FEATURE
Stefan Fraunberger - The Purgatory of Meaning

Stefan Fraunberger - The Purgatory of Meaning

1. Introduction

Before Outernational Days 2 festival started, I decided to interview Shape artist Stefan Fraunberger, one of the guest artists, born in Austria but transformed throughout his earthly experiences and choices into a man of many borrowed-embodied roots.

Composer, sound performer but also a linguist speaking Arabic, Persian, Romanian with an inherent anthropological eye, Stefan is interested in the periphery, the ‘in between’ and the non-established cultural wonders; the ambiguity of language and sound alike. His unorthodox use of instruments like deserted church organs or dulcimers combined with his deconstructive, conceptual thinking make him one of the most interesting, unconventional artists I’ve listened in quite a while.

Since I picked him from the airport and following the next three days we spent together, I was struck by his skills of speaking Romanian, many archaic phrases and subtle nuances of speech and humor. At first I thought he had some relatives here but it turned out he spent less than a few years working near Sibiu, added with visits he did periodically in different parts of Romania. He was even excited to share the stage with Florin Salam, as the first act of the four programmed for Sunday evening, alongside Ogoya Nengo & The Dodo Women’s Group and Mark Ernestus’ Ndagga Rhythm Force. Unfortunately many locals did not get the curatorial, multiculti bliss of that evening, choosing to speak or write only about Salam and the many outdated questions regarding manele’s place.

Stefan’s performance was powerful and very appropriate as an opening act. Using a synthesized Santur he created an orchestra-like feeling with layers of gloomy drone soundscapes entangled with naïve harmonies twirling endlessly, as if it replicated a parallel universe genesis.

This conversation was recorded on July 9, while having lunch in Bucharest’s Old City Center at the post-traditional romanian restaurant Lacrimi și Sfinți – named after a book by Emil Cioran that Stefan read.


“‘In one sense the Reality is creatures; in another sense it is not. ... Whether you assert that it is undivided or divided, the Self is alone. The manifold [universe] exists and yet it does not exist.’ - Ibn Arabi”

2. Science Fiction and Alien Sonics

Some ‘țuică’ before we start?

Stefan Fraunberger: No, not before the concert, I usually don't drink before going on stage.

We talked about many things these days, but I didn't ask you, when did you start playing music?

SF: A long time ago; in fact, I already started experimenting with sounds in my mother’s womb, it's very noisy there and anyhow, the most interesting noise symphony you can get if chilling around your mother's womb. That was the beginning of perceiving things and being open for transformation. Unfortunately I don't remember it. Later on I started doing more boring stuff like making experiments with tapes and playing the piano.

How old were you?

SF: A naughty young boy; but all of that is not so important. I mean, I quit playing the piano and started imitating cows and cars, which was fine, but I also started playing bass in rock and jazz bands... imitating the big idols of rock n roll and jazz transported by the free media. Right after I finished school I went to do my civil service, the alternative for military in Austria, this is mandatory. I went abroad to Sibiu, in Ardeal, for 14 months doing social work with old people and then all of a sudden this normative and hegemonial music stuff stopped within. It was like losing faith in the free world entertainment. I was 20 and got quite bored repeating all of this prefabricated attitudes and gestures.

How did you get rid of the need to copy the stuff you were listening too?

SF: In Sibiu I just had my personal computer along, an old and slow carriage. So I started producing electronic music all alone lacking a proper scene. I think I started developing my own style while dwelling in Romania. I did some beat pieces but then I also found out about these old Saxon church organs which I started playing because I was living in an ex-priests' house. Naturally I wanted to play the organ at night time because I found it fascinating and I had access to the deserted church next door. It was around 7-8 years later when I came back, that I figured out consciously what that means in a sonic sense: there were all these organs here, left by Saxons who migrated to Germany, ran away to 'Modern Talking'. These old objects are very interesting from the perspective of electronic music because they are like synthesizers.

In what sense?

SF: The organs have not been renovated for hundreds of years. So the whole mechanics of the instruments are still the same as in baroque times. Such fun things you hardly find in Austria, there are just a few specialized old music instruments played and guarded by rotten academics whereas the rest is modernized and the mechanics are replaced by boring electrics. In Ardeal’s deserted churches I was fascinated by working the original wooden mechanics, out of tune eaten by rats and time. Trying to find out about their condition I would work with their sounds in a way that resembles electronic music – generating an extraterrestrial sonic base within left space. These ruined old organ space-ships which are somehow “at the end of the world”, in villages that are abandoned, represent a sort of pre-modern future. I like the combination of the inherent archaic nature with my search for science fiction and alien sonics.

3. Cultural Appropriation

You mentioned in one of our previous talks that while in Romania you chose a Romanian performance alias. What was it?

SF: I stayed all alone with my headphones but I chose an artistic name as I started learning Romanian, Strigoi Marțian Bolnav (Sick Ghost Martian). The first album I did, never released on a label, but still on my hard disk, it's called “Strigoi Martian Bolnav – Lăutărească veche din Transilvania.”

