|A choreographed cacophony of music and movement.|
Probably more bands than would care to admit it got their start in alcohol-fueled jams. For Mnozil Brass, the rambunctious Austrian septet that will take the stage at Obecní dům on Sunday night, itʼs a point of pride.
“We were all studying at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna in the early ʼ90s,” explains Wilfried Brandstötter, the groupʼs tuba player. “After classes, we went very frequently to a pub right in front of the university called Josef Mnozilʼs Inn, where there was a big jam session once a month. Because we all came from brass and wind bands in Austria, we found that we had a common repertoire: 10 marches, 10 waltzes and 10 polkas. So we didnʼt even have to rehearse. We just started playing together.”
The band has evolved into a tight unit that typically tours 20 countries a year, serving up a mix of boisterous playing, physical comedy and mischievous arrangements of a repertoire that ranges from Rossini to Henry Mancini to Queen. Their approach to music is perhaps best summarized by Brandstötterʼs description of his instrument: “The other players say my tuba is an unguided missile. Itʼs a weapon of mass destruction.”
Though there is no direct model for Mnozil Brass, the group takes inspiration from one of the wackiest American bands of the 1940s and ʼ50s. “We really love Spike Jones and the City Slickers,” Brandstötter says. “Itʼs surprising how good those guys were – on point every second. Their videos are 50, 60 years old, but still very fast and very funny.”
Like Spike Jones, Mnozil Brass puts on a show that appears to be pure anarchy, but is in fact exhaustively rehearsed and choreographed. It starts with the band members bringing ideas and music to planning sessions, with no restrictions whatsoever.
“We are very democratic when we come together,” Brandstötter says. “Maybe someone has been listening to Prokofiev a lot, and he says, Iʼd like to play this piece. So we try it out, and if it works, itʼs in the show.”
But thatʼs only half the performance. The other half is comedy routines that can take up to six months to put together. “For instance, in the program we are doing now, we have an Olympic competition that involves running and boxing and weight-lifting” Brandstötter says. “This really took quite a lot of time to develop, because everybody has to know what heʼs doing every second, or the jokes donʼt work.”
That show, which the band will be performing in Prague, is titled “Blofeld” – as in Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bondʼs archenemy. Asked what the audience can expect, Brandstötter will only say, “The show is about good and evil – with a lot of references to James Bond scenes, of course.”
Despite the emphasis on theatrics, Mnozil Brass performances are nonverbal, so they can travel worldwide with no problem. And Brandstötter and his colleagues have found that their musical vocabulary needs no translation.
“Sometimes we put musical jokes in the pieces, like inserting one bar from another piece, and you can hear people laughing,” he says. “In Japan, weʼve found that people are much more educated about Western music, like Mozart and Strauss and Stravinsky, than people in Austria or America. The Japanese are so into that music, they know every piece you play – which is amazing.”
When Mnozil Brass played at the opening concert of the Wiener Festwochen last month, an audience of nearly 40,000 people reacted so enthusiastically that two members of the band never made it back onstage for the encore, with one conveniently getting trapped at a beer stand. Czech audiences can identify with the beer part; as for the rest, Brandstötter simply envisions an enjoyable evening.
“The main goal of our show is to put on good entertainment that makes people feel relaxed and comfortable,” he says. “If they leave saying, Iʼve not thought about my sorrows for the past two and a half hours, then it was a big success.”
For more on Mnozil Brass: http://www.mnozilbrass.at/index.php?id=24&L=1
For a sampling of Spike Jones: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A0dw2UKRYSA
Photo by Carsten Bunnemann