Sunday, December 28, 2008

October round-up, part 3 / November round-up, part 1: Wien Modern highlights

I cannot stress enough just how much the yearly Wien Modern festival impresses me through its scope and its use of the 'resources' at hand in Vienna: while I missed last year's edition due to being on the wrong landmass, 2006's festival featured eye openers and thought fodder aplenty. Distinctions between 'high-brow' and 'low-brow' art/'E-Musik' and 'U-Musik' are exposed as arbitrary and baseless dichotomies, unfair and unhelpful from whatever point of view they are constructed and/or reproduced in. It's not like Wien Modern itself (whichever way one would define that) takes down these imaginary and structural barriers on its own; however, looking at how it emphasises forms that, despite often being overlooked/pigeonholed, seem to blossom intensely here (associated with assumed realms of the orchestral/the symphonic/'modern composition', 'experimental electronics', 'Electro-Acoustic Improvisation' etc.) and making use of all the structural and architectural opportunities Vienna offers (with venues ranging from the fluc_wanne's cavernous-industrial 'rock' space to the Musikverein in all its imperial bombast, from the Alte Schmiede's intimate arts space hidden at the city centre's edge to the Museumsquartier's nicely flexible halls) and showing the connections between all these and their forms of convergence, it is hard to get rid of the impression that the festival, founded by star conductor Claudio Abbado, could hardly do a better job at both using what the city it's based in offers and going far beyond that, revealing unknown paths old and new and exposing unexpected linkage at every turn. And I haven't even mentioned its children's programme, its multimedia cross-overs or its attempts at offering theory-related material and background information through symposia or the impressive tome that is the festival's Katalog yet.

As this profoundly hyperbolic first paragraph probably indicated, I have lived through some truly formative experiences at Wien Modern; to be precise, I tried to make good use of the 2006 edition's student pass, visiting more than a dozen events over the course of a few weeks, some of them being true eye-openers (first and foremost, the electronics/laptop vs. cello duo set performed by Bernhard Lang and Michael Moser at the Alte Schmiede comes to mind; but pieces by Helmut Lachenmann, Sofia Gubaidulina or Friedrich Cerha are quick to follow). Considering that year's (as well as this one's) great experience, it's a shame to see that Wien Modern's profile doesn't nearly seem as high as I'd like it to be, with plenty of people who would most certainly enjoy at least parts of its eclectic programme not actually being aware of what it offers. Whether that has to do with Wien Modern revolving around the Konzerthaus, another one of Vienna's well-established venues often associated with a classical-based programme and, probably, a certain 'poshness' is hard to tell. That said, it's not like the festival seems to miss a young audience; I just think it could be able to hold a broader appeal. Maybe us fans just need to be louder. Who knows?

Tony Conrad actually might just know, considering he has carried his thoroughly winsome personality and stubbornly open-minded approach to art and representation through decades of politically frustrating and probably often precarious art/work circumstances. Not that I really know all that much about what drives him and... makes him do what he does, but as Wien Modern's focus on his work in various 'disciplines' suggests, it all manages to be funny but earnest and heart-felt, politically charged but not oppressive (yet commenting on issues of oppression, even, or especially, within performer-vs.-audience relations), seemingly trashy and tossed-off in places but still quite obviously driven and filled with purpose, regardless of whether that purpose is backed by directly related/applied, profound theoretical thought (as it often is in Conrad's case) or maybe just a desire to do... something else? I'm just throwing around guesses. Whatever the relevance of all this, I had a great time at the three events I attended that were part of said programme focus. He played a solo violin concert at brut im Künstlerhaus, following a string quartet's performance of a new piece of his; he used a sewing machine as well as additional pieces of cord and even started playing a banknote at one point. Similar gadgets were used for his even better -- actually quite stunning -- duo performance with London improvisor Angharad Davies (on violin, too) at brut im Konzerthaus a few days later, which turned out to be drone heaven, enveloping and fearless. The banknote bit (cut short by the note tearing partially at one point) was joined by comical-sinister growling/moaning on Conrad's part -- just repeating the word 'money' from what I remember, and thus probably not the most superficially complex comment on the current financial situation but, in the context of the concert, a funny one and, in the context of listeners' knowledge on Conrad's work and his thoughts on art/artists' work, a thought-provoking one nonetheless.

