Popular Viennese Electronic Music, 1990–2015: A Cultural History
Berlin University of the Arts (Germany)
Ewa Mazierska’s book is definitely a niche work, covering a largely unexplored territory of research, both in terms of subject and methodology. When it comes to the extant literature on Vienna as a music city, one can find a broad variety of studies on classical music (particularly the first wave classicism of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, et al.; and the second wave modernism of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), with only a few texts (e.g. Reitsamer 2011) that report on the city as a contemporary centre of electronic (dance) music. These few articles were, of course, milestone sources for Mazierska’s book. However, as Mazierska notes, Austrian popular music deserves more scholarly attention in general, and the special characteristics of the Viennese electronic music scene in particular have not been discussed as a whole, less still the relationship between the music, place and culture (1); although, as she notes, doing research on the correlations between music and place/city generates many methodological problems (17–19).
Throughout the book, Mazierska is sophisticated and prudent about the terminology she uses. One can, for example, find a particularly interesting discussion about the problems surrounding the genre name “electronica” as popularised by the US music industry. This is the reason why the author chose the wording of “popular electronic music” in the title of the book, instead of electronica. However, Mazierska suggests that the two terms mean the same in her work. In this sense, Viennese popular electronic music refers to “music produced by Viennese artists . . . or also includes record companies which released these records . . . places where this music was presented and appreciated . . . and a web of relations connecting musicians, institutions and individuals working for their success . . . as well as their fans. It can encompass art and artists, as well as scenes” (9). So the scope of the research is broad and also includes themes of music business research, such as the local record industry and the effects of digitisation.
The described period is from 1990–2015; the 1990s were the heydays of Viennese popular electronic music, and the study pays extra attention to this decade. The book is based on several methodological and theoretical strands—which are interweaved and combined throughout the whole work: the history and theory of electronic music and its subgenres with a special focus on dub, ambient, techno and noise; research on the relationship between music and place, positioning electronic music within the longer history of music in Vienna; research about the “future of music” that considers the digital shift and the transformation of the music industry; and finally the interface between music and gender (summarised 9–10). In addition to these theoretical frameworks, the book is based on more than fifty interviews with people active in the scene, such as musicians, heads of record labels, music promoters, managers of record shops, employees of institutions promoting Austrian music, academics and music fans.
The first chapter positions Vienna on a historical and cultural map where it is celebrated as the world capital of music. The subtitle of the chapter, “From Mozart to Conchita Wurst”, suggests a long cultural history: from Viennese Classicism, through romanticism, to early modern music and music between the World Wars, the author finally gets to the Viennese contemporary popular music (17–45). The chapter also gives an informative insight about the connections between urbanisation, social life and music during these phases. Therefore, Mazierska always reflects on the actual political situation and its effects on the local music scene. For example, readers are informed about the US American (“coloniser”) influences on Austrian popular music in the 1950s which completely changed from ’60s, when the local musicians found their own style of music, “Austropop”.
Following this linear history, the second chapter discusses the Vienna Electronica as scene and industry. The author looks into it from a bird’s-eye perspective to describe Vienna’s musical history and its individual characteristics. To do so, this section begins with a clarification of the concept of “scene” with the help of classic theories and models by Cohen (1999), Kruse (2010), Peterson and Bennett (2004), etc. This is followed by a detailed chronology where readers are informed about the developments of clubs, events, fanzines and the local industry, including labels and record stores. According to Mazierska, “[t]he peak of the scene was between 1995 and 1999” (62), which were—probably not coincidentally—also the golden years of the record industry in general. As mentioned, the most striking findings about the local scene characteristics can be read in this chapter. For example, based on the conducted interviews, the author writes about the scene members’ social background (mostly middle class youngsters), the importance of record stores as centres of knowledge-transfer, and few venues and their strict operating rules which led the Viennese electronic music to a “bourgeoise and displaced phenomenon” (58) rather than a rebellious one.
After describing the above—and other—characteristics, the third chapter looks into specific case studies of the most well-known and popular musicians whose careers were (and some of them are still) active during almost the entire discussed period. These include, following the chronological order of the subchapters, Sin, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Tosca, Sofa Surfers, Patrick Pulsinger, Peter Rehberg, Christian Fennesz and the label Mego, Electric Indigo and Sweet Susie.
