Paul Gulda: Improvising A Life of Art And Activism

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | May 2013

The asylum law protesters had been camped out at the Votivkirche for a couple of weeks when pianist Paul Gulda visited them for the first time in mid January. He had been asked to contribute a message of solidarity for their website. But as he read more about the occupation, he decided he needed to see for himself.

He entered the church to a sea of bright-coloured camping gear covering the broad stone floor, dwarfed under the vaulting arches of the north transept. It was glacial in the church,

literally freezing, and the men – 63 in all –  were huddled in their sleeping bags, fully clothed, struggling to stay warm. To talk to them, Gulda sat on the floor with his legs under the blanket.


The hunger strike

Two-thirds of the refugees had gone on a hunger strike to try to force the Austrian government to listen to their call for reform of Austrian Asylum Law, to gain the right to stay and work, and for a speedier processing of their claims, which can often take years.

Most are from Pakistan, which means the chances of a successful application are poor: Out of 1,718 asylum applications in 2012, only 14 were accepted.

"The Austrian asylum officials tend to grossly underestimate the degree of insecurity and danger in everyday life in Pakistan," Gulda said over coffee at the Café Raimann in Meidling, Vienna’s 12th District, where we met on a Monday morning in April. "Underestimate grossly, actually! Here, I’ve brought you a letter…"

And he reached into his bag for two typed sheets sent him by Austrian theologian and psychotherapist Claudia Villani, who has been active in Pakistan with the legendary Dr. Ruth Pfau and the MALC centre, a combination medical clinic and community development project in Karachi. He read bits aloud…

"Whose killing whom, nobody knows anymore," Dr. Villani had written in March. "We all suspect that forces are behind this who deliberately want to spread fear and terror in the country – at which they are succeeding all too well. Everyone is afraid. Everyone. Every time you go out of the house, you can never be sure you’ll come back in one piece. During the night, the shooting continues unbroken."

It was an elegant letter, detailed and powerful, the sort of voice Gulda felt was essential for the information to be believed. Refugee reports, he said, were often discredited.

"The Austrian authorities tend to think, okay, [the refugees] tell about bombings and random violence. But they say, you don’t know who these guys are. They may be Talibani, they may be secret service. They may be anything in between or one posing for the other.

"But then Mrs. Villani writes, ‘You don’t even know who’s doing the shooting; but who is going to go out and ask?’ Maybe this will be believed!" he pressed on.

"It’s really dangerous there. Security-wise, some people say it is a failed state."


A heritage of political engagement

Listening to Paul Gulda talk about the refugees, it’s easy to forget that he has any other life. But in fact, by profession and passion he is a pianist and composer, with a huge repertoire of the classics, and like his late father, the legendary Friedrich Gulda, he has a love and flare for jazz. His busy schedule includes solos with orchestra, chamber concerts and jazz ensembles, musical/literary evenings, arranging, and composing for the stage.

For one acclaimed project, "Haydn alla zingarese", he assembled a group of top Roma musicians, who performed for the 2009 Haydn Year celebrations in Eisenstadt. He is now busy preparing Liszt.

It’s rare for a classical musician to be so politically engaged – one thinks of the Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, Itzak Perlman or Yehudi Menuhin. There are others, but it’s a relatively short list. Music takes a lot of time.

"It’s more common with jazz or pop," Gulda agreed. "But that’s the way my father was. When you heard him talking about jazz being the music of the down and out, of the lower classes in America – which of course is true – you could always feel the political tinge about it. That’s what I inherited."

The experience of exclusion lay very close at hand. His father’s father had been a teacher and passionate Social Democrat, who had just been appointed director of a Hauptschule in 1933 when he was "forcibly retired" by the austrofascist government of Englebert Dolfuss. ("Or course it stayed that way under Hitler.") And while he began again twelve years later, "he didn’t live long enough to see it blossom."

The influences on his mother’s side were just as strong. Although he was raised a Catholic, his maternal grandfather was a Croatian-born Jew living in Italy, who fled in 1939 to Argentina where his mother, Paola Loew, grew up. "So along with my catholic upbringing, and all the "love thy neighbour", was this other story, of my grandfather and my mother growing up in Argentina for that reason, that I heard my whole childhood."

Loew was also an extraordinary person, an actress who studied in Berlin after the war (mastering German as her fifth language). Coming to Vienna in 1953, she joined the Volkstheater and later the Burgtheater, and performed regularly in films and on television. Her 10-year marriage to Friederich Gulda (1956-1966) brought two sons into the world, David and Paul. She then became involved with author Friederich Torberg (The Young Gerber, and Tante Jolisch), with whom she remained until his death in 1979.

A dazzling world, but also a lot for a small boy to handle. "I deem myself lucky to somehow have extricated myself from all these very powerful influences and to, you know, have found a stance of my own," Paul Gulda admitted. Amen to that.


The birth of an activist

Political engagement came gradually; until he was 28, he was "first and foremost" a musician. It started – "I can pin point it exactly" – in 1988. Just back from several years studying with Rudolf Serkin in Philadelphia, he was playing with the Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra.

"To this day, it is a fantastic memory," he said. "I was getting to play Brahms 1st Piano Concerto for the first time in my life. It was 9 November, 1988. And suddenly it occurred to me that this was the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Pogrom night."

It was also shortly after Austria had been swept up with the revelations of the Waldheim Affair, when the former UN secretary general and candidate for the Austrian presidency admitted he had served in the Wehrmacht far longer and at a higher rank than he had long maintained – cracking open the Pandora’s box of the country’s Nazi past.

By prior arrangement with the conductor, a very young Fabio Luisi, Gulda paused between the first and second movements of the concerto, and turning to the orchestra, he asked for a moment of silence. Unprompted, the entire audience rose to its feet in acknowledgement. And then the concert continued.

"Now that I’ve grown older and sentimental," he smiled, shaking his head, "it almost makes me cry to think that [the audience] did that. At that moment, I really found out that music being what it is – in German, you could almost call it a Zangenangriff, the grip of a pincer – it comes from both sides.

"It overwhelms people both on the intellectual and the emotional level. It can do so many things; it can teach so many things."


At the Servitenkloster

After two and a half months occupation, the refugees vacated the Votivkirche on 3 March, with a promise of continued sanctuary from Cardinal Schönborn, and President Heinz Fischer’s commitment to aid them "to the full extent of the law".

In their new accommodations in the Servitenkloster nearby in the 9th District, they sleep two to four to a room, on real beds, with shared bathrooms and central heating. In the basement of the Cloister is a theatre space that the protesters are using for gatherings of supporters, for interviews, language lessons, and sessions with legal counsellors. They also hold press conferences.

On 24 April, Gulda was on the agenda at the refugees’ most recent press conference to enter Villani’s letter in evidence, and "to underline the imminent danger in Pakistan, that the Austrian authorities still don’t understand."

Overall, the news wasn’t good: While the move to the Serviten Cloister has been generally seen as "a harmonious resolution", in fact, many of the protesters are now threatened with deportation, mostly to Pakistan. Already 25 Pakistanis have been deported from the Bundesländer, and Austrian authorities have applied for the necessary documents for hundreds more, according to spokesman Khan Adalat.

Nearly all asylum applications from Pakistanis have been turned down.

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