First Time In North America: Founding Members of Austria’s Reform Art Unit (est. 1965)

Fritz Novotny and Sepp Mitterbauer will be featured in 3 concerts (May 15/16/17, 2015) at Studio Toile d’Angles. I will join  Fritz and Sepp for the first concert under the reformARTwest banner. ( The remaining two evenings will spotlight the trio in sextet configurations with Elaine Evans/Daniel Furuta/Benjamin J Mansavage Klein on 5/16; and Davu Seru/Charles Gillett/Paul Metzger on 5/17.

Fritz Novotny
Fritz Novotny
Sepp Mitterbauer (photo: Wolfgang H. Wögerer)
Sepp Mitterbauer
(photo: Wolfgang H. Wögerer)








Concerning the history of the RAU (and my association with the group), the following article was written at the behest of Fritz, and published in the November/December 2013 issue of Improjazz (#200).

Honoring The Reform Art Unit: Observations, Appreciation, Analysis, Remembrances

Setting The Stage:

From my liner notes to the CD “TC FREE” (Insides Music) —
“Predicated upon developments in the classical field (dodecophony, tone clusters, musique concrète, electronic music, aleatoric music, simultaneity/indeterminacy, etc.) having to do in good part with the growing utilization/integration of what is generally considered dissonance, and, from there, “noise” or “sound” into the lexicon of music, free jazz (or, as it was then more commonly known, avant garde jazz) was fueled by Black Nationalism, and the growing constrictions/codifications of bebop (at one time itself the jazz avant garde). And while these specific catalysts were integral to jazz’s evolution in America, the insistence for “freedom now” was, as evidenced by work emanating from many geographic locales, global in nature. (This is not surprising given that we humans are, in essence, fleeting cocktails of electricity and chemicals, who, suckling at the tit of the collective unconscious, are intrinsic conduits for the zeitgeist.)”

Focus Vienna:

1957 marked the beginning of free improvisation in Austria with Viennese bassist Toni Michlmayr leading the way. Following suit were the seminal visual artist Padhi Friehberger and fellow painter/musician Harun Barabbas, who, as I understand it, initially engaged in what could be described as post-Dada “happening” events. Within a few years, improvised music was spearheaded in Graz by pianist Richard Ahmed Pechoc’s Trio with Walter (nee Muhammad) Malli and Karl Anton Fleck. In 1964, the Masters of Unorthodox Jazz was founded by Barabbas, Pechoc, Malli and Alaeddin Adlernest, and Fritz Novotny partnered with poet Rolf Schwendter to become the Danube Art Group. A year later, Fritz and Sepp Mitterbauer established the Reform Art Unit, and, in 1969, Michlmayr joined both the Masters and the RAU, replacing Jerzy Ziembrowski. But, anyone familiar with Austrian free jazz was likely first exposed to it via four records released in the early seventies. The double LP “VIENNA JAZZ AVANT GARDE” featured one disk each by the Reform Art Unit and the Masters of Unorthodox Jazz. Additionally, each group had their own single disks: the RAU’s “DARJEELING”, and the Masters’ “OVERGROUND”. I absolutely adored the ensemble names. (“Art”, after all, [still] desperately needs reforming, and mastering unorthodoxy is always an admirable aim.) Additionally, the cover art was brilliantly striking. Most importantly however, I distinctly remember being extremely impressed by the sounds. The manner in which this music breathed, the organic unfolding, the free jazz impulses tempered with something markedly ethnic, to say nothing of the striking interaction between sitar and western jazz instruments on “DARJEELING” was (and is) unique, and essential. (Despite never having never gotten credit for it, Fritz and the RAU were playing “world music” long before the term was coined and the concept diluted and bastardized.)