How do you fit in the Austrian cultural life?

SF: I am a Western white privileged man as it is said but it’s not really like that... if you look at certain facts it´s clear: I use signs which don’t represent modernity in an imperial way so I don’t represent the glory of wealth. I mean, we know that countries like Austria have colonial interests – especially in countries like Romania. And it’s clear that art, music and fashion are the “avant-garde tools” of colonial interest. If there is something strange, I mean something distorting the iconic truth of power, people get afraid and shut down the gates of information. Well - rats in deserted German organs in Romania are maybe not representing the aesthetic conditions of power. I could also say that this gig here in Bucharest is fitting very well because I am somehow part of the outernational condition.

Yesterday we had a panel on cultural appropriation – a vague term – but how do you position yourself in this regard?

SF: The whole discussion about cultural appropriation is a bit far from the way I think, because things are exotic if you don't know them. So if I have never been in Iran and I would just listen to Iranian music I would probably find it nice and exotic. Also you might think that because I'm playing Santur, I want to use something which is theirs. That would be the immediate thought about cultural appropriation. In my point of view this is very wrong because if Persians would wear sneakers or play an electric guitar nobody's complaining. This means we tend to make one culture exotic so it's outside the universal colonial culture and the other culture just universal. Statements like 'electronic music is universal' are true to a certain extent but a Santur is universal as well, isn't it?

So it's a sort of positive discrimination?

SF: Yeah, exactly. As I said, if you don't know something, it seems exotic. For me it’s very exotic to go to northern Germany or Scandinavia because I hardly know it. I lived in Romania and in Arab countries for a long time, so all of what I’m trying to express is part of my personal history and it's normal for me. It's more normal for me than to imitate the hegemonial styles of universal glory shining in every corner of this world...

Because even though it's more Western you didn't have any personal experience with it.

SF: If a Japanese is playing Mozart, than nobody screams cultural appropriation, because Mozart is universal, isn't it? Well, Mozart is just Austrian central European culture I would say. If an Austrian is playing Japanese koto music, he's labeled doing something exotic. I'm not ok with that because it s the reenactment of the colonial structure, I mean there is a universal hegemony in the world and anything else is exotic - world music, folk, foreign traditions – anything we didn’t learn from the media parents. As far as I know the Catholic Church claims to be universal as well... If a French person and a Scandinavian are doing an artistic collaboration – it’s called collaboration but if a Chinese and a Nigerian are collaborating, they're doing a multicultural collaboration – which is kind of odd. I mean the way culture is treated nowadays is like talking about race 90 years ago... In fact any culture could be a space of possibility. We tend to forget that. I started playing the Santur because I always liked it, I had this relationship with its sound, and it’s so much closer to me and to my heart than so many other things technically prescribed by industrial boredom. I like to transform the Santur to work it like a mad synthesizer. I definitely worked a long time to transform this small instrument into an elephant swimming in the Styx – saying hello to deranged creatures and entities. Who says what is universal and what is modern is in fact just a political thing. I mean what the hell – culture is in any case universal!

Most of the cultural appropriation is made from third world countries or poorer countries; so when Western people use their instruments and sound, for example, it turns into an issue of authenticity, where consciously (or unconsciously) you become a representative of a culture with which you don't have any actual connection to.

SF: Yeah – I mean European culture is, since centuries, nothing but an hermeneutic culture of interpreting mainly Middle Eastern texts and musical developments... Till now it seems as if Christianity is a European thing, it seems as if Jesus himself was a white trash prophet from the very beginning. Since the Roman church defeated the Turks in Vienna with knights wearing golden angel wings, Europe and all it ever interpreted became universal – more universal then even the absolute itself! It’s interesting to add that everything not explainable and out of immediate rational reach fell out of the grid of universality. Pepper is the basic ingredient for all and everything in Europe, but I have never seen it growing anywhere around... The difference between universality and culture – isn’t it the old story of Europe thinking that democracy and enlightenment are universal. In fact it's just European culture which came out of a special kind of idle euro-christianity mixed with bored Greek philosopher-fisherman and Italian shepards. Nowadays universality seems to have the form of a sneaker – European arts and science is a highly overrated and worn out stinky sneaker.

4. Decolonization

There is a new trend in academia regarding different fields, it's called decolonizing. In my opinion, through your work, you are a decolonizer of the music industry. Do you do this intentionally or it just happens to be so?

SF: Subconsciously yes. It doesn't matter if I am talking, writing or making music, there’s a certain drive which is anyhow the same in any kind of expression. For example, if as an Austrian I come the first time to Romania, I would be like 'Uuu, Romania, the country of Dracula, so adventurous!', and everything is so mafia around here...' that would be the Western colonial view on Romania and in order to get passed that, it really takes some time and you need different experiences to start learning real facts. If you live long enough in a foreign place it's not something else that you analyze, it just becomes part of you with all its problems and qualities. The so called West doesn't feel like a home to me because I feel it as an imaginary deadlock of wealth and fear. We should transform that into possibility.

