Donaufestival is a small music and arts event that takes place over two weekends in the Austrian town of Krems, an hour or so outside Vienna. Spread out across a few venues—a museum, an old church and an athletic complex for the big stages—it presents avant-garde heavyweights like William Basinksi and Neu! member Michael Rother alongside a newer crop of leftfield artists—Hype Williams, Demdike Stare, Container et al. Some clubbier acts, like Simian Mobile Disco and Robert Hood, are also thrown in for good measure One person there dubbed it a "Boomkat festival," others described it as a mini-Unsound. Funded in part by the government, it's also part of a concerted effort to lure tourists into Krems (often the case with festivals like this). The bill is split across two weekends, and I could only attend the first. It's a testament to Donau's programming that I still got to see about a dozen important artists, many for the first time.
There seemed to be two different audiences at Donau: the older, more avant-garde crowd, and the younger hipster types. The first group came out for a variety of art installations, theater productions, panels and experimental performances. The second group were there for the concerts, which mostly happened at night and on the weekends.
Photo credit: Christian Wind
There was a bit of crossover between the two, especially on Thursday night, when Geoff Barrow of Portishead shared the bill with Michael Rother. Playing with his band Beak>, Barrow explored a synth-led kind of post-rock that set the stage nicely for Rother, who leaned heavily on the music of Neu!, his influential krautrock band. The performance felt remarkably unlike a throwback act: Neu!'s linear, chugging compositions sounded punchy and fresh, and Rother himself looked surprisingly young (at first it was hard to tell which one was him when his band took the stage). In this particular venue—an auditorium with no decoration—you could pretend you were seeing them 40 years ago at some dance hall in Germany.
The rest of my weekend was spent with more contemporary artists. As someone whose nights out are mostly to clubs and DJ sets, I was struck by how differently everyone chose to reproduce their music onstage—for them, what to play (musically) and how to play it (in terms of gear) is a very open question, and certainly more challenging than it is for their clubbier peers. On Friday night I saw Actress, whose records I love but who clearly hasn't figured out his live presence yet—it seems that in making his music club-friendly, he's thrown the baby out with the bathwater, resorting to a kind of noisy techno that could be coming from anyone. The Tri Angle showcase didn't do it for me either—Haxan Cloak and oOoOO weren't dynamic enough for the situation (they probably need something more immersive than the small stage at a festival), and Evian Christ's pairing of hip-hop lyrics (Clipse's "Mr Me Too") with dread-fueled beats felt random.
Photo credit: Christian Wind
Hype Williams did a better job of making their sound festival-friendly, weaving back and forth between walls of noise and quasi-hip-hop rhythms (one line stuck out: "with my mind on my money and the other way around"). For me, the best act that night was undoubtedly Laurel Halo. She seemed more in her element than most of the other artists—her irregular grooves and weird splashes of color kept everyone engaged without compromising the sound of her records, and were a welcome relief from the doom and gloom that characterized so much of the festival.
On Saturday afternoon, PAN hosted a showcase at Klangraum Krems, a converted church in the old part of town. Many of the label's best artists played—Lee Gamble, SND, Helm and NHK 'Koyxen, with Bill Kouligas DJing in between every set—while the crowd sat on the cool granite floor of the church, letting the odd barrage of sounds wash over them. Raime kicked off Saturday's night program and ended up being a hard act to follow—their compositions were as elegant as they were austere, and their original film clips were impressively haunting. Demdike Stare's visual component didn't fare as well (it got frozen on an image of what looked like a naked woman lying in a coffin) but their performance still made a big impression—they're much tougher and more beat-driven these days than they were a year or two ago.
Holly Herndon, who'd flown all the way from San Francisco just for this short performance, offset her mic-and-vocal experiments with the occasional techno beat. Pete Swanson had a similar approach, though his style couldn't be more different: playing from the middle of the dance floor (US noise show style), he built undulating masses of noise with his heaping rack of hardware, and fortified most of it with a fuzzy 4/4 pulse. The heaviest and generally best act of the night was Emptyset, whose enormous, dilapidated rhythms perfectly struck a balance everyone seemed to be groping for that weekend: uncompromising but fully engaging.