How do you go about programming a festival in which you’ve never heard (and indeed, nobody else has) 17 of the works to be performed? “You just have to take the risk,” says composer David Chisholm, the Artistic Director of the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. “You have to believe in people. The festival has definitely earned a reputation for excellence, and I think people take it very seriously. You might get a few miss-steps, but there could also be that work of genius.”

The sixth edition of BIFEM will take over the former gold rush town in September, with a program that will include an incredible 17 world premieres and 32 Australian premieres packed into a single weekend. In a coup for the festival, this year will also see the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra coming to Bendigo – the orchestra’s Victorian debut.

BIFEM, Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory MusicJennifer Walshe’s XXX_LIVE_NUDE_GIRLS!!! at the 2016 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Photo © Jason Tavener

For Chisholm, the Adelaide Symphony is “an exemplar orchestra” in terms of its commitment to new music. “They’re very diverse in what they do and I think that’s really to be encouraged.”

“I struggle when I look at the major orchestras,” he says. “Where is the legacy? Where are the major commissions that define an orchestra in the way that you can point to the Berlin Phil, at the number of commissions that they’ve made over a very long period of time? They’ve essentially commissioned the canon! Then you look at the orchestra network in Australia and I don’t see the commissioning appetite.”

“Mostly what I see, as a general rule, is them shrinking away from audiences and being afraid,” he says. “And that just drives audiences further away. Adelaide is the exception.”

The ASO, conducted by Eric Dudley, will perform on both Friday and Saturday nights of the festival. The Friday concert will see the orchestra perform Australian composer Annie Hui-Hsin Hsieh’s 2014 work Into the Outer (which was premiered by the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble and has since been performed at the ISCM World Music Days 2016) and the Australian premiere of British composer Jonathan Harvey’s Tranquil Abiding from 1999. The concert will also feature the world premiere of a work by Chisholm himself, the first half of which was written for the Bendigo Symphony Orchestra earlier in the year, titled …And I am but an Echo, a Ghost, a Mirror of your Flower. “It’s the most ridiculous title in forever,” Chisholm laughs. “But I just wanted to find something that would match how lush it is.”

Only Xtasy & Motion at the 2017 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Photo © Jason Tavener

The second half of the ASO’s residency will see the orchestra perform two iconic 20th-century works – US composer Morton Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett and Canadian composer Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child, for which the orchestra will be joined by soprano Jane Sheldon.

The international guests at the festival will be Texas-based percussion trio Line Upon Line, continuing the “North American vibe” of this year’s program. “Which is something we haven’t really done before,” says Chisholm. “We’ve had a Euro-centre or even South American vibe to it for the first five editions.”

The trio will perform a concert on the Saturday morning consisting entirely of world premieres written by third-year students at the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music at Monash University, before reconvening that night for a concert of wall-to-wall Australian premieres.

With concerts playing from morning till night at venues from the Old Fire Station Engine Room to the Bendigo Bank Theatre, there’s plenty to get excited about. “I’m really excited about Sunday, because it’s The History of Photography and Sound,” says Chisholm.

BIFEMJuliana Snapper with Andrew Infanti’s You Who Will Emerge from the Flood at the 2017 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. Photo © Jason Tavener

London-based pianist Mark Knoop will perform Michael Finnissy’s five and a half hour solo piano work beginning in the morning and stretching across the afternoon. “I love that kind of stuff,” says Chisholm. “It’s part of the reason I got behind the festival initially – wanting to do ambitious works or works of scale that really step outside of the ordinary, that break the rules of what conventional concert-going is.”

Among the events Chisholm highlights is Melbourne pianist Jacob Abela who will be doing what Chisholm describes as his “weird keyboards recital,” performing works for piano, synth, MIDI keyboard and ondes martenot and a set by Australian composer Natasha Anderson, an “extraordinary artist.”

While there is a lot going on at BIFEM, the events are programmed so that audiences can experience all of them if they choose to, and Chisholm suggests that visitors in search of new music gold immerse themselves in the experience. “If you’re going to make the pilgrimage, go all the way,” he says.

“You just roll along with it, and you find yourself in a very different place by the end of the Sunday to where you started out, and I love that about it,” he says. “A festival is an invitation, particularly one like this, it’s an invitation to explore and have a different experience.”


The Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music takes place in venues around Bendigo September 7 – 9

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