Crossways in Contemporary Music – Nature II

river in valley

As part of the project “Crossways in Contemporary Music“, Michael Franz Woels went in search of Austrian composers or composers living in Austria who create an individual approach to nature in their music.

While Part 1 deals with new music and nature in the context of bioacoustics, ecomusicology is the main focus in Part 2. An introduction presents the topic before individual composers and their work on the topic of ecomusicology are introduced. Published so far: Angelica Castello, Tanja Brüggemann, Katharina Roth, René Staar, and Katharina Klement – all of them have different relationships to the element of water. Susanna Ridler, on the other hand, deals in her compositions with the sound of growing plants, among other things, while Gabriele Proy focuses on loss, change and crystal formations.

Contemporary Music & Nature - Ecomusicology

Along with bioacoustics, a field that is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century for ecological and environmental ethics reasons is ecomusicology. A collective term for many areas of research, ranging from ethnomusicological fieldwork to climate-relevant aspects of the sustainability of musical productions and performances, it also invokes the awareness-raising work of the Canadian composer, sound researcher, and author Raymond Murray Schafer, who recently passed away. In the 1970s, he developed the concept of soundscape ecologies, established the World Soundscape Project in 1971 – today continued by the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology – and developed auditory educational concepts such as Ear Cleaning: “In art, we try to get people to use their senses. Listening attentively, looking at things closely – that’s what enriches our lives.”

“Listening attentively, looking at things closely – that’s what enriches our lives.”

Nora Bammer, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Vienna, has of course studied books by Raymond Murray Schafer, such as the foundational work “Sound and Noise. A Cultural History of Hearing” from the 1980s, and can apply it in researching the auditory knowledge of the Shuar: “For the indigenous nationality of the Shuar in the southeastern Amazon basin of Ecuador, there is – as for many other indigenous societies – no distinction between nature, culture and music. Nor is there a direct translation of the term music. Instead, the environment with all its visible and invisible entities, that is, people, animals, spirits, and deities, is understood as a single entity.” In her research on concepts and contexts of song among the Shuar, she is “concerned with, among other things, songs that entertain, accompany ritual moments, or serve to communicate with non-visible entities.” People in the jungle learn their songs “in dreams or visions of spirits – often through animals as mediums – to protect themselves from dangerous beings, to influence crops, to gain kakáram (life) power, or to summon the souls of distant or deceased people.”

What does all this have to do with Contemporary Music?

The Vorarlberg composer Wolfram Schurig offers a connecting branch in his work commentary: “kokoi is the name given by the Emberá, an indigenous tribal community of a hard-to-reach area in the Colombian Chocó region, to that bright yellow and highly poisonous leaf-tiger frog with which they traditionally poison their blowpipe arrows. Today, this use is not widespread for practical reasons alone: the kokoi’s existence has long been just as endangered as that of the Emberá themselves. The latter now see themselves as guardians of their living treasure and try, as far as possible, to protect their common habitat from the usual ravages of civilization. A resource vital to survival has become a symbol for the defense of a fragile ecosystem.”

Crossways Nature
(c) Itta Francesca

Wolfram Schurig formulates the compositional considerations for the piece “kokoi“, which premiered in 2020 as part of Wien Modern, and which discusses an endangered habitat with its specific forms and possibilities of coexistence, as follows: “First of all, the call of the Phyllobates terribilis – the scientific name for the kokoi – in manifold variations and abstractions forms the musical starting point, especially for the melodic developments of the oboe part. Here, the solo voice functions as an identification figure, so to speak. The piece behaves like an organism of various forms of sonic coexistences, some with very different characteristics: closely intertwined, parallel, invasive, etc.; some have the potential for transformation, others stagnate or dissolve, are short-lived because they can only be sustained at a very high energetic level.”

Angelica Castello

For composer Angelica Castello, who was born in Mexio City and now lives in Vienna, the sea is also a symbol of the subconscious. As a ten-year-old, she was determined to become a marine biologist; she still vividly remembers summer trips with her grandparents. They sailed through the bay of Acapulco in a boat with a transparent bottom. She describes these childhood memories from the 1970s this way: “The smell of gasoline was insane, the noise of the engine unbelievable and certainly quite bad for the animals underwater. But that mixture and looking underwater, even looking at garbage, it was such an absurdly peaceful picture.” Her fascination and enthusiasm for the sea is still strong.

Angelica Castello (c) Moritz Schell

Oceanic soundscapes through radio equipment

She also finds the sound of the sea in everyday objects, such as radio sets she collects at flea markets: “Shells from your vacation that you have in your living room, you hold them up to your ear and listen to the sea and are thus connected to the sound of the sea. The radio is my electronic shell, so to speak.” Thus, working and experimenting with noisy radio equipment creates soundscapes that convey an “oceanic feeling,” as French literary figure and music critic Romain Rolland once described it during Sigmund Freud’s lifetime: The feeling of being one with everything. One of Angelica Castello’s first compositions in which the sea was central was “Musique pour la mer” in 2005, written during a residency in Topolo, Italy.

She used an amplified double bass Paetzold recorder and a tape recorder for it. The Paetzold recorder is her main instrument, and in her compositional work the process of collecting always plays a central role: “I need images or words to understand sounds and give them functionality.” The Paetzold recorder, with its angular plywood body, seems tailor-made to create mysterious, dark sounds with its broad sound spectrum and tendency toward the noisy, which could come from underwater recordings, from the deep sea habitat still unknown to us. Castello prefers to play the Paetzold flute electronically amplified, because reverb is an important element, since the flute itself has no reverberation. What she evokes with it are “tunnel sounds” with which she can work in great detail.

