By Robert Rotifer
It’s funny how music can act as a shortcut in getting to know people. A few days earlier I had never met percussionist, drummer and sound artist Aram Zarikian or keyboard player, drummer and composer Daniel Pucher (Danny Rico, as he is also known), and now here we were back at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Rutland Gate, rifling through folder after folder of 60 years’ worth of programme notes.
Markus Wolfsteiner, who works at the Forum but used to be a well-known musician around the Austrian independent and electronic music scene of the 1990s and 2000s, had introduced us to each other as London (in my case Canterbury)-based Austrian musicians.
Now, with the blessing of the Forum’s director Elisabeth Kögler, we were commissioned to create music to celebrate its 60th anniversary, an idea I found equally exciting and daunting. After all, his was the place where, in my 19 years of living in this country, I had seen greats such as photographer and cinematographer Wolf Suschitzky, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Franz Koglmann and potter/author Edmund de Waal, as well as the faces of a sadly diminishing cast of wartime émigrés in the audience, trying to keep in touch with the old home country that had disappeared off the map between 1938 and 1945.
It was all part of the history outlined on those yellowed, hand-typed pages that Aram, Danny and I were going to have to turn into a coherent piece of music, and already I felt sure that this was going to work.
The following weekend we got together for our first session in the sash-windowed salon, armed with our instruments (plus the in-house Bösendorfer grand) and the notes we had made about a 14-year-old Rudolf Buchbinder turning out for a solo show in 1961, a 21-year-old Cordelius Cardew playing Webern in 1957, Ligeti lecturing in ’69 or Elias Canetti reading in ’65 when the legendary Greta Keller also came down for a turn, not to mention appearances by piano giants Friedrich Gulda and Alfred Brendel or the poet Erich Fried. Equally though, it would be hard to overlook that period from the early seventies to the mid nineties when nothing much seemed to change at the Cultural Institute (as it was known then), as year after year the same musicians travelled to London to provide an ageing audience of expats with a reassuring version of Austrian culture that relied almost solely on Mozart, Schubert and the tried and tested classics, with no hint of awareness of the pop cultural wars raging throughout the city outside (This period, Danny said, should be represented by some kind of drone element. Aram and I agreed in the key of D).
So we set about jamming, sketching and composing, Danny on keyboard, piano and percussion, Aram at the drums with a MIDI controller and his laptop and myself with my guitar and a few effects, recording our music as well as our footsteps running up and down the uncarpeted narrow staircase of the five-storey building, from the basement up to the guest rooms where legions of artists have stayed over the decades.
In order to put the cultural experience of Austrian immigration into London during and after WWII into some kind of wider context, we enlisted singer Andreya Triana to represent the Caribbean expats who were settling in neighbouring Notting Hill around the time when the Cultural Institute first opened its gates.
In fact, the programme notes show no evidence of these two immigrant cultures ever meeting, which only gave us more reason to imagine a conversation between them in our piece.
Another local inspiration was the barnstorming performance of Viennese sound poet Ernst Jandl next to Allen Ginsberg, Michael Horovitz, Gregory Corso et al. at the nearby Royal Albert Hall at the ground-breaking International Poetry Incarnation on June 11 1965, as documented in Peter Whitehead’s evocative “Wholly Reunion” film.
Jandl’s percussive rhythmic delivery served as a great springboard from which to bounce off our melodic ideas, riffs, chord structures as well as complete songs. But we were also keen to incorporate the voices of those who had frequented the building in the last six decades, and filled it with music, words and art.
We even arranged interviews with a few of them, one or two of which have yet to take place at the time of going to press.
Only a month and a bit to go now, and we’re by no means done yet. But we’ve already got a structure for this piece, now called “Rutland Reverb”, i.e. a trail of sheets of paper that we laid out in a row on the salon’s ancient carpet.
As I said at the beginning: I’m sure it’s going to work.
CONCERT SATURDAY 18 June, 7:30pm
*This text will appear in the ACF anniversary issue of PARABOL art magazine. Copies will be available for sale at the ACF throughout the open weekend.