Before these two performances, a short portrait (Marie Loisier's DreaMinimalist) had been shown that might not have allowed particularly deep insight into an actual piece's/film's creation but did a great and thoroughly entertaining job at bringing the audience closer to Conrad and his ways of presenting himself. Unfortunately, I missed his lecture on Monday, October 27th; going by the Q&A session that took place right after the screening of selected Conrad films at the Filmmuseum, it would have been both entertaining and thought-provoking. During the actual Q&A session, he explicitly discussed views that humour and 'serious', relevant art are mutually exclusive; as I myself had to notice once again when arriving early before the aforementioned Conrad/Davies set to watch some more of Conrad's film work on TV sets that were placed outside the actual concert room, one will hardly be able to find a better way to see that dualism break down than immersing oneself in Conrad's richly rewarding work. (On a sidenote, the fanboy in me was actually able, or seemed to be able -- no guarantee! -- to spot legendary early Mercury Rev singer David Baker within the crowd at an early 90s anti-war demonstration in Buffalo documented by Conrad. Some of the band's members had been among his students there.)

Bad time management resulted in me missing the programme's 'Noise' evening, featuring Putrefier, Sudden Infant and the amazing Hild Sofie Tafjord, member of Fe-Mail and Spunk; her solo debut, Kama, was one of my favourite records of 2007 -- or, if you want, ever, in its amazingly detailed and competent construction: one constantly intriguing and intelligent single piece, sourced mostly from Tafjord's French Horn. Apparently she was joined onstage by Conrad at some point as YouTube material suggests, and, if you excuse my use of strong concepts/words, I cannot help but hate myself for not going.

It's a bit harder for me to write about the rest of what I saw at this year's Wien Modern, which shouldn't be taken as an indicator of lesser quality in any way though. The 'Musik & Gehirn' event I attended on November 1st might not have been what I was looking for but probably appealed to anyone genuinely interested in intersections of brain research and analysis of music reception. I assume that I would have been happier with the next day's event that featured Alvin Lucier, who had 'only' served as a test object for brain wave sonification at the earlier event, playing some of his pieces; again, (bad) time management intervened. Almost a week later, my first visit ever to Vienna's Tanzquartier made me witness Xavier Le Roy's More Mouvements für Lachenmann, a choreographed take on some of Helmut Lachenmann's pieces, designed to question the relations between music, performer and audience that are easily taken for granted: the most successful part of a generally excellent evening appeared to be the second that saw two guitar-less guitarists mime along to two other (hidden) ones' sounds (Lachenmann's Salut für Caudwell, actually). Not only was the precision of their decidedly un-authentic (as in: their movements were not designed to look like actual guitar playing) acting quite baffling, but some deliberatly imprecise and/or particularly playful moments amused and puzzled the audience -- that found itself being stared at reproachfully at various points during the performance's last part. Again, humour and praxeological questioning of form, content and power relations coalesced in beautiful and rewarding ways.

Other excellent events followed, but the most personally rewarding one of the festival's later parts turned out to be the second 'Elektrophiliale' event at Vienna's Gartenbaukino: The duo of Mego roster member Philipp Quehenberger on electronics and Fuckhead drummer DD Kern impressed with its spiralling sound that -- although that might just be a result of my own lack of knowledge -- reminded me most of a more sci-fi-like take on the Flower Corsano Duo's flourishes. Kern's playing was just as excellent as it had been the first time I saw him -- his duo set with brpobr (where are they? I want them back) drummer Bernhard Breuer at Vienna's prestigious Amann Studios in early 2007 had been rather spectacular. But while everyone had been seated there, the Philiale left some space for dancing, even up on its nice little gallery where some friends and I had a great time trying to physically approximate the swirls produced by the musicians downstairs.

Friday, December 05, 2008

October round-up, part 2: Silver Mt. Zion, Animal Collective, Larkin Grimm

As if Kontraste hadn't offered enough good moments to fill up a decent Viennese concert month, the Arena's main hall provided room for a particularly pleasant one-two punch at the month's very heart: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra-La-La Band once again graced Vienna, quite obviously a fandom stronghold for the group, with its presence, just one day before a 'New Weird America' line-up dream come true -- Animal Collective touring with Axolotl -- played the same venue.