Every subchapter (and case study) starts out with a chronological career description of the musician(s) and follows up with their discography and style of music. These analyses are mainly based on Mazierska’s own impressions and the interviewees’ answers, and the descriptions do not follow any specific analytical methodology. Therefore, it excludes paratextual journalistic material and reception, which might have been fruitful as reflection tools. However, the author tried to focus on the connections between the city of Vienna as a place and the music produced by these artists. This can be seen the most in the subchapters about the style of the musicians: Mazierska was interested in the specialty of the so-called “Vienna Sound”.
These different artists also demonstrate the wealth of styles and genres of Viennese electronic musicians: they all work with different subgenres. Such detailed historical and socio-cultural analysis of the careers of these different musicians did not exist before, so, also in this sense, the study fills a research gap. Furthermore, the author considers most of these artists’ work as a manifestation of postmodern art and also sees them as trendsetters with their local characteristics, and not as “imitators” of Anglo-American artists. This is the other reason why she chose them to be analysed in the book.
Although all of these subchapters and musicians are important in different ways, I would like to highlight only two of them because they differ from the others in terms of their subjects: “Peter Rehberg, Christian Fennesz and the Label Mego: between Glitch and Bécs” (chapter 8) and “Women in a mixed world: Electric Indigo and Sweet Susie” (chapter 9). I found it interesting that in the former the author dedicated a whole case study to noise or experimental electronic music. This section might feel a little alien to the others, but Mazierska’s main argument was to include as many different genres as possible. In this sense, the subchapter on Electric Indigo and Sweet Susie is also different from the others in terms of its categorisation of music by the musicians’ gender. Here the author also gives a longer introduction to the problems of male-dominated EDMC and the research of that phenomenon—see also Dancecult’s special issue in 2017. In this regard, the subchapter about Electric Indigo and Sweet Susie also creates awareness of female artists who are often neglected in the histories of electronic (dance) music.
Finally, in the conclusions, the author highlights again her main arguments: 1) Austrian electronic (dance) music deserves more scholarly attention that focuses on the “stories” of artists and protagonists rather than their technical properties and 2) Viennese popular electronic musicians have created their own style/sound of music, instead of copying the Anglo-American market. Furthermore, by looking at the careers of the abovementioned musicians, the author found out that Vienna as a city offers “comfortable” life to them, for example, with its affordable housing and proper studios.
Mazierska finishes her work with several open questions for future investigations on other examples: “Were electronic musicians in countries such as Belgium, Poland or Hungary as lucky in this period as their Austrian counterparts? Did they show the same interest in similar genres and develop similar ideas?” (218). With these questions, she also suggests for others to conduct comprehensive research on other European cities, in order that we would have a better picture about the differences between these places. In addition, in my opinion, with the help of these suggested studies, one could also better describe the different “sounds” of these cities because one would have comparative cases at hand. In this sense, one could also talk about the specific “Viennese sound” with stronger counter examples at hand.
Mazierska’s self-reflection is appreciable: “No doubt that some readers familiar with the phenomenon described here will be surprised and unhappy with omissions, simplifications and mistakes made in this book. My defence is that no study is ever comprehensive and flawless, and this is particularly the case of works which cover a largely unexplored territory” (12–13). She also encourages others to correct these mistakes and fills these gaps, in their own future work. I think the book is definitely a great beginning for a new comprehensive research body on European cities and their electronic (dance) music scenes. Additionally, this book will be a great basis for further research on the Viennese electronic music scene.
Cohen, Sara. 1999. “Scenes.” In Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. ed. Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss, 239–50. Oxford: Blackwell.
Kruse, Holly. 2010. “Local Identity and Independent Music Scenes, Online and Off”. Popular Music and Society, 5: 12–15. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03007760903302145>
Peterson, Richard and Andy Bennett. 2004. “Introducing Music Scenes”. In Music Scenes: Local, Translocal and Virtual, ed. Andy Bennett and Richard A. Peterson, 1–15. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Reitsamer, Rosa. 2011. “The DIY Careers of Techno and Drum ‘n’ Bass DJs in Vienna”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 3(1): 28–43. <http://dx.doi.org/10.12801/1947-5403.2011.03.01.02>.