The Tower of Babel

As part of the 40th International Music Festival at Wiener Konzerthaus , Klangforum Wien undertakes a survey to map what is new in music throughout today’s post-Soviet territories with two concerts on June 18 and 19, 2023. The programme unites uncompromising artistic positions from Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Russia and Ukraine.

Enormous shadows are looming over the various New Music scenes of the post-Soviet territories, which have once again become the site of violent, geopolitical conflict. The fluidity of a perfectly natural dialogue between leading composers and performers between Tbilisi and Minsk, Yerevan and Moscow, Tashkent and Kyiv has come to a standstill, the dialogue has ceased. Once more, music runs the risk of being reduced to national self-assertion and to a propaganda shield of supposed superiority. Resistance against such instrumentalization is called for. With its multi-part project “The Tower of Babel”, Klangforum Wien wants to contribute to these efforts.

Already during the late 70s, cultural insurrection against Soviet colonialism materialised – in particular as part of the New Music scenes at the time. Music, as the most abstract of the arts, was the least susceptible to appropriation by the various regimes and thus remained a place of refuge for independent free thought. One need only recall the the covert but nonetheless effective work of the so-called “Kyiv Avant-garde”, often called “Webern’s illegitimate children”, or Gija Kantscheli, the composer from Tbilisi in Georgia, who introduced a concept of beauty to music which back then was utterly frowned upon; or his Georgian compatriot Mikheil Shugliashvili, who’d quarried out “Xenakian” blocks from the archetypal music tradition of his country. Countless positions from the Baltic to Uzbekistan, from Armenia to Belarus and, of course, also from the Russian epicentre Moscow were in constant mutual exchange and united in their efforts in not letting anyone or anything curtail the freedom of music.

Radical self-examination by artists and resistance against the mutilation of artistic freedom has always had a very particular and marked tradition in this vast cultural sphere, going back a long way. In 1909, in the pioneering volume “Vechi” (reissued in 1990 in German under the title of “Wegzeichen. Zur Krise der russischen Intelligenz“ by Eichborn Greno Publishers) this is summed up in a relentless and fascinating way – just as Russian exiles would put it 65 years later, in a volume of essays ambiguously entitled “From Under the Rubble”, published in Paris: resistance may be covert, but it cannot be crushed or buried.

Thomas Hirschhorn, "Abschlag", 2014 ; 'Manifesta 10', General Staff Building, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Manifesta Foundation, Amsterdam Photo: Alexander Kutishchev
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Disparate, fragmentary, and of glowing subcutaneous energy, such was and is being avant-la-garde in this particular part of the world. Much of it has disappeared into the orcus of history. In 2014, Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn memorialized this disappearance and simultaneous presence in his work "Abschlag" for the Manifesta 10 art biennial at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The work is both monumental and highly dramatic. It speaks of truthfulness and of unfulfilled promises, of both dystopia and utopia and, above all, of that creative force that leaves aesthetic sophistries as well as political dogmas behind.

Against this backdrop and the coordinates that mark the claims staked out by the avant-garde, Klangforum Wien together with its partner Wiener Konzerthaus is drawing up a map of the New in music in today's post-Soviet space, which naturally presents artistically uncompromising positions from Estonia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Latvia, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Like a "Tower of Babel", the project is intended to rise above the cultural landscape, currently suffering such terrible deprivation: radiant with polyphony, utopian as ever, providing both a sanctuary and a vantage point.

Text: Peter Paul Kainrath, Artistic Director of Klangforum Wien

A project initiated by the Klangforum Wien and the Wiener Konzerthaus, co-produced with AFF Projects.

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Summary - Reflection

Two concerts, two rounds of talks - the Tower of Babel, a new project of Klangforum Wien, initiated together with the Wiener Konzerthaus and co-produced by AFF Projects, explored new music scenes of the former Soviet territories. The Tower of Babel represents the Babylonian confusion of tongues and the collapse of the idea of a transnational cultural area. The photo of Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn’s landmark installation “Abschlag” illustrates the unredeemed promises of the Soviet avant-garde. The term "post-Soviet" as a purely historical concept of time can no longer be applied in an impartial way and was vehemently rejected by all composers as a colonialist term; having to constantly define one's own identities from this historical perspective was described as completely inadequate. Already in times of Soviet tyranny, artists had to define and develop their own individual identities in opposition to the ruling class. This is more true than ever in a time of war, and the artists' own polyglot artistic positions suddenly found themselves confronted with a dark provincialism radiating from far beyond Moscow.

The notion of a public, assisted suicide of an entire society came up, swallowing up everything that is open to the world and describing the idea of being a part of Europe as a naïve illusion.

The performed works demonstrated the new developments in music in all their diversity – unique, varied and highly advanced. The conversations between the composers of different origins were open and completely free of mutual reservations. Klangforum Wien considers this first Tower of Babel as a starting point for further explorations and will be even more determined than before to make all these voices heard and to give them a stage.


-> The Tower of Babel I (June 18, 2023)
-> The Tower of Babel II (June 19, 2023)

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A project initiated by the Klangforum Wien and the Wiener Konzerthaus, co-produced with AFF Projects.

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The Tower of Babel at the Wiener Konzerthaus
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