Featuring seven concerts programmed according to nationality, the Klangforum Wien’s 22nd Konzerthaus subscription series, titled Europa, global, wants us to listen with socially conscious ears. The aim is to determine how globalization’s impact on cultural identity has influenced the musical avant-garde, defined conveniently as the music the Klangforum chooses to play. This has involved hanging vaguely worded rhetorical statements in the air which suggest that nationally distinctive works are to be valued above those lacking in identifying attributes, as if we listen to music to be reassured by the certainty of where it was composed, rather than how or indeed why. The blurb for the Austria-focused concert coming up at the end of the month even asks: “Is it possible for an idiom which is recognizably Austrian – and which in the spoken language gives way increasingly to the artificial uniformity of television speak – to assert itself in music?” Substitute “television”, which seems rather arbitrary, for some more emotionally charged polluting influence and that statement reads like the beginnings of the rabble-rousing xenophobic rhetoric used by our electorally popular far right.

Klangforum Wien © Lukas Beck
Klangforum Wien
© Lukas Beck

The Klangforum’s politics certainly pose no cause for alarm, being as warm, fuzzy and left-liberal in outlook as most European state-subsidized arts organizations. That is perhaps why so much reluctance surrounds this project – a reluctance mindful of wading too far into the troublesome thickets of national traditions and identity relative to the individual creative mind, hence the short blurbs and no other explanatory text. But to cautiously keep a concept like this baggy in all respects except for framing, which says little about globalization and instead obsesses about the nation-state, invites misinterpretation.

It also avoids a number of interesting questions about national traits in music, which outsiders are as famous for mimicking or inventing as other composers are for honestly expressing. The country under the spotlight at this concert was Spain, whose geography is bizarrely painted as a threat to cultural heritage (the blurb reads “does an insular position at the outermost reaches of the continent allow the preservation of a locally ascribable and identifiable musical idiom?”), without mentioning how that heritage inspired Spanish-inflected music, lauded as authentic by de Falla, from composers who had scant first-hand experience of the country. “La soirée dans Grenade” (“The evening in Granada”), from the piano suite Estampes, was written after Debussy’s only day in Spain – a matter of hours – had been spent 20km from the French border; he would later go on to write “Ibéria”, the famous central movement of Images. Ravel had a Spanish-speaking mother but nevertheless spent no time in the country before writing his Rapsodie espagnole, Alborada del gracioso and L’heure espagnole; and as the violinist Hélène Jourdan-Morhange recounted in her memoir, on a visit to Morocco during which the composer was asked if he felt sufficiently inspired to write something Arabian, he responded “were I to write something Arabian, it would be so much more Arabian than all this!”

A similar fondness for foreign idioms seemed, quite at odds with the Klangforum’s concept, to have gripped the Spanish composers performed at this concert, who, compared in terms of Ravel’s family background, might well have been raised by German-speaking mothers and packed off on childhood holidays to IRCAM. Francisco Guerrero Marín’s Amenos C takes something resembling the opening burst of Boulez’s Pli selon pli and prolongs it, creating the illusion of uniform sustained sound even as instrumental clusters dwindle, separate and merge again in new configurations, like the chamber of a kaleidoscope being gently turned. The subtlety of effect is all the more improbable for scoring so raucous, with carnivalesque percussion contributions on top of the drone-like texture in the ensemble, but balance was never found wanting and some winding polyphonic writing given to solo voices emerged intact towards the end just as the brass cluster builds a final crescendo.

Hèctor Parra’s Moins qu’un souffle, à peine un mouvement de l’air is a flute concerto in which one struggles to hear the soloist. It is also inspired by Marie NDiaye’s Three Strong Women, or more specifically the young Senegalese widow in that novel, who is shunned by her father-in-law and forced by desperation to seek asylum in Europe, and while the weakened solo voice makes for a somewhat heavy-handed representation of powerlessness that doesn’t quite convince musically, foreknowledge of the programmatic content helps to make sense of the piece even if by the end one can only question how simplistically Parra puts across his narrative. The breakthrough of tonality towards to the end, for instance, comes over as a pay-off and is, tellingly, one of the few moments when soloist rises above the ensemble; but that Senegal and Europe could be contrasted in these terms struck a note of discomfort, with atonality drawn as uncivilized noise and tonality as something orderly, comforting, refined. One would expect the Klangforum to abide only loosely by such a distinction and here percussive entries from the piano and double bass, supposed to sound threatening, instead seemed complementary to the already busy texture.

Elena Mendoza’s Fragmentos de teatro imaginario are four miniatures which play with timbral effects: trumpet and trombone are paired and given some unoriginal business with Harmon mutes; the cello and electric guitar have their own pitch procedures a little more diverse than endless glissandi. Chiming chords herald variety, which in the absence of development helps to flesh out the short movements.

Proportions and content didn’t quite match up to the same degree in Alberto Posada’s La lumiére du noir, which offered much colourful and random noise at great length. I could imagine the work played with far less focus than conductor Enno Poppe summoned from the Klangforum, with the moments when Posada’s frenetic activity collapses onto a focal held note carrying purpose but not too much contrived urgency.