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.

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