Agnes Palmisano

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Agnes Palmisano – master of dudeln

Vienna is the only city to have its own musical genre. And no, we don't mean the waltz – we're talking about the Wienerlied. And the best person to talk about that is a performer: Agnes Palmisano. She has total command of the unique "Wiener Dudler" and leads the Wienerlied from yesterday's wine bliss and death wish into the present. With fine tones, rich in nuances and mutlifaceted, musically deep, and apart from the mainstream.

How would you describe Viennese dudeln?

It is a mix of coloratura – classic Schöngesang, or beautiful singing – and alpine yodeling. A very strong, emotional expression. I compare it with what babies do with their voice: whining, whoops of joy, babbling with satisfaction. The feelings simply must be carried along in a dudler.

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Dudeln - a kind of Yodeling - by Singer Agnes Palmisano

How is a dudler created?

The dudler is the emotional expression of the song you are currently singing. Where you don't know the words is where the dudeln begins. There are also variants, in which the dudler comes first..

The pitches in the dudler are in principle fixed, but there is a bit of room for improvisation. Clearly, there are set rules about which syllables, consonant clusters and vowels can be used. A and O have a higher chest voice component than I or U. You alternate backward and forward between them. Like in yodeling. This yodeling technique exists all over the world, whether in the Alps or among the pygmy peoples. Stylistic subtleties in Viennese music are the color of the vowels, the vibrato, the amount of glissando, portamento....

A couple of questions about the city you live in: What does Vienna sound like to you?

Precisely in the right mix of a little refinement and a little roughness. The direct juxtaposition of both makes up Vienna. – A mix of Sachertorte and farmer's sausage.

What sets Vienna apart?

The tendency toward the phlegmatic, the homey. And the humor. Not only in the sense of funny, but also with the ability to laugh at oneself. About the brilliant and the dark side. Also typical is that there are many non-Viennese in Vienna. It's always been that way.

When do the Viennese grumble?

Oh, yes, that happens! And it's typical. It has to do with comfort. The Viennese scrapes together that bit of energy to get excited over something. However, more than that – changing something, for example – is not possible. A person from Vorarlberg, for example, wouldn't just talk, but would stand up and change things.

What is unique to Vienna?

The Viennese dudler. It is on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. When I was very young, I dudeled with Trude Mally, her accordion player accompanied me, I assumed her mantel, if you will. But there are now quite a few who do that for vocal effect or emphasis. People currently connect my name with it – that's OK, and I also really like it.

Where do you think Vienna is at its most beautiful?

On Danube Island and on my terrace. I have a long relationship with Danube Island that goes back to a school trip. Since I moved here, the place has been my anchor, I can move about here. I like skating. I can jump into the water everywhere here, whenever I want. Danube Island is so big that you can always find a quiet spot. When I drive over one of the bridges and look at it, I think to myself, "Ah, that's beautiful!"


View of Danube Island
© WienTourismus/Christian Stemper

Your tip: Where can you listen to Viennese music?

Every Tuesday at the Hengl-Haselbrunner heuriger. (Laughs). Which just happens to be where I live. We try to keep the lively making of music going. On these evenings, you never know exactly whether there'll be a concert or if a few musicians will meet to play music together.

Dudeln is surely not all you do...

I sing lots of Wienerlieder, preferably with my trio. But we don't perform only in a traditional context. We are currently playing a program of songs by the English Renaissance composer John Dowland in the Viennese dialect. It is performed at the Musikverein and at the Wiener Konzerthaus – one of my favorite places, by the way. I also really like playing programs of songs with the pianist Paul Gulda.

Where else do you like performing?

Everywhere! I feel the best in a chamber music setting when I sense the audience. We then create energy together. I'm not keen on singing amplified. My first monthly Wienerlied concerts took place at Café Prückel. I have learned to fill the space – they were fantastic years of learning. And now, of course, our heuriger concerts.

How important is the live moment during performances?

The consumption of music has been focused on a center for thousands of years, a concert hall is like a church, the stage the sanctuary, the musicians the celebrants. All of the energy flows in this direction. As an artist, you are responsible for taking this, transforming it, and letting it out in a different way. But a performer is equally as important as the space and the audience. That works immensely together. Every single listener is jointly responsible for whether the evening is a success – how and whether he or she opens up and lets the music in. When the audience really listens and sways along, that even changes the acoustics of the space.

Your star musical hour?

Gerhard Bronner discovered me as a young girl at the Wienerlied festival Wean hean, and we have made music together on occasion. Ultimately, I was allowed to perform in the Grand Hall of the Wiener Konzerthaus on his 80th birthday, with radio broadcast. That was so cool. Otherwise, I'd never have had the possibility to appear in such fantastic settings at that age.

Do you practice before performances?

I don't have to repeat Wienerlieder. Apart from that: of course I do! Some Wienerlieder are a kind of art form – ultimately, they exist for people to listen to them and be entertained. I have a really big repertoire. I like being on stage, where I can release the passionate stage performer in me.

Did you always want to become a musician?

I always wanted to sing, sing, sing. And be on stage.  I'm not a musician, I'm a singer. I am extremely fixed on voice and body. That interests and fascinates me, it always has.

Can anyone learn to sing?

I teach Wienerlied at the University of Music MUK – here: students from around the world –, but also vocal training for future teachers in Baden. It is appalling how afraid some people are of their own voice. They can only use it to speak. Actually, the human voice has a range of three octaves. Singing is a primal ability and necessity for expressing oneself on an emotional level. Babies sing before they speak. What the vocal chords do is much closer to singing than to speaking. That's why they have this large emotional expression.

Dudeln is a great way of engaging with your own voice. I also really like teaching it. You try out all registers of your voice. It has to flow.

Is singing good for you?

For sure. So is the social aspect: communal singing does something for you as part of a greater whole. That's something you can only experience. Sadly, that is gradually being lost, people are singing less and less, music is only consumed. Making music is needed.

Interview: Susanna Burger, June 2021

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