Experimental music festivals in Austria. Part I: DONAUFESTIVAL

In Austria there are plenty of festivals that showcase experimental and (post-)club music. Plus something else. In the following series I will discuss three of them. They happen in springtime: donaufestival (Krems), Hyperreality (Vienna) and the Heart of Noise festival (Innsbruck).

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If you like cutting edge electronic and experimental music mixed with art or performance Austria is the place you should visit for festivals that offer an intense program of trans-artforms and in-betweens. The Viennese Pop connoisseurs who prefer some experimental, electronic and non-electronic avant-garde sounds come in numbers on two weekends at the end of April and beginning of May to the donaufestival in Krems, Austria. It is about an hour train or car ride from Vienna. They say with the donaufestival the summer starts in Vienna. And the weather was warm and sunny. Last year temperatures at night were around zero, but this year camping was no problem. Usually you need to camp, because Krems is small and there is at the same time an annual biker meeting going on and some other spring events so hotels need to be booked in advance.  If you prefer to decide on the spur of the moment to attend the festival you will need to camp or take one of buses the festival provides back to Vienna.

You might wonder what the donaufestival is anyways, as it is not too established outside of Austria. It is a festival for music and performance art and tends to showcase avant-garde rock, noise and electronica artists. It exits since the late 1980s but took a new direction in 2005 with curator Tomas Zierhofer-Kin, who reinvented the festival into what it is known for today. It is well funded by the region and people expect quality. Zierhofer-Kin was followed by Thomas Edlinger two editions ago, who is well known in Austria because of his progressive radio show Im Sumpf which he is doing since almost two decades. We will hear more about Zierhofer-Kin again later, since he took over the Wiener Festwochen in 2017. Edlinger hasn’t changed much of the well running concept Zierhofer-Kin established. Which is a program comprised of performances, some media art and concerts in different venues around town. One innovation is the format Stockholm Syndrome, where it is not known in advance what will happen, if it will be music, performance or both. I couldn’t find out too much about it because you have to reserve the tickets in the morning online or by phone, after 30min the tickets are out, since Stockholm Syndrome happens in small venues and I am usually still sleeping then and I only made it to one edition, which was a concert last year. This should be organized differently so more people get the chance to see those events.

Talks: Retromania in the loop?

The program on Saturday starts already at 11.30am with some films. This is undoable when you take the bus back to Vienna the night before as you won’t be in bed before 3am. I barely made it for the following talk at 14pm which dealt with “absent futures and temporalities in todays music” which were discussed by the music journalists and authors Simon Reynolds and Jens Balzer. This was disappointing as the subject had been discussed in the music scenes already since many years and the people who attend the festival and especially the talks know the discourses. But the discussion seemed to be set up for people who had never heard about the retromania idea or theory and the connecting discourses (Reynolds published a book under the same name and Mark Fisher and others debated on their blogs about the loss of the future and of progress in music).

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Here I got the feeling that the donaufestival organizers don’t know their own audience very well. Also there was no controversy in the discussion eventhough the retromania approach is highly questioned. And there was just 3minutes left to involve the audience at all in the discussion – which could have made a significant contribution to the discussion. The same happened the next day in a presentation of Tilman Baumgärtel about his book on Loops. Everyone I knew who attended the discussion knew about the history of the loop – be it musique concrete, minimal or electronic dance music, so instead of giving an overview it would have been more productive to pick out one time in history or technique and go deeper or discuss this with a specific question related to it.

Performance: Liquid Loft

The donaufestival has some locations with ambience like the quaint churches or small gallery spaces where mostly art and performance happen during the day/ early evening. A highlight of the weekend was for me and many others the performance “Church of Ignorance” of the artist group Liquid Loft directed by the Austrian dancer and choreographer Chris Haring and was set up at the Dominikaner church. This is a work about metamorphosis which reflects in the dancers movements, in their multifunctional clothing but also has an accoustical dimension. Each dancer had a Bluetooth speaker in their hand and their own personal soundtrack made of chopped up noises and lyrics which they interpret and simulate.

