Acoustic Cities: Vienna
In the Wiener Konzerhaus in Vienna rests a large frowning bust of Beethoven. He is not happy to see me or anyone else. In my time exploring the acoustic and musical waters of Vienna, I’ve found that the celebrated masters of classical Vienna still hold influence today, just not in the way you might think.
What comes to mind when you think of Vienna? You might list composers, Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, Mahler, Schubert, classical music in general, opera, Sigmund Freud, okay Arnold too probably.
At first glance Vienna looks every bit the city of its classical and historical icons. But as I dug deeper and ventured out I observed something quite contrasting; Ladies in their 60’s with wild purple hair riding the bus, crosswalk signs with little green women leading little green men (or often just two women), all the signage displaying the Anarchy A symbol. Wait a minute, this isn’t the stereotypical Vienna we all know! This Vienna is egalitarian, outspoken and eclectic. Vienna, a hub of political, progressive and feminist ideologies has moved in opposition to its patriarchal heritage.
As soon as I hit the music venues I discovered more of an underlying theme, deconstruction of social, genre, and gender norms. And there is no better place to find this in theme in the art and culture of Vienna than WUK, a beautiful multi-purpose community space born out of the socio-political unrest and events occurring at the time of its inception in 1981.
Originally WUK existed as a locomotive factory in 1855 before becoming a technical trade museum and research institute from 1884 to 1980. Against the backdrop of a growing counter-cultural and political movement in the late 1970’s, the WUK association Verin zur Schaffung offener Kultur und Werkstättenhäuser (Association for the Creation of Open Culture and Workshop Houses) was founded paving the way for what it is today, a communcal space at the intersection of artistic practice, labor, and political engagement promoting everyday culture as a life practice and investigating social models that support community-oriented conduct*.
The night I ventured into WUK, Yasmo und Die Klangkantine, an eight-piece band made up of a four brass players, guitar, bass, keys, and drums, led by front woman and MC Yasmo (Yasmin Hafedh), was performing. This performance was one of the most electrifying concert experiences I’ve ever had. As I listened to them perform, modern Vienna came into focus for me; a city that defies categorization. Yasmin’s background in slam-poetry mixed with an intuitive and unusual blend of big-band, swing, hip-hop and funk, projected an energy reflective of the city; vibrant, urgent, optimistic, and open. Despite the language barrier I felt very connected to what she was saying. Clearly there was an emphasis on feminism and her identity as a female MC. This social and political commentary had a grassroots sensibility to it. It was wildly genre-bending with complex composition. Her attitude on and off-stage was very communicative and inviting. She engaged with the audience like peers at a coffee shop debating and discussing the issues effecting the world and the city. With every rap she drew me further into the communal experience so sought after by the venue.
MC Yasmo und Die Klangkantine on stage at WUK, Vienna. Photo by Mike Long.
At Brick-5, another multi-purpose artist space, I watched Thomas Hauvlik perform poetry with the aid of improvised music and dance. As with most of the musicians I saw, he merged unconventional art forms and displayed a defiance of standard musical genres. An audience of young and old alike watched carefully as Thomas read his work in a kind of fugue-state with the aid of improvised guitar and a style of dance David Lynch would approve.
Much of the music I saw reflected this same predilection for the erosion of clear boundaries between genres and art forms with a serious penchant for community engagement. At “Electric Spring” a free music festival in the Museumquatier neighborhood I saw Five Highs, two performers who looked more like Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi than musicians. They billed themselves as “garage rap synth pop” and rapped entirely in Austrian German minus the occasional ode to the Vengaboys “Boom Boom Boom in My Room”. A giant projector screen showing random imagery of hearts and Pokemon displayed behind them cemented my feeling that their music was meant to be ironic…maybe not. Still the existence of an Austrian electro-rap band was intriguing to me as it was it too blended typically non-complementary genres. The huge turnout at a free, multi-staged concert in a highly-visible cultural center suggested a welcoming atmosphere and a community that fostered experimentation like this.
Vienna Street Art. Photo by Mike Long.
What I discovered on my short trip to Vienna was that there is no escaping history. The city is flooded with vaulted ceilings, ornate statues, and busts of very stern and powerful men. Indeed, the artistic and musical norms that put Vienna on the map are still highly visible. Vienna’s modern day composers, rappers, folk-singers, poets, street musicians and artists are well aware of the city’s legacy but they are not bound by it. Mozart, Beethoven and Vienna’s many celebrated classical composers may not be played in the clubs, bars, streets, or most venues but their legacy has left its mark on the city through its rich appreciation for music and progression. I can safely report, Vienna is safe in the hands of its vanguard musicians and artists.
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Yasmo und Die Klangkantine on stage at WUK, Vienna. Video by Mike Long.
Vienna Woods. Photo by Mike Long.