Even though it was rather excellent, the Silver Mt. Zion concert arrived a few years late for me -- which is, quite obviously, not the band's fault. 'This Is Our Punk-Rock', Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, was a disturbing but strangely empowering soundtrack to 2003 and those confusing days of the Iraq War('s beginning) and, on a personal level, my own Zivildienst. They somehow lost me a bit with Horses In The Sky, which sounded strangely 'dry' and never appealed all that much to me beyond the powerful waltz of 'God Bless Our Dead Marines'. While 'preparing' for this particular concert by listening to some of their releases for the first time in ages, I ended up warming up to it a bit -- and who knows, my appreciation for it might not yet be at its peak. Regardless, I had yet to hear (and still haven't heard, but that may change) 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons, their acclaimed new album, two songs from which made an appearance here, rocking powerfully in what seemed to be typical recent Silver Mt. Zion manner. 'God Bless Our Dead Marines' and two new songs, among them the (sometimes) almost Spiritualized-like space gospel country-ish 'There Is A Light', fit in neatly, but a personal highlight arrived in the first encore, an (unsurprisingly) expansive version of 'Microphones In The Trees' from 2004's uncharacteristic but always intriguing Pretty Little Lightning Paw EP. Similarly, the second encore offered a bit of a flashback in the concert's 'oldest' song, 'Take These Hands And Throw Them In The River', which felt more (punk-) rock-ish than its seven years old studio version, nicely showing the band's evolution towards a heavier, more electric (and electrically charged) sound.

Things felt quite different regarding the next evening's Animal Collective concert: in terms of my own personal interest in the band's music, the concert could have hardly arrived at a better point, even though it was to be my fourth time seeing this band in 15 months. This May's London concert had been the most impressive one of theirs I had seen so far, musically, and increased my interest in the kaleidoscopic and strangely rave-like new songs they played on their recent tours (most of which will end up on January's Merriweather Post Pavillion album on Domino). While they had already sounded excellent at last year's immensely enjoyable Vienna concert and even at that fall's Dublin one, which had only felt like half a gig (Avey Tare, while on stage, suffered from flu, resulting in his vocal contributions being reduced to some groaning here and there -- we received a short Panda Bear solo set in exchange though), they sounded particularly catchy, addictive and complete at that London show; nicely enough, new songs I hadn't heard before ('No More Runnin', which I still think of as their Neil Young and Crazy Horse song, and the delirious 'Lion In A Coma') were among the concert's highlights. I'm not exactly a big bootleg listener and thus still wasn't particularly familiar with the new material, but it really grabbed me at that show. That the surprising appearance of a hazy but heavy reworked version of 'Grass' at the set's very end 'blew my mind' certainly helped.

The Vienna concert thus felt like a great way to see them one last time before they'll change their setlist to include new new songs, something the band likes to do before/around the time of the release of whatever their 'new' album is at that time. While some surprises would have been nice, the setlist, which was quite similar to the London one (no 'Grass' this time, unfortunately), was satisfying and did a good job at structuring this concise and truly fun concert -- the addictive 'Summertime Clothes' and 'Brother Sport' once again proved to be potential highlights from next year's release roster, 'Chocolate Girl' -- slowed down and rearranged almost to unrecognisability -- was less jaunty but more haunting than its studio version and 'Peacebone', fittingly augmented by a rainbow colour lightshow, made me dance like it always does which, of course, is a good thing. It's just a bit of a shame that Strawberry Jam's heart of darkness and sleeper masterpiece '#1' wasn't played here unlike at various other shows that were part of the band's tour of Eastern Europe. Axolotl's support set was a good one too, although there were moments when some of the beats used seemed a bit too straight-forward -- not much to complain about though, all power to all you violin droners! But more about that in the next round-up post.

