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Sunday, February 2, 2020

Q&A with Philipp Schmickl of THEORAL

THEORAL nos 1 - 14. Photo from theoral website.

By Paul Acquaro with Philipp Schmickl

This weekend the Free Jazz Blog featured the writing of  Philipp Schmickl, who has been running the publication THEORAL from his home in Nickelsdorf, Austria. To cap off his coverage of the Alternative Festival, we conducted a short Q&A by email, discussing growing up in the small town of Nickelsdorf, the influence that the Konfrontationen Festival has had, and his work running the THEORAL.

Paul: Could you elaborate a little on your background? Nicklelsdorf is known to some as the home of the Konfrontationen festival, but could you describe growing up in Nickelsdorf otherwise?

Philipp: Nickelsdorf lies in a rural (and poor) area at the eastern border of Austria to Hungary. It used to be the end of "the West" until 1989. Beyond the Iron Curtain was the territory of the Eastern Bloc. The village today counts 1.800 inhabitants; it was a bit less when I was young. The fields, the small forests and the river (which was straightened in the 1970s as far as the borderline) served me as a model for the landscapes described in the numerous novels I read as a youngster.

As a kid, my grandfather took me to see the fence that was dividing the meadows, and he showed me the towers with the armed soldiers watching over the plain. He said that if I crossed that fence, they would shoot me.

When the Iron Curtain fell, the Austrian government sent soldiers to patrol the border. I was controlled from time to time on my way home from the train station and even when they heard my tongue, I was obliged to show my ID. I witnessed conflicts with soldiers in the restaurant of the Jazzgalerie (where the Konfrontationen take place) and elsewhere and I began to understand some mechanisms of prostitution.

Nickelsdorf was and is a quite usual east-Austrian village except for the Jazzgalerie and everything that developed around it. Christof Kurzmann for example said, that from its beginnings, the Jazzgalerie was a place were not only music was happening (much more than in Vienna at that time) but also international politics were debated. It was and is a window to another world. This place influenced my growing up considerably. I got access to music and literature and I started working/helping at the Konfrontationen festival where seeing and talking to so many people from all over the world who were gathering around the music, opened up my mind. There I learned more than in the schools I was going to.

How did you get into improvised music? What were some of your formative listening experiences?

I was around 14. On a Saturday night, some friends and I were at the Jazzgalerie and we went downstairs to check out the concert that was going on in the basement club. I remember standing there unable to move because I was mesmerized by the bass but my friends tore me back upstairs. (I don't remember exactly and I cannot verify right now if it was a bass, it could have been a cello as well; the drummer was Doug Hammond for sure, because he gave us his autograph on our t-shirts after the concert).

Fascinated with the cosmopolitanism, I volunteered at the festival and started attending every club concert throughout the year. That's how I got more and more into the music. Simultaneously I was borrowing records and books from Hans Falb. I could take them home where I would study them in my room. The club concerts always took place on a Saturday, once or twice a month. After school, already in the afternoon I went to the Jazzgalerie, got a newspaper and a book and went downstairs to read and listen to the soundchecks. This was a perfect world – sometimes. I was listening and learning. I liked to observe the people arriving, greeting each other, getting their first drink at the bar, speaking English and very often I was surprised by the music because it was really different (not only to the soundcheck).

Early formative listening experiences I only had in live performances. Some that I remember right now – next time I may tell you others – I had with Franz Hautzinger, Marilyn Crispell, Machine for Making Sense (Rik Rue, Amanda Stewart, Jim Denley, Chris Mann, Stevie Wishart) and Tristan Honsinger. The latter once stayed after the Konfrontationen festival for some weeks at the Jazzgalerie. It was summer holidays and I saw him almost every day. But he wasn't playing, he was just there.

Very early I started travelling to other festivals in Austria and in my 20s I regularly traveled via Marseille (where I attended the MIMI festival on the beautiful Îles du Frioule) to Morocco where I also tried to learn about music. Later I went to many other festivals in Europe, Lebanon, Mexico and my understanding of the scene grew more and more. I found the social and political always inseparable from the music.

Aside from improvised music, what other genres of music, and art generally, interest you?

I don't care so much about the genre. It's more about the attitude that comes through in the music. I think you very often can discern if the decision why the music is made is rather based on artistic questions or rather on questions of career. Sometimes the latter can be really good and the former really boring, but usually the targeting of artistic questions is more interesting to me (or the approach of "art-prière" put forward by the German/Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz).

I listen to Ancient music as well as to Mexican popular music as well as to the Viennese school around Arnold Schönberg as well as to Samba and Maracutú, etc, etc.

I love reading novels and going to the cinema. It is a pity, that many good films use disturbing or just bad sound and music, I have to say. I would love to see more dance pieces but the dance scene I feel a little bit difficult to access.