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The outcome is bizarre and somehow scary, but very aesthetic. As the sound changes also the appearance of the dancers change in an uncanny and yet beautiful way and mobilize fears and fascination in the spectators simultaneously. The prophetic meets the profane, on the threshold of mantra-research, linguistics and horrormovie-theory, as the infotext puts it. What makes this a real contribution to the reflection of our time is the feeling one gets that control is lost. Though some of the bits and pieces seem familiar they are chopped up and transformed into something that one can’t hold on to. The constant mutation of complexities and ambivalent communication presents a chaos which is a non-place-urban-field, an uninhabitable planet. As the performances are usually parallel to concerts and often in small venues with small numbers of tickets, it was only the second performance I managed to see at the donaufestival. It seems that the performance interested people and music audience don’t mix too much, it’s rather two parallel worlds that overlap sometimes.

In this case it was a satisfying event for music/ sound art aficionados as well as for theatre/ performance lovers. Because the sound (composed by Andreas Berger) played a crucial part in the performance at large. The spoken parts where recorded in personal conversations in 40 languages and dialects which comprise a Babylonian library, but manipulated in a way that is familiar in experimental music. Without a doubt this is highly professional performance work between dance and art, which seduces with sophisticated aesthetics. This of course costs a lot of money, and the project was co-financed by several funds and institutions. Since Liquid Loft won the Golden Lion in 2007 they are touring the world and also take part in the realization of experimental movies or installations.

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Also the café and gallery next to the Minoritenchruch provided performances independently of the festival, but using the audience. Just around the corner at a place called literally Corner Galery there was the installation Bug Sounds of Floris Vanhoof where bugs where used as a needle to play vinyl and generate visuals.

Concerts: Music for the Anthropocene

The opening concert this year was by Lanark Artefax held in one of the main locations – the Minoritenkirche early evening. Inside the Church it is usually pitch black and lights are reduced to a minimum. This is something I don’t really understand since a bit of daylight could add to the atmosphere of the historic building. And there is no club situation anyways. People are usually sitting on the floor and listen attentively. The concert of Artefax, a young producer from Scottland was eagerly awaited by many. He is typical for a certain sub-genre, which is described often as post-club music. But post-club is a wide field. In the program of donaufestival his sound was described as music for the Anthropocene; which can become danceable, but mostly it simply anticipates club music. It uses sounds that could comprise a dancetrack, but are set off to deconstruct this expectation and provide an abstract and immersive journey. It references histories of the dancefloor, but never spells it out. With this sound Lanark Artefax represents of a whole family of artists – some established and popular and less known young producers, which are also emblematic for these kind of festivals. Parallel to the 2nd concert at Minoritenkirsche performances were happening in other locations.

Distinctive for the donaufestival is that it presents electronic music artists, but also acts who play with typical pop/ rock instruments, like guitar, bass or drums (often combined with electronic music). This was featured more extensively at the second part of the night which happens always at the Messegelände, which provides a few large fair halls. In one of them the performance “The Agency” was happening. In another there was a fixed installation which showed three works of John Gerrard called “Western Flag, Exercise and Flag”. A couple of other video works were shown near the entrance and in a separate box. The first concert of late evening was the post-rock combo Godpeed You! Black Emperor. It was the first time I saw them live and they fulfilled very much the expectations or proconceptions I had of their live show. The music worked well with the visuals (by film director Karl Lemieux) and the musicians knew their craft. But today this kind of instrumental progressive rock does not catch me as much as it did 20 years ago.

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Mopcut a local avant-jazz outfit – with live drums, abstract vocals and guitar fused with synth sounds – was my highlight of the night. Lukas König has already a reputation in Austria as he has several other band projects going, as well as his solo project “König”. The three of them managed to improvise together in a way that “envelopes the listeners” as the program text suggested. Lightning Bolt‘s high speed metal could not catch my attention for long, same with Laurel Halo who played late that night. According to my biorhythm it was already too late for atmospheric, ghostly sounds then. This would have worked well with Grouper in the Minoriten-church in the early evening. And Lanark Artefax could have played that late slot of hers instead. But of course this is a question of taste (in curation and climax). Typical for the festival is a curation that mixes each day and night genres instead of proceeding with a specific style or atmosphere for a day or in a certain location. The good thing is that this keeps the audience mixed. But one wonders if that is the motivation behind it. If you like a specific genre or style you have to come each day to see this group or artists instead of coming only one day or weekend. This way one gets to see a lot live which one would normally not monitor.

