Christof Dienz is a composer, zither player, and bassoonist, born in Innsbruck in 1968. This year he was joint artistic director—along with composer Clara Iannotta—of the Klangspuren (“Sound Traces”) festival in Austria. Based in the small Tyrolean town of Schwaz in the Austrian Alps, Klangspuren features 18 concerts given over 18 days in venues around Schwaz, Innsbruck, and the nearby village of Rotholz. The festival was cofounded in 1994 by the composer and pianist Thomas Larcher (alongside Maria-Luise Mayr), who served as its director until 2003. This year’s festival was the first to be jointly directed by Dienz and Iannotta.

Although Klangspuren is an international contemporary music festival—which this year featured Riot Ensemble (disclosure: I am an artistic board member of the ensemble), Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, and the JACK Quartet among its performers—it places a strong emphasis on local music and musicians. Other events featured Klangforum Wien, the Tiroler Symphonieorchester, the Austrian avant-pop band 5K HD, the Viennese viola da gamba player Eva Reiter, and a “Klangwanderung” (“sound hike”) around Schwaz performed by high school students from the Innsbruck Musikgymnasium. Given the festival’s breathtaking but relatively inaccessible location, I wanted to explore the tension between international festival curation and environmental responsibility. I also asked Dienz about the festival’s approach to diversity, prompted by the questions printed on the front covers of the program booklets: “Does music have gender?” and “Can sound be inclusive?” These are only partially answered in the programming itself, which is relatively gender balanced but still features overwhelmingly white composers and performers.

Iannotta herself was not at the festival, and an email received after this interview from the Klangspuren press office confirmed that she had in fact resigned. When I asked if she wanted to comment on her resignation, she requested that I quote this paragraph in its entirety:

“Leaving the artistic direction of Klangspuren Schwaz was a necessary, although difficult, decision. It became impossible for me to operate in the spirit of artistic freedom that a curatorial role such as this requires. Despite having to endure personal insults, at first I decided to keep working for Klangspuren so that I could actively contribute to what I believed could be a future filled with new, adventurous, and diverse musical voices. [Dienz himself responded to clarify that “The insults came not from my side; actually the insults came by email directed to both of us, to Clara and me as the artistic directors.”] Over time, it became clear to me that, working with this team, I would have to compromise on important principles and risk losing the trust of artists gained over nine years of dedicated, responsible curation in my continuing role as the artistic director of the Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik. The words used by Christof Dienz in this interview do not represent my vision nor my motivation for including the brilliant artists who took part in the 2022 edition of Klangspuren Schwaz.”

The interview with Dienz took place at the Klangspuren festival offices in Schwaz, on September 18.

VAN: This is the first time you’ve curated Klangspuren, although you have curated a smaller festival, fmRiese. This is obviously a much bigger, more complicated event. How have you found it?

Christof Dienz: As you know, I’m just one half of the artistic direction, with Clara Iannotta. Thomas Larcher called me two years ago and asked me what he should do with Klangspuren—we’ve known each other for a very long time. And I told him, ask a woman [to be artistic director]. Then we thought, the problem with the two former artistic directors was that they are not located here, that they are not from here. They are very seldom here in Innsbruck or Schwaz and they don’t know the scene personally. And you need a connection to the people here, that’s super important. And then I talked to Clara and we sent an application as a double-headed team.

I recognized quite near the beginning that it is easy to work with Clara, we have a good understanding. Very early we decided not to have a theme, because we both thought that is something that helps the curator but not the artist. It’s something that makes the position of the curator into that of the artist. And I don’t like that, because it is the artist who brings the art, who makes the art. 

But diversity was very important. Another basic idea was to build a larger audience and a younger audience—and that’s a problem all over the world for contemporary music. We thought that we must provide young artists for young people, and different approaches. Not just an academic, hardcore new music bubble, but think more widely. And that’s why we had [Austrian avant-pop group] 5K HD, or [viola da gamba player] Eva Reiter combining Baroque music with contemporary music, or [jazz and prog rock ensemble] Studio Dan.

But we also did concerts like the Riot Ensemble at which they introduced young and upcoming international stars [of composition]. It’s very seldom that one person comes to all 18 concerts. So it’s better to have different styles and different approaches to get different people. And then we have more audience, that’s the thing.

