Burlas

Under the totalitarian baton

In the 1970s and 1980s, at the time when I was studying and was beginning my career, contacts between Slovak composers and the outside world took place at two levels: at an official state level, in the spirit of the Communist Party’s cultural policy, and at a private level, dependent on private contacts abroad. Officially, contacts with abroad and the choice of composers’ works for performance abroad came under the umbrella of the Association of Czechoslovak (later Slovak) Composers and the Music Information Centre of the Slovak Music Fund. These organisations developed cooperation with partner organisations in the countries of the socialist bloc; within these countries, composers were allowed to attend festivals or visit partner organisations, they could organise meetings to build up contacts in one country or another, and information centres decided on the compositions to be presented to the outside socialist world. It is important to stress at this point that the criteria for choosing a work related not only to the work itself, but also concerned the actual composers: whether they conformed enough to the regime, or whether they were protected by an influential figure and so on.

There were practically zero opportunities for attending a concert or a festival in a non-socialist country, and the official chance of presenting works by a Slovak composer in such a country was equally slim. If this did happen, it was through the initiative of an organiser abroad, through a composer’s private contacts, or by winning a prize in an international composition competition.

I personally do not remember any single performance of my compositions outside Czechoslovakia until 1990, not even within the countries of the socialist bloc. I was not one of the composers supported by official institutions; my personal contacts at the time were also not numerous. It was only the change in political regime in 1989 that transformed my professional career. The borders opened up, and with them came the opportunity to struggle against only those obstacles which the free world places on an artist’s path: their own initiative in a situation where there is always at least a theoretical possibility of choice, and at that their own risk.

~ Iris Szeghy



It was 1985. The HIS [Music Information Centre of the Slovak Music Fund] was a place visited by artists who were banned, unplayed, pushed aside, excluded from public life because their compositional ideas or theoretical discourses were too western. Ilja Zeljenka, Roman Berger, Jozef Malovec, Tadeáš Salva, Juraj Hatrík, Juraj Beneš, the young composers Vlado Godár and Martin Burlas were frequent guests.

The second half of 1980s brought about a thaw, and so we enjoyed Roman Berger receiving the Herder Prize, saw the gradual return of (some) emigrants not only back to their country, and even an invitation from Ferdinand Klinda to Olivier Messiaen, who had previously been banned from entering Slovakia because he “would have supported the dominant Catholicism”… The first lasting contacts with Great Britain, France, Austria, Germany were formed, together with the fi rst successful membership of international networks (IAMIC, ECPNM).

It was in this atmosphere that I started to prepare live lectures, recordings and concerts at home and abroad. Out of the activities in Slovakia, I can mention the “Mondays at the Klarisky”; they were considered avant-garde. We played so much great Slovak and foreign music in this space which was no longer used by the church. People would stand in long queues before the concert to see Zeljenka’s contemporary music, or contemporary dance to the music of Klaus Ager.

After the Velvet Revolution, the borders opened, there was huge interest in our music from abroad, and we wanted to catch up on what we had missed as quickly as possible… So we managed to export Juraj Beneš’ opera “Petrifi ed” to London, Tadeáš Salva’s electro-acoustic opera “Crying” to Vienna; the first recordings of Slovak music were made in the Hesse Broadcasting studios in Frankfurt, the world marvelled at Sergej Kopčák singing contemporary works. Everything went incredibly fast, especially until the establishment of the Evenings of New Music at the Music Information Centre. Daniel Matej, Juraj Beneš, Milan Adamčiak and I decided to build up a framework within which we could introduce new works. The guest in the first year (1990) was Louis Andriessen, and the third year (1992) hosted the iconic John Cage. His lecture filled the philharmonic concert hall; Milan Adamčiak organised an exhibition of Cage’s graphic scores in the gallery of Slovak Radio. And, most important of all, his music was performed. Just organising his visit was an adventure that took several years.

These amazing experiences of meeting foreign guests at the “Evenings” encouraged the music scene to produce more of the same. One of these was the creation of the Melos-Ethos festival on the initiative of Alžbeta Rajterová, Ilja Zeljenka and Roman Berger, at which I was also present in its early days. This festival also prepared the ground for ISCM’s World New Music Days in 2013, for the first time in Slovakia…

~ Viera Polakovičová

After the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, the composers representing Bohemia (Marek Kopelent, Jindřich Feld), Moravia (Alois Piňos) and Slovakia (Roman Berger, Daniel Matej) drew up a plan for the complete renewal of the membership of the Czechoslovak section in the ISCM and its independence from state institutions. Drawing its inspiration mainly from the composer Roman Berger as well as from foreign organisations and artists, the preparation committee (R. Berger, V. Bokes, M. Adamčiak, J. Beneš) took all the necessary steps to establish the Slovak section. It was successfully registered on March 8th 1994, and the general assembly in Stockholm in October of that year welcomed it as a full member of the ISCM.

The presidents of the Slovak section since its foundation have been the following figures: the composer, teacher and theoretician Juraj Beneš, the organist and teacher Ján Vladimír Michalko, the composer, teacher and dramaturg Daniel Matej and the pianist, organiser and teacher Ivan Šiller.

~ Irena Lányiová

ISCM – Slovak Section – snapshots of past and present