On Stage: Pop.Song.Voice. – Wien Modern

Wien Modern, the festival for new music, in its 28th year

Apparently Wien Modern wants to change its image. This year the nearly month-long festival of
“masterpieces of new music” is embracing pop music. With the motto “Pop.Song.Voice.” it seems as though the festival would like to span the gap between the “normal” classical music listener and the fans of Vienna’s current golden bands, Wanda and Bilderbuch.

For both, new music often has an unpleasant aura: grim. Nonetheless, in a city whose music clichés choke on Mozart Kugeln and yet another Beethoven’s Fifth in concert halls clogged with perfume, Wien Modern can be a breath of fresh air.

New concert venues
The festival is taking place at both major concert venues, the Musikverein and Konzerthaus, and also at 14 other (funkier) locations around town. That includes Fluc at Praterstern, Brunnenpassage on Yppenplatz in the 16th, and Porgy & Bess. Places better known for DJ nightlife, integration art projects and jazz.

It is true, new music can sometimes seem like random noise. It definitely challenges any easy definition about the nature of music. But it is not the same as the noise heard on the street or in a forest or a living room. If you pay attention – and that can take a bit of work – these bits of random noise can mesmerize. New music is not about melody; it’s about color and movement, evocations and phantasmagorias.

Arturo Fuentes (photo: ©Stefan Fuhrer)
Arturo Fuentes (photo: ©Stefan Fuhrer)


Enjoy the noise
The festival opens with a tribute to composer Pierre Boulez — having turned 90 last March, he’s been an icon of irritation in the classical music world for well over half a century — in a performance of his key work Pli selon pli (1962/1989).

Based on poems by 19th-century symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, it is 70 minutes of total orchestral immersion. Erratic rhythms and incipient meaning layer “fold by fold,” as deconstructive as poems that no longer have to rhyme or even stay on the page. One hears cats fighting in the night, alarms, buzzes and flashes. And then a voice, rising and falling, like a question and a fact.

The sound of modernity
There are limitless technical ways to talk about “new music.” In a microscopic analysis, it’s possible to discuss the hierarchy (or equality) of notes or the development of chordal overtones. Tones can be fixed pitch, partially pitched or unpitched, instruments acoustic or electronic. But while some composers may create their works from mathematical algorithms, many are not thinking about any of this. They are searching for what they hear in their imaginations.

“It’s traditional that composers want to go beyond the resources that are available to them at any given time,” said Boulez in 1989. “Today, a composer may want a certain sound…, a microtone between two regular notes. But you cannot easily get microtones high up on the violin because our fingers are too fat. And so, to satisfy the composer’s desire for these notes, we develop electronic means.”

But there is always a danger in confusing gadgetry with excellence. “The composer mustn’t be the prisoner of technology,” he says. “He must give something back; the composition must be his, not the machine’s.”
For British composer Rebecca Saunders, music is “endless potential, waiting to be revealed and made audible.” She describes the act of composing as “pulling gently on the fragile thread of sound.” And yet her violin concerto, called Still (2011), which will be performed mid-month, begins with an almost violent explosion of violin, progressing to an otherworldly monolith of the not-yet-heard.

Contemporary music for everyone
Altogether, Wien Modern is a mega-festival, with nearly 50 events and pieces by some 80 composers from nearly 30 countries, Mexico to Egypt, Portugal to India. And Austria of course. Remarkably, about a third are women.

Olga Neuwirth(Photo: Harald Hoffmann)
Olga Neuwirth
(Photo: Harald Hoffmann)

To give just a sample of some tempting works: A remix by Lukas Ligeti of the song It’s a Sin – a postpunk synthpop hit from 1987 – with West African melodies, creating, as it were, new world music; a commissioned piece by Electric Indigo, one of Austria’s few female techno-DJs; or Olga Neuwirth’s Hommage à Klaus Nomi, nine songs for countertenor inspired by the eccentric pop/opera singer who died in 1983.
As every year, Wien Modern offers a general pass for most events. If you are curious, this is an excellent way to sample the unknown without being upset if you leave before the end. There’s another chance for discovery tomorrow.

“But is it really music?” Go listen and decide for yourself.
Nov 5- 28, wienmodern.at

Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck
Cynthia Peck is originally from Southern California, but she does not miss the sun. She lived in Tokyo for a decade, and she does miss the food. Now the Konzerthaus and Musikverein are her main living rooms, as are a few select restaurants around town. Trained in Vienna as a professional cellist, she also works at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, translates and edits lots of books about Buddhist epistemology and Austrian history, and is thinking about apprenticing as a chef. What she enjoys most is writing about music.

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