New Music: from niche to centre stage

With "Little Warsaw Autumn" the renowned festival in Poland makes also the very young desire more. Playing Artur Zagajewski.
With “Little Warsaw Autumn” the renowned festival in Poland makes also the very young desire more. Playing Artur Zagajewski. Source: Warsaw Autumn/Grzegorz Mart

The music of our time reveals a great diversity of forms and genres. Having developed into important platforms for contemporary expression and artistic ambitions, festivals of new music have had a strong impact on the development of music in recent decades. As public events, they are becoming significant aspects of metropolitan cultural life. Since the 1980s, the expansion of this type of activity has witnessed many recently launched new-music festivals and ensembles, and their audience is steadily growing.

First empirical study

A project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF currently explores the genesis and impact of major new-music festivals. A team of musicologists headed by Simone Heilgendorff from the University of Salzburg has launched the first cross-border study of the international scene of contemporary classical music. The research project focuses on renowned festivals in three European capitals: the important Warsaw Autumn festival that can look back on a long tradition since its foundation in 1956 and which enjoys international acclaim; the Parisian Festival d’Automne which combines music, dance and theatre and was established in 1972; and the youngest of the three, Vienna’s Wien Modern launched in 1988. “Their size and internal structure and the status of the capital cities lend these three festivals particular importance”, says project manager Heilgendorff regarding their selection.

Comprehensive analyses

Apart from analysing historical material, the international research team gathered around Heilgendorff seeks mainly to trace evolutionary changes in the new-music scene in this FWF project. “The festivals increasingly abolish cultural boundaries and have become a significant element of the music scene”, observes Heilgendorff. The team explores content-related aspects, but also factors such as music management and education. Being central to the success of festivals, the protagonists also feature prominently in the analyses, which comprise mainly curators, composers and musicians. The researchers analyse the career trajectories of selected personalities and ensembles in biographical portraits, including, for instance, Jagoda Szmytka, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hugues Dufourt or Helmut Lachenmann, as well as the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Klangforum Wien and Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej. Finally, audience members are also given a say in this research project: in comprehensive surveys conducted in 2014, they answered questions about their age, education level, motivation, expectations, internationality and their own personal relationship to contemporary (art-)music.

Internationality and locations as factors of success

The comparisons show that a main factor for success is to be found in the internationality of the programme. Internationality is a constant element in all three festivals, represented by the “classics” of this scene from Giacinto Scelsi to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio or Tadeusz Baird, a co-founder of the Polish festival. Festivals also test new performance sites such as the former Koneser vodka distillery in Warsaw or trendy nightspots such as the Flex and Fluc in Vienna, which also attract younger audiences. At an average age of 36, the Warsaw audience is the youngest. As the analysis of 1,500 detailed questionnaires has shown, average age is relatively high in Paris and Vienna at over 52 and 53, respectively, audiences are still slightly younger than at conventional classical music concerts.

How are New Music festivals perceived? They are more than just hangouts for experts, is one of the results of the 2014 audience poll.
How are New Music festivals perceived? They are more than just hangouts for experts, is one of the results of the 2014 audience poll. Source: Universität Salzburg/Simone Heilgendorff

Positive image of contemporary (art-)music

The replies show that although the audience members may not relate strongly to contemporary forms of music, contemporary (art-)music enjoys a positive image. The festivals are not seen as hangouts for experts, but as open platforms for encounters, experiments and diversity. “The results provide first evidence that the new-music scene has moved out of its niche”, explains Heilgendorff. This being said, the researchers have not observed in this field any international festival tourism. Attendees still come essentially from their respective regions, which is particularly true of the festivals in Paris and Vienna.

Great potential

“Recently, new music festivals have started to focus more on their audience, both ‘old’ and ‘new’”, notes Simone Heilgendorff. That they also provide input in this way to topical debates about aesthetics, culture and lifestyle, is how the project manager sees the growing importance of such events. In sum, the researcher and musician goes on to elaborate, that contemporary (art-)music festivals have great potential and contribute to cultural development. Interdisciplinarity and co-operation between disciplines ranging from electronic music to experimental pop music are the hallmarks of an evolution towards overcoming boundaries and finding answers to current issues.

Personal details

Simone Heilgendorff is a musicologist and violist. She heads the FWF project New Music Festivals as Agorai – Their Formation and Impact at Warsaw Autumn, Festival d’Automne Paris, and Wien Modern after 1980 (2013–2016) at the University of Salzburg, Department of Art History, Musicology and Dance Studies. Her research focus areas: new (art) music and music of the Baroque period, the cultural and culturo-psychological connotations of music, the Americana around John Cage, musical analysis, performance practice and the culture of musical interpretation.

Project website
The FWF project team co-operates closely with the programme area “Mediating Contemporary Music – Vermittlung zeitgenössischer Musik. ConTempOhr”, a science-art project organised jointly by the University of Salzburg and the Mozarteum University.

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