Robert Bilek
Passing in review – 20 years of Wiener Musik Galerie
A brief history of an institution

”Jazz is a wild kind of music
where everyone plays whatever they like.“
(Alfred Bilek, my grandfather)

You can say what you like about the 1980s, but you‘ve got to give them brownie points for being the decade when Wiener Musik Galerie was founded. The founding year was 1982: Actor Ronald Reagan had been President of the United States for a year, ”The Man With the Horn“, Miles Davis‘s comeback album, was no longer fresh off the presses, Sid Vicious was mouldering away and punk had been inhaled by commerce, while brokers on Wall Street and elsewhere were snorting their little noses off.

In Vienna, which had developed some night-life, artists like Hermann Schürrer, Ernst Schmidt jr. or Reinhard Priessnitz were still living it up at hot-spots such as Oswald & Kalb or the Café Alt-Wien. At the Academy of applied Arts, Oswald Oberhuber was like a breath of fresh air, while paintings were being traded like blue chips, young artists were being absorbed by an ever-hungry art market and Viennese Actionism was on its way to being canonised as State Art. Great bolts of neon-coloured New Wave lightning zig-zagged their way into a happy-creative atmosphere, while the rigorous conceptualism of the 70s had an electrifying after-effect, like a departing thundercloud. The notion of post-modernism was still relatively far away from its fall from grace into the nether regions of triviality. This was the hour of birth of Wiener Musik Galerie, a product of the 80s growing out of the spirit of the 70s. With the sub-heading of its first festival, ”No Punk – Free Wave“, it immediately planted its feet firmly against mainstream tendencies in art and music.

”I would like to inform you about the foundation of the association Wiener Musik Galerie; its main task is the support of certain aspects of non-commercial contemporary music“, wrote Ingrid Karl in her first press release on 9 December 1981. And she went on to say: ”I think that this extremely topical and important tendency is to all intents and purposes being ignored in the music metropolis of Vienna with its preference for interpreters. Obviously, associations of contemporary composers are not interested either in changing the established distribution of cultural roles. For these reasons, up-to-date streams of contemporary music that I believe interesting tendencies (new jazz, improvised music of all orientations, the integration of composition and improvisation) are wasting away in Vienna‘s backyards.” The fighting spirit was unmistakeable right from the start and it has been kept up for 20 years. Thus has Wiener Musik Galerie paved the way to public acclaim and new programmatic approaches for the ensuing large-scale festivals of contemporary music.

But in the beginning was art. This explains why concert producers Ingrid Karl and Franz Koglmann insisted on having the word ”gallery“ in their name. Ever since 1978, they had been programming and organising concerts at the Galerie nächst St. Stephan, in line with the tradition of contemporary music performances initiated by Monsignor Otto Mauer. First to go was no lesser than saxophonist Steve Lacy with a solo performance. In 1980 came the 2-week ”Integrative Tendenzen in der heutigen Musik“ (Integrative tendencies in contemporary music) festival, and once again performance art was rearing its head with a great roar, Hermann Nitsch presented his ”Allerheiligensymphonie“ at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, a sort of sound-preview of his ”Three-day Play“ at the castle of Prinzendorf of 1984. But then, Karl and Koglmann lost the match against Rucki-Zucki-Palmenkombo and other ephemeral curiosities. Like almost everybody else, the Galerie nächst St. Stephan went for the ”new savage“ painting style whose protagonists performed in punk and New Wave bands and were into a completely different kind of music. This rivalry ultimately resulted in the creation of artistic added value. Karl and Koglmann didn‘t give up; Dieter Ronte, then director of Vienna‘s Museum Moderner Kunst, made his museum available as a venue (which culminated, in 1983, in British saxophonist Lol Coxhill performing a ”duo concert“ with Jean Tinguely‘s sculpture ”Métaharmonie“ – a huge sound machine made of iron scrap – in the museum‘s lobby), the authorities pledged meagre subsidies, and with a combination of utmost idealism and maximum self-exploitation on the part of the organisers, Wiener Musik Galerie was launched to get things going in Vienna‘s musical landscape.

The first three festivals, ”Ex tempore Wien ‘82”, ”Tatitu Tatatu“ (1983) and ”Ex tempore Wien ‘84”, were devoted to free improvisation. The pool of international artists invited for each festival demonstrated spontaneous sound production in a wide variety of line-ups. Dutch cellist Tristan Honsinger, Italian clarinettist Gianluigi Trovesi and British percussionist Tony Oxley were part of the first year at the Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts. The snapshots taken by Heidi Harsieber, who documented the whole festival, were every bit as spontaneous as the improvisations. In the catalogue, comments drawn by the musicians created an additional rush of freely unfolding creativity, an impression that went on to be topped the following year by ”Tatitu Tatatu“, the most colourful WMG festival ever. New Jazz, chanson, chamber music, mimes, drawings and sculpture were all called to the fore to once again blissfully melt the boundaries between the arts, in a circus-like firework of synaesthetic splendour.

