MUSIC / Shock of the new: Keith Potter reports on the future prospects for contemporary music in the new Croatia

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We were assembling in the elegantly restored mayor's house for a reception to celebrate the 17th Zagreb Music Biennale. I was renewing my acquaintance with Milko Kelemen, Croatian composer and festival founder, when a loud cannon shot rang out. 'Ah,' said Kelemen, 'the bombardment of Zagreb has begun]'

It is fortunate that Croatians can joke about their circumstances - that noise was only the city's daily announcement of midday. Zagreb itself is, in fact, currently safe, though virtually all cultural life in the city was impossible a year ago. But troops are all over the capital, and the whole country is still officially a war zone.

What price a contemporary music festival in such circumstances? To everyone to whom I spoke, it seemed crucial for Croatia's present sanity to continue as full a range of cultural activities as possible - 'to take other weapons', as Ivo Josipovic, current director of the Biennale, put it. And while new music as normally defined by international festivals is perhaps under even greater threat from an emerging capitalism than it used to be from Yugoslav communism, contemporary music has some staunch defenders in the new Croatia. Though audiences for some events were depressingly small, other concerts, in various venues around the city, were avidly attended.

In such circumstances criticism can seem irrelevant. But, defiantly, the locals were concerned that both Croatians and outsiders judge quite independently what Josipovic and his team managed to put on. So let me at least say that levels of performance were sometimes disappointing, and ask why no work by John Cage was offered in the year after his death. On the other hand, the relative paucity of big names allowed more opportunity than at previous festivals to hear work by composers under 40 - from Croatia but also from other parts of Europe. Particularly fascinating was a programme of works by young composers from the former USSR, which demonstrated a wide- ranging commitment to what we used to call the avant-garde.

If music of the radical persuasion that established several of the Croatian composers born in the 1920s - Kelemen, Ivo Malec - has not been followed up consistently by their younger colleagues, it seems due in part to the now well-established worldwide dissatisfaction with modernism. But a link also seems inevitable between, say, the drastically pared-down modal simplicity of Frano Parac's Dona nobis pacem (premiered in a BBC Singers concert of contemporary liturgical music that was one of the festival's highlights) and the present crisis, to the point where one might question not only the validity of so-called new music in such circumstances but also where this will leave Croatian composers and their audiences when conditions finally improve.

Several other Croatians - Silvio Foretic, for example, with his Weill-inspired songs - as well as the Austrian composer Dieter Kaufmann and the stunning Slovakian mime artist Milan Sladek, referred directly, sometimes movingly, in their works to the present situation. Others - such as the Croatian Dubravko Detoni - avoided it in so determinedly flippant a manner as to suggest accusations of fiddling while Rome burns.

There is naturally cause for concern about the cultural as well as political future of Croatia, as well as of the Biennale itself. It seems to me vital for both local composers and their audiences that it should continue. Meanwhile, Danijel Bucan, President Tudjman's cultural adviser, affirmed not only that culture was crucial as Croatia's only means of establishing itself internationally, but that this culture must be defined by the artists and commentators, not the politicians. There is, after all, hope for the future.