“not to fulfil a listener’s expectation” – an interview w/ Bernhard Fleischmann

Bernhard Fleischmann (c) Walter Mussil
Bernhard Fleischmann (c) Walter Mussil

BERNHARD FLEISCHMANN was awarded the AUSTRIAN FILMPRIZE for the music to KATHARINA MÜCKSTEIN’s film “L’ANIMALE”. With his latest release “Don’t Make Fans” (Morr Music), BERNHARD FLEISCHMANN has made it clear that artistic freedom is more important to him than short-term musical trends. In a conversation with Shilla Strelka the artist tells us that his attitude can be viewed as political, why he is nevertheless, or precisely because of it, so successful, and that his work for film and theatre is not so much about translating emotions particularly accurately, but rather about thinking beyond image and narration.


In December 2018 the festival Signale took place for its first time with the motto “Making music political”. Signale is a festival that is dedicated to civil courage and solidarity and rebels against discrimination and racism. It brought numerous local musicians together. You were involved in the organisation?

Bernhard Fleischmann: Bernhard Kern of Siluh records has initiated a collective that has given itself the cheeky name “Teil des Linkes Musiker*innenratnetzwerk”. We got together and created this festival with great support from the Arena Wien. The amount of money that came in was a great surprise for me.

You’re a very political person. Why is it important for you as a musician to take a public stand?

Bernhard Fleischmann: I think that I can articulate my social commitment through such actions, among other things. It is already clear to me that the effects of such a festival are manageable and that certain people who need help or solidarity won´t be reached, as well as people who are going to stick to their mindset. There was no doubt that as a result of the Turquoise/Blue government [Türkis/Blau, colors of current government; note.] we wanted to do something in order to create a dissenting voice to the prevailing political tone and to help the NGOs for whom the subsidies have been cut or greatly reduced.


You developed the sound design for a play by Sibylle Berg. The press release for “Nach uns das All oder Das innere Team kennt keine Pause” raises the question of how political resistance and personal happiness can be reconciled. I would like to further this question and apply it to your music. Especially your last album “Stop Making Fans” seems to me quite euphoric, lively and sensual. I wonder to what extent you combine politics and aesthetics. Can that be put into context?

Bernhard Fleischmann: For me most definitely! I already considered the album title to be a political statement. “Stop Making Fans” means that you don’t just do something for the fans’ sake, but ask yourself: “What am I? What am I doing?” That’s my music, that´s what it sounds like – that’s it, that’s all. I don’t feel like sucking up to get more fans. But that’s exactly what happens in politics. The lowest common denominator is being yelled out and they try to get as many people as possible to agree on it, because the short, simple answers are the ones we like the most. That would be the link to the album title.

And on the album there is the line – that would be the link between the private, the political and the music – “If you only focus on the pros of your children, the cons will take over soon.” This means that if I as a father – or society as a family image – focus exclusively on the advantages of my own children, this will sooner or later be to their certain disadvantage. Because as part of society, you have to take care of all the children. Both in my private life and in politics I notice people only caring for their own children. And the rest? “Fuck them.”
Nevertheless, I think it’s nice to create a community through music, which will hopefully feel comfortable and share something beautiful with each other.

Polyrhythmics has played an important role in your music for a long time. On the last release the reference to Afrobeats and Funk has become even more obvious. I also feel reminded of the collective energy of sound systems. I would definitely consider that to be political as well. The democratising moment is noticeable.

Bernhard Fleischmann: Yes, the posters of William Onyeabor and LCD Soundsystem are hanging here for a reason. They are already two very important sources for me. Even the seemingly simple melody loops that appear again and again have this connection to the trance and the hypnotic. My tendency towards polyrhythmics and rhythms has become stronger in recent years. Also with the stuff I listen to.

The album was recorded together with a band. Do you develop this music together?

Bernhard Fleischmann: In this case I prepared over two years worth of material. I had far too many ideas. So the first layouts came from me. I then played them to Markus [Schneider; note], our guitarist, and we tried out what might fit. During the recording, Gloria Amesbauer [vocals and bass; note] and Valentin Duit on the drums joined in. I’d like to continue working in this constellation of four and bring the others in earlier next time to make the numbers feel a bit more airy.


