Image of Vienna

Experience 12 – “…is there any way it can actually be as good as I remember?”

Sebastian Adams

Posted: 25 July, 2017

I studied in the Royal Irish Academy of Music and spent my Erasmus studying electroacoustic composition for a semester in Vienna, and it’s not only the time I remember most fondly but also one that was hugely important for me.

I was incredibly lucky that the city I wanted to go to (despite having never been there) and the teacher I wanted to study with lined up. Karlheinz Essl is an inspirational figure and a bit of a doyen in his field. He disagreed fiercely at times with what I wanted to do, but he never stood in my way and his disapproval forced me to think hard about my work. He gave a lot of himself to his students, bringing us to concerts (with dinner or drinks afterwards), lending us expensive gear and even organising concerts of our music. The Erasmus students were treated like core members of the class and given as much attention as anybody else. Among our other teachers, Wolfgang Musil and Johannes Kretz were also brilliant, fascinating and extremely kind to us. The experimental music department was holed up in a slightly dilapidated building quite far away from the rest of the MdW campus, which made every class seem like an illicit trip into an exciting underworld.


It goes without saying that Vienna is a beautiful city. What’s harder to catch from photos is the electricity in the air: it always felt to me as if the atoms that had formed the incredible citizens of days gone by were still hanging in the atmosphere, waiting to be consumed again. Far from being a museum city, the place is alive with creativity, and for any kind of thinker or artist the streets of Vienna are a catalyst for thought and expression. For me, this didn’t lead to a huge amount of actual work, but I did walk around thinking about the same things over and over – maybe this sounds like a terrible idea, and some friends have said that I came back weirder than I left, but I definitely think it was time well spent…

The other special thing about Erasmus in Vienna was being somewhere with world class operas and concerts happening every night. Despite its reputation for wealth, even snobbery, Vienna’s music spaces are probably the world’s most egalitarian – they have enormous standing areas at the back, where you simply queue for a ticket and can then see the best orchestras and singers for €5. I went to the Musikverein and Staatsoper about 70 times while I was there, and got to know a huge amount of music. Notably, I fell head over heels in love with Bruckner, an affliction that has irritated everybody I know ever since.

This electricity and culture, along with the teachers and living away from home, completely changed me as a person. I left Vienna feeling I knew more about myself and could think more deeply about life and art than before. I recently booked flights back for the first time in four years, and I have to admit I am slightly worried: is there any way it can actually be as good as I remember?

Sebastian Adams (b. 1991) is RTÉ lyric FM’s Composer in Residence and was recently Dun Laoghaire Rathdown’s Emerging Musician in Residence. He is founder and co-director of Kirkos, former chair of the Irish Composers  Collective and co-director of the Fishamble Sinfonia.

Commissions include RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, RTÉ Concert Orchestra, RTÉ ConTempo Quartet and Máire Carroll. Crash Ensemble, Benyounes Quartet, Fidelio Trio, David Adams, Sarah Watts, Beatrice Berrut, Lina Andonovska and William Dowdall are among many past performers.

As a violist, Sebastian has premiered works by many of Ireland’s leading composers.


He studied in Vienna (Karlheinz Essl) and Dublin (Kevin O’Connell & Jonathan Nangle).

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