5K HD performing at Klangspuren (Photo: Verena Nagl)

Do you have a sense that this strategy is working, and that you’re getting younger audiences for different concerts?

I have the feeling that it’s working, yes. For Klangspuren we have had quite a lot of people. It’s not normal to have more than 200 people coming to a concert for Klangspuren. And for example, the first concert with Julien Desprez at the p.m.k., this little club in Innsbruck, we had I think 75 people, which is amazing. The last time Klangspuren had a concert in the p.m.k., there were five people! And again, in my opinion one of the reasons why there were so many people is that I’m very well connected to the scene here. I reach the people because they know me, I know them.

You were a composer-in-residence here in 2003, and obviously you were born in Innsbruck, so you have very local connections. But Klangspuren is also an international festival. How do you approach balancing the local musicians and audiences with the international things?

Both should have their space of course. We have premieres and Austrian premieres. And of course the international artists are more important than the local ones, but the local artists are very important as well. And there are not so many of them. We really have to take care of the quality of course, and just being local is not enough, but we have quite a few really interesting musicians and ensembles, like the opening concert with Windkraft. At the opening concert you have the mayor of the city and some politicians and a few people who are not into the new music thing. It makes sense to program something which is easy listening or not that hardcore new music. So we thought of a Steve Reich piece [“Reich/Richter”], which had its Austrian premiere. And the first piece by Soyeon Park [“Melodrama”] was a great piece and the people loved it, even though it’s not that easy to listen to.

The Klangspuren opening concert with Windkraft (Photo: Verena Nagl)

You said that you and Clara had no theme for the festival, but there are the questions printed on the front of all the program brochures. Where did they come from, and what is their significance?

From me and Clara basically. We collected a lot of questions and then we chose the most interesting for us.

But they’re not necessarily attached to a specific concert? The one about  whether music has gender, for example… 

No. I mean, that’s an important question for Clara. She calls herself a female activist and I support her 100 percent. But we won’t give answers: The artist should give answers. We collected questions, 25, maybe. And the artists could choose five or something, whatever they liked. 

[In an email, Iannotta rejected the term “female activist,” saying, “I am not a female activist. I am in support of responsible curation, which of course takes into account gender, ethnicity, and race.”]

The Riot Ensemble performing for Klangspuren’s Composer Lab (Photo: Verena Nagl)

One of the questions I find most provocative is “Can sound be inclusive?” You said that one of the things you and Clara wanted to do when you were programming was to think about diversity. What is your answer to the question of whether sound can be inclusive? And what does diversity in music look like to you?

I think behind that question is, for whom do you write music? Do you write music for the audience or for yourself? And that’s a very philosophical question. Beethoven said to the violin player [Franz Clement] who had to play his Violin Concerto, “I don’t care about your fucking violin.” Or Stravinsky in “Le Sacre du printemps,” the first high C on the bassoon—without that piece, no bassoonist would play that high C. But these days it is no problem to play this note, so it makes sense not to worry about the instrument.

But on the other hand, in my opinion music is in a social context with the composer and the musician and the audience. You need the audience to transport the music. For me—I think Clara doesn’t think this way—I compose for the audience. Or, let’s say, I think music works in this context, with an audience. And then you have to think about what you are offering the audience, and who the audience is. Like I said, at the opening concert it makes total sense to program a piece which is not that heavy to listen to. 

I have an ensemble called Knoedel [named after a kind of Austrian dumpling—Ed.] in which we do easy listening music, but advanced easy listening music. And the meaning or the sense of this music is to entertain people; it’s not a philosophical approach to bring music further somehow. But if I write a piece for, let’s say, Klangforum [Wien], I have a very different approach. I can think about ideas I have in my mind which I want to explore, or I can try some experiments because the scene is interested. It doesn’t make sense to make music that doesn’t interest the audience. So yes, I think sound can be inclusive.

This question of diversity might mean something different from a U.K. perspective. There has been a lot of conversation in the U.K. recently about the representation of different groups—not just in terms of gender, but race, sexuality, class and so on—within all the arts and society, but also within new music. Is this what you mean by the diversity that you and Clara wanted in the festival as well?

