Dangerously intrigued by the story of the Endless House, a failed utopian experiment in communal living, electronic music craft, and modernist architecture spearheaded by Czech audiophile/venture capitalist/megalomaniac Jiri Kantor in the early 1970s, Visitation Rites jumped at the opportunity to speak with one Walter Schnaffs, one of the many German-language composers revisited on Dramatic Records’ recent Endless House compilation. Our questions were relayed to him by one Jack Dramatic in London, who tells us that the elderly synth-master responded using IM technology from his flat in Trieste, Italy.
VR: What brought you to the Endless House in the first place?
Walter: Well, I really can’t state enough just how exciting the Endless House proposition felt to all of us. I mean, it was so flattering to have attracted the attention of a charismatic “leader” like Jiri Kantor. And the way his “people” came after me, well — let’s just say it was somewhere between a seduction and a kidnapping! They showed us the plans.. .And it was like being led to a musical utopia. I dreamt of some kind of liberation — a land where my synthesizers could play like bird-song in a synthetic netherland. The promise was everything… And we WERE promised everything. A new Moog Modular synthesizer for starters!
VR: Can you describe a typical day there?
Walter: Well, I can only speak for myself here. I know that for Rasmus and for Felix (Uran) you would get a different, and perhaps more glamorous, response. Each resident had a “show” every 3-4 days, you see, and that was how the rotation worked. In between you would work your hardest to bring new material together. Kantor had invested huge sums of money into these “workshop” areas, and I worked there practically non-stop when I wasn’t performing.
I was under pressure, you understand, so I was always striving to impress Kantor more and more. There are certain songs — and I have never shown them to the world — that I wrote specifically to address his “feedback.” There is one called “Spaceship Earth,” in particular, which was my last effort to match Rasmus, Johannus and Felix…
VR: What were your first impressions of Jiri himself?
Walter: Well, the thing about Jiri is that he was a magnificent self-promotionalist. Every word he uttered to you was some kind of marketing confection. He was a “chrome” man — if that makes sense. Every sentence a poem, every outfit a sartorial tour de force. He wore a halo somehow — as if he were untouchable. Then, of course, he would disappear. You would grope beneath the smoke and mirrors and all you could grasp was air. The people you ended up dealing with were his “aesthetic engineers” — representatives of the “house style” that was both absolute and utterly transitory. I suppose this is where my troubles began…
VR: How would you describe this “house style”? And how did your own music differ?
Walter: Kantor — or, more pointedly, his team of “aesthetic engineers” — originally came to me with a brief that seemed very open in its scope. We were all handed the “Endless House Music Manifesto”, like some kind of “brand guidelines” for what he wanted from us. To begin with, this was all fine… You know, it was highly ideological and harmlessly abstract. As time went on, however, it became clear that my work somehow wasn’t matching these invisible expectations. “I am Germany,” for example, was a track I was enormously proud of. It was everything I dreamt about; Kantor had supplied me with 4 or 5 Tape Echo machines, and I wired them in series to the new modular synthesizers he had purchased for me….
When he hated it, I was heartbroken. My confidence was shattered in an instant. His men would whisper to me, “Walter, have you heard what Rasmus is doing? Have you heard the “Coupe” song he’s just written? The crowd — they love it!” I was quickly isolated. I would play my “sets” without daring to catch his eye.
VR: But who did this audience consist of? Wasn’t the venue in the middle of the Bialowieska Forest?
Walter: Yes, it’s certainly true that Endless House’s location was unhelpful in the extreme. Kantor seemed to relish the idea of the club’s remoteness though, as if the Forest was the “promised land” at the end of a pilgrimage… And, of course, if the venue was difficult to reach, it was equally difficult to leave. People who made the trip tended to stay around for days at a time.
In this sense, I suppose, Endless House was more of a “community” than it was a traditional “venue” with artists on one side, and spectators on the other. I don’t need to tell you that Kantor’s fascination had been with what had happened in 1960s Germany. He often told me of his infatuation things like Kommune 1 in Berlin, and the whole Amon Duul-style ideal. This gives you an idea of the kind of people who came to participate in the Endless House project.
VR: Would you say that he was successful in that aim?
Walter: It is so difficult to reduce the Endless House to a judgement of success or failure. Kantor may have been flippant — even violent — in his destruction of its memory, but he did create something special… Something spectacular beyond your imagination… But also something so stupid, and so utterly unsustainable.
But what did he want? What would “success” have looked like to Jiri? Sometimes I think the whole thing was just an elaborate choreography, an opera that we were all part of, whether we liked it or not. He created a stage, and he sought actors to fill it.
Put it this way, he was rarely seen without a Pirandello in his hand.
VR: Last question: Can you describe the Endless House itself? As in, the building?
Walter: My pleasure. Architecturally, it was the product of an absolute maverick, and one with an extravagant, and highly diverse, set of interests: constructivism, Bauhaus, utopian structures of the Cold War period, Geodesic designs, Super Studio, early brutalism, Italian futurism…It was a Frankenstein product.
To play the impressionist for a moment: I remember monolothic concrete shapes reflecting in polished, curving chrome. I remember Bauhaus textiles hanging from corrogated rafters. I remember futurist lightning bolts cutting across skeletal steel shapes…” A low frequency oscillation between heaven and hell,” as Jiri’s brother used to say.
Walter Schnaffs, “I am Germany”
Words: Emilie Friedlander
Endless House compilation is out now via Dramatic Records, and is Album of the Week on Boomkat. Listen to a “1977 BBC Radio Hungary” interview with Walter Schnaffs here, and a track from fellow composer Johannus Arpensium below, presented in Jack Dramatic’s own words:
“Here is Johannus Arpensium’s “Ostend (Invisible Cities)”, the first track ever to be played at Endless House. The mythmakers say that its visceral power-chord opening brought Kantor’s prized sound-system close to meltdown before the story had even begun…”
Johannus Arpensium’s “Ostend (Invisible Cities)”