Mr Gaelic Punkt, Man of Many Faces.
by Farid Eff.
I am sitting down with Gaelic Punkt, clarinettist extraordinaire with Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra. We are in Vienna, in the kitchen of a house once lived in by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. This is a true record of our conversation.
Hi Gaelic. Thanks for taking time to talk to me.
Hi Farid, nice to meet you! Great you could make it.
Like many members of Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra you have to play many instruments, maybe some that you are absolutely not used to. Was this something that came easy for you, the band environment made it a good place to try new things, or was it a lot of work, study and discipline?
No, I really like it. It’s fun to do and kind of challenging. In my case it’s mostly wind instruments. My basic instrument is clarinet, I’m kind of familiar with them. The point is, I don’t have to play those instruments in a virtuous academic way, like the way I learned to play clarinet, it’s more about how to play a musical phrase or which kind of sound fits to the musical part we are working on.
Although… when I decided to also play bass clarinet in FFMO, I found this beautiful old instrument from Normandy at Feldmanns, in Amsterdam. I had to get used to the French system – it’s different to the one I was used to playing.
Among the many instruments we have seen you play, one is the Suona, or Chinese Oboe. I have never seen any band in Europe feature such an instrument. Did you learn this in China? I see that many band members have spent quite a bit of time in China, did you live there?
Hmmm, no. Not yet. My Qi Gong teacher lives there frequently. She was a disciple of the very famous TCM doctor and Qi Gong master Jiao Guorui in Beijing…Makmed, Milu Ling and I think also MaiQuel went to China quite many times but strange enough I have never been there. Makmed had a research tour through China with his theremin project. When he came back, he made this very funny and amazing record “14 smash Hits for Theremin”.
It’s interesting that you mention the Suona. When I think about it: I guess the Chinese oboe was the hardest thing for me to learn to play. You can’t compare it to a common western European oboe. Normally the double reeds are much shorter and you need a lot of air pressure to produce the tone, plus they are very difficult to find in Europe. So I started to play with modified reeds from oboes and even bassoons to find this flexibility in pitching and create this special range of sounds. You have to be very precise. Makmed told me about this guy from Sichuan province – I think his name was Li-Chang-Geng who was a professional funeral mourner who explained to him all the meanings of the sometimes extreme changes of sound qualities and when to use them. Makmed is just a genius in memorising this kind of things and giving it further to other band members. I learned a lot from him.
The funny thing is I got the Suona from the trombone and tuba player of my other band I played in before FFMO was founded. He bought it on a market in Timisoara when we did a tour through Romania. But he wasn’t able to play it, so he gave it to me. I really wonder how it got to Timisoara in the first place…
I think that band you are talking about was a klezmer band, wasn’t it? How was the comparison playing in your old klezmer band and playing klezmer tunes in Forgotten Fish?
Yeah, it was a kind of klezmer band. But we also played polka stuff and of course a lot of Balkan music, too. That kind of music was just around at that time. Musically there are not so many differences. The most different to FFMO is for sure the theatrical aspect. I remember once I found myself playing a klezmer song in a giant kimono costume in an old Roman amphitheatre in Pula, Croatia on traditional wooden high shoes I hardly could walk in. Also for other reasons this was one of my hardest shows ever to play. So that’s really a different piece of cake…(laughing)
Do you consider the band as a musical project primarily, or a theatre project which is about music?
The strong theatrical aspect while having the focus also on the music was quite new to me, but it became very important. We had so many possibilities what we could do… At the same time FFMO started also as a musical project right from the beginning. So for me it was always both! I guess that’s what is making this band so mysterious. As an audience you sit there and wonder: ‘Wait, what’s happening here? Which time I’m screwed into? Is it real or not? Is it because of the image and the setting or because of the music? ’ But it’s both. That’s the point. It’s just the same. It’s just this performance in right this moment. At least for those who don’t do time shifting… (laughing)
You personally have had some of the most outrageous costumes. Do you have free choice in what you wear in the band? How do you make the decision about costumes?
Well, for each performance we agree to a certain theme. For the costumes we sometimes work together in groups. I very much like to work together with Odd Banner in his atelier. Building 1.5 m high pointed red gnome hats or preparing Japanese newspaper suits listening to ancient Rembetika and Klezmer tunes, eating baklava…
We have no external designer or something. It’s all our own research, our own choice and creativity. Sometimes we are surprised by ourselves what comes out of it. All members have their own ideas and inspirations – sometimes more useful sometimes not…. (laughing). By now we have this basic resource, we call it the fish tank. Makmed had the idea to make a museum around all that wonderful strange costumes and apparently unrelated things. Maybe it already exists. Who knows?…
Can you say something about the nature of the band rehearsals and how the music is selected?
There is no rule how we do it. I mean Makmed is the musical steam engine which keeps everything going. Without him FFMO wouldn’t exist, I guess. He comes up with most of the performance ideas and is setting up the musical arrangements and recordings. But the whole project is open and even dependent on ideas from all other members. Astral Gonad brought in the idea of playing the Prokofiev’s ‘Girls dancing with Lilies’. Odd is very familiar with klezmer. Sometimes the input of strange or new instruments led to new musicals ideas, like the heavy piano harp which became a big part for our percussionist Milu in our tune The bicycle Lesson (which also became the title of our second CD). Or the water organ from Bor Berzerka. We made a piece called Hear No Evil with self-made flying drones and bamboo chimes around it. And we always changed the order of who had to play which instrument.
Is playing the water organ difficult?