Can you tell us a little bit about THEORAL, for example, when did you start it and what was your inspiration?

What is your approach to putting together an edition of THEORAL? What inspires, or suggests themes?

The first issue of THEORAL came out on April 1, 2011. Two years earlier, I published together with Hans Falb from the Jazzgalerie Nickelsdorf the book tell no lies claim no easy victories / L'improvisation ne s'improvise pas for the 30th anniversary of the Konfrontationen. For this I conducted two interviews with Joëlle Léandre, which taught me a lot about the strength of the spoken word. At the same time I was studying oral history as a methodology in anthropology. In 2010, I graduated in socio-cultural anthropology and as I could not find any interesting jobs – in fact, any job – so I decided to do my own thing. I contacted my accomplice Karin Weinhandl and ever since she's been in charge of layout and illustration.

The first issue included interviews with Marco Eneidi and my most important teacher at university, Andre Gingrich. We had no model for THEORAL, just a subtitle: oral music histories and interesting interviews. It was an inexperienced product of what we thought is good. Publishing the first issue I already had the next ones in mind. I thought, I may make a living out of it but quite soon I realized that this was not going to happen. So I got jobs in galleries and restaurants to secure a living and continued to publish one or two books a year without compromising.

The basic idea was to ask artists the questions that I posed myself about how I wanted to live my life. And then, of course, I investigated the mechanisms of how the music comes to acoustic life and where inspirations come from and how decisions are made. I was never interested in talking about the latest album or tour and if, then only as a means to explain larger concepts like attitudes, techniques, structures, politics, etc. One of the reasons why we published conversations with musicians (and other artists) from all over the world, is that I was searching for universals in personal expression. What is the thread made of that sews together people who are trying to live their life in a creative way – if there is one.

The guiding methodology is to consider the interview – the conversation – as an improvised concert. Each speaker has his/her own agenda, his/her own questions, feelings and experiences, etc. I mostly rely on my knowledge, spontaneity and instinct (in short: intuition) in order to ask the "right" questions at the "right" time. Now and then I prepare one or two special questions in advance.

Throughout some years I recorded many interviews, a lot of them are not published. So when I think of putting together a new edition, I either combine a new interview with one of the already recorded ones, or I have a certain idea about what I want to do and I start from scratch. Maybe I should target a publication with a collection of (parts of) older interviews as well – I have a lot in French and Spanish as well but this is another story. Who I choose depends on personal taste and timing. There are so many who I did not ask yet.

The Oral has had 15 editions, are there any issues that you recall something special about?

The new edition is always my favorite.

If I look at all the issues, each one has its color, its memories of recording, transcribing and editing, of discussing the illustrations with Karin, a release party with certain concerts, my personal memories are tied to the books, almost into the colors of the covers.

As I understand it, your are shifting your focus a bit, what are your plans, what is the future of THEORAL?

It was crucial to write the article On Being A Medium. Bright gatekeeping in a dark era for THEORAL NO. 14. I tried to find as many different facets of "the medium" as I could and then began to elaborate on each aspect. (It may be considered as the beginning of a larger work). This subsequently led to the change of the THEORAL subtitle into: bright medium for uncynical voices.

Over the last nine years, we have been a medium in the brightest sense. We have generated a lot of honest material. I think, it is perfectly possible to write an Aesthetics of Improvisation under contemporary socio-political conditions based on what we have published in 15 editions on over 1,200 pages.

Recently I listened to a radio show focusing on the new opera Orlando of Olga Neuwirth that had its première at the opera house in Vienna. And what the great composer had to say about music did not differ much and was sometimes even less interesting as what the artists have said in THEORAL. "Everything" cannot be said and we would never aspire to that; but what has been said in THEORAL, covers a wide range of what is important in music. It may be time for taking a break and evaluation.
Although I already have an idea for THEORAL NO. 16, I think, it's time to shift the focus to writing. And as the economic censor is growing its scissors day by day, I have been looking for an ally in the next project. I found the department for jazz and popular music studies at the art university in Graz, Austria, where I am going to present my PhD project very soon, hoping to be finally accepted. The doctorate will be a monograph on the Jazzgalerie Nickelsdorf and the Konfrontationen festival at the border. I am thankful for indications where to obtain stipends for this kind of enterprise.

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THEORAL no. 15, featuring Didi Kern und Philipp Quehenberger will be released on Feb 7th. The text is in German and  contains a CD. [more here]

Previous versions of THEORAL are also available, no. 14 featured Tristan Honsiger and Joel Grip. [read more]

2 comments:

Mjy said...

This looks like a great publication. Is there any availability in the United States?

THEORAL said...

Yeah, just get in touch via the website : theoral.org -> contact!