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Born in Vienna, HK Gruber was a member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir and then studied composition and bass at the Hochschule für Musik. He was a professional bass player in the 1960s, and in 1968 he joined Kurt Schwertsik and Otto Zykan in founding the MOB art and tone ART Ensemble, with which he began singing and acting. He came to international attention in 1978 with the premiere of Frankenstein!!. He has since performed the role of chansonnier in the work many times (including a 1998 Green Umbrella performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group), and he includes other works such as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King in his repertoire.
In addition to his dramatic works, Gruber is also acclaimed for his concertos, including two violin concertos, a cello concerto, and the trumpet concerto Aerial. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group gave the West Coast premiere of the Cello Concerto in 1998, with Daniel Rothmuller the soloist and the composer conducting; the LA Phil gave the U.S. premiere of Aerial in 2002, with Hakan Hardenberger the soloist, Daniel Harding conducting.) Gruber appears frequently as a conductor, including an appointment with the BBC Philharmonic. His most recent works are into the open… for percussion and orchestra and the opera Tales from the Vienna Woods.
The composer has written the following note:
“The origins of this ‘pan-demonium’ go back to the Frankenstein Suite of 1971 – a sequence of songs and dances written for the Vienna MOB art and tone ART Ensemble, which was then active in the field of instrumental theater. Although the Suite was a success, I was unhappy about its improvisatory structure, and also needed the resources of a full orchestra. So in 1976-77 I completely recomposed the work in its present form. It was first performed on November 25, 1978, by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Simon Rattle, with myself as soloist. For the 1979 Berlin Festival I wrote an alternative version for soloist and 12 players (first performed that year by the Vienna ensemble die reihe under Kurt Schwertsik, again with myself as soloist). Since then, the two versions have happily co-existed; and in 1983, at the Espace Cardin in Paris, Frankenstein!! entered the theater for the first time – an unforeseen development, but one that proved well suited to Artmann’s multi-layered fantasy.
“The title of the volume from which I took the poems for Frankenstein!! – Allerleirausch, neue schöne kinderreime (Noises, noises, all around – lovely new children’s rhymes) – promises something innocuous; but Artmann himself has described the poems as being, among other things, covert political statements. Typically he refused to explain what he meant. But his reticence is eloquent: the monsters of political life have always tried to hide their true faces, and all too often succeed in doing so. One of the dubious figures in the pandemonium is the unfortunate scientist who makes so surprising an entry at midpoint. Frankenstein – or whomever we choose to identify with that name – is not the protagonist, but the figure behind the scenes whom we forget at our peril. Hence the exclamation marks!
“Artmann’s demystification of heroic villains or villainous heroes finds a musical parallel in, for instance, the persistent alienation of conventional orchestral sound by recourse to a cupboard-full of toy instruments. However picturesque or amusing the visual effect of the toys, their primary role is musical rather than playful – even the howling plastic hoses have their motivic/harmonic function. In order to do justice to the true significance of the texts it would not be enough to provide some extra exercises in structural complexity. By analogy with Artmann’s diction, my aim was a broad palette combining traditional musical idioms with newer and more popular ones and thus remaining true to the deceptive simplicity of texts whose forms at first glance suggest a naïve and innocently cheerful atmosphere.”