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Interview with Christof Kurzmann

Interview: Kurt Liedwart, February 2010

Tell us about your earliest and early musical memories.

My first musical memories are my parents listening to classical music and jazz, telling me, that music is a tool for revolution. They would listen to everything from Tchaikovsky and Beethoven to Smetana and Mendelsson-Bartholdy. Besides they listened to Ella [Fitzgerald], Louis [Armstrong], Duke [Ellington] and... Victor Jara.

When did you start playing music? What was your first instrument and why did you choose it?

My first instrument was a tenor saxophone. I've chosen it, because I was a huge fan of Archie Shepp, Davis Murray...

Then you switched to clarinet. Why?

My switchover to clarinet was mainly because I found out, that the saxophone is not fitting into electronic music. The one who do (for example, John Butcher) are real superheroes of their instrument. Because of its overtones scale, the clarinet is much easier to be combined with electronic sounds.

What were the projects you played in the 80s and 90s?

I had a by then quite famous avant-rock band called Extended Versions. Our music was based on drum computers and samples. My partner Helmut Heiland was playing guitar and bass, I was singing, playing saxophones and guitar. Our side project The More Extended Versions with invited drummer and female vocals, did 2 records of cover versions of Robert Wyatt.

Do you plan to continue covering wyatt in the future? By the way what do you think of "wyatting covers"?

I still love to play covers of Robert from time to time. Actually, he liked our cover versions a lot and re-sampled our cover on his record "Shleep". A few years later Robert would play the trumpet on one of my tracks, but this never got released. He is one of the last great marxist in business. He always kept quality in music and lyrics and he's got a voice to die for. Unless there would be a special occasion, I think, I did my work on Robert and go on exploring other musicians.

Did you get any formal musical training?

Never.

How did you get into music? From aside it's not easily understandable how you got into the epicenter.

I was into music from childhood on. But first I started out organizing concerts. When I was 16 I already organized concerts of Lol Coxhill, Jon Rose and Louis Sclavis. When I was 18 it was Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor and others. Besides that I was journalist and later working on the state radio in Austria. But I was too much admiring all these musicians, I thought they were gods. Only later, when I was 23 or 24, when meeting Fred Frith, Tom Cora and Jad Fair, who encouraged me a lot to try myself, I finally thought "OK, why not?". So I got into rock or let's say avant-rock. I never thought I would be able to improvise, when one day the laptop appeared as a big opportunity to me. Until today, playing with some musicians like Frith, Butcher, Johannes Bauer among others, I remember that I was sitting in their concerts some years ago admiring them (which i still do today, of course).

Who influenced you musically and esthetically?

Huh. I don't know what to put here. As I'm interested in every kind of music from hip-hop to rock, from jazz to electronica (but no operetta, please), and every instrument (besides didgeridoo and pan flute) what should I answer here? I guess for once again I have to answer, that besides some musicians that I follow since years (Wyatt, Coleman, Frith, Bozulich) it's more themes and phases. Of course, I'm interested and inspired by musicians who are into politics, but then also into hip-hop, free jazz, cumbia...

What is your attitude towards reduction?

I think that silence is a quite basic and very important parameter in music. That's why I was very interested in reductionism for some time. Now that I feel I learned a lot with and about it, I finally reached to move onwards, knowing about but not necessarily being stuck to it.

What can you tell about the Austrian music community (electronic, Improv, experimental). How do you see it?

Till the middle 90s Austria was a quite boring country, concerning the music scene. There were some interesting bands from Austria, but finally because of its geographical isolation as the last state before the "iron curtain", most of the interesting things from abroad never came to play.
With the upcoming of the internet an electronic music scene developed, that was very important and influential even outside of Austria or even outside of Europe. Since then, I feel, the scene became much more vivid.

That's why you started organizing concerts in the 80s? This interview coincided with me reading Leo Feigin's "All that jazz" issued this year in Russia and I know that your ways crossed.

Part of it is answered above already. And yes, I organized Cecil Taylor's Vienna concert in the year 1987 of which he produced the live "In Vienna" record on Leo Records. When I went more and more into being a musician myself I started to organize more festivals and stopped series, because they were asking for much more time and commitment to a certain place. In I organized together with a friend a festival of electronic music. At that time the movement of electronica was slowly coming up in Austria (or Europe at all) and we started to invite all the musicians, that we knew only from records, because they've never been to Austria before. This festival "phonoTAKTIK.95", which turned out to be, without our knowledge, the biggest festival of electronic music in Europe at that time, was more or less also the starting point for the whole electronic music scene in Austria, bringing Kruder/Dorfmeister, Pulsinger/Tunakan, Fennesz and Mego to the front pages of all the big music papers like Rolling Stone and NME.
Later I continued with "Hyperstring", a festival about the modern use of guitars with electronics (with O'Rourke, Earth, Ira Kaplan, KK Null, Sonic Boom...), then an exhibition on the development of electronic music through history at Künstlerhaus Wien. Among others: "Uchiage" (Japanese mucic today - with Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Taku Sugimoto, Taku Unami, Tetuzi Akiyama, Ami Yoshida, Toshimaru Nakamura...) and then "Collective Identities (with Fennesz, Marcus Schmickler, Peter Brötzmann, Radian, The Necks, John Russell / Roger Turner, Robin Fox, Marina Rosenfeld...).