Compared to the explosive diversity of ”Tatitu Tatatu“, the ensuing festival ”Ex tempore Wien ‘84”, could have been seen as somewhat of a step backwards. In actual fact, it turned out to be one of the finest hours not only of Wiener Musik Galerie, but of freely improvised music as such. British guitarist Derek Bailey lined up – for the first time in Vienna – eight musicians from vastly different backgrounds, forming one of the legendary ”companies” to put into practice his theory of ”non-idiomatic improvisation“. The encounter included the percussive sounds of South African musician Thebe Lipere, Franz Koglmann‘s horn lines, already rather ”white“ at the time, and master Bailey himself plucking and strumming along contentedly, supremely unbothered about anything like Q & A, motivic imitation or screaming pathos, while American George Lewis weaved the magic of his soft trombone notes around all these dispersing particles and welded them into virtual sound buildings behind the listeners‘ ears. The audience came in droves, camped out for three days in the elegant surroundings of Liechtenstein palace – which then housed the main part of the Museum Moderner Kunst – and listened to the emergence of a kind of music which, even then, was completely on its own, unsupported by fashion fads or ideologies, with no lobby nor industry to support it .

”Ex tempore Wien ‘84” was not only the culmination of a development, it was also Wiener Musik Galerie‘s fond farewells to so-called ”free improvised music”. The booklet published for the first WMG festival had already featured a hand-written note by Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg ”on musical improvisation“: ”As such, it is not extremely interesting. When you practice a little, you can decide very quickly to play something – but it is not so fundamentally different from slower decisions, taken perhaps on the basis of written notes or who knows what preparations. What‘s much more interesting is what you play.“

At ”Tatitu Tatatu Festival”, the premiere of Koglmann‘s ”Tanzmusik für Paszstücke“ showed that the composing element had already taken a foothold. Performed with the Paravent Theatre and with sculptures by Franz West, this ballet music would later be published on the 1984 LP ”Schlaf Schlemmer, schlaf Magritte“, which represented the first big milestone on Franz Koglmann‘s way from improviser to composer. Then, the goal set by Wiener Musik Galerie for the following years was the following: integrating improvisation into the composition, with the composing aspect – this time well in tune with both international trends and the personal, artistic development of Franz Koglmann – gaining more and more ground.

The direction was right, and with ”Jazz op. 3 – Die heimliche Liebe des Jazz zur europäischen Moderne” (Jazz op. 3 – The Secret Love of Jazz for European Modernism) in 1986, Wiener Musik Galerie had produced another gem. Cool jazz, the outgrowth of Minimal music, Schoenberg and the consequences and personal models of a few form-conscious trailblazers of contemporary jazz, including Steve Lacy, Bill Dixon and Anthony Braxton, became reference points for a new Vienna-based emergence of the Third Stream, a hybrid named/invented by Gunther Schuller in the 1950s which had frequently been declared dead and buried. The Third Stream was out for a pleasurable yet contradictory union between the intensity of American jazz and the formal demands of European art music. Mike Westbrook, the Orkest de Vollharding, Ran Blake with his re-composed film scores, and György Szabados not only presented different ways of dealing with jazz compositions, but also charted a musical universe through which Franz Koglmann could manoeuvre his Pipetet into the future. The aesthetic concept was supported by a 326-page book, containing not only essays on the topic, historical examinations of the Third Stream, a survey among contemporaries on the relationship between jazz and European art music, but also an encyclopaedia of musicians active in that area; as of its publication, it became a standard work on the Third Stream.

In hindsight, it‘s amazing that ”Jazz op. 3“ was followed up only six years later, in 1992, by ”Incident in Jazz”. The two outstanding events at that festival were André Hodeir‘s ”Anna Livia Plurabelle“ for soprano and alto voice, jazz band and chamber orchestra (which is probably one of the most thrilling, mature and – alas – underestimated Third Stream compositions) and the re-discovery of Bob Graettinger, composer and arranger for Stan Kenton. It took some doing, but WMG managed to get not only the original scores for the performance, but also to revive appreciation of Graettinger in Germany, the Netherlands and the USA. With ”Jazz op. 3” and ”Incident in Jazz”, the wall separating the classical music establishment from the vast field of jazz and experimental music was at least partly breached. Philharmonic hornist Volker Altmann, for instance, participated in the Graettinger project simply because he found it so interesting, and even brought one of his pupils along to join the ensemble – a most unusual gesture for the time. A year earlier, there had been virtually no basis for communication between Wiener Musik Galerie and the Viennese Music Academy and hardly any Academy students had attended Anthony Braxton‘s workshop for WMG.

