Andreas Felber

An Extended Composer’s Desk

Composer Karlheinz Essl as the music curator of the Essl Museum


Portrait Karlheinz Essl

Foto: © 2006 by Mischa Nawrata

It sits on the mezzanine level below the café, in the eastern corner of the museum: the sound-brain of the Essl Museum from where sonic ideas are radiated into the various rooms. This can be read quite literally: the acoustic control centre of the building lies in the studio of Karlheinz Essl jr., this is the interface and entry point for the tentacles of sound that extend to the different areas of the building through an amplification system. It goes without saying that Karlheinz Essl jr. – in the following his name will be abbreviated to initials of his own choosing: kHz – is not only the musical caretaker of the building who knows which buttons to push when and may be found creatively tweaking the sound environments with his very own hands since he is the one who knows best about the more high-tech than artistic functionalities of the sonic “thermostats” throughout the building. kHz is also a purposeful dramatic advisor, a choreographer-cum-curator. He masterminds the music programmes of both Essl buildings. Although originally intended to direct the business side of the bauMax group as the family’s eldest son, he chose to exert control over profitable and rewarding sound relationships rather than over headcounts and balance sheet items. Even as a curator kHz is still a composer: it is not the music that finds Essl – in the shape of readily acquirable programmes – but it is Essl who seeks and finds the music. He approaches the musicians of his choice, he commissions and inspires, he “coaches” and in a dialogue with the artists develops concepts for the sound environments - without however divesting the artists of their artistic autonomy and ultimate responsibility for the respective project.

“When I just started out I once talked to the choreographer Sebastian Prantl. He said: ‘Just do you very own thing, do things you can commit to and put your own stamp on. Never let yourself be seduced into tagging along with trends and fads like the others. Just do things that are important and invaluable to you’”, is how kHz explains his philosophy. The perspective of the composer is important for the sound environments of The Essl Collection to the extent that kHz – with complete autonomy since without public funding – has made his subjectivity on the basis of a professional background the guiding principle. This is why the timeline of concerts is closely linked to the artistic development of the composer himself. In 1992, shortly after graduating from both university and the music academy in Vienna he took over direction of the concert programme. After the initial years when Alfred Altenburger, a violinist with the Vienna Philharmonic, had provided a classical Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann programme for the Schömer-Haus, he started to fill the contemporary architecture with contemporary sounds in line with the suggestion of Claudio Abbado.


Whereas Essl’s own compositions were not infrequently to be found on the programme at the start, he did not feature there often in the following years -- at a rate of four concerts per year. In the first half of the 1990s programmes included names such as Schönberg, Ives, Messiaen, Nono, Cerha, Haubenstock-Ramati, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough, Furrer, Haas (and also Christian and Wolfgang Muthspiel) – i.e. a good deal of the famous names of 20th-century music with a clear inclination towards the composers that happily pursued the spirit of modernism even through the post-modern era. Hardly a coincidence, since kHz considers himself as belonging to that ilk. A look at the names of composers who received commissions from 1992 that were then premiered every year in November within the context of a Wien Modern concert at the Schömer-Haus, reveals the condensed artistic CV of Essl: the first two years were devoted to expressions of respect and gratitude to musical “fathers” of great significance (not only) to Essl. Friedrich Cerha, his teacher of composition at the University of music in Vienna and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, the fatherly friend and inspiring interlocutor for talking many an afternoon away about everything and anything at Café Prückel, found themselves highlighted as important points of reference in Essl’s musical world. Then the younger generation got its say. Again personal contacts played an important role: Ramón González-Arroyo had met kHz in 1986 in the Netherlands where both worked in a team with Gottfried Michael Koenig on the latter’s (never to be completed) composition software Projekt 3. Richard Barrett, Robert HP Platz and Alessandro Melchiorre were Essl's fellow composers-in-residence at the Darmstadt summer classes in the early 1990s. Like Wolfram Schurig or Mark Applebaum they were composers whose modernist inclinations put them more (Barrett) or less close to the British New Complexity school. Which is also true of kHz.

From the Desk...

An invitation to participate in the Salzburg Festival in 1997 – with a programme devoted to him in the context of the “Next Generation” series -- represented a caesura for the young composer who aroused increasing international attention. This caesura was also reflected, with some time lag, in the commissions for compositions of the 00 years which now went to more strongly contrasting aesthetic (outsider) personalities such as Konrad Rennert, Thomas Heinisch or Serge Verstockt. And it was even more strongly reflected in the music programmes of the Museum of The Essl Collection which opened in 1999. The invitation to Salzburg, basically a “highlight in a classical composer's career”, in Essl’s words, meant “almost a deep fall” to him. “After that I fell into a black hole. I became aware of my isolated situation as a composer who sits at his desk alone and writes down music scores” recounts kHz in an interview. The way out of the crisis led through remembering his young years when he had made some noise with an electric guitar in rock bands and studied classical contrabass. His new “social link” to the world of music is electronics: m@ze°2 is the name of his self developed software instrument which allows him to react quickly and spontaneously to musical processes. Improvisation