Collaborative work continues in your work for film and theatre if you work with directors and of course have to consult them. How does it feel to be in such a dependent relationship as a musician? Is it about the image, the directorial concept, the narration, or the text?

Bernhard Fleischmann (c) Walter Mussil
Bernhard Fleischmann (c) Walter Mussil

Bernhard Fleischmann: I find it to be very exciting and sometimes quite pleasant, because it restricts these infinite possibilities for you and I know what I have to focus on and what is essential for the respective project. I ask myself how my musical contribution to the film can be used as usefully as possible. In theatre, the question is how the sound works in the space and how I can support the actresses and actors, i.e. where it makes sense to bring something in terms of content. When working on an album or live set, there is no correlative that tells you when something is too long or too much. In this respect, the two approaches mutually enrich each other.

When I’m working on new layouts, I think of feedback where the director said: “It´s great, but it’s too much!” Because when I do my own stuff, I tend to overload, to keep adding and to ask myself if that’s enough. Same thing with this album. Together with Marcus I then cut out a lot of tracks, because everything was already there. That’s why working on someone else’s project can be quite pleasant, because you can’t lose yourself in it all too much. Because you have someone who tells you what she or he needs. These clearly defined structures are sometimes very pleasant. I don’t see it as restrictive, but rather as a new challenge to deal with this setting.


Your film music has already won several awards. In December 2018 you received the “Award for Best Original Score” at the Les Arcs Film Festival and in January 2019 the Austrian Film Award for Best Film Music. Katharina Mückstein’s film “L’Animale” is a feature film, more specifically a coming-of-age film. In this case, do you try to put yourself into the emotional worlds of the characters and recreate them in order to facilitate identification – that would be Hollywood’s way – or is it about more for you?

Bernhard Fleischmann: In this case, the characters and the story behind them were clearly and beautifully developed, so I didn’t feel the need to emphasise them with the music: “This character is sad now”. Film music often becomes unbearable when it tells me: “Ah, he’s crying now.” I find that rather stale. Instead, I asked myself: “Where does the whole thing take place? The film is set in the country, but the music is very urban. I wanted to show that it doesn’t matter whether the film is set in the countryside or in the city. The music was supposed to create universality. For example, there is a scene where disco music can be heard, but suddenly it tips over into a meta-level.

Bernhard Fleischmann (c) Österreichischer Filmpreis 2019
Bernhard Fleischmann (c) Österreichischer Filmpreis 2019

Doesn’t such an award depend a lot on the movie? Can the music be judged independently of the film? Or to put it another way: what are the chances of receiving such an award if the film is bad? This is already a difficult category – the Film Music Prize. The whole team is happy about it, not just one person.

Bernhard Fleischmann: Yes, it heavily depends on the importance the director gives the music and how the music appears. In “L’Animale” there isn’t all too much music, but when there is, it is set very precisely and relatively loud. The post-production plays a considerable part in it. The mix is extremely important. I was also involved in the post-production for “L’Animale”. That’s important because the studio doesn’t get any stereo files from me, but instead various so-called stems. This means that the tracks are divided into different tracks, which can then be mixed differently in surround. And in this case “The Grand Post” made a significant contribution to making it sound the way it does in the cinema. It’s an award that makes me happy, but for a film that’s not as consitent, I don’t think it would suffice. I see it as an award for the whole team.


Documentaries and feature films demand completely different things from you. A documentary film tries to assert a kind of objectivity, which means that the music must also be as “de-emotionalised” as possible. I can imagine that it is not easy for a musician to deal with that.

Bernhard Fleischmann: Yes, my first film with Mark Bauder, whose title was this beautiful Jelinek quote “Everyone keeps quiet about something else”, was about four families from the former GDR, where the parents were in prison for betrayal of the GDR. The film was about the silence regarding this time. The parents waited for the children to ask, and the children waited for their parents to tell.

