Wien Modern Festival: ‘Classical’ Hardcore

For nearly a quarter of a century, Wien Modern, Vienna’s festival of new music, has provided a celebrated platform for the innovative tune of late 20th and early 21st century music

Friedrich Cerha | Photo: Peter Philipp

23_phace played at Wien Modern | Photo: Oliver Topf

Friedrich Cerha

Friedrich Cerha | Photo: Peter Philipp

If you need some contemporary music, you can go down to Flex on the Vienna Canal any day and get a thumping dose. Drum and bass, jungle, trance, house, electro. My surrogate daughter recently introduced me to dubstep. It’s dark and slow, with an awesome bass.

But, I must admit, after a few minutes, it’s pretty boring. Although that’s probably not the point: Most of the experience has to do with volume. Regrettably, relentless ear-splitting music is just not my thing.

Luckily, there is still something called contemporary “art” music. Or “classical” contemporary, as some will have it. For this, you can go to the Wien Modern festival, a massive celebration of organised sound held every year through the whole month of November. This year the festival had its 24th anniversary. Amazing: nearly a quarter-century of modern music in tradition-steeped Vienna. A festival pass got you into almost 70 concerts and events at over 10 venues, with works by over 70 composers. Now this was hardcore new music.

Who’s modern?

As the New Yorker music writer Alex Ross has commented, it doesn’t make sense to pit “pop music” against classical. They are only two components of a vast sphere. And “classical” composing is still going strong. Wikipedia lists 348 Austrian composers. Of course some have passed away, like Mozart. But the “list may not reflect recent changes” and indeed, Vienna’s second musical fin de siècle is bounding with energy and invention. The Austrian Composer’s Society currently has more than 500 members – all very much alive.

And this is only a minuscule part of the huge stream of music that has been created over the last century. As described by one of the forerunners of the avant-garde, American composer John Cage, the music of the 20th century became a huge “delta” – widening flows of human creativity that could not be dammed.

This year Wien Modern honoured one of these innumerable music makers: Friedrich Cerha, at 85 the most famous Austrian composer alive today. To the regular concertgoer, he is perhaps known for having completed Alban Berg’s not-quite-finished Lulu. To the Wien Modern audience, he is the grand seigneur.

The festival opened with a performance of Cerha’s magnum opus: Spiegel I–VII (“Mirrors”), played by the Radio Symphony Orchestra under their clear-headed leader, Cornelius Meister. An early Cerha composition (1961), it is a six-part work for big (or better: giant) orchestra. Five flutes, four oboes, eight different clarinets, two saxes, seven trombones, 10 percussionists, two harps, piano, harpsichord, celesta, 55 strings, etc. A monolith of one and a half hours, it is “Klangflächenmusik”, “cluster” or sound tapestry music, with enormous sweeps of slowly shifting colour. It moves from unidentifiable outer space humming to slow rain drops on a glass roof. From blaring New York traffic to the footsteps of an advancing army. From the electric rattle of a thousand cicadas to the soft shimmering popping of the foam at the front of a wave crawling up the sand.

Cerha himself sat in the midst of his sound tapestry at the centre of the Konzerthaus hall, turning the pages of the huge scores, carefully watching over his composition and twisting a dial to add electronic ornaments.

This is not random noise. Although the series of pitches no longer follow rules of form on which our minds can rest, these arches of earthly and unearthly sounds leave one breathless and moved.

Phace performed at the 2011 Wien Modern festival | Photo: Oliver Topf

Between beauty and entertainment

A parallel focus of the 2011 festival was new music from Great Britain. London’s Arditti Quartet inaugurated this with a programme of four recent pieces by British composers. The intense intimacy of modern chamber music was more than a mere contrast to the Cerha world. It was like focussing an electron microscope and discovering a hidden realm.

The Arditti, the quintessence of a new music ensemble, has been coming to Wien Modern every year since it began. The quartet was founded in 1974 by Irvine Arditti, and it has been a serious catalyst for composers ever since. “There must be getting to be nearly a thousand pieces in our repertoire – so maybe that’s seven hundred new pieces”, says Arditti. And adds, with a characteristic slight grin, “That’s quite a lot.”

There is probably nothing Arditti and his quartet cannot play. That’s certainly exciting for composers who want to stretch the limits of what has been heard. Arditti likes complex challenges. “What is important is to do something interesting,” he says. “Art has to interest people, it has to stimulate people. It doesn’t always have to be beautiful. It shouldn’t be something to ‘entertain’ people alone.”

Indeed, perhaps the biggest criticism of new music is that it is ugly. But beauty and ugliness are simply two possible perceptions of the huge spectrum of sound, a spectrum that really has no bounds. Arditti relates an anecdote: “I remember once a rehearsal in Paris with [Iannis] Xenakis. It was pissing down – how do you say that nicely? – it was raining cats and dogs. And we rushed over to a café, getting soaked. I said, ‘It’s so awful’, and he said ‘It’s a beautiful day.’ And I realised, yes, he wasn’t joking, he really meant it. For Xenakis a beautiful day was a day that was very expressive, like the way he liked hearing his music.”

As Arditti sums it up: “Beauty is part of everything. Just like ugliness is. Just one colour in a very rich palette.”

Arditti’s wife is composer Hilda Paredes. She is Mexican by birth, but is included as a “British” composer because she has lived in England for over 30 years. She wrote Canciones Lunáticas (2009) for their son, Jake Arditti, a promising young countertenor, to perform with his father’s quartet. Three pieces of gossamer gorgeousness, they are songs about the moon: the moon’s witnessing the lonely darkness of the night, the moonstruck lunatic, and the moon “dancing by herself in the meadow”. A muted agitation was underlined by a repeated shivering sibilant sssss, like a snake slithering through the black grass. I heard the luminosity of the moon’s orb, the hairs rising off my neck.

Challenging music

While discovery is essential, familiarity is decisive. The music critic Lothar Knessel, who has been described as Austria’s “motor of contemporary music” for the last 50 years, said in the festival opening speech: “Only the repeated performance of a work spurs on its resonance and reception.”

This was expanded on by Arditti: “I am interested in music that doesn’t give you everything straight away. I am interested in music you want to hear a second and a third time. Music that is a challenge, music that you discover more as you go along.”

I did not hear the pieces of all 70 composers, nor could I go to all 70 events. But I do know that there are two works I would most certainly like to hear again.

This music is seductive and mesmeric, raucous and savage, it gambols and dances. It has a language I try to understand. Gathering its various threads together, I am weaving them into a tapestry I try to remember. I need to hear more. Not dubstep, but Paredes and Cerha.



Hilda Paredes, Listen How They Talk: Chamber Music 1998-2001, Mode Records;

Friedrich Cerha, Spiegel, Col Legno Contemporary

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