Essl dived into the pulsating electronics scene of Vienna, and it was no surprise that his original musical plans for the museum, whose inauguration in November 1999 included four hour laptop concerts by Essl, the hot shots of the Vienna scene Christian Fennesz and Peter Rehberg and Berlin-based Zeitblom in the Rotunda, saw the museum as an “outpost” of this vibrant hotbed. The museum project by the name of react_chain_ sought to establish a pool of musicians who would independently and on their own initiative develop and implement ideas in a manner reminiscent of a chain reaction. The plan never materialised -- small Klosterneuburg turned out to be too far away from large Vienna after all, at least in people's minds. Essl was again challenged as a curator – and has been fixing loose focal themes since 2005 in this capacity: STRANGE WORLDS was the motto for 2005, COOP in 2006 gave reign to interdisciplinary artistic approaches. The 2007 maxim for artists to reflect on is NÄHE UND FERNE (Near and remote). While the SCHÖMER-HAUS is still devoted to contemporary composition, the museum now offers a colourful playground of sound, an informal low-budget approach that provides an opening to electronics, improvisation, performance, multimedia and trans-disciplinary approaches – an experimental lab in which projects “are allowed to be a failure now and then”, according to Karlheinz Essl. The open and multi-angled style that characterises Essl’s musical work of today, between notation and improvisation, analogue and digital sound, ambient sound and sound environment, is given an exciting reverberation in the multifarious programme.

Unheard of Sounds

A good part of the music to be heard in The Essl Collection’s premises will not be heard anywhere else. This is due firstly to the curator, who perceives his role as that of an active and stimulating agent, not as a consumer; someone who does not take over a readymade music programme but who has it developed and honed for his premises. This is also due to the rooms themselves which impact back on the music with their acoustic individuality and the flexibility of layout and arrangement. Karlheinz Essl jr. was fortunate in his choice of commissioned composers right from the start: Friedrich Cerhas’ Quellen, premiered in 1992, turned out to be not only one of the most focused and substantive, but also one of the most frequently performed recent works of this doyen of Austrian composers. In the case of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati’s Equilibre (1993) the good fortune was not without tragedy. It was to be the last work of the pioneer of compositional indetermination who fell seriously ill and died a few months later.

Premier of Mark Applebaum's Asylum
SCHÖMER-HAUS, 14 Nov 2004

Another memorable project was the commission to Mark Applebaum, who distributed the instrumentalists in the stairwell of the Schömer-Haus foyer for his scrupulously noted-down ambient composition Asylum in 2004 for their overlapping and interfering musical interpretations of psychological disturbances. They included a paranoid flute player, an obsessive trio and an octet suffering from Tourette Syndrome (which would burst into unexpected and inappropriate outbreaks) while a percussionist positioned at the stairhead would use hammers, screws and a power drill for his musical “DIY” activities in an allusion to the primary use of the building.

installation with guitars Disordered Systems
Essl Museum, 9 Apr 2003

The museum also had its resounding highlights. Here too, many of the sounds were unheard of in several respects. The filigree, floating overtone-sound tableaux created by Gunter Schneider and Barbara Romen in Disordered Systems by putting rods of varying length and knitting needles through their guitar strings and making them vibrate, found an utterly appropriate ambience in the reverberating acoustics of gallery room No. 1.

In stark contrast to the above was the Public Attack performance in September 2000, when Karlheinz Essl together with the trombonists Mike Svoboda, Bertl Mütter and Werner Puntigam “perforated” a normal Sunday exhibition routine and disturbed the picture-viewing public with several unexpected sound interventions from the trombonists who roamed the exhibition areas and periodically re-assembled with him in the Rotunda again.

The Blind Date series is experimental in the best sense of the term, i.e. of unknown outcome. Essl invites musicians to perform together – it is an impromptu first interaction however, at the point where the almost virginal communication is unencumbered by any automated patterns. The process of getting acquainted takes place mostly on the music level: a conceptual setting which achieved superb results for instance in the unrehearsed encounter between the Vienna-based mezzo-soprano Margarete Jungen and accordionist Ute Völker from Wuppertal.

The music programme of The Essl Collection is not a programme of no-names, but it is a programme that largely makes do without “stars”. Just a few of them made their way to Klosterneuburg: one was Lawrence Casserley, the British electronics pioneer; or Dror Feiler, a composer and improviser and politically active critic of his native Israel; or, as already mentioned, Christian Fennesz. In the spring of 2002 the voluminous drones generated by Phill Niblock permutated in painstaking slowness in Storage Hall 1 which was still available at the time. The films from the 60s inserted by Niblock, something he likes doing, showed farmers and craftsmen executing repetitive actions – hacking manioc, grinding corn, pulling fish from the water. The performance was very much like a hands-on lesson in music history.


True, it is difficult to single out individual events, it is difficult to make comparisons. Almost each and every resounding performance breathes an aura of the unique, of having been individually crafted for this one night, crystallised in the fruitful dialogue between the three poles of the musicians (or the composer), the curator and the venue. There is no doubt that the music programme of The Essl Collection deserves the attribute of a gesamtkunstwerk. One would wish that many of the things experienced in regular concert halls would have some of that substance.

Excerpt from the article Communicating spaces - approaching the music programme of The Essl Collection from three different perspectives by Andreas Felber
in: PASSION FOR ART, exhibition catalogue (The Essl Collection: Klosterneuburg 2007) - Translation: Susanne Watzek

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Updated: 30 May 2019