Erich Urbanner (Austria - exploring Australia)

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1936 born March 26 in Innsbruck, Tyrol

1955–1961 studies at the Academy for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna (composition with Karl Schiske and Hanns Jelinek, piano with Grete Hinterhofer, conducting with Hans Swarowsky)

participation at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt, Germany (composition classes with Wolfgang Fortner, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Bruno Maderna)

1956 composition awards of the publishing house Doblinger and of the Österreichische Musikzeitschrift (Austrian Music Journal)

since 1961 instructor for score-playing at the Academy for Music and performing Arts in Vienna

1962 City of Vienna supportive award

1966 Award of the St. Hubert Festival (Belgium)

since 1968 is active as a conductor

1969–2004 professor for composition and music theory at the Academy (now University) for Music and performing Arts, Vienna

1969–1974 director of the twelve-tone seminar at the Vienna Music University

1980 composition award of the Provincial Capital Innsbruck

1982 appreciative award of the Austrian Federal Ministry of Art and Education

1984 City of Vienna Music Award

1986–1989 director of the institute for electro-acoustics and experimental music at the Vienna Music University

1993 Province of Tyrol Music Award

2001 Republic of Austria Grand Silver Order of Merit, City of Vienna Gold Order of Merit, Goldene Ehrennadel (Golden badge of honor) of the Austrian Composer’s Union

2006 Honorary member of the Austria Composer’s Union

Erich Urbanner is firmly established as one of the most distinguished Austrian composers. Sound imagination, magisterial craft, and high economy of means are exemplary attributes of his works, but central for him is his striving for communication, for exchange with his audience via his performers, who, time and again, have to meet highly virtuosic challenges: the goal of Urbanner’s musical oeuvre is not to compose above the audience’s heads, but to find direct access to the listeners. Domestic and international acknowledgement proves his success in this endeavor which frequently results in his taking up the conductor’s baton or his manipulating the controls as musical production manager. Apart from these activities he has also taught, as an eminent teacher, a multitude of young composers and musicians at the Academy, “Hochschule” or, as it is now called, University for Music and performing Arts at Vienna before he retired in 2004 – and that, with him, never meant that he imposed his own artistic point of view upon the young musicians, to the contrary: his highest principle has always been to address the students’ individual skills without any stylistic paternalism, to develop their strengths as much as possible, to aim to level out their weaknesses as much as possible, to let them find their very own path. Since Socrates this principle is called maieutics: the art of midwifery. Urbanner has learned this art from Karl Schiske, his own teacher at the music academy, who was the welcome antithesis to the restrictive, almost anti-modern stance embodied by Joseph Marx, with whom Urbanner had nonetheless spent a semester taking private lessons. For the young Tyrolean composer as well as for many of his contemporaries Schiske, on the other hand, was the quintessence of openness and tolerance for all new ideas. “One could always openly state one’s opinions”, Urbanner retrospectively stresses what was at the time in no way self-understood. “I have often wondered that he said almost nothing about a piece he was shown. That he fully accepted that which I had done, that he gave me the opportunity to develop my own ideas, my own self and my own personality.” This, of course, must also be seen in context with Urbanner’s even then highly developed technical skills. Schiske’s teaching not only centered upon masters of the Baroque through Late Romantic periods, but also upon the composers Vienna still frowned upon at the time: Hindemith, Bartók and Stravinsky as well as the Vienna School with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. This desperately necessary catching-up after the end of the Nazi dictatorship became a critical chance for Urbanner and defined his oeuvre: not to treat these composers, who have now long since entered the canon of modern classics, but who at the time were still defamed and feared by many, - not to treat them as filed and classified music history of a past epoch, but to take them as an almost necessary impulse for practically taking up the suddenly resurfaced, newly virulent stylistic challenges posed by their work – this became the basis for the exemplary wideness of his compositional way of thought. The invaluable own experience of and experimenting with methods from the past was as essential for him as the shock-like experience of the legendary Darmstadt Ferienkurse für Neue Musik. The confrontation with the rigid, totally predetermined serialism and its high intellectual standards as well as, even more importantly, its radical negation in the form of startling freedom and indetermination as embodied by John Cage were marked influences which stimulated Erich Urbanner’s creativity in very different but characteristic ways and which most importantly contributed to his development of an own compositional profile. Nevertheless Urbanner could never be described as a “style chameleon” such as Stravinsky: of course his oeuvre has encountered distinct phases, but his specific idiom appears (as far as can be seen at the present point in time) to be relatively concise – even if it does cover stylistic breaks such as relinquishing the bonds of serialism in favor of incorporating improvisatory zones under strictly defined conditions. This also included the development of his own “distance notation” which proved very effective especially in smaller ensembles (e.g. in the frequently performed 3rd String Quartet from 1972, commissioned by the Alban Berg Quartet) to stimulate to a high degree the performers’ imagination and playfulness while incorporating this in the framework of a work clearly defined both in terms of form and material structure. But this approach towards an open form did not stay totally satisfactory for the self-critical composer: “After this leap into freedom I have still always felt: I must not become too seasoned” he states retrospectively. “This is why it was imperative to go back to simpler means, in terms of scoring but also in terms of tonal relationships, and to put the main focus on form; although a form in which the contents are not subject to formal types but where one is the result of the other.”

One as the result of the other – this was also true for Erich Urbanner in concerto-like situations which he first encountered in the 1970s and which he still keeps exploring in time and again new and varied ways: “Look how entertaining New Music can be!” is what Ludwig Streicher, soloist and leader of the double bass section of the Vienna Philharmonic, cried into the applause after a performance during the Wien Modern festival of 1993 of the double bass concerto written two decades before for him and which had been successfully performed on several continents. To stress the strengths of instrumentalists, individually or in groups, and to present them in the best possible way (not out of conceit but from a spontaneous musical approach which Urbanner has never forgotten since his early organ improvisations) is one of his most sustained concerns – and it shows, one must point it out with satisfaction, a clear parallel to his manner of dealing with his students. It is not so much hard-nosed competition but rather dialogue, a lively exchange of thoughts, the interplay of ideas which makes Urbanner’s otherwise intellectually so demanding music so eloquent in such a plastic manner. It is no coincidence that this can also be seen in the titles given to his works – such as most recently in the large-scale orchestral work Begegnungen (encounters) which he created on commission of Musica viva, Munich. The ever-new encounter of composer, performers and audience, which is so stimulating for all concerned parties: Erich Urbanner continues to gain and to illuminate fresh, spellbinding aspects from it.

Walter Weidringer, transl. Nicolas Radulescu