Karlheinz Essl

Thoughts on Europe

Contribution to the project Europe's Stories. Connecting past, present and future
Filmed at Studio kHz on Oct 24th, 2019


Video: Achille Versaevel (University of Oxford)


Do you identify as a European?

Yes, of course! In my childhood Europe ended 50 kilometers away from Vienna, so I had the feeling that I was living at the rim of the world. And I remember that my father went on excursions with us where he showed us the Iron Curtain with its watchtowers. From the distance we could also see the soldiers with their guns. And if we went too close to the border, we could see them pointing their weapons towards us. This was quite scary and when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 you can’t imagine how relieved I was. I had the feeling that the world now opens up and I have access to regions beyond my horizon that I was not able to visit before.

I think in general for my generation, the Baby Boomers, the fall of the Iron Curtain was a very big thing. It gave us the promise of a new freedom. The sad thing is, that shortly after the Iraq War broke out in 1991. This war was broadcasted around the clock on television. It was really shocking that the hopes of freedom and peace that we all had were not fulfilled worldwide. We were witnessing this horrible war and at the same time I was growing my little family with our first son. The expectations we had, that we would now live in freedom and peace, have not been fulfilled.

The situation in the last ten years has become more difficult. There are three things that marked a big change: The first one was the wave of migration that happened in 2015, where the impulse of me and my peer was very positive. Those people need help and they can come. The second thing was that Trump became the president of the United States, proclaiming that America should be first. Trump gave a very bad example of how a leader of a nation could be. His rudeness and ignorance was copied by some other people. I see a lot of politicians, here in Austria and also in the United Kingdom, that have the same attitude in a very brutal and insensitive way. They proclaim things they believe at the moment, and shortly after they would deny them. This shows that there is not this big human unity that we were trying to achieve. Not only in Europe, but worldwide. So now we have the feeling of separation between different regions of the world. America, Europe, Asia, Russia and also the East and Africa.

Brexit is the worst thing for me that has happened to Europe recently. The European Union is a peace project. It guaranteed that those enemies, which have been fighting against each other, like Germany, France and England, became partners. Now that 50 percent of the UK decided to leave the European Union and this big peace project. I have trouble imagining what comes afterwards and what it will mean for Europe in general, also outside of the European Union. What I liked about Europe is the fact that the nationalism, which has been so powerful and destructive in the 19th century, seems to have been banned or at least tamed. But nowadays nationalism becomes more and more obvious. A lot of tiny groups of people try to proclaim their independence, that they are special, that they are a "nation"". The concept of nation is something very questionable for me. I would be very glad if that notion of nation would not be an issue anymore.


What was the worst moment in recent European history?

I think the worst is Trump. After World War II there was never a person like him, at least in the western world. I don’t want to mention him that much, but he gave a very bad example which has been copied by a lot of people. Not only in Austria, but also in other parts of the world. If you are naive, you would say that a good politician is somebody who is very intelligent, has a sober mind, controls his emotions, has visions, is beloved by his people and tries to unite the country. For Trump, none of this is true. This makes me really sad and it makes me really angry.

A ranking is not so easy. The migration crisis, as it was called, is the result of a long standing political situation, where we as the rich West have been misusing the resources of other people in other parts of the world. Now we have to pay the bill for that. So I think it’s very understandable that those people who are now prosecuted and lost everything they had are moving towards a place which is more safe. But it’s not only because of the war in Syria. Migration also happens from people who come from Africa, because due to the climate change they have no living foundation anymore. They need to go somewhere where they can have a better life. Migration has been happening all over our history. If you speak about "Völkerwanderung"", this was consecutive for the forming of our European continent. Without the people who came from the east we wouldn’t be here. So I think it’s quite a normal process. It’s not the best moment, but it is a moment that has necessity. We cannot say that we are not responsible for the things that our forefathers have done. So we have to deal with it. It’s a situation that happens and we have to take a position towards it. We have to see that we cannot hide ourselves in the castle that is our safe and secure Europe. We have to take responsibility for those people who have no shelter.


What is the single most important thing the EU has done for you personally?

