FEATURE
Konfrontationen: Interview with Hans Falb and Philipp Schmickl

Konfrontationen: Interview with Hans Falb and Philipp Schmickl

1. Everything comes together

We sat down in the basement of Jazzgalerie bar/restaurant with Hans Falb, the mastermind of Konfrontationen festival, and Philipp Schmickl, editor of The Oral magazine. Down in the chilly room, enjoying a cold spritzer and surrounded by hundreds of amazing records, we discussed a little bit of the history of the festival from Nickelsdorf, which is happening for almost four decades.


Hans, what are some of the albums that you were listening to in the ‘70s that made you think about wanting to do a festival? What were you trippin’ out on, back then?

Hans Falb: I was tripping out on Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and all this shit. After that I discovered the quality of funk and soul; electric jazz, fusion. And I didn’t know I would create a festival like this. It just developed by itself. I wasn’t like ‘I want to do this festival’. I was socialized in the ’68 generation; interested in politics, literature, black music, Afro-American culture; I was reading and reading and reading, listening and listening. The music of Archie Shepp and John Coltrane radicalized me.

I started the restaurant in ’76. Two years before, from ’74, when I finished the high school, to ’76, I was traveling, hitchhiking around the whole Europe, from Turkey, from Syria and the Lebanese border until up to North Sweden and West of Spain, the Atlantic coast….I was restless and I wanted to learn. I think I learned more on the roads than I learned in 8 years of high-school. I discovered all kinds of different cultures: gypsy culture, traveling people, hippie culture. I was always on the side of poor people, proletarian people; and I wanted to make money with something, you know?

So, the first festival.

Hans: Ok. The first festival…It was in 1979 and it was not called Kontrontationen, but ‘Four days of new music’. It happened down here on two weekends. I remember I had David Murray playing solo in front of five people, including myself. Two people bought a ticket for the David Murray solo. So he was walking from this door, and he started playing ‘Flowers for Albert’. And he was walking alone in the room; nobody was here. (laughs).

And there were also Dadaistic performances, surrealistic performances, from Minus Delta T. Minus Delta T acted in the public area, trying to disrupt the usual perspectives on things and stood in the best actionist tradition. They did a project in the early ‘80s, travelling in a big truck; they took a stone from Great Britain, 5 tons and half, left the careers of South Wales in England (origin of the site of Stonehenge) as far as Asia. And while they travelled with the stone, everything was recorded and broadcasted on Austrian Radio. So they would play music on the borders and meet local musicians, gypsy musicians, or musicians from Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey. And it was all broadcasted for two or three months on the Austrian Radio. They did this performance here and one of the guys was heavily wounded, because he jumped through the glass door. Yes, there was a glass door, before. And then they put him in hospital, and the next day police came to my place, because he escaped from the hospital, he didn’t want to stay there. They found his bloody shirts and maybe they were thinking that somebody got murdered. And I was like ‘no, he jumped through this door…but it was part of the performance.’ That was odd. And the police was like ‘what? What are you talking about?’

So yeah, everything is coming together. From the free jazz revolution, from Black Panthers, African culture, from crazy European surrealistic movements, Dadaistic situations.

Also, another story, that nobody believes. There was one Czech guy, called Karel Dudesek, also from the Minus Delta T movement. I think it was in the early ‘80s. They faked some American uniforms, generals, went from West Berlin to East Berlin, crossed the border and went to Poland, saying they’re inspecting the military camps. ‘The revolution is coming soon, we have to inspect the bureau of health, we want to bring the American army to Russia.’ It was still when the Russian pact was intact. And they travelled through Poland for - like - a couple of weeks, in all different cities and the military camp, and then back to Eastern Germany, and finally they went to checkpoint back to west, and they went to the most expensive shop in Berlin. So they went in the American uniforms and bought some champaign or whatever, from that shop. The detective of the house looked at the uniforms and said ‘these are fake uniforms, you’re not from the American army’. (Laughs) Nobody in Poland or in East Germany discovered they were wearing fake uniforms.


“I was restless and I wanted to learn. I think I learned more on the roads than I learned in 8 years of high-school. I discovered all kinds of different cultures: gypsy culture, travelling people, hippie culture. I was always on the side of poor people, proletarian people;”

2. European Preachers

So, in the beginning there were a lot of African - American musicians playing at the festival. And then, more and more European guys.

Hans: This is how I got my initiation on Afro-American culture, so that’s why I did a lot. 1980… Henry Threadgill, Jimmy Lyons, Fred Hopkins, Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, all the heroes from the ’69 - ‘70s in Paris, from the book and label Actuel. Clifford Thornton, whom I met the first time in 1978, he was living in my house, sometimes stayed for two or three weeks. He was a kind of teacher for me. Music, religion, philosophy and life.

