Lothar Knessl  

Born on April 15, 1927, in Brno

For more than half a century, Knessl has not only documented the country’s cultural life as a journalist, but also helped shape cultural activities in many ways – for example with his work for the WIEN MODERN, mit nachhaltigen Weichenstellungen als Musikkurator des Bundes und nicht zuletzt als alleiniger Juror des Erste Bank-Kompositionsauftrags, der seit 1989 alljährlich vergeben wird und zu einer der bedeutendsten Auszeichnungen auf diesem Gebiet wurde.

Portrait Lothar Knessl

There is hardly an important performance of new music at which you won’t see him: Lothar Knessl, listening attentively, always open to new ideas – and always ready for a humorous bon mot or a critical remark, also often directed at the composers or musicians themselves. These remarks can be cynical at times, but they are never offensive – Knessl also expresses himself in a charming manner, if he doesn’t like something quite as much. For this “driving force of contemporary Austrian music” (Christoph Becher) the devotion to the cause always takes priority, resulting in Knessl’s appreciative attitude towards those dedicated to the same cause. In Austria’s contemporary music scene, there is probably hardly anyone who has not yet profited from his advice in one way or another, or who hasn’t had the pleasure of experiencing the one or other side of his activity.

Where to start? Firstly, there is the journalistic aspect of his work, initially as culture editor of the Austrian daily Neues Österreich, as well as for other media – an activity he continues to pursue sporadically right up to today. Knessl’s earliest writings already reveal a striking poignancy and clarity of judgment as well as a linguistic refinement that makes his works a pleasure to read even 50 years later. He became known to a broader public as creator of the radio series Studio Neuer Musik, later renamed Zeit-Ton – inestimable how many became inflamed themselves through Knessl’s flaming devotion to the music played in this series (and, of course, the content priorities he set therein).

A similar scenario unfolded with his various didactic initiatives – be that during his lectureship at the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies of the University of Vienna or, significantly not until later, at the Department of Musicology, where he introduced generations of students to (new) music theatre and new music.

Starting in the 1980s, Knessl, who had studied composition and moved in insider circles since the 1950s, appeared increasingly in the actual new music scene – as advisor and editor of WIEN MODERN, as president of the Austrian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music, etc. Other important decisions were made under his direction in the 1990s, when the Austrian culture minister Rudolf Scholten appointed him music curator (alongside Christian Scheib) of the Federal Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs: In these years, he succeeded in getting substantial support for the Vienna Klangforum and also founded mica – the music information centre austria, in which he had several positions.

Despite all these official functions and their lasting effects, Knessl has always been anything but a functionary, instead remaining committed to his original passion – an aspect that can be clearly felt at any meeting with him. In a vehement and critical manner he speaks when he considers it necessary and when in doubt his interest is focused on every single note, every single sound.

Lothar Knessl and the Erste Bank Composition Award

It was Claudio Abbado who during his time as music director of the Vienna State Opera initiated several consequential impulses. The world-class conductor not only launched the important initiative that led to the foundation of the WIEN MODERN festival, he also came up with the idea of an annual composition commission award as part of the festival. In 1988 the commission went to the German composer Wolfgang Rihm, as of 1989 to composers in and from Austria. Lothar Knessl, not only an undisputed expert in the genre of new music, but also press officer and editor at Vienna’s State Opera at the time, subsequently became the exclusive juror of the Erste Bank Composition Award.

Looking at the list of prize-winners and the time of their nomination, two aspects catch the eye: on the one hand, they really are largely the most important representatives of contemporary Austrian music; on the other hand, they were commissioned at a remarkably early stage of their careers. As a juror, Knessl combines far-sightedness and (calculated) risk-taking when he uses the award as a “kick start” while guaranteeing sharp power of judgment when honouring the creative oeuvre to date.

It is also owing to Knessl that since 2006 the Erste Bank Composition Award has been presented in an extended mode: now the new work is not only performed at its premiere – usually at the WIEN MODERN festival – but also assured a minimum of three performances by Vienna’s Klangforum. In addition, a CD of the commissioned work is released by the record label Kairos.