With around a month of events at countless locations all over the city, Wien Modern is the biggest festival for contemporary arts music in Austria and one of the biggest of its kind worldwide. It was founded in 1988 at the initiative of Claudio Abbado, conductor and the general music director of the city of Vienna at the time. Since then, it takes place every year in November in Vienna.
Exactly what is to be expected from "contemporary arts music" and from a festival with the name "Wien Modern", which is at odds with all the clichés of Vienna? We reinvent it every year. In the beginning the goal was to "catch up" with Vienna's musical reputation as a hub for tradition and to bring the great masterpieces of the 20th century into the big halls of the city. In a historical first, the Wiener Konzerthaus and Musikverein collaborated to bring the post-war avant-garde and the Viennese School centre stage in 1988. Claudio Abbado as the festival's first artistic director conducted the Vienna Philharmonic and acquainted the Viennese audience slowly but surely with contemporary arts music with performances of Luigi Nono, Pierre Boulez, Wolfgang Rihm, György Ligeti and Alban Berg.
One look at a few numbers from the founding year makes it clear just how far the festival has come since then: In 1988, 28 events took place over 23 days, in three venues and two of the Viennese districts, with a conscious decision not to include any world premieres; counting the Viennese School, there were six composers and eight ensembles and orchestras from Vienna, but nothing from the rest of Austria, no activities from a youth or access angle, not a single female composer and nothing but classical concert formats. Eight years later, in 1996, the festival had reached its record length of 44 days and took place across eight locations with 68 events; the international programme included ten world premieres, twelve female composers, all in all 23 composers from Austria, large musical theatre productions and an opulent range of concerts for a surprisingly large audience, which had garnered Vienna the reputation of a metropolis for contemporary arts music.
Today, Wien Modern is a bit shorter with around 30 festival days, but the audience has grown again and again, as does the musical diversity: as a platform which is open to all kinds of possibly contradicting aesthetics and formats, with a colourful coexistence of different scenes and generations, Wien Modern had a record number of 31.491 visitors in 29 venues and 10 districts in 2018. The transformation from the initial retrospective to what now resembles a bustling music workshop was a long one. In 2019, we counted 109 world premieres, 57 female composers, ten projects with young artists, four productions for young audiences and 30 backstage events ̶ proof that in the three decades since the festival started, contemporary arts music has become quite a bit more dynamic and open.
The specific mix of Wien Modern now includes large parts of the city; the Great Hall of the Wiener Konzerthaus figures alongside the tiny basement room of Café Korb, the experimental echoraum in Sechshauser Straße 66, as well as the Museumsquartier, the Kunsthistorisches Museum and (for the first time in 2020) the Natural History Museum, and many more. Concerts still lie at the heart of the programme, but now they are joined by musical theatre, dance, visual arts, film, video, performance, installations, site-specific or durational works, improvisation and discoveries of all sorts of new formats – from a simultaneous performance of all 15 string quartets by Shostakovich in the Great Hall of the Konzerthaus in 2016, to a 15-hour-long Michael Hersch premiere from dusk till after dawn in the Austrian National Library in 2019, where the audience found a landscape of pillows, blankets and all sorts of other refreshments.
Speaking of refreshments: Wien Modern admires the willingness to experiment that its audience brings to events each year. This extends to the "Bar Modern", where artists meet and events conclude, where we have been serving our "Wine Modern" for a few years now. We specially choose wines which sum up what’s so special about Wien Modern: from quite unusual to radical, with a mind of its own, no-nonsense, non-commercial, but very fun and very worth exploring.