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Bob Rutman: “I am what you see.”

The US avant-garde musician and instrument builder has been a household living legend ever since returning to Berlin in 1989. We interviewed him ahead of the screening of his biopic last November.

Image for Bob Rutman: “I am what you see.”

Photo by Iryna Sylinnyk. Back in the Berlin of his birth in 1989, the US avant-garde musician and instrument builder has been a household living legend ever since….

Outside of cult music circles, few might have heard of Bob Rutman, and yet over the last six decades, he has done it all. He is best known as an inventor of curious instruments, like the Styrophone, and the Bow Chime, and as the leader of the Steel Cello Ensemble, with whom he has played at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, scored Shakespeare for Peter Sellars, and made soundtracks for Wim Wenders. A self-taught musician and sound-sculpture artist, he owned his own Greenwich Village gallery, where he rubbed shoulders with Jackson Pollock and Adolph Gottlieb, before pronouncing New York to be dead in the 1980s and high-tailing it to Berlin.

The star of Bernd Böhlendorf’s biopic – Aprèsgarde: A Portrait Of Bob Rutman – still oozes avant-garde. He litters his patter with the slang of a generation of smoked-out drop-outs, makes a point of obscenity, and his laugh, were it not inextricable from a wheeze, would be unassailably boyish. At 88, his eyes are still aglint, he is mischievous, and on his myriad achievements, he is almost excruciatingly blasé, because, to Bob Rutman, the only thing that ever mattered was the noise. People, he contends, “can philosophise all they want.” “And you know what?” “They’re all talking shit.”

From day one, Rutman was on the move. Born to a Jewish mother in Berlin in 1931, he fled to Switzerland as a child. There, he and his mother would have made their home, were it not for her “illegal activities.” Don’t ask, he doesn’t know. Expelled by the Swiss, Rutman returned to Berlin, while his mother made for Warsaw. In Berlin, the lady that his mother arranged to leave him with had, in the meantime, “become something of a Nazi.” Something of a problem. Under the threat of the Gestapo, and aged six, Rutman made for Poland, where he met his mother and took the last train out of Warsaw. Together they would make the journey to Latvia, through Finland and Sweden, before arriving by boat in England, precisely one week before the outbreak of the war.

Rutman arrived in New York in 1952, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that his attentions turned to sound. At the time, the inclination of the avant-garde was towards de-commodification and dematerialisation. While others were turning back to the body, Rutman was rebuilding it. Appearing at a selection of happenings at his downtown gallery, and crafted with ninety-eight inches of sheet metal and a single string, his interpretation of Constance Demby’s Steel Cello “could play very primitive melodies.” “If you lay the bow directly on the sheet metal, you will get the sound of chaos.” Built by his own hand, here was an instrument, whose freedom was unlocked by the all too familiar methods of improvisation, and self-determination. “Chaos is the foundation of my music.” “You can play destructive things, but you still end up with tonal qualities.” “That’s the energy. That’s the foundation of my life.” More than merely arriving at those foundations, Rutman was casting them in steel.

Rutman toured extensively, and upon finding audiences to be particularly appreciative in Berlin, he moved. “I made more money in the first three months here than I did in the last ten years there.” “There is no culture left in America.” It was October 1989, precisely one month before the Fall of the Wall, though his frankly philatelic collection of epochal moments is just a sidebar. “More importantly, I decided at that time that I wasn’t becoming an artist. I was an artist. You never become. You are always in the state of becoming, but if you say I am an artist, then you are free.” 

In Berlin, Rutman’s continued craving for the self deterministic force of chaos was satisfied like never before. “I connected with a bunch of these people like Rudi Moser (Einstürzende Neubauten), and I would hang out at Ex’n’Pop. There were the most incredibly creative people everywhere you turned. And you could be fucking crazy, man!” “I would get 10 people to play Styrophone, and it would be a glorious event, man.” The Styrophone, is a foam box with brass rods poking out of the top. It delivers only a single sound, “a voice, very expressive, but completely atonal, it sounds absolutely horrible.” “I love it.” For the first time in his life, Bob Rutman was inventing his own future. “They were paying people one-hundred marks a month to live here, and I had this huge loft in Schöneberg.” “I’ve lost count of how many fucking concerts I did, man. It was incredible.” 

But, if that was Berlin then, it certainly isn’t Berlin now. “Everything is proper, and that’s fucked up. Every day you have to walk silently. You’re not allowed to make any noise. Music is a noise man! Two months ago, I was playing Bow Chime, and these restaurants on Weinburgsweg were really freaking out. They called the police because I didn’t have permission to play. They made us stop. They said, “that’s not music!” I said that’s right, it’s not music, it’s noise!”  

Bob Rutman is not an educated man. He says he’s an idiot. “I am what you see, and I don’t pretend to be great.” “My music tells a story, and that story is a cacophony.” Noise, however, tells far more, and Rutman’s instruments, crafted by his hands, express a lifelong examination of physical, artistic, and personal freedom. Rutman and his instruments are one and the same. Everyday objects, based in chaos, capable of something marvelous given the opportunity. The trouble, Bob tells me, is that the opportunity has gone.

“They’ve torn the fucking soul out of Berlin. The police, the vampires, they’re everywhere!”

Aprèsgarde: A Portrait Of Bob Rutman | Part of the EXBlicks film series at Soundwatch Music Film Festival, Nov 10, 20:00, at Lichtblick Kino.