The fall of borders between the countries, so we can now easily change from one country to another. Also that we have a common currency in many places in Europe. And not to forget - on the academic level - programs like ERASMUS, which I think is a wonderful project and brings together students and scholars from all over Europe and creates a sort of mutual understanding. Vienna is a very sexy place, so a lot of students want to study here and we get a lot of ERASMUS applicants. I always take at least one a year in my class. They are sometimes undergraduates although I’m usually only teaching graduate students. But I have the feeling that if I select somebody from these applicants, they can bring in some new perspectives. And it’s also interesting that if I get in the teaching relationship with them I understand more about how it works in different countries and different systems. What music studies are like and how they are structured. And on the other hand I do a lot of outgoing projects with ERASMUS, where I am invited by people all over Europe to give masterclasses and to work with the students. That was also a very good experience that I gained.

If you ask me frankly, I identify myself as a human being, as a citizen of the world. So Europe is of course my closest neighborhood, my environment, where I’m based at and where my cultural influences come from. But this is not so important. If I’m abroad I’m not talking about the fact that I’m a European. It doesn’t matter that much to me.


What would you most like the EU to have achieved by 2030?

Incorporating the former eastern countries into the European Union. But we have to distinguish between Europe and the European Union. I think the European Union as a sort of political construction has an importance for our peacekeeping and therefore I think that countries like Albany and North Macedonia should also become part of Europe. I think the more we are, the better it is. Even though they are small countries, they would certainly benefit from being part of this whole system.


In your view, is there such a thing as European music?

Well, all these categories of national music stem from the 19th century. Nowadays it’s completely obsolete to think in these terms. I think it’s problematic to say: I’m writing Austrian music, because this was never the case that somebody wrote Austrian music. This is just an artificial label that you give, maybe for marketing. Therefore I think that European music is as stupid as Austrian music, being used as a term to classify music. If I look at the contemporary music nowadays, wether it’s from Europe or from Russia or the United States, the nationality doesn’t matter that much. If it’s not music that is based on traditional national anthems for example. If it’s music based on abstract musical ideas, it doesn’t matter.


Are you happy with „Ode to Joy“ as the anthem for Europe?

Frankly, I don’t understand why this has been chosen. I would say if we need something like that, why not say it’s the anthem of the world? Because in the text it says:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
was die Mode streng geteilt.
Alle Menschen werden Brüder...

Alle Menschen! Not only the Europeans. All humans become brothers. This is the message and it has nothing to do with Europe.


Karlheinz Essl's own interpretation of The Ode of Joy for mixed choir

© 2020 by Karlheinz Essl


What would you choose instead as the anthem for Europe?

There is a very famous piece of John Cage which is called 4'33" and was composed in the 1950s. A piece which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But it is a silence that is structured. It’s a piece of three movements and each movement has a certain duration, which is notated in the score. So in fact you can buy a score which consists of three pages of blank music paper, just indicating the duration of this piece. And the performance of the piece would mean that you perform 4 minutes and 33 seconds of not doing anything. Instead you could listen. And if you perform the piece in a concert, which is quite absurd, then the sound which would be heard is not the sound of the music or the performer, but the sound that surrounds us. Mainly the sound of the audience.

The John Cage foundation in New York had this wonderful idea to build a mobile app which allows everybody to perform an individual version of this piece by John Cage at any point of the world. So I can just be in any situation, open the app and record the 4 minutes and 33 seconds, subdivided into three parts of different lengths. And then you can upload it to a web server and other people can listen to it. You can say you want to listen to recordings from Vienna and then you can go to Google Maps and find all the pins, indicating what has been recorded at this spot.

For me, who is very interested in field recordings, this was a fantastic tool to record environments and also make it public, because there was this sort of infrastructure which allowed it to be also heard by others. And finally, a person from Germany was completely fascinated by this app. His name is Peter Berg and he wrote a book about his experiences with this app and some people who he met through this app, either in person or virtually. So he contacted me by E-mail and wrote some stories about the sound recordings that I did in very different places of the world. And then we finally met in Germany once, where we had our first face-to-face meeting and it was very interesting to see an old retired man (he used to be a teacher) being completely absorbed by this idea that you can travel all over the world with your ears.


What is your view on technology and its ability to unite people?

There is something I find very important as a composer: Nowadays we can distribute our music, or findings, our art through the internet, breaking borders. So as a composer I am not restricted to concert halls where music can be heard, but I can also publish it on my website and different channels like Youtube and SoundCloud. I can give people the possibility to experience my music; not just the sound, but also performances of the musicians, how they play. This is fantastic. It opens up the world for me and gives me the possibility to connect with other people worldwide and to share ideas and make collaborations outside of institutions.



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Updated: 22 Oct 2020

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