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HK Gruber. Photo/Getty Images

Austrian composer HK Gruber is unleashing Frankenstein!! on NZSO audiences

As HK Gruber's famous opus invoking monsters, superheroes and 007 comes to New Zealand, he tells Elizabeth Kerr why the work remains a touchstone in his nonconformist career.

Heinz Karl “Nali” Gruber has a darkly ironic sense of humour that seems quintessentially Viennese. This month, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra will perform his Frankenstein!!, an entertaining creation subtitled “a pan-demonium”. It reflects the witty style of this composer-conductor, who has performed the work’s vocal part as “chansonnier” more than 1000 times since 1989.

The monsters and vampires of popular culture throng the musical party that is Frankenstein!!, Gruber’s “bestseller” since its premiere by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted, the composer tells the Listener from Vienna, “by a certain youngster, Simon Rattle”. Superman and Lois Lane appear, as do Batman and Robin, James Bond and Goldfinger, and Frankenstein himself is an unexpected guest. The subversive text is based on children’s poems by absurdist Austrian poet HC Artmann.

With musicians bursting paper bags, whirling plastic hosepipes and playing toys and swanee whistles, you might think Frankenstein!! is a work for children, but Gruber denies this. “In the foreground, it is naive,” he says, “but between the lines are political statements – monsters of political life have always hidden their true faces. Artmann didn’t explain it, because if you explain a point, you shoot it. It’s up to the audience to discover the subtext.”

Austrian poet HC Artmann. Photo/Getty Images

HK Gruber, as he is known professionally, composed his first music at the age of  six, telling his parents he wanted to be a composer. “They were surprised, thinking the world doesn’t need more composers.” His musical career began with four years in the Vienna Boys’ Choir. (Gruber’s snoring in the dormitory there earned him his enduring nickname, Nali.) He remembers visiting New Zealand with the choir in 1955 as part of a months-long international tour.

Vienna is artistically conservative so Gruber’s discovery of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s music, at the age of 12, was a revelation. “Stravinsky is still my main god. I have a lot of gods, but he is the ‘godfather’. He had many styles, but it’s fascinating that he developed a sound and a way of writing that is always Igor, nothing else. And he is never boring – I hate boring music.”

To support his composing ambitions, Gruber became an orchestral double bass player, but his true musical character was revealed in his twenties when he and composer friends Kurt Schwertsik and Otto Zykan formed the radical left-wing MOB art & tone ART ensemble, playing compositions far removed from the earnest theory-based work of the early 20th-century Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and the mid-century European serialists Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

“MOB art was not a reaction against something,” Gruber says, “it was for something. We wanted to create music an audience could understand without explanation, based on rhythm, melody and harmony. This was a crime in those days because in hardcore modern music those elements were completely forbidden. We wanted to create music that finds the common denominator between non-educated and educated audiences.”

Frankenstein!! began life as a MOB piece but was revised for orchestra in 1978, and that is the version he will perform with the NZSO. Gruber also discovered another “god”, Kurt Weill, whose use of jazz and cabaret idioms has strongly influenced his composing aesthetic. In Weill and another Austrian, Hanns Eisler, he found composers who understood that “simplicity does not mean stupidity”.

Studying recordings of the distinctive singing of Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, and singer Ernst Busch, Gruber the MOB artist built on his classical training and found his voice as a chansonnier. The incomprehensibility of opera singers irritates him and he promotes in his own and Weill’s music a kind of singing combined with speaking, “so you understand each word and then it’s very simple – you just have to use sharp vowels, rolling R’s with which you can cut the grass and consonants that explode like bombs”.

Another Gruber “bestseller”, his trumpet concerto Aerial, is also featuring in the NZSO concert. In the late 1990s, Gruber was playing double bass in an orchestra when Swedish trumpet virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger was concerto soloist. “Håkan discovered me sitting behind the bass, though I tried to hide myself,” jokes the composer. Hardenberger asked him to write a concerto for him. “I said yes just to get rid of him. A few weeks later, I got a commissioning letter from the BBC.” Aerial was premiered at the 1999 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Neeme Järvi.

Håkan Hardenberger. Photo/Marco Borggreve/Supplied

Hardenberger, one of the world’s most remarkable contemporary trumpet players, spent long preparatory sessions with Gruber demonstrating technical possibilities, including his 20-odd sound-altering mutes. Gruber asked if he’d ever played the cow horn, to which the trumpeter replied, “No – but I’ll send you a message when I get one”. Eventually, a loud trumpeting mooing was heard from Gruber’s answerphone “and I knew this was a message from Sweden and included the cow horn in Aerial in that pitch range”.

Aerial also expresses the composer’s feelings about the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia. “I heard of the massacres in our neighbouring country and couldn’t believe that after World War II, this was happening again only 300km from my home,” says Gruber. “A sadness came into my heart and into the music.”

The title refers to the fact that it is “a piece made from air”, Gruber explains, and to “aerial views”. Aerial’s second movement imagines a young boy and his grandfather looking back from space at an abandoned Earth, an empty planet with a little sign bearing the movement’s title, Gone Dancing! The jazzy dance world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers mixes with a raucous frenetic Balkan folk idiom as the work rackets to a brilliant and exotic conclusion.

Frankenstein!! by the NZSO, with conductor and chansonnier HK Gruber and trumpet soloist Håkan Hardenberger, is on in Wellington on October 10 and Auckland on October 11.

This article was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.