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New Music: from niche to centre stage


New Music festivals have become increasingly important elements of urban cultural life. Using three international examples, a project supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF describes the development and impact of these contemporary platforms. In sum, audience polls show positive assessments.

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 festival 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.

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 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.

Scientific Contact:

Dr. Simone Heilgendorff

Universität Salzburg

Erzabt-Klotzstraße 1

5020 Salzburg, Austria

Tel: +43 / 662 / 8044 4674

Austrian Science Fund FWF:

Marc Seumenicht

Haus der Forschung

Sensengasse 1

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111


PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education

Mariannengasse 8

1090 Vienna, Austria

T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44



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Article published on 16.11.2015

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