Having begun playing music (outside of school activities) at age 13, I developed an interest in writing about it several years later; an ancillary activity which followed me as I entered the world of improvisation in 1969. I look back with pleasure at the naive nature of the decision to review as it had nothing to do with a career path, but, rather, the idea that as someone who played music, I would be able to write about it with a certain insight. (Of course, at that time, I didn’t realize that people in general had no interest in insight; clear evidence of which can be found in the current, overall despicable state of empty-praise/press-release-style “music journalism”. And, despite the fact that, over time, I had developed a certain enjoyment in sculpting with words, and my writing style had become more, for wont of a better word, sophisticated, I quit reviewing in the late nineties. I simply got tired of pissing into the wind, to say nothing of dealing with megalomaniacs.) Particularly in those halcyon days, I was hungry for sounds elsewhere; to experience what others were doing; a locating of my voice in the larger context, and a desire to support others involved in what was, at the time, “new music”. So, I very actively sought out small labels and lesser known musicians/groups. On the basis of the aforementioned LPs, this included Fritz and the RAU. In addition to trading recordings, engaging in awkward and amusing correspondence with Fritz (my being an all-too-typical unilingual American providing counterpoint to his serviceable English), he forwarded review copies of documents. I wrote at length about the RAU, and, in the process, accumulated an extremely comprehensive library of “Reform Art Music”.

Outside looking in:

Over the decades, the aforementioned organic unfolding quality and ethnic/folk music subtext have remained at the aesthetic core of the RAU and its offshoot groups (Three Motions, The Improvising Orchestra, Tasten, Acting Seven, Xperimental, Wide Fields, Clan Music Overdrive, Reform Art Trio-Quartet-Orchestra, etc.). Depending on the personnel, however, the resultant sounds also emphasized varying degrees of free jazz, contemporary classical music and even jazz-rock. Amongst these amalgams, the only real misfires were the fusion bands Wide Fields and Clan Music Overdrive. Strong solos from the likes of Fritz (soprano sax, flutes, percussion), exceptional stylist Sepp Mitterbauer (trumpet) and stalwart RAU regular Paul Fields (nee Fickel or Fickl) (violin, keyboards) simply weren’t enough to keep the fundamental rock/jam beats and ostinato bass patterns from over-anchoring the proceedings, and thus transforming gradual unfurling into discursive rambling. (And though when playing electric bass, Johannes Groysbeck often opts for ostinato patterns in more recent RAU configurations, he usually, and thankfully, knows when to give it at rest.) For a time Fritz evoked a direct link between the RAU and the rich Austrian heritage of dodecophony via document and graphic score dedications to the likes of Josef Matthias Hauer, Arnold Schönberg, Anton von Webern and Alban Berg. But, along with acknowledgments to John Coltrane, John Cage, Thelonious Monk, et. al., these connections were, to these ears, anyway, tenuous on a purely theoretical/technical level. Spiritually and creatively, however, the lineage/connections are clear. “Reform Art Music” was, and is, wonderfully, just that.

Personal encounters:

Ironically, I finally got to meet and collaborate with Fritz and the RAU in 1996 as an indirect result of ongoing efforts to marginalize me both as a musician and a reviewer. In a publication celebrating the work of trumpeter-flugelhornist/composer Franz Koglmann, the head of a certain Swiss record label and his in-house pedant (who is also a well-known behind-the-scenes power-broker/gate-keeper) conveniently neglected to mention that I was the first American writer to shine a light on Koglmann’s consummate artistry; predating the aforementioned pedant by a good number of years. I bemusedly brought this to Franz’s attention, and, the next thing I knew, Ingrid Karl, his wife, promoter, publicist and key supporter offered to fly me to Vienna to cover their “Let’s Cool One” festival. I accepted the invitation and immediately contacted Fritz about the possibility of getting together. Unbeknownst to me at the time, and despite their having previously collaborated — with some claiming, and rightfully so, that, in addition to Bill Dixon being a primary influence on Koglmann’s sound and approach to his horn(s), there is also a clear, if less distinct link between Koglmann and Mitterbauer — Fritz and Franz now operated in distinctly separate spheres. Thus, I was asked not to tell Franz or Ingrid that I was meeting and making music with Fritz. So, the three days I was there were spent alternating between the down-to-earth world of Fritz and the rarified world of Franz. [Update: within the last couple years or so, and as is often the case with the dynamics of personal and/or professional relationships, the Fritz/Franz spheres have once again overlapped with occasional collaborations.] Fritz got me out into the country for a huge traditional Austrian meal, and, more importantly, organized a recording session with him, Paul and Sepp. (I had brought my clarinet, and Paul’s studio space had a grand piano and drum set.) Despite my having a fairly intense cold, the encounter was marvelous, both on a personal and musical level. Thus, I was pleased — and surprised — when the music was released as “WITH MILO FINE” on Granit Records. However, I did mention to Fritz that I was sorry I didn’t get to meet or create music with (the now dearly departed) Walter Malli, an exceptional drummer/soprano saxophonist and visual artist, who, in addition to being a founding member of the Masters, was a regular RAU collaborator since the early days. (As for my cold, besides plying me with garlic soup one evening, Fritz highly recommended homeopathy. I was, characteristically, very skeptical, but, upon entering that realm, I found homeopathic remedies to be remarkably effective, and have continued to use them to this day.)

The next year, Fritz contacted me about coming over again, this time for a short tour as a member of the RAU; with Walter! I told him I would be honored. Flown over and put up in a pleasant bed and breakfast, this was a whirlwind few days. We first played in a Viennese cafe, and, then, outside of Vienna, in a castle at the top of a small mountain, and finally, at an outdoor festival bringing together improvising voices from the Vienna and Graz scenes. (Subsequent to the initial conjoining of RAU and Masters’ musicians decades earlier, these locales had, in the interim, essentially reverted back to two distinct spheres of activity). Once again, the music was consistently formidable; the spirit of collaboration generous. I was immersed in “Reform Art Music”, and it felt like a second home. Walter was every bit as much of a “character” as I suspected he would be, and it was also a pleasure to meet and, to varying degrees, get to know Karl W. Krbavac (viola da gamba, piano, guitar; and also quite a character), Giselher Smekal (piano; but, at this time, representing the ORF rather than playing), Sandro Miori (tenor sax), producer Walter Voves (who I might have met the previous year — ah, the vagaries of memory!), and the marvelous Padhi Friehberger. Beyond the music, there were Fritz’s often hilarious stories juxtaposed with informal lectures on all matters Austrian (begun the year before); emphasizing, in particular Pannonia. (The poignant melody of “Pannonian Flower” could be considered the de facto theme song for the RAU). As Walter Voves’ English was very good, he often served as a liaison between me and my Austrian colleagues, and was, additionally, my traveling companion. (One memorable night, he and I were the last to check in at a hotel, and, for some reason found we didn’t have a room! With others claiming theirs like a game of musical chairs, it was almost as if they knew the entourage was one room short. We were resigned to sleeping in the car, when the hotel manager and his wife invited us to stay with them in their living quarters. Just before settling in, I was amused to see Walter and I simultaneously trotting out our homeopathic medication [in this case hydrastis canadensis] as our immune systems definitely needed a boost! )