Saturday left me surprised by a concert of Nobody (Willis Earl Beal) at the Minoritenkirche. I had never heard of this afro-american soul and gospel singer before, who also acts embodies the entertainer. He wears a mask in his performance but it was so dark that you couldn’t even see the mask. His music was activated by pressing a mini mp3 player and then singing along to it. In the breaks he performed little skits, stand up gags or personal announcements. His being out of tune with the rest of the event grounded me somehow. It was refreshing as it seemed that Earl hasn’t attended much events like this before, and he broke through this artsy habitus by just being Nobody and doing what he does in a very honest way. So I learned that he is now living, for the first time in his life, in an apartment of his own. Or that he never finished school. There are a lot of afroamerican talents who either are great singers, stand up entertainers or both. Nobody belongs to the later. His gospel approach fitted the location well.

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He was followed by In My Talons, the Viennese producer Florian Pfaffenberger who created club tunes that match my taste: very eclectic, but not only anticipating the dance floor but also visiting it sometimes, reflecting vital styles like hiphop, grime or synthpop and adding some distortion, neatly arranged in storytelling narration style. Later that night Lotic had a suprising showcase: I had not seen him perform as a blond drag-diva before. His music, which I really like, was more or less played-back by him. He focused on enacting the diva and singing. Performing a fragile transgender identity in the making: represented by glitches, moments when his steps on high heels were shaky and his singing out of tune. It left behind the impression that identities are never fixed or complete.

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Due to some schedule changes Zonal (the Bug and Justin Broadrick) alongside Moore Mother played last. After another day of music Zonal blasted with their usual speakerwall-setup their way into my auditory canals. So massive that you either like it or leave it. A perfect match together with Moor Mothers vocals and performance. Another unexpected highlight was DJ Taye, also because he was not in the lineup in the printed program. He is part of the Teklife Crew. As a rapper and beatsmith he obviously knew what the essential ingredients of a good DJ set are, as he actually footworked the Messehalle by making the crowd dancing and sweating – which does not happen too often.

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On Sunday I enjoyed the performance of the Space Lady for similar reasons why I enjoyed Nobody. She seems to come from another planet, not only music wise. But her playful and honest approach of cover versions on the home-organ keyboard reminded me of the time when this used to be popular. And I like this approach of mixing different kinds of musical memories. Also I enjoy the 60+ generation on stage and on festivals a lot. We need their wisdom.

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Much anticipated was the concert afterwards by Venetian Snares x Daniel Lanois. But I missed that punk attitude of Venetian Snears in the music and performance; and favor him doing breakcore over ambient. Back at the late night concert setting at Stadthalle/ Messehalle only Pucy Mary gave me satisfaction.

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Demdike Stare was great as usual, but I had already seen this concert in Berlin and seeing the visuals of Michael England for the second time made it much less astonishing for me. Ex Eye was a bit disappointing for me, preferring Colin Stetson’s clarinet/ saxophone solo performances. But more important than who likes what is that different genres and approaches are offered, and are meticulously discussed afterwards by the audience. I think this is one of the most important aspects of these festivals that offer alternative music on the edge of the mainstream; and try to offer a more focused listening experience than the huge outdoor festivals can provide. This enables more discussions, which are ultimately part of shaping discourses around contemporary music scenes.

After so many hours of concerts DJ Sets are appreciated.

