Altdorf used to be an insignificant town close to the important Swiss Gotthard tunnel. Until the local Festival “Alpentöne” (Sounds of the Alps) changed everything. Thomas Burkhalter explains why.
It’s five a clock in the morning. The phone rings. My friend Angel Sanchez, a local journalist from Altdorf, picks up the receiver: The sound of trumpets, trombones, tubas hits his ear; the Mnozil Brass Band from Vienna is still playing well-known melodies from pop to folk to opera. They are giggling, cheering and seem to be having fun. They must have started their never ending-musical walk through the town of Altdorf more than twelve hours ago. Friends must have given them Angels phone number. Do they want to force us to write good reviews on the first “Alpentöne” Festival in Altdorf 1999? We would have done so anyway. I write in Zurich paper: “As one of the few festivals in Switzerland the International Alpentöne Music Festival offers surprises and adventurous musical experiments.” And my friend concludes that the festival sets an example of how to combine tradition and modernity: “It’s a promising approach for our alpine culture.”
Switzerland is set in the centre of Europe without belonging to it. A stereotype says that Swiss citizens who are against European integration – we’re not yet a member of the European Union – tend to listen to Yodel and live in provincial regions, where mountains limit the view of the horizon. Altdorf is exactly that kind of place: The picturesque town is located next to the motorway that connects the north to the south: The nearby Gotthard Tunnel is one of the most important links to Italy. There are two things the average Swiss knows about Altdorf: First, the monument of our (fictitious) national hero, Wilhelm Tell, is located here, and second, there are activists who like to demonstrate on the motorway, causing traffic jams and embarrassing the Swiss minister of transport. Since 1999, “Alpentöne” Festival has changed a lot: For three days every other year musicians from Slovenia, France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland combine and contrast Alpine culture with classical or contemporary music. And all of a sudden, people from urban and rural areas visit Altdorf. Two years ago, the Swiss minister of culture opened the festival, national TV- and radio-stations recorded and aired concerts, and at times, the clicking noises of the press photographers drowned the music presented on stage. In short: Cultural Switzerland has found a Festival that it likes and that it wants to support.
Several things about this festival seem to be very special to me. Firstly, the artistic consultants Mathias Rüegg (from the Vienna Art Orchestra) and his successor Urban Frye have tried to organise exclusive projects for “Alpentöne” and have preferred taking musical risks to presenting well-known artists playing their musical program day in day out. “The Alps” therefore sound quite special in Altdorf. And secondly, the musicians normally stay in Altdorf for the duration of the festival, some of them practising or even jamming together in town: In 1999, the Austrian saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig and the Brass Band Mostviertler Birnbeitler, for example, played for a whole afternoon in front of the Wilhelm Tell Monument. Puschnig was very happy about the Festival: “The most important musicians working with elements of alpine culture meet in Altdorf. I hope and believe that this event will inspire more musicians to experiment with their roots”, he said. There were plenty of outstanding concerts in the two main concert halls, the Tellspielhaus and the Open Air stage on Lehnplatz in 1999 and 2001: The Swiss duo Stimmhorn mixed yodelling with overtone singing and played alphorns in unexpected ways; the Italian tambourine player Carlo Rizzo and the Swiss jew’s harp player Anton Bruhin experimented with their instruments; Gianluigi Trovesi and Gianni Coscia interacted on a high musical level and switched elegantly between folk and classical styles. Generally speaking, the musicians of “Alpentöne” work with contemporary music styles, concepts and techniques while at the same time being interested in the archaic and asymmetric sounds of an alpine musical culture that has been adjusted, harmonised and castrated by people who have abused it to create a national identity from the 18th and 19th centuries onwards. The results of this process can be found in TV-shows and on commercial tapes in supermarkets today – but definitely not at “Alpentöne”: “The crowd loves crazy musical experiments”, asserts Töbi Tobler from “Das neue Appenzeller Streichmusik Quintet”. Together with Paul Giger and Arnold Alder (violin), Fabian Müller (cello) and Francisco Obieta (bass), the Swiss dulcimer player created music that swam in slow-motion through disharmonies, slowly found its way into traditional melodies and ended in a celebration of the idiosyncrasies of Appenzell music.
Töbi Tobler is right. People seem to enjoy the “crazy” concerts and tend to criticize superficial fusions. This year, the festival focus on the southern regions of the Alps. There is music from Provence, from Turin, Friuli and Slovenia, and Michel Godard, who rearranged old chants from the Codex 121 of Einsiedeln Monastery, especially for the festival. “A second focus will be placed on the way people from the outside view the Alps”, says Frye, thinking of poets like Wordsworth, but also painters like William Turner and composers such as Brahms, Schubert, Strauss or Rossini’s ‘William Tell’. The latter’s was in turn adapted and arranged by the Big-Band-Leader Mike Westbrook. Mike and Kate Westbrook will perform their newly written composition “In the footprints of Turner” at Alpentöne together with the local Brass Band of Uri and a specially formed 24-voice Festival Choir – professionals and non-professionals hitting peaks together is typical of “Alpentöne”.
The future of the festival looks bright. After the European Union has defined the alps as a cultural area, Alpentöne received financial support from the EU and will work together with organisers in Slovenia (Bled) and maybe France, Italy and Austria in the future. “Each partner will commission two new music projects, so that in the end we will have new musical creations at Alpentöne every year,” explains Frye. With this strategy, the festival is able to focus on its qualities: exclusive co-operations and new compositions. And personally, I shall remember one particular highlight that will prevail: In 1999, after the phone call, and again two years later, my friend Angel and I enjoyed a very special sound-walk in the local nature reserve: Michel Portal was improvising on his clarinet in a forest, Hans Hassler played his accordion in a brook, while “New Alp Music” pioneer Hans Kennel blew his funky alphorn in the local lake.