Give the Austrian body politic a victim complex to nurse, and it will gladly let off xenophobic steam. By now this well-oiled masquerade is possessed with Pavlovian inevitability. So nothing unusual then, when populist indignation about perceived Austrian vulnerability to the ongoing Greek crisis rapidly descended into ugly national stereotyping.
Measured relatively, this has been a mild outbreak. Eurozone bailouts are too abstract a whipping boy to cater to the Austrian far-right fetish for rhetoric and images all too recognizable as frankly neo-Nazi. At the same time anti-Greek sentiment has proved heated enough that the Klangforum’s manager Sven Hartberger felt something unapologetically apologetic needed to be said in this latest edition of the ensemble’s europa, global series, dedicated to Greek composers. Having invited the Greek diplomatic delegation along to listen, he spoke at length in both halves of the concert in language that recalled the famous Thursday demonstrations outside the Austrian chancellery when Jörg Haider’s ministers were in the government. The Klangforum’s loyal audience, all “good Austrians” like Hartberger, were positively atingle.
While Hartberger seems as principled and well-meaning a citizen as he is a manager, his sudden enthusiasm for political speech did rather point up, in its explicitness, the vagueness surrounding this subscription series’ themes of European culture and identity formation, which I have written about here. The Klangforum has ordered each programme according to composers’ attachment to a particular nation-state while neglecting the concept of identity as a contested terrain, whereby individuals and groups are characterized and shaped by multiple alignments and competing interests. As the European avant-garde tradition, which forms the ensemble’s core repertoire, is routinely criticized for seeking to universalize certain mannerist tendencies, my impression was that some myth-busting on this front might go hand in hand with broader points about the fluidity of contemporary European identity.
This programme however kept at bay thoughts of avant-garde homogeneity which had arisen with some frequency at earlier instalments in the series, and not purely owing to stylistic diversity more or less preordained by the inclusion of Aperghis and Xenakis. Dimitris Papageorgiu’s In the Vestige of the Present, here handled with great sensitivity by a small chamber formation of winds, strings and piano, trades in tropes – spidery filigree operating at registral extremes, textural layers alternately dovetailing and deforming – that add up, in sculptural profile, to something more elegantly elusive than the sum of its innocuous parts, always hinging between voices talking to and past each other. The programme note for Panayiotis Kokoras’ Crama pointed towards similar visual associations, and yet turned out to be mostly concerned with motion, the sparse material of the piece being a small collection of fixed rhythmic cells that derive improbable tension from reiterative, non-directional chatter; indeed absence of development seemed inconsequential in a way that transcended any minimalist influence. As a post-minimalist experience, at any rate, it seemed to do more to justify the label than other works.
Jimi Hendrix stylings taken to absurdist length vie with musique concrète instrumentale in Michalis Lapidakis’ HOWL for accordion, saxophone and electric guitar, a whimsical conglomeration of parody, portraiture and rhetoric. This seemed writing possessed of more than a gift for haphazardly stringing eye-catching ideas together, and was perhaps inevitably gimmick-free: Lapidakis displays an intoxicated and elemental fascination with what in German would be called Stoff (a more polysemic term than “material”), and hearing him generate and manipulate it was like watching elaborate wooden curios being hand-turned. His imagination runs no less wild in writing for this unusual trio of instruments, and the playing was colourful and theatrical for Lapidakis’ operative mode of brash frenzy while observant of the work’s subtleties.
While Xenakis’ Khoaï for amplified harpsichord recalls the more famous Evryali (written for piano three years earlier), it is in its own way as arresting a piece as Ligeti’s Continuum and could only have been written for Elisabeth Chojnacka. Precipitous in temperament and visceral in impact, it takes the player and instrument to the limits and a clean performance would be nigh-impossible. Klangforum pianist Florian Müller made a laudable if somewhat aloof fist of it, emphasizing the piece’s unearthly, scorched qualities.
Overall this was the strongest programme so far in the europa, global series and it was only by a hair’s breadth that Aperghis’ Le corps à corps proved the highlight. As in much of Aperghis’ writing, music is plotted in tandem with a narrative itinerary to which there is more than meets the eye. Equipped only with a zarb (a small goblet drum gripped diagonally between right elbow and knee), the performer enacts a racetrack scene, switching rapidly between audience clamour, fragments of spoken commentary, and intentionally unrealistic engine noises. As Aperghis likes to thematize derealization in his works, language and rhythm break down as easily as they are picked up, physical movement and abrupt silences subvert the sequence of events, and the meaningless clicks and twitches peculiar to Aperghis’ vocal style alienate the subject further from his environment. There was thunderous applause for percussion soloist Lukas Schiske, normally a mild-mannered soul who quietly busies himself at the back of the ensemble; one would never have suspected he had this in him.