My last sojourn to Vienna was a scant three years ago (2010) as Fritz invited me to be part of the multi-cultural Reform Art Orchestra. It was another whirlwind. Arriving/meeting on day one. Spending the next day in the recording studio with smaller groupings; material which eventually became part of the large book/double CD “WIENER U-BAHN-KUNST”, celebrating the history of the Vienna subway system and it’s connection to the visual and sonic arts. Then, an en masse concert that night at Porgy and Bess. And on day three, hiking and dining with Fritz, who again displayed his skills as a first-rate (if sometimes exhausting!) raconteur. Given that my previous collaborations with the RAU were almost totally improvisational in nature, the concert revealed another aspect of Fritz’s organizational methodology. Though he mapped out specific instructions for the evening’s concert, and they were initially adhered to, it wasn’t long before the guidelines were, for the most part, abandoned and the music took on a life of its own. And, not surprisingly, it worked; for the primary set, as well as several spontaneous encores which, by the third of, I believe, four, found the number of participants shrinking, as some folks simply had nothing more to say. Stylistic shifts, subtle inner-groupings, juxtapositions of recitation and sound, and featured soloists/sub-groupings all came to the fore as if following a graphic chart. Fritz seemed unperturbed by the music’s taking flight from his plan, underscoring the impression that his instructions were essentially an outline subject to broad interpretation; a clear manifestation of his more recently coined term “improcomposing”. (Another name for “instant composing” or “composing in real time”, “improcomposing” is the lifeblood for any genuine free improvisor. Unlike [too] many improvising musicians who rely on an established vocabulary and well-worn strategies, i.e.; habits, “improcomposers” constantly re-assess and re-work vocabulary, placement, phrasing and strategical choices at any given moment.) Thus, the evening’s music served to once again illustrate Fritz’s bona fide status as, to quote Leena Conquest, the Reform Art Unit’s “spiritus rector”.

On the matter of being criminally underrated/under-acknowledged/isolated:

The RAU’s main claim to international fame seems to be their never released ESP-DIsk (“NEW JAZZ FROM VIENNA”) and having been listed among other influential groups/artists on an early Nurse With Wound LP cover.

Indeed, over the decades, it has become increasingly unfathomable to me how the Reform Art Unit has essentially remained an Austrian phenomenon (trips to Russia, Czechoslovakia, etc, notwithstanding). Particularly given the number of higher profile musicians who have collaborated with them in Austria over the decades, I am surprised that, with their influence (connections), none of them have ever returned the favor. (Not as a quid pro quo per se, but, rather, a simple gesture of respect and reciprocation.) For instance, to my knowledge, the RAU have never appeared in any of the higher profile German free jazz festivals. Were they not, say, macho enough for FMP? [smile]

Perhaps something touched on in conversations with Walter Voves in 1997 sheds some light on the issue. It seemed Walter was, at the time, trying to book more concerts for the RAU; both inside and outside of Austria. He indicated that Fritz was reluctant; reasons unclear. I got the sense that Fritz is not only proprietary (controlling?) about “Reform Art Music”, but protective as well. From my admittedly limited experiences working with him, Fritz seems to know when and with whom he wants to play, and in what circumstances. There doesn’t seem to be a clearcut agenda, motivation or career trajectory behind his choices/decisions, which is, in itself, extremely refreshing. Rather, as with the music, there seems to be an integral intuitive sense informing his choices. (And while invitations to other places on the continent and elsewhere might have been made and declined, I somehow doubt it.)

In any case, this doesn’t explain the lack of coverage of their work, particularly in English language journals. Given that, as time has gone on, more and more reviewers (and producers) fall all over themselves in an attempt to be the first to trumpet the oeuvre of some obscure musician or group, how is it that the RAU, whose output has been qualitatively consistent for close to five decades, has been so egregiously overlooked? (One small recent example: While Fritz has had a decades-long collaborative relationship with Sunny Murray, and, thus, ended up being an essential part of the film “SUNNY’S TIME NOW” [with Fritz interviewed and RAU footage featured], he was not even mentioned in the Wire’s large ads hyping the film.)

As I wrote in a 1996 review of the Reform Art Unit’s “ILLUMINATION”: “The true wellspring of the creative impulse can most often be found in the realm of relative or outright obscurity. There the work is done more or less for its own sake, with the emanating rippling effects anonymously pervading the fabric of the collective unconscious.”

And so it has been, and will likely continue to be for the Reform Art Unit. For this, we should all be grateful. I know I am.

ⓒ 2013 milo fine


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