Yes. I’m sure the discussion here in Tyrol is on a different level from that in London. But we know the discussion and we are interested. And we try to think about it when we curate the program. We have pieces by George Lewis and Soyeong Park, and we really had a strong look at gender equality, which we have almost reached. And this is so important, to be active in this question. It doesn’t happen by itself. You can talk about it—and we have talked about it for 30 or 40 years. But in the position we are in now, you have to be active, you have to program female composers because otherwise it doesn’t happen. 

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Was this something that you communicated to the artists? 

Yes. I hope that there is no concert without a female composer. 

And the question of ethnicity is a bigger challenge.

Yes. We have the ones I mentioned, and Farziah Fallah, an Iranian female composer. Of course, you can be more concentrated on this, and you should be. But that’s what we have. We totally agree that it’s important. But to program a festival like this you can’t just do what you want, you have some parts that are fixed. You have to have a platform for the local scene, then you have one concert fixed with local people, a pedagogic project with the conservatory, we do a concert with them; and as I said the opening concert should be not that hard to listen to; and you have the Klangwanderung; and the Composer’s Lab concert… not all slots are free to program.

Any international festival like this presents a lot of logistical challenges. And in the present moment probably more than usual. How has the current political economic situation affected the programming? Have you had to become very adaptable in putting things together?

Actually, it’s a problem. Because the war in Ukraine, when it started, the program was fixed already. It’s really hard to react immediately to a worldwide situation because the program is fixed so early. So we had no chance to change very much. The economic situation doesn’t affect us very much now, but probably next year. We’ll see.

Klangforum Wien performing at Klangspuren (Photo: Verena Nagl)

I wanted to ask you about the question of environmental responsibility. Because obviously we’re in a beautiful location, and when you fly in you see all the solar panels and green roofs on top of people’s houses. It feels to me like an area that takes environmental responsibility very seriously. But this isn’t a conversation that is had very often in new music, perhaps because we think, It’s art, so it’s important enough in itself without having to account for that. But obviously if you run a festival, you have to fly lots of people here, it’s a lot of resources. How much was any of that part of your thinking with Clara when you were planning the festival?

It’s a really difficult question. One thing we have done is that we didn’t print a program book this year, we just printed these evening sheets. All the main information you need is online. At least we don’t need that much paper, because that’s a problem too. And really just a few people read the book. Maybe they read one article, but not the whole book.

Three years ago I went with Studio Dan to Toronto and Philadelphia for two concerts. The whole journey was four days long. In Toronto we had something like ten or 15 people in the audience. Philadelphia was a bit better, maybe 50. And you think, Is this really necessary? But on the other hand it’s so difficult to answer. Klangforum just went to Japan and South Korea. They had six concerts in three weeks, and again for very few people. As you said, the whole scene is very small, worldwide. But for them it’s super inspiring to see Klangforum once in their lives, they can talk to them, they can learn from them. But I don’t know—50 people, is it important that they have this experience, while it is super, super poisoning to fly to Japan?

And this is the real challenge, because if the scene is so small it can’t be completely local, because you need those places to join up, otherwise there is nothing. You said you have local representation in Schwaz, but you can’t sustain a festival with that.

You can’t just do a festival with the local scene, because the people know them already. You have to provide new things. I think it’s easy to not fly in Europe. London is something different, but Paris—you can be in Innsbruck from Paris in eight hours. That’s OK.

Building on what you’ve done so far in this direction, what would you want to do more of or differently next year?

I don’t know. This year was our first run, and we had to get to know each other and how to run a festival. My son is the Orchesterwart [orchestra attendant] for Klangforum, and he is very strict, he’s vegan, he doesn’t drive. And he came back from Asia and said, “Forget all your trying to help the environment, because what’s happening in Asia is so fucked up, it doesn’t make any difference if we don’t print books for the festival !” [Laughs.]

But of course it’s a necessary way of thinking, first of all. And Europe has to be on the forefront of new thinking in this matter. Maybe we tell all the artists they have to come by train, I don’t know. But in this scene the artists are very concentrated on this topic.

Actually, we were thinking about a focus—we don’t have a theme yet—but we are thinking about a focus on climate change. Not just in terms of nature but also political climate. Let’s see; I don’t know if it’s going to happen. ¶

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Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press) and The Music of Liza Lim (Wildbird), and co-author of Twentieth-Century...