“I need images or words to understand sounds and give them functionality.”

The topos ocean and its uncanny creatures as a blueprint for electroacoustic experiments and condensations can also be found on works such as “Bestiario” (Mosz Records) or the cassette release “Silvertone e il sentimento oceanico” (Monotype Records), as well as the composition “principio sin titulo” for the Haydn piano trio.

To make a video for her piece “tuba piece” released in 2013 on “Silvertone e il sentimento oceanico“, musician Angelica Castello teamed up with filmmaker Meritxell Colell Aparicio. Transatlantic film poet Meritxell, who recently completed her film “Transoceanicas” with Lucia Vassallo, translates Castello’s imaginary maritime soundscape into images. A music video as an “ode to the seepage of memories and psychic landscapes”.

Sonic Blue

An essential piece inspired by the place of longing for the sea – according to Jules Verne “the living infinity”, for Thomas Mann “the experience of eternity” – represents the transdisciplinary project “Sonic Blue” from 2013. It was commissioned by ORF musikprotokoll at steirischer herbst as part of “Networking Tomorrow’s Art for An Unknown Future” of the festival network ECAS/ICAS (European and International Cities of Advanced Sound). Together with musikprotokoll co-curator Susanna Niedermayr, Angelica Castello embarked on a journey to the Lofoten Islands, a chain of islands on the northern coast of Norway, to accompany the founder of the organization Ocean Sounds, Heike Vester, on her monitoring excursions. The biologist and bioacoustician is dedicated to the study of marine mammals and the protection of the marine environment, and after five years of collecting, she has also released her best hydrophone recordings under the name Ocean Sounds as a CD entitled “Marine Mammals and Fish of Lofoten and Vesterålen” (Grünrekorder Records). This CD, field recordings and sounds they collected on joint boat trips, provided the bio- and geophonic framework for “Sonic Blue“.

There is immense reverberation underwater. The animals’ sounds are adapted to detect the topography of the sea through the returning echo. Echo-locating animals often communicate in the ultrasonic range. The clicks, squeaks, whistles have frequencies up to 100 kHz; normal recording devices for humans stop at 20 kHz. Therefore, bioacoustician Heike Vester works with a recording device that records frequencies up to 96 kHz and can be lowered up to 20 meters into the sea.

“…about the sea, about its sounds, about longing and passion…”

However, the hydrophone recordings of the underwater animals’ communication sounds are disrupted at regular intervals by the noise of the expanding oil industry. Seismic shock waves are generated by underwater blasting with compressed air in search of new oil and gas fields. The returned vibrations provide information about the location, density, shape and composition of rock layers, but also represent a massive intrusion into the natural soundscape of aquatic life. Angelica Castello had a disturbing association when listening to this underwater seismic noise: “The sound of the underwater explosions sounds like an ominous church bell. The death bell of the sea?”

In 2014, Angelica Castello was awarded the Outstanding Artist Award Interdisciplinarity by the Federal Ministry of Arts and Culture for “Sonic Blue“. “Sonic Blue” layers and links underwater photographs taken north of the Arctic Circle by Heike Vester with instrumental sounds from the subcontrabass Paetzold recorder, feeds, electronics and the sounds of old radios. “Sonic Blue” is, according to Angelica Castello, “a piece in seven chapters about the sea, about its sounds, about longing and passion, about what it gives us and about what we give it …

Hopefully not yet a requiem for the largest connected and still unexplored ecosystem of the blue planet Earth.

Tanja Brüggemann

The unfathomability of oceanic depths and horizontal stratification

When the fog lifts, the view becomes clear of the unfathomability of oceanic depths and horizontal stratifications: From 2014 to 2019, freelance composer Tanja Brüggemann explored in her AOA cycle underwater sounds from the PALAOA-Perannial Acoustic Observatory of the Antartic Ocean, an observatory built on ice shelves at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany.

The composer was able to take a poetic look beneath the surface of the ice with the help of acoustic recordings from the Antarctic research station, using FFT sound analysis. Effects and filters condense and intermix the associative immersion in a hypnotic sound fluidum. The resulting meditative film, “AOA I-Sketch A” with filmmaker Susanne Hofer, was shown at various festivals, amongst which Crossing Europe Filmfestival, Schweizer Filmfestival, Soundtrack Cologne, Kontexty Festival Polen, CamerImage Winterthur, Juke Boxx New Music Award.

Antarctica is one of the few places where acoustic marine research can still be done “in peace”. In all other seas, noise pollution from industry, military and shipping has increased so much in recent years that it not only causes acoustic changes underwater, but also harms all wildlife. However, the Antarctic environment is by no means quiet, and sometimes colliding icebergs cause enormous swings in the frequency spectrum…

Art & Science

For her compositions, Tanja Brüggemann, who works in Vienna, Linz and at St. Florian Abbey, has been in constant exchange with Dr. Lars Kindermann of the AWI (Alfred Wegener Institute) and the ÖFAI (Austrian Research Institute for Artificial Intelligence). The relationship between new music and nature is linked to different questions for her: “When I devote myself to composing the now in nature, I come across vast amounts of data and acoustic recordings offered by the science of various disciplines. Is simply creating transpositions of these recordings the result of the artistic process?”