Tell us the story of Charhizma.

When I started Charhizma, the label market was quite different from today. I was very much interested in electronic music or improv. And there were not a lot of labels around that time. So I felt the need of founding one in order to bring up my own and the music of friends to wider recognition. In the first years Charhizma did quite well selling quite a lot of copies and getting reviewed in many magazines. With the upcoming of millions of other labels and with the beginning of electronic music downloads the sales stagnated and I also lost the meaning of doing it.

The first release on Charhizma and Morr Music is the same. How did it come about?

The record "Pop Loops For Breakfast" by B.Fleischmann, first appeared on CD on Charhizma. Later the same year Morr Music started and I licensed the record to him, so he could release it on vinyl.

When and why did you start using computer and lloopp?

I started to use the computer with lloopp at the end of the 90s, when Klaus Filip came up with the program.

Did you know each other before?

Yes, me and Klaus were friends for long time already. We both were members of the group of "Objectors of military and civil service in Austria". From that same group also my partner Helmut Heiland, with whom I started my first band Extended Versions. So this friendship goes all the way back to 1985. I eventually appeared as a guest on Klaus's first record "Sigis Bruder".

How do you work with sounds? Do you prepare sounds when you work with particular musician?

First usually I choose samples from sounds that I like. Self-recorded or from other CDs, records. Then after about a year, when I got familiar with a sound I can manipulate it in every thinkable direction, thanks to Klaus Filip and lloopp. So that's when I reach the state to incorporate a certain sound in my vocabulary as part of my "instrument". Of course, I choose different sample banks and processing tools, depending on the musician I play with.

How often do you renew them?

It's not a process of total renewal. It's more adding from time to time and erasing others at the same moment.

Do you have any particular processing methods or algorithms, any particularly beloved ways of processing, any plugins, any techniques you can share?

I'm actually just a user of my instrument — not a programer. I think I came very far with it. But at the same time I still can't talk about it from a technical point of view.

Do you follow after software developments? Did you switch already to ppooll?

No. That's why Klaus also got angry we with me at some moment. Because I stick to a very old version from maybe the end of the 90s, which I still run from MAC OS 9. I don't want to change it. It's like, when you got used to your guitar, saxophone, violin, you won't change them, unless they are crap. Maybe, in comparison with ppooll, lloopp is crap, but for me there is still so many things to do with it, that... Eventually, I have a lot of time and will set up ppooll as well. But not replacing my setup, but adding as an option. By now klaus accepted, that I am who I am.

Do you have new projects? What will we hear in the future?

For the moment I concentrated on three projects: Schnee (with Burkhard Stangl), The Magic I.D. (with Kai Fagaschinski, Margareth Kammerer and Michael Thieke) and my newest project El Infierno Musical (with Ken Vandermark, Eva Reiter, Clayton Thomas and Martin Brandlmayr).
As I go on to Latin America more and more, longer and longer, I'm sure to come up with projects there as well, be it with Eden Carrasco, Toto Alvarez, Leonel Kaplan or someone else.

How do you judge or evaluate that improvisation is good?

It's hard to tell. On the one hand, it should have a certain freshness and surprise without being charlatanry or arbitrary. On the other hand, improvisation is in a state where it found its vocabulary already, it's language. So you can play a "safe set" these days, without "hurting" or surprise anybody and so it can get quite boring as well. I guess good music in improvisation has to keep a balance between these poles.

And your quest for freshness brought to "campaign against you in the press"? I still don't get what actually bothers critics in "Palmar Zähler" or "Neuschnee".

I think what bothers them most is, that they can't pidgeonhole me. They want me to be "eai" or "electronica" or "free jazz" or "electropop" and I refuse, doing all at the same time.

When and why did you turn to song?

I started with songs actually. But after the fall of the "iron curtain" and the fall of the Berlin wall, I lost my voice. So I stopped singing for a while, found the computer and dedicated myself more to abstract musical forms, which became my main interest then. Now I try to reincorporate my voice again with the freedom that I won and the knowledge about improvisation.

How do you choose a particular song?

I choose the song, depending on the context I'm in.

Do you feel that your association with reductionism and eai hinders the right perception of what you are doing now?

I feel that today's music is getting too much pigeonholed. Mainly from the media and festival. Especially in times of crisis (be it financially or musically) it seems that people in the industry tend to ask for more and more specialization. That's not what I want. In this sense I think I put myself in between the genres. Not being categorizable deranges the critic. In this way they expect me to be eai and I'm not. Or they expect me to be pop and I'm not. For me myself I'm quite happy to know music from its various approaches and ends.

Are you serious about musical crisis? In all music or only particular sects?

