Every September in the small Tyrolean town of Schwaz there takes place a contemporary music festival which one of these years I am determined to take a fortnight off and attend in full. Established nineteen years ago by local composer Thomas Larcher, the event has gone from strength to strength and is this year particularly mouth-watering.
Today is Schoenberg’s birthday by the way – don’t think this blog is letting you forget that – so what better occasion for modernism to show some life signs than this evening’s opening concert, which features orchestral works by Georg Friedrich Haas, Johannes Maria Staud and Unsuk Chin. The Haas work, Tetraedite, is a premiere commissioned by the town of Schwaz. Technically city, as Emperor Franz Joseph gave Schwaz the right to call itself that in 1898, though I am at a loss to say what sounds stranger in English, a ‘city’ of 13,000 people or that said city with mere 13,000 souls, probably outnumbered by livestock, has chosen to serve the common cultural good in this way. My Viennese district has 70,000 people and the most pressing cultural question for our district council is getting streets renamed after recently deceased local politicians. (A prospect to make any anti-establishment Brit think the honours system a lesser evil: living on Thatcherstraße).
I digress. Born in South Korea but resident in Germany since she was a student (famously, of Ligeti), Unsuk Chin has a fluid idiom open to influences ranging from her former teacher to Balinese Gamelan, usually if not always accompanied by a liberal dose of electronics. Her writing can be delightful in an evident child-like manner, if sometimes close to twee as in her 2007 opera based on Alice in Wonderland (available on DVD and reviewed here by Alex Ross), and yet often speaks inwardly with a self-awareness not given to many composers. Very much an aesthetic of contrasts, and as such handily explored through the composer in residence focus she will receive at Schwaz over the next two weeks.
Larcher, who ran the festival until 2003, has long been a dedicated promoter of his Austrian contemporaries and this year’s edition is no exception, with music from Klaus Lang, Olga Neuwirth, Bernhard Lang, Karlheinz Essl and Beat Furrer, in addition to the two already mentioned. The German, British and American names will all be readily recognizable. Also prominent this year and tying in with the Chin focus are composers from South Korea, an initiative supported by the Tongyeong International Music Festival.
Venues are mostly in Schwaz the town but there are a couple of days set aside when the Tylorean landscape becomes integrated into the festival’s activities. I am not a huge outdoors person but usually go weak-kneed for Österreich, Land der Berge – words enshrined in the national anthem – when confronted with Alpine scenery and even elements, I freely admit, of the associated kitsch culture (hey, it’s my Austrian party and I’ll wear Tracht if I want to). Combine that with Sciarrino as Schwaz is doing this Sunday and, well, I’m already looking at train timetables. The hike across the Brenner Pass starts in Gossensass/Colle Isarco in South Tyrol – i.e. Italy even if it is 99% German speaking and nobody says Colle Isarco or Brennero – with stops in various churches to hear music by Sciarrino, Nikolaus Brass and Bernd Redman, ending up at St. Jodok in Tyrol proper. There is another hop over the border starting on the 22nd, when Sabine Liebner will play the Etudes Australes over four concerts. Recordings of these fiendishly difficult Cage pieces appear infrequently but Liebner put one out last year which I bought out of curiosity – I am fascinated by the work, or the idea behind it at any rate – and there’s a firmness there (for she does not suffer Cage gladly) which puts paid to pointless contest, even if on the whole her rhetoric will speak most to those who fetishize pianistic discipline. This year’s Cage frenzy – in certain places, an orgy of hero worship – I have so far largely avoided, his exploding of musical ontologies being something to my mind that composers are still in an early stage of processing, a stage we risk absorbing all the more slowly for directing our attention towards behaving as if members of a dubious cult. Schwaz has not been able to resist, but is dealing with aspects of Cage’s biography – and who by now does not know he was a keen mycologist? – in ways detached, eccentric and uncontrived, not to mention welcome. A professorially moderated discussion about the Etudes will take place under a ‘starry sky’ at the autumnal equinox – I did mention eccentric, and what could be more so than taking this composer very, very literally – while a ‘mushroom foray’ on the morning of the first day elbows Cage out of the way, the guide for the occasion being that rather less well-known forager of fungi, Georg Friedrich Haas (so brilliant I am still smiling).
The Klangspuren festival is opened tonight by President Fischer and runs until the 29th. The full programme is here. Schwaz, by the way, is only 30km from Innsbruck, a charming town which endears itself greatly for having a tourist industry based around Tracht and pork products.
Schwaz image credit: Wolfgang H. Wögerer