(c) Itta Francesca

For Tanja Brüggemann, this is where the questions that composers can pose begin, because they involve “the essence, the understanding and interpretation of humanity in its centuries-old traditions of human imprinting in relation to nature.” These questions of “classifying, structuring, and evaluating open up a process of self-questioning.” Are these questions sometimes neglected because one would become vulnerable with these positions? She therefore demands: “As artists, we are challenged to adopt precisely these diverse questioning positions by shifting from an anthropological conditioning in order to find ourselves again on foreign, distant, not immediately ready, probably only to be found in the artistic redefinition of a cautious formulation of a language and expression. And to lose and let go of them in the same moment.”

The experimental animation film “reglos” with Conny Zenk processes visual material from the Antarctic research station PALAOA of the AWI – Alfred Wegener Institute. Instrumentally, the digital image, which is constantly blurred by an algorithm, is accompanied by the flutist Sylvie Lacroix and electronically processed original sounds.

In the fifth part of the cycle AOA V AMA, the underwater recordings are merged with a poem by Tanja Brüggemann, sung and spoken by Anna Maria Pammer: “The stars are my friends / sweet smile in the darkness / of the universe / because of your golden face / I keep on living / sometimes all stars gather / to embrace me / and my blue womb / that I came from, I go back to // my innerself – spots of illusions / spots of endless eternal / illusions / parts realized in endless seconds / an ending of a neverending glimpse / a neverending glimpse to my illusions / glimpses on illusions of / neverending seconds / my reality – weightless illusions.”

Ama literally means “woman of the sea” in Japanese. These were mentioned as early as 750 in a very old Japanese collection of poems, the Man’yoshu. Women specializing in free diving were dressed only in a loincloth and could dive up to 9 meters deep in cold water. Using special techniques, they held their breath for up to two minutes at a time, working several hours a day to collect abalone, kelp and other shells. Headphones can replace oxygen equipment and a headlamp, allowing a half-hour acoustic dive through an icy underwater landscape by Tanja Brüggemann:

Katharina Roth

The question of naturalness

“What is nature? What is natural? Isn’t everything that comes from people constructed in a certain way?”, these questions are asked by the German composer Katharina Roth. She refers to one of Austria’s best-known female composers, Olga Neuwirth and shares her view that naturalness corresponds to a “place of longing, something imaginary that no longer exists”.

A compositional example by Katharina Roth with a clear reference to nature is the piece “madschra” for bass flute, piano, 2 percussionists and electronics from 2019. It was created in collaboration with the Ensemble Reflexion K and the Ensemble NEOPERCUSIÓN; the premiere took place in Madrid. The Arabic etymon madschra / مَجْرى / maǧrā, which later gave rise to the name of the city of Madrid, means canal, water conduit or riverbed. The Latin etymon matricem refers to the source of a river or stream. “Water forms the central sound of my piece,” elaborates the composer, who currently lives in Linz and Vienna, “the piece itself is virtually a water ritual. Only water sounds are used in the electronics, and the percussionists also use many amplified water sounds, whereby instruments and electronics intertwine.”

“Isn’t everything that comes from people constructed in some way?”

Another piece with geophonic elements is “Mahakala“, also created in 2019. Thunderstorm-like sounds mingle with vocal sounds that keep charging and discharging. The composition for 5 voices and live electronics for the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart takes its name from a powerful deity in Tibetan Buddhism who is depicted in thangkas in a very wrathful way. The Sanskrit word can be vaguely translated as “the great black one,” but also “standing above time.” She has the enormous power and might to destroy and annihilate everything and, at the same time, is worshipped as a protective deity. “The expression of this enormous power and tension between protection and destruction was the main inspiration of this piece for me,” the composer said of her dramaturgical considerations.

“…the keyboard instruments have thoroughly schooled our ear, so that we are no longer capable of hearing otherwise…”

Formative for the compositional development of Katharina Roth was, in addition to the encounter with Tilo Medek, Luc Ferrari‘s cycle “Presque rien“, among others. “His creation of new sound spheres with pre-existing natural sounds inspired me,” says the composer, who actually specializes in chamber music, “to explore how it is possible to work with very direct sounds, but to place them in new contexts. With Luc Ferrari, I’ve always admired the narrativity of his material, which puts the direct sounds into a new context, so that a whole world of its own emerges.”

Katharina Roth also quotes the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, who wrote in his Outline of a New Aesthetic of the Art of Sound: “We have divided the octave into twelve equally spaced steps. Especially the keyboard instruments have thoroughly trained our ear, so that we are no longer able to hear differently – except only in the sense of impurity. And nature created an infinite gradation.”

During a year-long study visit to India in 2015, Katharina Roth was able to experience how much her hearing and thinking is shaped by her main instrument, the piano: “Since I was 8 years old, I’ve been playing the piano every day and have been shaped by it. Hearing and singing pure intervals and adjusting to much smaller note steps and their connections was very unfamiliar to me at the beginning. The stay in India was very significant for my compositional thinking. Besides a different way of listening, it is a different temporality that I got to know and absorbed there. And also improvising has become more significant for my own work since then.”

“…often the really interesting stuff emerges in the spaces in between.”