What about the story of bringing from Rome - by bus - Roscoe Mitchell’s Art Ensemble of Chicago?

Hans: It was not Art Ensemble of Chicago, it was Arch Ensemble.

Roscoe Mitchell quote from Amilcar Cabral’s book - ''Tell No Lies Claim No Easy Victories’’

‘’I remember, Hans, you sending a bus to Rome to pick up the entire Arch Ensemble, a chamber orchestra dedicated to the performance of contemporary music sponsored by Thomas Buckner to Nickelsdorf. We were working on ‘’Variations and Sketches from the Bamboo Terrace’’, a composition originally written for the trio ‘Space’ (Thomas Buckner - voice, Gerald Oshita - woodwinds and myself - woodwinds). During this period I had started to incorporate the Arch Ensemble into this composition through the use of written and improvised sections. After hearing the recording from Nickelsdorf, I was inspired to write a completely notated version of this work that included major solo sections - not only for voice, but for bass and violin as well. This was a great period of learning for me and it was indeed a time where everything was possible.’’

Hans: And there was a theater in Los Angeles; Tom Buckner also founded 1750 Arch Records (avant-garde record label which released over 50 records).

Back then, it was much more difficult than today, but somehow it was easier, you know? Handwritten letters did the connections.

How were you promoting the event in the pre-internet time?

Hans: Posters, programs, little radio features.

What about the European guys?

Hans: The Europeans were coming between ’86 to ’88, people like Werner Lüdi, Lol Coxhill, Marty Ehrlich, Han Bennink, so we’ve always faced different countries, like the British scene, the Dutch scene, the French scene, the German scene. Also, a lot of South African musicians were living in Switzerland, like Johnny Dyani, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo.

So what was the audience’s reaction to this change, more European musicians coming in?

Hans: We lost the audience, because everybody was focused on the African American music, not on the European. Some people were open, but some other people were like ‘if it’s not playing every year Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, we are not coming anymore’. The European preachers, they were a little bit underrated.

Why?

Hans: I don’t know why.

This is very interesting, because the free jazz audience should be one of the most open and curious audiences.

Hans: Should be, but it’s not true.

And then, in the ‘mid 90s, on the third decade, when I started to bring electronic music and DJ culture, I remember that some people really offended me. They were like ‘Why are you doing this music? This is shit! They can’t play music!’. People like Christian Fennesz, all these electronic explorers, improvising musicians; the audience hated it, sometimes. Not all of them, but there were many. They said ‘if you continue like that, we are not coming anymore to your festival’. I said ’hey, listen, look, there is Evan Parker playing, there is Paul Lovens playing, there’s Alex Schlippenbach playing, Cecil Taylor, Radian, and you’re telling me something that I invite young musicians to do electronic music?’ So when there are changes, there are always heavy discussions at the bar, late at night with the audience.

3. Changes

Philipp, how do you see these changes?

Philipp: For me they're not really changes, because electronic music was always there, at the bar, like, from Tricky, Bjork, a lot of drum and bass, so it was always part of this place. So when it moved to the stage up there, for me it was not a real change, because here you listen to this music, all kinds of music, when you’re here. But when you come for the festival, you just see what’s at the festival. You don’t know that listening to music happens constantly here. And the festival is like a small image of what is happening all the time. I wasn’t here, during the first wave of Afro American musicians, but I love when they came back, later. Some of them, such as Roscoe Mitchell.

I came into this festival with Europeans, Americans, and then with electronic music. That happened all in the same time, from ’95 to ’97 and ’98; Radian played in 1998. Nobody knew them, now they are on their way. There was also one group playing, I think it was a year before, a laptop ensemble called Farmers Manual. I was sitting there; I was looking forward to this concert a week before, because that’s what I was listening to also. And then, the concert started and half of the audience just stood up and left. I remember that people said - like Hans was saying earlier - that this music is shit; they didn’t want this music, they wanted something else. But they didn’t get it, so they were angry. Maybe it was not about the music itself, it was the deception of not getting the usual stuff, the expected stuff. So it’s education - in a way - to not give the people what they want and make them think about changes, because everything is changing. I saw the poster on Hans’ office, with a monkey sitting in front of a computer and it’s written ‘everything changes always’. And so, I was not surprised or angry, I didn’t expect very much because I had no clue of what will come, so I was just there, waiting and see what’s going to happen. I never had this deception.