The times, they seemed to be a-changing – at least a little bit. But, notes Franz Koglmann, “Jazz op. 3” and ”Incident in Jazz” had an additional effect: ”Both festivals showed very clearly that jazz was not as dead as people often said it was. There is a number of journalists who like to declare jazz dead and call it old-men‘s music, but as we know, it is probably the most important musical renewal of the 20th century, and it has an enormous impact right up to the present, as you can glean from Peter Eötvös‘ new opera ”The Balcony” after Jean Genet. In reality, nothing can do without the influence of jazz. Neither pop music nor internationally acclaimed composers such as Steve Reich, John Adams or border-liners such as Heiner Goebbels and Gavin Bryars.”

It is no secret that the activities of Wiener Musik Galerie can be considered as a reflection of the musical development of musician and composer Franz Koglmann. ”The Koglmann cosmos has always been the decisive world of music for me. This is the spirit on which the programmes were designed. Wiener Musik Galerie draws on the Koglmann cosmos”, admits Ingrid Karl, who is the ”heart“ of WMG. However, this should not be taken to mean that the organisational ”heart“ and the artistic ”mind“ are always in agreement. For the most recent festival, Koglmann had to defend certain items on the programme against a sceptical Ingrid Karl. ”For the selection you also need to rely on your gut feeling and run some risks“, Koglmann insists. Which goes to show that the role allocation for ”heart“ and ”mind“ is not always as clear-cut as it might seem to an outsider.

The programmes of Wiener Musik Galerie have always been more concerned with personalities than with styles or artistic ideologies. This becomes particularly obvious with the workshops and with the festivals that are devoted to one individual artist. ”Our concern was not to offer music lessons“, says Ingrid Karl, ”but to provide conceptual training. That‘s why the personalities were so important.“ The list of names, at any rate, is impressive – as is the sound these names produce. ”Cool Noir – In Memoriam Chet Baker” (1988), ”Beiderbecke – Assoziationen zu einem Mythos“ (1989) or the workshop ”Reminiscin‘ Duke – Zum 20. Todestag von Duke Ellington” (1994) made it very clear that the historical foundation is an indispensable element of the way Karl and Koglmann perceive music, even if it did raise the eyebrows of many a dyed-in-the-wool avant-gardist in the audience when musicians such as Warren Vaché or Dick Sudhalter, whom you would expect to perform in Vienna‘s traditional jazz club Jazzland, sent their echo-distorted Chicago-Jazz sounds through the grand hall of the Secession museum.

But such shifts, transfers and taking things out of context are part and parcel of Wiener Musik Galerie, as it has always endeavoured to sharpen the senses, dig up ”old stuff“ which might have mouldered away at the back of a record cabinet, to bring it back to demonstrate its quality and put it to the use of a contemporary way of making music. ”We wanted to show that everything is rooted in history ”, says Ingrid Karl, ”we never invited just any old jazz musicians to Vienna, we invite people like Jimmy Giuffre or Lee Konitz, whose work includes a high proportion of composition and reflection.“ This is also true of Steve Lacy, who directed a workshop in 1987 and had a whole festival devoted to him three years later. And no wonder, since he was one of Koglmann‘s great, early comrade-in-arms and featured on early records of his, a musician who always knew how to combine the free jazz gesture with ingenious construction and brilliance of form.

Up until the early 1990s, Wiener Musik Galerie kept up its self-imposed position of outsider, a kind of ”splendid isolation“ vis-à-vis the Austrian jazz institutions. The workshops with Michael Mantler, George Russell, Bill Dixon, Gil Evans, Steve Lacy / Steve Potts, John Zorn, Jimmy Giuffre, Anthony Braxton, and Lee Konitz could be understood as an awareness-building appeal to young Austrian musicians and as an artistic gauntlet thrown down to the conservative and parochial mindset of the local jazz police, who were used to deciding just what was inside and just what was outside the boundaries of jazz as an art form. In 1993, however, Wiener Musik Galerie ventured forth into the hub of Austrian jazz mythology, as it were, and with its festival ”Hans Koller – The Man Who Plays Jazz“ honoured the uncontested doyen of the local scene. Koller turned out to be WMG-compatible owing to his Cool jazz competence and his ever-readiness to experiment – including experimenting with form. However, the real coup of this festival was somewhere else entirely: pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard gave an incredibly rousing performance before a jazz audience that was as grateful as it was demanding, of György Ligeti‘s ”Études pour piano”, that mix of European and African construction concepts which allows a single performer to produce several speed layers at once through the overlapping of different rhythmic grids and playing tricks on the senses. And all this was two years before Aimard had his big breakthrough in Salzburg. This concert may definitely be counted among the unforgettable ones – and it was a triumph for Wiener Musik Galerie at the same time.