Regarding that “spiritual imperialism” is quite an interesting term – sufis worked to get rid of that in any sense. It means that there are certain dogmas or an iconography that could block your imagination. I think religion is obviously not so important anymore, especially regarding the topic. So instead we could shift the term to “imaginary imperialism” and that is somehow the iconography of the glory of power. We have a certain view in mind of what is aesthetic and what is cool and what to follow – mostly that is connected to the English language and of course that is super imposed by an industry working with a heavy financial background. When I was younger and I got to know electronic music, the Western styles, I accepted it as the coolest shit – like a fashionable toy for 5 years old children. Maybe there's some grandmother in the Apuseni Mountains playing a tulnic and it's really stranger and more modern than experimental club tunes. For me it's just a game to unbalance these dichotomies between modern and traditional, progressive and conservative. In fact that’s the basic problem of our times – we are proud of our identification deadlocks; blocking the imaginary to yes or no.

5. Re-contextualization

How would you define your sound? I noticed from your website the use of some very post modern terms, if I may say so – interval crisis, here-after.

SF: I think sound is all about perception and not about reproducing textures and gestures. So I am trying to search for different ways of enhancing individual perception. Finding new gates to sonic perception is maybe my approach to composition. And the good thing about it: there is no wrong perception. Those post modern terms you are referring to are rather associating texts of tenth century Sufi poet Ibn Arabi and the whole wahdat al-wujud crew. They were not philosophers but rather writing about strange perceptional stuff related to being, language, sound and imagination from their very own experience. You can relate these texts to post modern philosophy but it's not so much a rational thing which is described. It’s rather a physical thing where every word is related to the body and its perception. But definitely the translation would make things seem post modern. So there is lots of ambiguity in these texts. It’s a Western and modernized thought to define in language – I would rather refer to a sonic language that’s defining through ambiguity so that you can understand 5 different things out of a single sentence. It's more like a physical thing, you hear a letter that triggers a state and then it's combined with something else. So the language is programming us, but physically, not rationally. Maybe it’s not programming us, it’s rather dancing us. Somewhere there is my interest in the sufis sonic understanding of sound and noise in its relation to meaning. Somehow I am referring to traditions that are not really known in the so-called West. The salafists on the contrary, which are heavily discussed in the media – rooting in twelve century rationalist theologians of Islam – they wanted things to have a single message or a single meaning and they wanted things to be understandable which is very interesting as nowadays the rational enlightened western society would be on a similar approach of defined meaning. This defined salafi theology is the source of modern and violent Islamic groups, but rooted in a similar mindset than European rationalists. It’s something like the enemy in the mirror. Both of them are sure about knowing the truth – no matter whether it’s religious or scientific. So post-modernity at least was or is aware of a basic ambiguity within language and bodies and its social benefits but I am rather referring to Sufism in theory and practice. I would say the associative fields covered by noises of meaning are definitely not fitting into the grid of rational realities. I do like to leave this grid – the grid of linear time and the grid of defined meaning.

Before you start theorizing and deconstructing all these concepts, do you trust your gut more when you compose?

SF: It's a process; sometimes I think too much and then I say fuck that – getting the sonics right is about embodiment and the brainfuck is just an ornament... But it's fruitful to think and thereby developing concepts. When I started working with old rotten church organs I didn’t quite realize the villages changed because the Germans that lived there left and the organs changed as well because of time and lack of maintenance. No matter what you are doing – transformation is a process happening anyhow. Rational thinking would block that and trusting the feeling would enforce the stream of possibility. It’s possible to think a lot about swimming but once you are in the water all of that does not count any longer.

So you are re-contextualizing these forgotten instruments?

SF: Yeah, you can say so. I would never come to the idea of playing church organ music in its classical sense. So it's a very weird thing to approach these forgotten sonic beasts as real individuals and not as functional tools. I mean it’s interesting to find natures very own patch and dialects within what went wrong. I never played these spaceships for anybody live, only for the few animals present there.

6. Sonic Archaeology

There’s an interview in which you coin yourself as a sort of sonic archaeologist but obviously it’s not literal.

SF: I can call my work sonic archaeology because archaeology in a more abstract sense means getting deeper into structures and dimensions, finding the sounds of things and mental states as they are. Also, getting deep into the present moment; that’s some kind of archaeology. Something I'd like to express with the “hear-after”.

It seems that you like to play between a sort of academic rigourosity and your intuition.

SF: Yes, there's nothing worse than pure academic brain-fuck. It's very nice to pursue knowledge but we should never lose track of reality and the fact that we are here in this world possessing an animalic soul that can be refined.

Are you then interested in culture as a whole rather than just for musical pursuits?

SF: Of course, to me there is so much more to perceive than just music but it is my main profession. I am a musician, I am a composer. That's what I'm doing and that's what I'm living off. But I'm so glad when I can learn a language and that I can see a house or a tree and I don't have to reduce everything to music.



Photo credits: Johanna Magdalena Guggenberger, Zara Pfeifer

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