(c) Itta Francesca

Snake Charmer,” a 2013 piece, works with transitions of composition and improvisation and “taps into the moment of approaching danger inherent in the summoning of snakes.” Bass flute, bass clarinet, small percussion, violin and cello work with two contrasting parts. These are characterized by the contrast of tempos – Part B has twice the tempo of Part A. “Furthermore, signals are added, so-called calls. They cause confusion, indicate change,” Katharina Roth elaborates, “Throughout the piece, lines run in different shapes. In a way, they run through the piece like a red thread – like snakes in search of their prey. But they are deceived by false calls.”

But it is not only “untouched nature” that increasingly interests the composer. Above all, “nature’s reactions to the human species” hold Katharina Roth’s fascination. “Otherwise, psychological or tonal phenomena often serve me more as inspiration,” she confesses and clarifies again, “I don’t like the dualistic world view of natural-unnatural, good-evil, normal-abnormal. The spectrum is usually very wide, and often the really interesting stuff emerges in the spaces in between.”

Susanna Ridler

“On the phenomenon of the music-making ability of plant musicians”

“I had taken over a garden and planted flowers and vegetables. Exploring and observing the magnificent colors and shapes that grew from the tiniest seeds at a rather remarkable pace was immensely fascinating,” recalls composer and vocal performer Susanna Ridler, who has been working intensively with the work of poet Gert Jonke in the context of composition commissions since 2013. Her composition “CHLOROPHYLLKLANGPULVERSTAUB oder Die Erforschung des botanischen Tongewebes“, which she wrote in the course of her multi-year musical exploration of the literary work of Gert Jonke, was first performed by Peter Burwik and the ensemble XX. Jahrhundert. It was also written in nature – an essential source of inspiration for Susanna Ridler: “Yes, nature has a function for me. It leads me towards intuitive writing, which does not mean that the rational aspect does not play a role in my composing. However, I would say that sitting in the garden, or looking into the green expanse while composing, I perceive my impulses of ideas more intensely.”

Crossways Nature
(c) Itta Francesca

This year, together with the double bassist Peter Herbert and the saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig, her exploratory examination of the Austrian lyricist, dramaturge and radio playwright Gert Jonke resulted in the publication of a very special musical homage with the resonant title: “Geometrie der Seele” (“Geometry of the Soul”). She came across an unpublished text fragment that spoke of “the phenomenon of the music-making ability of plant musicians.”

“Nature has a function for me.”

“It was immediately clear to me that I had to set this wondrous text to music. So, sitting in my garden, I began the first movement (note: of the composition “CHLOROPHYLLKLANGPULVERSTAUB oder Die Erforschung des botanischen Tongewebes“) and wrote music about plants making music. It was most bizarre. However, the idea that plants could actually make sounds and noises didn’t seem so far-fetched the more I delved into the work. Maybe it’s just that our hearing is not sensitive enough to perceive the closing and opening of leaves and blossoms acoustically?” the composer ponders and also refers to scientific experiments “in which electrical voltage changes of plants are transformed into sound with the help of electrodes and sonification systems. Nevertheless, the sound to be heard is not that of the plant; it results only from the plant’s signal. But still: this is also a stimulating thought when it comes to writing new music.”

“Maybe it’s just that our hearing is not sensitive enough to perceive the closing and opening of leaves and blossoms acoustically?”

As a child, Susanna Ridler grew up in the countryside and preferred to spend her time outdoors. She studied acting in Vienna and music and singing in Maastricht, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. Now, however, she confesses, “The need for nature is slowly returning.” For 2022/23, Susanna Ridler is working on new compositions entitled “Last Songs for the Earth.” In it, music is conceived as a pamphlet, a transmitter, a satellite that connects us all across the earth.

At the end of this article, it is imperative to also give some space to the musicality of the language composer Gert Jonke. In the epilogue of “CHLOROPHYLLKLANGPULVERSTAUB oder Die Erforschung des botanischen Tongewebes“, Susanna Ridler speaks a text from Gert Jonke’s novel “Der Ferne Klang” and conjures up the following vision of plant music: “The landscape spreads its music further, from all corridors skyward. Until one day the whole planet will be surrounded not only by a shell of air, but by a shell of sound, a shell of music, an atmosphere of music.”

René Staar

“Music is an art deeply rooted in nature.”

“Music is a child of nature. Let’s just remember that the voice is an instrument of the human organism, instruments were made from rock or organic materials such as wood, bamboo or pumpkins, the hair of a bow comes from a horse and strings were originally made from intenstines. Let’s think of the discovery of the overtone series out of mathematical-physical experiments,” is how composer René Staar, artistic director of Ensemble Wiener Collage, begins his reflections on the subject of new music and nature. He has created deep connections to nature several times in his work, sometimes through titles such as “Der Tag nach dem Regen” (“The Day After the Rain“) or “Schwarzer Schnee” (“Black Snow“), in which the relationship to nature is symbolically expressed. Very vivid insights into this kind of nature-symbolic composing can be obtained from the piece “Divertissement Suisses” from 1984; the second movement of the piano version with the title “Minuit à la Perle du lac – un ciel étoile” – in English: “Midnight at the pearl of the lake – a starry sky“:

René Staar continues his current remarks on the subject of new music and nature with the following eco-musicological thoughts: “But we have to ask ourselves what nature actually is now. Is it that sphere that makes life possible – that produces living beings such as plants or animals through water or air – and that has given us so many inspirations for high art?” He points to the inspirations provided by sounds of songbirds, exemplified by the many different cuckoo calls in works from Haydn and Beethoven, to Ligeti or Messiaen:

One work by René Staar in which nature also appears as a “content substance” is the oratorio “Hammabbul“, an interpretation of the narrative of Noah from the Bible, created between 2002 and 2008. Hammabbul is Hebrew and means flood. A short part of this oratorio is entitled “Passagierliste Arche Noah” (“Noah’s Ark Passenger List“). Animal voices, from the chirping of crickets to the croaking of frogs to songbirds, are presented two-fold, so to speak: “On the one hand by musical effects, on the other hand by linguistic expressions of animal voices – example: in German the frog “quakt”, in American the bullfrog makes “ribid ribid” (which the choir imitates). In a kind of grid form, the musical and textual animal voice imitations intersect, with language understood alongside music as a development out of natural possibilities.” Other meaningful nature symbols include the rainbow or a dove, and, “of course, the flood as a post-glacial natural disaster that also apostrophizes climate change.”

“…are also those hostile to life, extraterrestrial worlds meant, which prevent any development of a life form due to radiation or poisons, dryness or climatic extremes?”

A dystopian continuation of the thought of what all could be subsumed under the term nature leads René Staar away from Gaia, the earth and its biosphere: “Or are also those hostile to life, extraterrestrial worlds meant, which prevent any development of a life form due to radiation or poisons, dryness or climatic extremes?” René Star seems to feel a hint of this while listening to the seccond string quartet by Schönberg, when, in the fourth movement, a soprano voice sings the sentence “Ich fühle Luft von anderem (sic) Planeten” (I feel air from another planet) from the poem “Entrückung” (Rapture) by Stefan George.

Crossways Nature
Gaia (c) Itta Francesca

For René Staar, questions arise such as: “Which planet is meant there? Is there such a thing as air – and thus sound waves – on other planets at all?” The extraterrestrial circling of thoughts ends in the earthly and “with it there is, however, also a bridge to experimental music.” In order to mentally leave again planet earth: “Also on our earth and in our life other celestial bodies or astronomical constellations become for us an object for musical inspiration. Let us think of how often the sun, moon and stars are sung about in classical music. As symbols of love or standing for themselves, in countless romantic songs, or in works like Holst’s Planets or Schönberg’s Pierrot. Or how often the seasons caused by the earth’s orbit have probably provided for new musical ideas. Even developments caused by human knowledge such as tempered tuning or dodecaphony cannot change this. Music is an art deeply rooted in nature.”

Katharina Klement

“Contemporary music must invite the listener to focus”

“I have to go out into the nature all the time, to clear my head there and to gather inspiration at the same time. For me, it is the space in which ideas arise, the space in which I capture them. It is there that the first possibility of thoughts takes place. During walks in nature, I often look closely at the plants, how they grow and live, what forms they produce. Simply that is a fundus for compositional thoughts,” describes Katharina Klement, who as a composer-performer moves in the realm of notated and improvised, electronic and instrumental music. “The wholeness of ‘natural phenomena’ from star constellations, planetary orbits, weather phenomena to concepts such as entropy, gravitation or cell division can hardly be grasped, but always offers me starting points for musical procedures or formal design,” says the composer with a special interest in the instrument piano and extended playing techniques and sound installations for it. “Nature is always in some way at play in each of my works. The question of ‘naturalness’ and ‘artificiality’ is always posed anew, is probably a hub, an invisible transition in it,” reflects Klement, who likes to focus on spatial concepts and cross-connecting projects in the fields of music-text-video-performance.

“The wholeness of ‘natural phenomena’ from constellations of stars, […] to concepts such as entropy, gravitation or cell division […], always offers me […] starting points for musical procedures or formal design.”

In the context of a panel discussion on “Audience change: challenge for artistic music all over the world”, organized in 2008 by mica – music austria, IGNM (Internat. Gesellschaft für Neue Musik) and IMC (International Music Council), Katharina Klement gave a lecture entitled “Contemporary Music as Neo-Orality in the 21st century”. In the spirit of Murray Schafer, she calls for an attitude of listening without expectations, with which one can engage in something uncertain and immediate: “Every young person should be encouraged to listen actively and learn to adopt a mindful attitude of hearing, of listening, in order to be able to differentiate what they hear. And they should be asked to build a piece of music without a model, similar to the way it has long been customary in drawing lessons. To put oneself in front of the blank white sheet, so to speak.” At the end of the presentation, she draws the following conclusion: “Contemporary music must invite the listener to focus, remain an event space that invites the open, does not deliver glossy products, and per se does not entertain. It thus remains a sensitive and constantly re-emerging endeavor.”

As a lecturer at the mdw, she also reflects on electroacoustic music in the aforementioned lecture: “Electronics, with their ability to store any audible material, have of course also revolutionized the aesthetic musical approach: from barking dogs to departing trains, from singing pygmies to violin notes; the microphone, tape or hard disk and the loudspeaker transform everything into a virtual sample database. We have long since recovered from the shock of questioning the existence of performers, as they seemed to be displaced by loudspeakers as the last instruments of electronic music. Instrumentalists, laptopists, DJs, live electronic artists, sound artists, etc. operate peacefully side by side in the concert landscape. We live in a transparent overlap of diverse musical cultures.”

