24 March 2014
What image comes to mind when you think of Austria? I’m betting that for Brits and Americans at least, 'The Sound of Music' is still a major point of association, nay a source of myth-making around Austria – its Alpine landscapes, its history, its national character, even.

Whilst just last month, Maria von Trapp, ‘the last member of Sound of Music family’ passed away, the appeal of Robert Wise’s 1965 film and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical collaboration will, I feel sure, live on for generations to come.

Thinking specifically about Austrian music (i.e. music from Austria), there’s a whole string of classical composers to illustrate the country’s credentials as a musical nation. Boasting confectionary called Mozartkugel ("Mozart Pralines"), a globally broadcast New Year’s Day concert by the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra, and international tours by the renowned Vienna boys’ choir, Austria’s ‘brand’ marketing is clearly fundamentally underpinned by musical phenomena.

When it comes to popular music, however, I think it would be fair to say that outside Austria you’d have to search far and wide for recognition of Austrian pop music. One possible exception is Falco, whose popular single, with its English title, “Rock me Amadeus” (1985) even makes playful reference to Mozart (don’t tell me you don’t know that one!).

I’ve conducted research recently into a particular genre of music in the context of my work on protest culture. After Austria’s extreme right party, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ), formed part of the coalition government in 2000, there was a wave of protest within Austria – in the usual forms of protest marches and demonstrations but also in a variety of traditional art forms such as plays, novels, films, poetry, and music.

In the music category, I’ve unearthed examples from genres as divergent as independent punk, rock and hip-hop artists (listen in to the Kaputtnicks rapping a letter of protest) as well as satirical choral work, electronic music and experimental, microtonal work by Austrian composer, Georg Friedrich Haas. My article for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music looks into the textual strategies and performance context of this corpus of tracks and considers the contribution made by protest music in the aftermath of Austria’s turn to the political right.

Are actions louder than song words?

“Pop-music”, according to socio-linguist Peter Trudgill, “is a field where language is especially socially symbolic, and typically low in communicative function, high on the phatic and self-expressive” (cited in Frith, 1996: 168). In short, lyrics don’t generally function to command or indeed initiate action and are not generally received by listeners in this way. Protest music is a genre that tries to intervene and promote action, but does it succeed?

The best-known of my illustrations, hard-rock band Drahdiwaberl’s track, ‘Torte statt Worte’ is a metaphorical injunction to take action (to throw ‘Torten’ or cream pies) instead of just chatting (statt Worte – instead of words). In my article, I show that Austrian musicians are using their medium in part to deconstruct musical paradigms but also to make political arguments heard. To an international audience usually accustomed to associating Austria with the classical idiom, there is, should the listener be so inclined, undoubtedly a great deal more to discover than just Mozart or Mahler.

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  • Fiddler, Allyson, ‘Performing Austria: Protesting the Musical Nation’, IASPM@Journal, vol. 4, no 1 (2014), 5-20
  • Frith, Simon, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (1996)
  • Trudgill, Peter, On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983)