Hans: Thelonious Monk stated it in the ’50s - don’t care about what the audience is thinking about what you’re doing. Even if they don’t understand it and even if it takes them 30 - 40 years to make them understand, just go your way, do what you want, don’t care about it. And it was the same with Billie Holliday, Thelonious Monk, Sun RA or Charles Mingus. Their best time when they played music it was never accepted. Only very few were accepted.

The best thing you can do for your career is to die.

Hans: There was a piano player called Friedrich Gulda who faked his death for a Resurection Party event; he was a very good player of Mozart and Beethoven, and he always liked to play jazz. He also played together with Cecil Taylor in the mid ‘70s somewhere in Austria. And Cecil Taylor was like ‘oh yeah, my friend Fritz, ha ha ha, he loves to play jazz; he loves to play jazz!’ (Laughs)

On what criteria do you choose the artists?

Hans: First criterion is music quality, and then, the human quality, and the way you communicate; if it’s really on a common basis of understanding, of cultural understanding. And the last thing is the money.

Any new aspiring musicians that impressed you?

Hans: Well… the young guy – who’s not that young anymore - Philipp Quehenberger, who played in the church on organ, together with Drol Feiler. Or Katharina Ernst, who played yesterday at Kleylehof (with the project Ventil).

What about the local community of Nickelsdorf? How did they perceive you?

Hans: After 40 years, we are respected, established. But at the beginning it was very difficult. It was a fight. I had to stay strong. If you live in a big city it’s different, but in a small community, everybody knows about everybody. There was always a few, working in my restaurant, and they got a little part of education, listening to records, music, talk to Afro-American musicians, and become friends with them. Like a tiny island inside ‘the island’ of Nickelsdorf.

4. Prospects

Philipp, when did you join the team?

Philipp: There are several teams. There is the organization, and during the festival there is the bar team and the kitchen. I think this is my 20th festival. Back then, I was doing sandwiches in the kitchen. First… it was the people. Because it’s a very festive event. It’s not like some other festivals, where you just go for the music and then you leave. With time, I discovered the music and I really got into it.

Tell us a little bit about your magazine The Oral. When did you start it?

Philipp: Four years ago. It’s a very social thing. The Oral is… It makes people more human. Or their ideas and why they make music. And you can compare yourself or your inspiration or your interest in art and music to them. This music has also social sides, and that’s why I think I do it. But the first reason it’s my interest in these people. Because I am very interested in how they live, in how they have this art in their life and don’t do a regular job, like most of us. I can just go there and ask, and they tell me. Sometimes. Most of the times.

What are the prospects for the future of the festival, musically?

Philipp: Actually, Hans does most of the program. He receives thousands of emails from hundreds of musicians. And he’s open, if you tell him something. Sometimes it seems he’s not open, but you tell him about something, he knows, that - maybe - in that certain year the festival’s program is more or less done, but the next year he takes the idea that you’ve told him one a half years ago and he makes something out of it. It’s going very slowly, because there are so many things to process.
From my point of view, I think it should be always a mix of everything. Now there are acoustic instruments, and then acoustic instruments amplified, and electronics, and silence. It should be everything. No matter where technology goes, it should always be a part of this festival. So I cannot say it will be more electronics, or more acoustic, or more jazz, or less, or this or that.

How do you build these combinations of musicians on stage, with different projects?

Philipp: It really depends. For example, Paul Lovens, as he’s a neighbor, he comes here very often and he proposes one, two, three or four bands that he would like to do, and Hans can choose. And then it’s these bands, more or less. In 2011 there was a Lebanese rock band playing, named Scrambled Eggs. I was working here, at the restaurant, and I was playing the CD, over and over, and then we decided to invite them, and Hans said ‘but with Xavier Charles. We asked them and both of them agreed, and Xavier came and played a solo, and then played with Scrambled Eggs. And this idea came also from The Ex, because Xavier is playing with The Ex, so he’s experienced with rock music and he did rock in his past, so it fits very well. He leaves space for the artists, so they can decide what they want to do. There is also the idea that inviting somebody and leaving him (or her) the freedom of choosing his (or her) band. That’s also politics of this festival.

What can you do in Nickelsdorf, as a local?

Philipp: When I was living here, I was working here, in the restaurant, and until 4 years ago there was at least one concert per month, downstairs, in the club. But not anymore - because it’s legally forbidden to organize something downstairs. Sometimes, on Fridays, its packed here, with people who just play music, listen to Hans’ records, or bring their own records. There are chess players, normal people just having drinks, or drinking a lot and orally fighting. Normal stuff is happening here throughout the year, but in a more human way, if you compare it to other bars. It’s also like a refuge. You can come here and during the week, at 3 or 4 in the morning, most of the time is still open. I think this place saved some lives.

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*photo credits: Riccarda Kato // Kato Bookbird

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