Voracious modernities

Wien Modern, 2011
Konzerthaus and various venues, Vienna

Reviewed in the TLS, 9 December

Although he was a real person, the name of Baron Münchhausen occupies a place in German-speaking culture somewhat similar to that occupied by Swift’s Gulliver in English. Münchhausen’s reputation for far-fetched stories about his exploits during the Russo–Turkish war in the service of the Russian army’s German “generalissimus” Anthony Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick, was evidently widespread during his lifetime, but it was his second career as a satirical fictional hero which proved the more lasting. The surprising adventures of Baron Munchausen were published anonymously in English in 1785 by Rudolph Raspe, a professor of the University of Cassel, who apparently fled to London after attempting to rip off one of his patrons. Raspe’s text provides the main source for the further embellished and more explicitly satirical version by the Romantic poet Gottfried Bürger, published in German the following year, and which remains the best-known version in German-speaking cultures. The stories draw on pan-European satirical traditions from Ariosto to Swift and Sterne (all three are referred to in the text, as is Don Quixote, who appears to confront and challenge the Baron and his retinue, which includes Gog and Magog). It has existed in countless different literary versions, as well as in the form of plays, a film (by Terry Gilliam) and even a board game, but not, until now, as an opera.

On the face of it, the Münchhausen tales make an odd choice for an opera. The action is all narrated, and would lose a great deal of its force if the narrator’s persona were to recede from the foreground. But the opera’s composer, Wolfgang Mitterer, is also something of an eccentric. His sound-worlds, techniques and frames of reference – not to mention physical appearance: he is rarely seen without his trademark black woollen cap – all seem worlds apart from the image and music of most Austrian composers. An organist by training, he is unusual if not unique in his use of techniques and materials from across the stylistic spectrum of rock and pop electronica, jazz, and pre- and post-war art music. But the term “eclectic”, still a somewhat dirty word among the compositional and artistic milieux of Vienna, doesn’t really do justice to Mitterer. “Voracious” is probably better. His music has a boundless energy and is both quirky and uncompromising, using processed effects, irregular structures and odd quotations and distortions in order to create music which in some sense reflects and digests the aural chaos of modern life.

Read the full article as a pdf.

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