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Things Learned At: Donaufestival
Tristan Bath , June 19th, 2018 15:13

To Donaufestival: the reliable core of the Austrian musical calendar, for expat music weirdos and their music weirdo friends

Matana Roberts photographed by Clara Wildberger

They’re all indie now

It’s a sunny day in May, and I’m standing for the third year in a row inside the belly of the Klangraum Krems - a venue located inside a sonically advantageous old church in the middle of Austria. The Donaufestival, held annually over two weekends in the Austrian town of Krems an der Donau, has garnered a stellar reputation for both bold curation and for scoring some of the biggest names in the global underground. This year’s no exception, considering I’m currently watching Circuit des Yeux inside the church’s stone innards. I also get to see James Holden, Perc, Big|Brave, Puce Mary, and Ex Eye, to name just a few.

While most of the woke European festivals have taken on the disastrous atmosphere of the last few years headfirst as a newly discovered raison d’être , Donaufestival feels like a diamond in the rough. It’s not quite isolated, but rather comfortingly and defiantly unmoved. The idea of social responsibility is one thing, but the amount of strength one can draw from an artist blazing a new trail all their own, on building their own fate, and being given the opportunity to have complete control over their music and little else, is gigantic. When I was younger and more innocent (read: ‘somewhat thicker and a lot less cynical’) I once thought that the term ‘independent musicians’ referred directly to the actual way they made their music, and had nothing to do with labels, money, and other things I blissfully had no knowledge of.

During several sets at 2018’s Donaufestival, I find myself recalling this naïve misconception, of a purely artistic rather than financial or business independence. Most of the acts are deep down genre side-alleys, or outright lost in alien landscapes of their own incomparable creation. There’s little-to-none of the arts-council-targeted stuff contextualising the artists as confronting some all-important issue head on. The artists are simply given a time and place to play for money - which is, in the century of information overload and cancerous austerity, quite the godsend.

Working on yourself works

Circuit des Yeux – the project of singer-songwriter Haley Fohr - possesses the world’s best singing voice. She’s discussed in many an interview the sheer time and energy she’s put into creating the emotionally and sonically staggering pipes she’s now gatekeeper to. Needless to say, I’m sure to stumble out of the blinding Austrian spring sunlight and into the near pitch-blackness of the Klangraum a good few minutes early to get a decent seat.

A silhouetted Fohr enters the stage, flanked by double-bass, drums, and viola (the latter played by the brilliant Matchess, also from Chicago). Fohr triggers the sampled organ notes that began Reaching For Indigo’s opener ‘Brainshift’, and launches into a performance of the tune even more perfect than the studio rendition. She goes deeper and pushes harder round every corner of the wistful melody, echoing priestlike around the bouncy stone innards of the Klangraum. Admittedly weakened from 48 previous hours of beer-swilling through the Austrian countryside, she has me welling up within seconds. ‘Black Fly’ and other recent Circuit des Yeux tunes follow, but it’s no album set, filled with unique touches, including surprisingly large doses of bluesy instrumental wig-outs.

The night before, Fohr had also been one of many guests to participate in the typically hard-to-summarise headline set from German duo Mouse On Mars. It flitted between abstract electronic interludes, krautrockian motorik, and loose indietronica as heard on new album, Dimensional People, without any clear focal point amid the collective group of guests on stage. Premiering a completely new collaboration with Fohr though, her presence simply takes instant possession of the room, soaring godlike out in front and above the band. She isn’t miraculous though. It’s the result of years of practice and hard graft, of an artist turning themselves into a master.

Circuit Des Yeux photographed by David Visnjic

Technology and time are our friends

A good friend joins me for one on the second Saturday of the festival, motivated solely by the presence of Manuel Göttsching. The legendary German musician (originally in Ash Ra Tempel in the early 1970s) is here to play his pioneering proto-techno album E2-E4 from 1984 in full. It’s surprisingly enough only the artist’s second gig in Austria in 45 years, as he tells at the head of his set. Looking aged but by no means frail, Göttsching can revisit something that once took a truckload of gear with little more than a laptop, a couple of keyboards, and his electric guitar. The beautiful hour’s train ride from Vienna to the Donaufestival for E2-E4, snaking right along the Danube River from suburbs to farmland to vineyards, is aptly soundtracked by the monotonous pulse of wheels on steel and machinery in steady forward motion.

After his short speech, the monolithic sixty minute piece is played in full, navigating through its several discernible sections above a never ending synth pulse, climaxing with a noodly ten minutes of guitar soloing before disappearing again into the ether. The hypnotic power of the piece remains solidly intact, and Göttsching’s steadfast approach to colourful minimalism still seems visionary. As a conceptual work of art – named after the first of several possible moves in a chess game – it seems if anything more relevant. As the piece unfolds and evolves, one can envisage something similar to the game of likelihoods involved beneath the chessboard, spiralling off into countless possible variants and possibilities - much like technology-driven society in the years since its composition. Maybe the performance is a farewell from a great soothsayer; another of many last hurrahs in the era where so many epochal 20th century musicians are passing. The way I see it, Göttsching’s living breathing masterpiece is just a reminder that everything is still possible.

Art means choosing your own destiny

Matana Roberts and Kelly Jayne Jones’ new collaboration is another highlight, slap bang in the middle of a Sunday between Circuit des Yeux and an evening with Molly Nilsson and festival closers Deerhoof. The Anglo-American meetup is a well balanced blend of two distinct voices, each seated either side of the stage before a table of electronic gizmos and respective sax and flute. Jones joins Roberts in her signature move of poetic recitation, central to her most personal solo album yet, 2015’s COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee. Roberts seems similarly inspired by Jones’ signature primal wind tones, both women playing their wind instruments to produce sounds like the groaning of birds or creaking of great desert stones. It’s a promising early showing for the new duo (recently interviewed on tQ, poised between an almost Beckettian absurd theatre language, and some rough sound art. Matana Roberts gives us all a nice surprise later in the day by joining Deerhoof for their final encore, blaring a blowout flurry of sax as a form of farewell to another Donaufestival.

Munich band Friends Of Gas have toured relatively extensively around the German-speaking countries of late in support of their 2016 debut LP Fatal Schwach, and besides participating in one of the Donaufestival’s many theatrical shows, they play a stellar standard show in the Klangraum. Ignoring that somewhat difficult band name (they’re German... think about it) how best to explain this band? Take a pinch of The Fall, marble in some of London’s Housewives, maybe a bit of Sonic Youth at their most dissonant and you’ll be in the right ballpark – but Friends Of Gas seem far too in their own world to give such comparisons much cred. Their songs are uniformly built around pounding rhythms, mechanically repetitive but too warm and organic to be motorik. Two guitars and a bass scrape and twang a mixture of sound effects and riffs, while up front lead singer Nina Walser growls raucous agitprop, in German, in the roughest of possible voices. Friends Of Gas are easily the most promising – and hypnotic – band I’ve stumbled across in recent years.

It’s not easy to make the case for the festival as a form of music discovery. The lump of cancerous plastic in my pocket can arguably do that better and more cheaply. Neither am I convinced that festivals are an effective form of so-called ‘resistance’, or a catalyst for ideological discourse. Where a well-curated festival lineup is unbeatable, is in showing off the strengths and weakness of the age. This year in Krems I’ve seen a whole host of artists working hard to create their own unique syntaxes, deep into their own particular ways of working, choosing their own artistic destinies. It’s an inspiring thing to remind oneself of just how much creative freedom we have. Perhaps my younger self wasn’t so wrong when he misconstrued the meaning of an ‘independent artist’.