Relating back to the natural physical world

Since a complex spatial concept cannot be reproduced in a stereo listening room, Klement pleads for live experience: “The supreme premise remains that one must go to such concerts in order to be able to hear this music, no matter where it takes place – in a concert hall, in a club, in a cinema hall or outdoors…” And she concludes her reflections on new music and nature with the following thoughts on what Murray Schafer calls schizophony, a sound that has been separated from its original context by electroacoustic reproduction: “In electroacoustic music, especially in so-called acousmatic music, which is deliberately composed for loudspeakers, in which there is no longer any optical component to the production of sound, the relation back to the natural physical world is particularly clear. A loud bang, even if it is purely electronic, ‘artificially’ generated, will always trigger the association of strong force; our ‘natural’ sound experience is the inspiration for this.”

Now to three concrete examples in the context of new music and nature. The 2021 work “natura morta” is a short video by artist Doris Schmid with music by Katharina Klement. It takes as its optical starting point photographs and videos of a constant landscape space: “Different times of day and seasons begin to move independently and thus ‘unnaturally’ in it, e.g. waves on the lake glisten in slow motion, while the leaves of the trees move in time lapse in the wind. The music works accordingly with changing foregrounds and backgrounds, different speeds. The model of nature serves here to make visible and audible modeled relationships of time and space.”

Monolith (c) Itta Francesca

Another composition that was created this year is called “Monolith” and “works with and in the landscape of the Maltatal in Carinthia. From various water recordings from there – from gurgles, drops, gullies and noise – a permanently changing sonic monolith is developed. The work is related to stone sculptures made of gneiss, granite and slate, which will be created at the same time in the Maltatal.” Inspired by geological terms such as “parallel texture”, “crystalline complex” or “trigonal symmetry”, which are related to these types of rocks, Katharina Klement gives free rein to her “compositional, artistically free translation of them into musical patterns of order or states of aggregation.”

In the work “Soundscape Schrattenberg” from 2011 for stable and mobile sound sources or musicians, the focus is on “Landmusic” with and in a selected landscape space – similar to the approach of Landart in the visual arts – at the selected location, the surroundings around the ruins of Schrattenberg Castle near Scheifling in Styria. During the eighty-minute performance, this space is walked and traversed by ten musicians. The remaining seven are stationed immobile in specific locations such as high stands, towers, or small rooms of the dairy building with the windows open. “The place was played as an open event space or concert space, the musicians followed certain predetermined routes in the landscape, thus constant changes from small ensembles from duo to quartet occurred.”

Gabriele Proy

“My approach to music is aural art”

“A major source of inspiration for my compositional work has always been nature. References to nature can be found in my instrumental and vocal works as well as in my soundscape compositions,” says long-time president of Forum Klanglangschaft Gabriele Proy. The Vienna-born composer could be described as a pioneer in the field of soundscape compositions in Austria. “Like a ‘wanting to stop time,’ my pieces are supposed to radiate a certain inner calm and settle into an inner peace even after highly dramatic passages. My approach to music is aural art: for me as a composer, it is about the listener having an intense listening experience – I also want to touch people with contemporary compositions,” says composer and sound artist Gabriele Proy.

“For me as a composer, it is about the listener having an intense listening experience”

In the context of contemporary music and nature, she also sees her composition “Azurit,” an instrumental piece that narrates the story of the loss of a loved one and was performed in 2012 by Christina Schorn-Mancinelli at the International Guitar Festival of the Società Aquilana dei Concerti B. Baratelli in L’Aquila: “Over time, azurite gradually transforms into malachite – the time of mourning and remembering is also a time of change.” The piece for solo guitar is written in the tradition of a tombeau. Tombeau means tomb in French, and in the 17th and 18th centuries was the name for French instrumental compositions commemorating famous people: “Just as the deep blue color distinguishes the mineral azurite from all other minerals, we preserve the specialness of the encounter in lasting memory.” Guitarist Gabriele Proy, who greatly appreciates the intimate sound of this instrument, goes into a bit more detail about her compositional considerations: “The 6th string is tuned a whole tone lower and throughout the Largo the low bass notes of the D string resonate. The relentlessness of the pendulum or chime beats is punctuated by rapid melodic sequences and arpeggio sounds. Finally, a two-part movement manages to assert itself with caution, only to close the piece with a soaring harmonics melody.” In 2021, the piece “Azurit” was performed as part of Women’s History Month as a live online concert at the Alte Schmiede Wien.

Malachite (c) Itta Francesca

“Wanting to stop the sudden, wanting to forget the sudden, needing to understand the sudden”

The multi-award-winning composer Gabriele Proy also shows her colors in her composition “Türkis,” a duo for flute and guitar from 2012, which was written in memory of the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster in Japan in 2011: “In the vastness of the landscape, the question remains. Quakes, masses of water, crests of waves, mud. Wanting to stop the sudden, wanting to forget the sudden, needing to understand the sudden. Too sudden. Learning to walk in the relentlessness, learning to understand. In between. Turquoise reflects the sea. The distant lament of the flute may recall the Japanese shakuhachi, the crescendo of the guitar arpeggios the powerful sounds of the shamisen in northern Japan.” The composition “Türkis” by Gabriele Proy premiered in Vienna in 2012, and appeared in #JapanRevisited202x: then-now-after by the Austrian Cultural Forum Tokyo in 2021.