October 23rd brought about my first visit to the peachy (and packed) Verein 08 venue, featuring a show by Larkin Grimm whom I had last seen leading an audience parade from venue to venue at the end of her Terrastock Six set two and a half years ago. Her set, featuring an additional guitarist, was as intimate and charming as one could expect considering the performer/venue combination -- I guess one could use the term 'campfire atmosphere' though but that might miss the point, i.e. Verein 08's living room vibe. An excellent evening, and I'd love to see someone book a Fonal Records-related band (how about Hertta Lussu Ässä?) because they'd fit right in.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

October round-up, part 1: Kontraste

Turns out I was lying in my introductory post, but I suppose starting late is better than leaving this place deserted for another three years. To fill up some space/kill some time that I don't actually have right now/get over myself and start writing, I will post some semi-random, potentially rushed thoughts on recent events I attended.

October was just as good a month for concerts as I hoped it would be, starting with the aforementioned Kontraste festival in lovely Stein bei Krems. The presentation of Gordon Monahan's Theremin Pendulum installation, swirling and howling around some dark cellar room in the town's Minorite Church like some crazy apparition in, say, the Thief video games series, turned out to be a suitably intriguing introduction to the festival's first day (Friday, October 3rd); and while the MAJAAP duo of Maja Ratkje and Jaap Blonk did a wonderful job at chasing each other's voices towards moments equally funny, unique and inspiring and David Moss upped the funniness of it all yet again with a perfectly uncategorisable set that felt just as much like a (good) comedy act as it seemed like the audience was allowed to peak into his living room (favourite non-musical moment: 'Every time Makigami [Koichi] joins me on stage, I have to think of how much I love World Music', or something along these lines), my favourite set turned out to be subshrubs' debut performance of mute, a 'collective composition' of theirs using equipment both acoustic and electric and, fitting the evening's 'Schöne Stimmen' theme.

I hadn't really read a lot about subshrubs before their set here and associated them with Vienna's blossoming Electro-Acoustic Improvisation scene which I didn't (and still don't) know enough about; and even though this was not an improvised piece (something I wasn't aware of during the actual performance, obviously having read the programme only rather lazily -- 'twill teach me), the set's early moments seemed to steer into the kind of subtle, minimal direction that I somehow expected it to. However, it was far from predictable, evolving into things quite different -- in fact, that evening feels too far away for me to enable me to describe the piece's structure, sound(s) and strategies used therein, but suffice to say, it took me by surprise and never let me go. A friend of mine was reminded of Nurse With Wound, a comparison that seemed to make quite a bit of sense, as the drones and details found here seemed just as evocative, intelligent and special as the best moments I've heard of Steven Stapleton's more abstract work; I myself ended up considering a comparison questionable in content, intent and general ontological value: on a spectrum of musics typically/potentially considered 'noise' by a considerable if undefined amount of people, subshrubs would reside at the subtlest possible end, diametrically opposed to Sutcliffe Jügend's confrontational and (seemingly?) brutish power electronics that I had witnessed a few months earlier in London. However, that particular dichotomic construct might tell more about my own inability to make sense of the latter group's live set which, in its musical competence but (seeming?) obviousness, I'm still not sure what to think of after all these months. But I digress! This simplistic comparison is quite unfair to both bands, and at the end of the day, my one main point here is that subshrubs provided one of my favourite and most inspiring concert experiences in recent memory.

My second Kontraste day was the festival's last (Saturday, October 11th). Cluster's set seemed to drift past me without leaving much of an impression, but Felix Kubin's quirky and intelligent electro-pop certainly made me want to check out a radio play (apparently (also) dealing with Odinic terrorists' exploits on a post-wreckage raft -- what's not to love?) he performed music from. Arnaud Paquotte's Nocturnes électriques, basically a temporally limited installation kept in the dark, was quite a sensual experience, his strange devices' scintillation adding a slightly discomforting scent to sound and (bits of) light. Faust seemed to be just as fond of sparks, plenty of which poured from the stage during their remarkably powerful show's more aktionist moments. The line-up appearing here was the Hans-Joachim Irmler one, with a slightly pirate-like Lars Paukstat acting as the show's focal point, and during the set's most powerful moments, the music charged at the audience like Bardo Pond doing 'Krautrock', although that kind of comparison probably distracts from the set's urgency.

Add to that the general ambience and the fun to be had when getting to know new friends etc., and there's yet another reason to think that the next Donaufestival can't arrive soon enough.