While Karl and Koglmann were increasing their score on the classical music scene (their 1994 festival ”Parallel Worlds” was part of the ”Wien Modern“ festival), they were also going strong in the jazz field with the workshop entitled ”Reminiscin‘ Duke”. The workshop featured invited Ellington veterans such as Clark Terry, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Jimmy Woode and Louie Bellson, but it was also organised in close co-operation with the jazz department of the City of Vienna‘s Conservatory, featuring the Conservatory Big Band directed by Bill Dobbins with the expert support of Heinz Czadek. Never before had the Viennese jazz scene and Wiener Musik Galerie worked so closely together.

By the mid-1990s, Wiener Musik Galerie had honed its workshop concept to perfection. The permeability between jazz and contemporary classical music had become a natural fact of life for many young musicians. Many former workshop participants have gone on to do a good number of original projects of their own. Wiener Musik Galerie has certainly fulfilled its inspirational function, but it must also be given credit for never making unreasonable demands of the musicians it supported – not even those from the ”inner circle“. There is – thank goodness – no ”WMG School”. But there are independent, individual artists such as Burkhard Stangl, Hans Steiner or Oskar Aichinger, who either have a rather close relationship with Wiener Musik Galerie, or had a close relationship with it during certain phases of their development.

As regards the recent phase of Wiener Musik Galerie, the undertaking seems to have grown out of its heroic era. There is hardly any new ground to break. Jazz clubs offer a demanding and stylistically very open programme year-round. ”Today, even those who are interested are overfed“, is how Koglmann characterises the situation and the difficulty of finding a niche in the densely populated concert landscape. In addition, the species of listeners who used to enjoy aurally and mentally demanding music as a token of resistance against overly smooth market mechanisms and a charm against dullness, seems to be gradually becoming extinct. Nowadays music should be fun above all, there is hardly a jazz festival that can do without pop acts, and the younger audience are only aware of the existence of jazz if it comes re-phrased into hypnotic House rhythms. Although this is no reason for a nostalgic lament, it certainly makes no easier the work of organisers with a certain programme in mind.

Wiener Musik Galerie – which has, since the early days, always been a master at ”sitting between chairs“ – is seeking salvation in a consistent development of what it started out with: jazz with close ties to composition, composers with close ties to jazz. The 1999 ”Icebreaker” festival was one of the most clear-cut realisations of this intention. Music inspired by the Dutch non-conformist Louis Andriessen, post-minimalism with rough edges, music on music; not as a consequence of the consequences of the consequences of Darmstadt, but mainly looking to the tendencies that prevail in English-speaking concert halls. In addition to jazz-infected compositions, there is always an element of ”true“ contemporary jazz – as represented, for instance, by Ellery Eskelin at the ”Answers in Progress” festival of 2000. Or else WMG feature musicians such as German guitarist Andreas Willers or berserk minimalist Steve Martland, who live out their affinities for rock music through finely-chiselled compositional or improvisational structures in such diverse ways. Franz Koglmann, the ”advisor“ of Wiener Musik Galerie, has deliberately let the reins go a little slack, the ”Koglmann universe” has achieved a certain stability and no longer needs to constantly reinvent itself anymore. ”I used to streamline every programme in accordance with my own preferences. Today, that‘s no longer necessary. That line has long been established and recognised internationally, which does not necessarily testify to its economic success or failure. Nowadays, I happily let some things in, even though they aren‘t, strictly speaking, quite in line with my own personal orientation.”

The decision by Wiener Musik Galerie to leave to future generations the field of electronic music – booming both in the field of dance and in experimental music – is deliberate and should be respected and even welcomed. Even if you are anything but conservative, it seems essential, nowadays, to maintain a certain position and carefully and precisely trace and foster developments within one area, to see things from one specific perspective, rather than being swept along by all trends of musical designer-fare, interesting though they may be. There is no question that this and only this is the future of Wiener Musik Galerie.

Again no question that it will continue to require an enormous effort in terms of aesthetic, conceptual work: commissions to musicians and writers who reflect on what they hear, to graphic designers who meet the standards postulated by the word ”gallery“ in the name and forge the complex ideas behind the programmatic, musical constellations into a readable visual format. One can only truly appreciate the work done by Wiener Musik Galerie in the last 20 years when one is aware of the tremendous communicative networking that has been achieved between the most divergent artistic, scholarly and journalistic contexts.

Entirely against the general trend, this sterling effort was always geared to the promotion of ideas, never to their exploitation. In retrospect, Franz Koglmann realises that they have made two marketing errors that are as serious as they are endearing: In 20 years, Wiener Musik Galerie has never established a permanent festival name as a logo, and the audience has never been allowed to get used to a permanent venue. Koglmann‘s laconic comment on that fact indicates that things are probably going to stay that way in the future: ”Nomads like us have a hard time – but ultimately this is also the appeal and enormous challenge of it all.“

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