DJ Sets: No chill out at Zentrale

DJ Sets are provided on weekends at the Zentrale. The DJ set of Inou Ki Endo, that is Shilla Strelka who also organizes experimental music events in Vienna and writes about music (e.g. for the donaufestival), was rewarding: passing through genres, cultures and decades, providing a diverse range of experimental niche releases that educate an educated audience. The problem is that the Zentrale is a redesigned cantina and you still see part of the kitchen behind the curtains, more irritating is that you also smell it. The provided soundsystem is not very good. It is set up in a way that the speakers face towards the back of the room, where supposedly should be a dancefloor. But no one dances there. 20180428_235426

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This was also true for the next night when Nene Hatun imported from Istanbul/ Berlin played some decent techno. Most of the people stay just 15-30min max at Zentrale – eventhough the music is always good. You find them instead outside smoking or looking for their people. Curator Thomas Edlinger told me last year in an interview that the donaufestival is not supposed to be another clubbing event. But the Zentrale rests on this idea as its design copies the OHM Club in Berlin. But here in Krems it is somehow superfluous. Like a luxury accessory. But a place like this – to chill, meet and have good selected music is missing and needs some rethinking.

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Instead people are standing in the court yard between the fair halls and city hall which is not inviting at all. There are no places to sit – just the box office, some foodstands, bartables and some promotional sponsoring items. This year you had some disturbing balloons in the shape of a huge slim beerglas, but they looked like giant penises. People sit on the few staircases or just on the floor or hang out at the nearby park. DJs should be heard instead of becoming a mere decoration to the female quota of the lineup.

And of course there are also some places in Krems to see outside the donaufestival. One important spot is the Jazzkeller, a local culture/youth centre, which is the place to go after donaufestival is closed, which is latest at 2am, it offers a basement with a big and a small floor and good electronic DJ sets. This is only possible if one decides to sleep in Krems, which I only did Saturday night. Friday night I took the last bus to Vienna and had a fun ride with a group of young Finns who live in Vienna and who are interested in experimental music and had a lot of expertise. The Viennese themselves are not so easy to get in touch with. There are certain kinds of music and art scenes here and its members have been attending the festival since many years and attend similar events in Vienna. They come together in Krems to meet and greet each other at the beginning of the sunny season (summer is usually hot and long in Vienna). Also each year a large group of musicians and cultural activists from Innsbruck are coming, who do this as a tradition since many years. Apart from that I have met few people from Germany or Hungary – the majority comes from Vienna. It’s maybe not an event to attend alone, but if you bring a friend a good time in guaranteed. Also you need to bring enough money as the donaufestival is not cheap compared to similar events. A daypass is 33-35€ and this is 100€ for the tickets for one weekend alone. Plus traveling costs and accommodation. If you want to see both weekends you would need 10 days off. So this could be a reason why one decides for only one weekend instead of both. The second weekend featured a lineup with acts like Amnesia Scanner, Sote, Faka, Pan Daijing, Mouse on Mars, Deerhoof, Lafidki or James Holden.

Theme: Waiting for the present to reload

There was also a donaufestival reader provided for 9€, where long texts accompany the topic/ theme of the edition. Which was by the way “Endless Now”: “Nothing really ends, but nothing really begins either. Can we also see this state as a liberation from the burdens of the past or the idealization of the future? Or are we living in the age of fake progress, […] and lost the momentum of real contemporaneity?” Asks the introductory text.

Eva Horn, a professor of literature, who spoke on the second weekend wrote in her part of the festival publication about “accumulation of the present”, about the imperative to post pictures on social media of the most momentary and ephermal – like drunken speeches, embarrassing misfortunes and super boring lectures, exhibitions or parties, and the daily routines like random actions of partners, kids, pets, oneself doing sports or cooking. But first and foremost food is posted, this behavior she calls food porn. Whereas documentation of the self was in the past non-existing or monumental (diaries, letters etc.) it is today metabolic, public waste. And she asks what media reveals through this constant documentation about our present times? After the short-dated digestion of our present through social media, it is unimportant, but not gone. Though only our metadata lives on. To accumulate the present means to generate more and more in ever faster tempo – communication, documentation, data, and metadata which glues us to our electronic devices while lifespans of information are getting shorter and shorter. Ironically the mummified communication seems to be used as a protection against the acceleration of life. Horn concludes: “The great acceleration snatches from us the state of presence. […] Life becomes food porn. […] What is lost are the days where we thought or felt something, which could not be preserved – only in our minds and bodies.”

Well done was also the logo of this edition which is the flickering circle one sees when waiting for something to load, only in the shape of the infinity symbol∞∞∞

And this is my favourite Krems picture!

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