I had made the layouts, but when it came to combining them with the picture, the music had this sort of moralising direction all of a sudden, something we didn’t want at all. You could see Stasi archive recordings and with the music it suddenly didn’t work at all. Then I said: “Okay, I’ll try to turn down the pads and the bass and make the beats louder”. And suddenly it was neutral music! It was extremely exciting to see how the mix alone changes the film music. It can be the same piece, but if you mix it differently, it’s neutral or instructive. It was a real “aha” experience – how important the mix is in the film music.

What do you mean by “neutral music”? Does that even exist?

Bernhard Fleischmann: Well, I mean music that invites the audience to think for themselves or to leave room for thinking and does not want to directly trigger emotions and directions of thought.


But even in feature films and in your work for the theatre, you are not really concerned with transforming emotions into sound.

Bernhard Fleischmann: I usually try to raise the content of the piece to another level through the music. In Dresden, for example, I made the music for a piece by Kathrin Röggler – “Der Lärmkrieg”. It was about the construction of a new airport and the sensitivities of the people who live there. At the beginning we thought that there would be brutal noise areas. But when we recorded it, it was just banal and stupid. So then I thought about what noise could be in this context, and for me that was also the non-fulfilment of a supposed idyll. So I played over seven minutes of “Für Elise” as if I was someone who was learning to play the piano. For the first two minutes the audience found it funny, but after a few more minutes people really got restless. It started to annoy. That’s when I thought to myself: “Okay, that’s a form of noise that doesn’t satisfy a listener at all”. It’s an idea of theatre music that I find exciting: to express the content of a text musically in a different way. An expectation not to be fulfilled.

This means that you are not trying to illustrate, but to raise it to a conceptual level?

Bernhard Fleischmann: That’s not always the case, but I’m tending to try to lift it somewhere else. Sometimes it works better, sometimes less. But it gets exciting for me when I can translate the lyrics into a musical context. Of course there are scenes in every piece that need accompaniment. But there are also often passages that can be raised to a meta-level with the music.

I don’t think it’s easy to take yourself seriously as a musician, but not to take yourself too seriously. You want to intensify an idea or mood, on the other hand you have to stay subtle.

Bernhard Fleischmann: Yes, and in theatre you have to be extremely careful not to step on the actresses’ and actors’ toes. You have to be careful if it’s not a choreographed performance. I tend to prefer to cut things out when I see that there is no added value. That’s why I rarely stand on stage in theatre productions, because in 99 percent of cases it doesn’t make sense for someone to make music live on stage.

It is often the case that – mostly electronic – musicians stay afloat with film and theatre productions. There is a “disproportion”, if you will. As a freelance musician, securing one’s existence is usually a struggle. To get such jobs often means that one is established as a musician. This is how it is possible to live from music. How important are these productions for you?

Bernhard Fleischmann: Yes, as far as the financial aspect is concerned, it is definitely true. But there are different ways of answering the question. There are bands and acts that focus on being a band and do it professionally. For example, I can’t imagine that Bilderbuch would make music at the Burgtheater, at least not yet. They simply have a different plan. In my case I know that my b.fleischmann music will never be so big that I could live from the albums or the concert income. That just won’t work out. The market has changed too much in terms of selling records. The costs of an album production alone are not nearly covered by the sales. And I know exactly, it would not be financially feasible to concentrate purely on playing live. But I personally also like these projects and find it exciting to be able to make my contribution.

What do you have planned for the near future?

Bernhard Fleischmann: The film music for a documentary film by Anja Salomonowitz about Daniel Spoerri has just been finished. Since Spoerri worked exclusively with found materials, I also decided to make music only with organs that I found at Caritas or in the trash. So 99 percent of the music in the film comes from these found instruments. And with the collective Freundliche Mitte from Berlin and Vienna there will also be two bigger stories in brut and Floridsdorf. That’s where we’re going to start working now. Then were just asked for a film score. There will also be some concerts. That’s enough anyway! But fortunately they are all beautiful projects.

Many thanks for the interview!

Shilla Strelka (shortened version, translated from the German interview by Dave Dempsey.)

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