Well, it’s not as easy as it may look like. It’s not just pushing and pulling the cans into the water. Like I said, Bor invented the first prototypes of this instrument. It has a double reed from an accordion in its top. So pulling and pushing it into the water is two different tones. You need to use force but at the same time you have to be quite gentle to get proper tones (and to feel when you have to stop pushing or pulling). When you play two cans at the same time you really have to concentrate.
I think outside the group you also work in stage design, theatre technics and lighting, things like that. Some Forgotten Fish shows seem to break every rule about lighting and staging. Is this very deliberate or is it being naive?
Hmm, technically speaking it feels like being a firefighter playing with fire in his other life… , but yah, it’s a deliberate choice. The places where FFMO appears are very often not proper stages, like inside a boat or grain silo or a flying wooden pyramid. Sometimes we perform in rooms for just six people and then have seven or nine shows in a row. I think a lot of people feel very gratified when they leave our show cause it was such a deep or personal experience for them. So it’s not about a great light show and a big concert with just some strange instruments. It’s more about the bead of sweat that hits you while you are blissfully (or bemused) witnessing what is taking place.
I heard a rumour, which is hard to verify, that the members of Forgotten Fish all had grandparents who were in a similar crazy band together before the second world war. Called something like L’ Ensemble Oublié. Is this true? Can you tell us something about that?
Well, there’s always a kind of truth in rumours, isn’t it? My grandpa on my mother’s side worked as a milkman in a small factory in Okmiany / Upper Silesia which is a part of Poland now. In his free time, he was playing one of these giant long alpine horns. No mountains around, nothing. Can you imagine this? The instrument got lost during the war but is was always connected to this Oublié thing. My grandpa died when I was four, so I guess it will always stay a secret…
How did you come to be playing duets with a centrifuge?
Actually, I was already working with clarinet and centrifuge before the founding of FFMO. I studied cultural science and was member of a new music improvisation workshop. Amongst others John Cage was very important for me at that time (and in general still is). It all started when I was trying to find a way to have something like a prepared clarinet. The problem is: As soon as you start to manipulate anything on a woodwind instrument, you block the whole system how the air column is built. So that was too much limitation. Then I remembered the wind sound of my grandma’s centrifuge. And it had this foot pedal to control the speed of the spinning tube which was perfect for me whilst playing the clarinet and also made this very special scratchy sound. It was like having an effect pedal like for electric guitars but just as an analogue form. And the clarinet sound was echoed and effected by the speed of the spinning tube. Of course, this led to research what would happen if I would work with a prepared centrifuge instead of modifying the clarinet. So I started to hang in metal threads and cable with discs and stuff. The tricky point is: at maximum speed the tube spins around with like 1400 rpm, so you really have to know what you are doing… (laughing)
Forgotten Fish are a bit mysterious and very secretive. Why is that? Why are they so hard to pin down?
I guess it’s just the nature of the project and its members. It’s part of the magic. I never asked myself why it is like this. It always felt natural to me. Maybe it’s because to create room for imagination. I mean there is this time travel thing. And we have this Noh Bo Code. You just asked me about this L’Ensemble Oublié phenomen. These kind of things you don’t uncover or reveal. You just don’t do it. Plus it’s a lot of fun…
Have you ever cried on stage during a performance?
To be honest yes, I have. On one of our earlier shows we played what we thought was a Mexican Funeral March, although years later it turned out that it’s a very unusual Italian tune (Pomeriggio di Dolore). We were playing at night on a wooden landing stage, surrounded by water and the audience was standing with fire torches on the edge of the sea. It was just overwhelming. I thought: “Wow, this would have been a great song on my grandmother’s funeral…” I think it was also the first time ever I played bass clarinet in a show.
There are also two other songs related to FFMO which made me cry, but that was not during a concert. One is the very special Fado song ‘Pela Morte Desta Vida’ with the unexpected and beautiful voice of OneShot Albuquerque. She usually is filming and documenting our tours and concerts. And the other one is a version of ‘Au Clair de la Lune’ with this low rough voice of Odd Banner. Guess those melancholic tunes are just catching me…
What has been your favourite Fish show, so far, and why?
Phouu, that’s hard to say. I enjoyed every show so far (except maybe the one I mentioned in Pula). I think I would choose the Ukiyo-Show which we performed in Amsterdam. It was a great venue, probably the most untypical for us because it was a kind of regular concert stage. We had those underwater projections and the concept of the whole show was to have a kind of Kabuki theatre music show. The funny thing was: most of the musical repertoire didn’t really fit in, but it didn’t matter at all.
I also liked our ‘ Anthology of Metals’ show very much. We played in a church in Gdansk. I mean the church was still in use and I thought: “Hmm, what are they gonna think about us?” So we had our show which was strongly influenced by Oscar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet with a lot of balls and disks on our black and white costumes and inconvenient hats. We performed also ‘Liquid Helium’ the piece with clarinet and spin-dryer we were talking about. It’s almost non melodic with quite some noisy parts in it. But the audience appreciated the whole thing, they understood the concept of the show. While we were leaving the stage through the audience, they were giving us standing ovations and at the same time by chance, outside started a firework display.
Finally…..Which tune out of the repertoire do you most look forward to playing live?
Hmmm, that’s not easy to say. I like to play them all. Very often it’s depending on the theme of the show. Sometimes you just get goosebumps playing certain tunes. I guess the Mexican/Italian Funeral March is one of them. But it’s also funny to play a tune like ‘Kingdom of Not’ which is originally from Sun Ra, which means jazz, and therefore is far out of our ‘usual’ repertoire… I also like to do the dancing during the tune ‘Hu Dy Da’ or to play a Klezmer song like ‘Fun der Khuppe’. So many interesting ones – I can’t decide…
Ok thanks a lot, that was very informative what you had to say.