To be more specific: it's not the music, which is in a crisis, it's the musicians and the critics. For one I feel a certain loss of connection from the world in arts to the "real" world, to politics, social movements, changes. And that makes the artists a little living in ivory towers. For the other I gave up long time ago searching for the "new" in music, which many are claiming to be. I mainly go for re-contextualizing things and create something more or less unheard with that. Besides, is "new" so interesting? Is it the "louder, faster, harder" we know from metal and punk, transferred to the world of improv.?

Do you think that putting you in eai drawer is just?

No. I don't like any drawer.

Tell us the story of phonoTAKTIK.

We started phonoTAKTIK in about 1993 (with its first edition in 1995). We felt that electronic music became stronger, had something to say and contribute. There was a need for a space, where it could be shown. So to demonstrate this need, we started to organize a festival, which in the end became the biggest event of this music ever held in Europe at that time. Many journalists and people from all over the world came to Austria, so suddenly even very mediocre politicians understood that there was something going on. We sold them an accumulation of cultural capital, they gave us the money for it.
With the second edition of the festival we also started a club called Rhiz, the first electronic music bar in Vienna which later became one within many. So I felt that we succeeded and didn't go on to organize more editions. My former partner went on, but I think he lost legitimacy, because at that time electronic music had its spaces already.
Rhiz was the follow up to the "phonoTAKTIK.95" festival (described above). After having a festival with the theme, there was no space for this music in Vienna, which was a big success. We wanted finally invent this space. So we invented Rhiz — Bar Modern. We opened there with Kruder/Dorfmeister, Pulsinger/Tunakan, Pita, Fennesz and Autechre, Console, Ted Milton and Loopspool, Markus Schmickler, Gert-Jan Prins and many more played within the first months. Then we founded the Rhiz label (first record of Radian...) and when I left the Rhiz I found Charhizma.

What was your attitude to Mego (its sound, esthetics)? In Russia Charhizma has always been overshadowed by Mego, Mego being the altar of glitch, improv and likeminded sounds.

Mego was the first and most important label of such music. In its beginning I was a good friend of theirs and big admirer of their releases and its musicians. Only later, once they came to more fame, I thought that they unfortunately stopped developing musically instead insisting on very bourgeois parameters like volume and speed.

How do you work with other musicians? Does it happen spontaneously or is there any plan?

Actually I stopped "improvising around". After doing it for many years, today I feel the need to keep working with certain partners more intensively in order to develop a language of our own. Only then, when we know each other very well I start to feel the freedom that improvisation is giving me again.

What made you move to Berlin?

I was an objector of military service in Austria. I could not leave the country for 12 years, although I swam to Switzerland once and crossed the Alps to Germany once. So that gave me the feeling, after I ended my sentence, to leave the country. Berlin was and is one of Europe's most interesting centers for the arts. Mo money, but a lot of freedom (getting less, unfortunately). So it was a perfect place for me to go. Now after living there for 9 years, I left Berlin finally in order to move on to Latin America.

Did you find difference between Improv and electronic scenes in Vienna and Berlin?

Berlin is much bigger and much more international. So you'll find all kinds of people of different nationality and different cultural background there. As the city was (and still is) divided, there is a lot of space to start activities. That's the plus.
Vienna on the contrary, as it is smaller, has the plus of being much more united within the scenes. There you get much more interactivity between film and music, theater and science, performance and and other arts.
It looks like a decade ago a traffic between those cities was two way. Mow it looks like artists move to Berlin and not vice versa. What kind of possibilities Berlin (or Germany in whole) has which Vienna (or Austria) lacks?

What is the motivation behind it?

People from all the world move to Berlin. In fact too many. So in the end many leave quite fast again. Not only Austrians.
It was a two way. But since the fall of the Berlin wall, Berlin has become a city with so much empty spaces and so cheap, that for now it has a big attraction for artists. Anyway, spaces get less and the prices higher so I guess within a few years Berlin will be back to "normal" again.

How did you find yourself in Buenos-Aires? Not an easily understandable choice.

Go there and you'll find it very easily to understand. For one, of course, I like the people, the climate and the political changes in Latin America. On the creative side I would compare Buenos-Aires at the moment to the state of Vienna in the 90s. There is creative breaking up on all corners and ends of the city. People's interest in arts is not yet as saturated as in Middle Europe. There is a big curiosity for new ways of expression (comparable only probably to the states of the former East in Europe). And what I said about Mego before, here the expression is still kept in its raw primal expression. That's exciting. Plus I find a perfect combination of Berlin and Vienna. Buenos-Aires as is morbid, culturally and historicaly loaded as Vienna is. And it has a kind of freedom that I only found in Berlin.

Politics and music, politics and art. What is your current position about it?

Music is politics. And all the people who are trying to abnegate this are finally working in to the hands of the establishment. That doesn't mean that every music has to be a political expression in the first place. But one should be aware of his place in society and his responsibility in front of an audience.

In "The Air Between" you overtly expressed your reaction towards the Iraq war. Where is it now? Hidden in songs? Sounds?

Unfortunately trying to hide a message in sounds or even more unfortunate even in the way you organize or lead a group of people, doesnt work at all. I do not agree with the majority that says that within improvised music there is only good(?) people. I'm sure there is a lot of conservatism, maybe sometimes even fascism going on within the scene.