Soundscape: Waldviertel

The soundscape composition “Waldviertel” by Gabriele Proy was commissioned by the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the EU-Japan Year-2005. It was premiered in Hirosaki in Japan in October 2005, and appeared in “The Art of Immersive Soundscapes” by CPRC University of Regina Press in Canada in 2013. Gabriele Proy describes her piece as follows, “Listening to the different times of day and the seasons, one can sense a poetry of soundscapes as reflected in the rhythm of the seasons. Over the course of an entire year, I conducted sound research in the northwest of Lower Austria. With an early morning bird concert in the spring forest of Friedersbach, we dive into the soundscapes of the Waldviertel. Slow and rhythmic rowing strokes at the Ottenstein reservoir and the incessant chirping of crickets lead us right into the sound worlds of a peaceful summer day in the northwest of Lower Austria. The typical midday sirens and the sounds of the church bells tell of tradition and everyday life in the small village of Friedersbach. And the autumnal crackling of the fire in the fireplace recalls long, cold Waldviertel winter evenings.” In the SUAL archive of the transdisciplinary festival (from 2006 – 2018) for sound art shut up and listen! you can listen to the poetic sound images of the Waldviertel:

Waldviertel (soundscape composition) by Gabriele Proy – SUAL Archives

Tanja Elisa Glinsner & Carola Bauckholt

“The most immediate natural component in music, for me personally, is the breath”

“Nature – a place of retreat and contemplation – an inexhaustible, changeable yet sustaining source of inspiration: every compositional process represents a return as well as a constant drawing from this very original source. In addition to this function as a personal source of inspiration and strength, nature – then as now – is directly imitated and worked with – precisely these ‘naturally’ existing motifs,” is how the singer, conductor and composer Tanja Elisa Glinsner begins her reflections on the subject of new music and nature. Spectral sounds often play a central role in her works, owing to her fascination with the music of Tristan Murail, Gérad Grisey and Georg Friedrich Haas. Her sound aesthetics take their cue from the music of her professor Michael Jarrell, the richly tonal music of Olivier Messiaen and Toshiro Mayuzumi, and the “tugging depth” of a Toru Takemitsu, among others. When thinking further about the origin of music, however, a German composer of contemporary music is mentioned: “I see the beginning in the imitation of birdsong – at that time in the music of primitive peoples, later through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Beethoven’s Pastoral to today’s contemporary works, whereby I would like to see works such as ‘Zugvögel’ and ‘Instinkt’ – in which natural sounds of dogs, whales and birds are processed – led by the composer Carola Bauckholt.”

(c) Itta Francesca

“Instinkt” was commissioned by Deutschlandfunk in 2008 and is dedicated to Truike van der Poel. Carola Bauckholt remembers: “In 2006, the singer Truike van der Poel gave me a CD with recordings of the choral singing of sled dogs made by Oswald Wiener. Fascinated, I listened to the whole CD and wondered why these sounds are so beautiful. Is it the harmony, is it the color? I painstakingly transcribed the sounds and set them for 6 voices. Also sounds of arctic polar foxes, common loons, water fowl and whales were transcribed to the human voice. The singers are given these templates and have the task of getting as close as possible to the sounds with their individual organ.”

Carola Bauckholt on her composition “Zugvögel” from 2012: “My ears need fresh sounds, which I usually find outside of music. When I hear something that fascinates me, I devote myself to this listening experience in my pieces. This frees me from reproducing clichés of whatever music. The more photographic I stay with the acoustic experience, the better. I transcribe sounds and transfer them to ordinary instruments. In this transfer, the playing technique and the palette of timbres must expand – with the participation of the musicians. My task is to bring out the essence of the sounds. To do so, I also have to think about and describe the surroundings; create spaces.”

The imitation of birdsong fascinated Carola Bauckholt again and again: “Bird calls have an incredible intensity – produced by the syrinx of the bird’s throat. Yet they have no larynx at all, but several bronchial tubes with inner and outer membranes, the tympanic membranes, which are controlled by a complex muscle system. This makes it possible to produce the almost two-part leaps and the rapid ornamentation. The violin is the only instrument that can produce this extreme height – but through a completely different process. For this very reason, it is appealing to bring the two worlds together, like a ‘narrowing’ in counterpoint.”

The string quartet “Lichtung” from 2011 works with photographically accurate transcriptions of bird calls. “In the performance by the Cikada Quartet at the Ultima Festival 2013, I was completely fascinated by how Karin Hellqvist was able to imitate the very finest nuances of the original sounds of, for example, a Butcherbird with the violin. These subtleties require different playing techniques and, above all, a great deal of sensitivity and the finest ear. Karin Hellqvist then wished she could be a virtuoso bird,” recalls Carola Bauckholt. She commissioned her to write a solo piece. The result was a composition for violin and feed titled “Doppelbelichtung” (“Double Exposure”) in 2016. The name is explained as follows: “Double exposure is a technique from analog photography in which one image is exposed onto the previous one. In this way, multiple levels of reality are captured in one image.”

But now back to Tanja Elsia Glinsner: “In my work ‘BlurRed’ for orchestra, whose originally planned title was ‘Birds of Prey’, I also resorted to the imitation of bird calls. These culminate in a screaming flock of birds in the passage quoted. Only later did I add the introduction – an event triggering a state of shock, which was followed by the bird cries in response. As a result, my hearing of the passage changed so that I perceived the cries in their emotional expression rather than in their original form – namely, as an inner crying out and rebellion against the state of shock.”

“In my works, the confrontation with nature is usually of decisive importance. This circumstance, however, is often not obvious at first glance: precisely that song of the primitive peoples is hidden, for example, in the introduction of my work ‘Scena di Medea’, an ecstatic celebration, a dance around or at the fire – at a time when humans were still closely connected with nature. The immediate, subjective expression, as well as other sources of inspiration in the form of other works of art – be it poems, paintings or musical works – let the reference to nature in my works recede somewhat into the background.”

“The reference to nature, however, in turn conditions its direct expression”. In her compositions, Tanja Elisa Glinsner often falls back on the Fibonacci series as a form-giving means, as for example in the piece “GrundRISS. 100 wässrige Grundgedanken”. The title refers to the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who also became very well known for his ecological commitment.

At the end of her remarks on the subject of new music and nature, Tanja Elisa Glinsner refers once again to Carola Bauckholt: “In her work, she manages to draw an arc from the natural beginnings of music to the human being – from the beginning to the end of life. This can be traced in situational pieces for voice like ‘Emil’ or ‘Die Alte’. Pieces such as Carola Bauckholt’s ‘Hubschrauber’ (helicopter) or ‘Schraubdichtung’ (screw seal), which musically transform and describe concrete objects of today’s modern world, form an almost balancing counterbalance to these works that are directly oriented towards the nature of things. These works make me question how we deal with the nature around us and the current topic of climate protection etc. doesn’t seem so far from my desk anymore.”

Glinsner recognizes an equal contrast in her work ‘Blurred Memory’, “in which industrial, machine-like, rough timbres are processed. Again, the squeaking of the machines becomes a means of subjective outcry. An outcry against the machinery of the world or against the loss of our naturalness – this rhetorical question remains to be seen.”

“For me personally, the most immediate natural component in music is breath,” Tanja Elisa Glinsner concludes her reflections on the reference to nature in compositions. And critically notes: “Here, however, the question arises for me to what extent this still finds its way into contemporary music today, or whether this is more a question on the interpretive side. To what extent is it still important in contemporary music to breathe – formerly known as ‘animare’ in Latin – and to animate the music according to the term ‘animare’? After all, breath forms the actual intersection of birdsong and its imitation. The breath is for me – as a singer and composer – the most ‘natural’, the closest to nature, which accompanies me in my everyday life, which is why I direct more and more my efforts to let the breath flow audibly into my works: As sound – as wind … and hopefully also as a shaping, form-giving component.”

Marco Döttlinger & Matthias Kranebitter

"Our acoustic environment [...] often opens up very rich and deep sound worlds that are worth listening 'into'"

Marco Döttlinger is a member of NAMES New Art and Music Ensemble Salzburg and works at the INM Institute for New Music at the Mozarteum University. His (instrumental) compositions and sound installations often address micro-temporal changes, he works interdisciplinary in the field of Time Based Arts. "Our acoustic environment - as trivial as it may seem when heard superficially - often opens up very rich and deep sound worlds that are worth listening 'into'. Temporal structures, on a micro or macro level, some of which I have used in various compositions, have their origin in listening to supposedly non-artistic acoustic environments," explains the composer, whose artistic works often involve the integration of computer-assisted processes in the field of contemporary sound art.

Ecomusicology is a strongly interdisciplinary affair, judging by the composite. The composer Matthias Kranebitter, artistic director of the Black Page Orchestra and founder of the Unsafe+Sound Festival, also works in an interdisciplinary way. In some sections of one of his last larger pieces, frequencies occurring in nature play a central role. The highly dramatic sound collage "Encyclopedia of Pitch and Deviation" could also be heard as an attempt to acoustically map the incredible diversity of life forms that still exist despite a frightening global ecocide.

Contemporary music and nature - Matthias Kranebitter also chooses an example that contains the reference to nature in its name. The short concept of the composition with the academic-seeming title "Auflösung der traditionellen Stubenmusik in die Geometrie des Alpenhauptkammes" ("Dissolution of the traditional Stubenmusik into the geometry of the Alpenhauptkamm") reads like this: "Fed with 222 midi files of alpine parlor music ("Stubenmusik") as well as the geological profile of alpine mountain ranges, the computer spits out musical gestures for lira and zither that correspond exactly to this: an accumulation and superimposition of traditional parlor music or its extracted musical parameters, mapped onto the graphic courses of the alpine profile."

Let us conclude the meandering through the most diverse contemporary compositional examples from Austria, which sometimes more, sometimes less strongly let bioacoustic and eco-musicological aspects shimmer through, with a composition that attempts to enter into direct communication with a river. "Wassermusik Suite No.2" for five trombones was created through a collaboration between Matthias Kranebitter and the German visual artist Sebastian Gräfe. The thoughts behind it: "To pay special tribute to a river on its arrival in the sea: At its estuary into the sea, the river undergoes a process of transformation. It has grown to maximum size and, at the same time, ends, it dissolves and passes into something else."

A brass band - emblematic of Western traditions from its use at funerals and processions to state receptions - plays a composition written especially for the river: "Here it plays for the river, it 'humanizes' it and thus makes it more tangible. The humorous gesture allows us to relate more easily to the river, to nature, playfully avoiding theatricality and heaviness. The musical composition, however, does not depict the river, nor is it a simple homage. Rather, the work is retranslated into the logic of the river. On the one hand, the music-aesthetic qualities of flowing waters in their dependence on temperature, flow velocity, salinity, etc., are taken into account in the composition. are taken into account in the composition. The wind instruments are partly conducted directly into the water - the composition thus speaks directly the language of the river."

Michael Franz Woels

Translation from the German original by Itta Francesca Ivellio-Vellin.