Against the flow with Hubert von Goisern

Die Furche 1st December 2020

An informal chat on board. The Furche boards a boat with Hubert Achleitner – alias Hubert von Goisern - and sets sail up the Danube. An excursion and conversation about an array of topics beyond the mainstream.

Linz-Urfahr landing stage. The Danube bus is anchored at river kilometre 2145. That's the distance from here to Sulina, the final place on the shore of the Black Sea. The ferry takes a maximum of twelve people. Captain Markus Luger is sailing a special route today. Hubert Achleitner is coming on board. Over the next few hours, he'll talk to the Furche about currents and his efforts to swim against the flow. Where better to philosophise about such matters than on a river trip on the Danube?

The interplay between setting off, travelling and returning has shaped Achleitner for decades. Both metaphorically and literally. It is as much a part of Achleitner's life as music. The 68-year-old has come straight from Goisern. A family get-together for his brother's birthday. Bad Goisern. That's 100 kilometres as the crow flies from the spa town to where the Danube bus is anchored. The artist has lived in Salzburg for nearly 30 years, though he has never left Goisern behind him. Just like with his stage name – which is anything but chance. "Hubert von Goisern was an act of revenge", he says. Then he asks the captain to head towards the industrial port. Downstream. Towards the valley. He wants to approach the chat slowly. First of all, it's about letting the city work its magic on you – letting yourself drift with the current, before the protagonists head to the other bow.

Conversation turns to Achleitner's concert ship expedition. The Linz Europe Tour from 2007 to 2009, including winter breaks. A floating festival and Achleitner's hitherto biggest project. For two summers, a barge equipped with a hydraulic stage, and a tugboat and barracks ship formed the platform for meeting and playing music with others. In 2007 they headed up and down the Danube. Downstream first. To the Black Sea. Then back again. In spring 2008, he took his musical cargo west. Up to the North Sea and Rotterdam. He took local musicians on board, rehearsed with them and gave free concerts from the ship. His message was: build bridges, bring people together.


How would he describe his relationship to the Danube? "It connects us to the seas and thus the whole world. The Danube has always been a lifeline for me. The Danube flows through and connects ten countries, more than any other river in the world. Conversely, I saw the Rhine as more of a dividing line." In 2008, when he took his concert ship upstream, he covered a stretch on the Rhine and experienced European animosity up close – and not just between the Germans and French. Based on what he saw, Achleitner says, he found the animosity to be more serious than the differences within the Eastern European populations.

Rondo. After a lap around the port, the captain initiates the turning manoeuvre. Now we're heading upstream. Against the flow. Would the folk music revolutionary agree with that? Achleitner has revolted against the mainstream more than once. Conforming without hesitation is something he strongly opposes. Even as a young boy he took a critical look at firmly entrenched beliefs. "Many adults said that they knew the ultimate truth. I questioned that. Of course, that didn't make me all too popular. He doesn't hold back with his controversial and anti-traditional opinions in the local brass band either. The result: expulsion. But his passion for music remains unchecked. Achleitner starts looking to make a career as a musician. His parents don't understand, particularly his father. "He insisted that I learn a proper profession. Become a teacher, for example." In the end, Achleitner agrees to train as a chemistry laboratory technician.

He is 20 years old when he realises that not just Bad Goisern, but Austria on the whole is too confining for him. Socially and well as culturally. So, he breaks from his homeland and heads to South Africa. He stays there for four years, being inspired by the local rhythms and getting involved in the movement against apartheid. Afterwards, there are stops in Canada and the Philippines. Everywhere he goes, he makes contact with like-minded people and engages with exotic instrumental genres. Only then does he return home – to turn the Austrian world of folk music on its head.

Goisern makes his breakthrough in 1992 with the album Aufgeigen statt niederschiassen and songs like Heast as nit and Koa Hiatamadl. Music projects all over the world follow. In between them, Achleitner keeps looking for a change of perspective, travelling to behavioural scientist Jane Goodall in Africa for example, or to Tibet. "If you misjudge the current, it might be that you end up taking a dive. It's happened to me many times. Nonetheless, nobody but you knows where you want to go. Nobody can relieve you of that," he says. Swimming against the flow means progressing more slowly – but being able to take a closer look.

Excursion into the wheelhouse. Captain Luger explains that a current is created by the gradient incline, as can be illustrated by the Danube: The river rises in the mountains, around Linz it is about 165 metres above sea level, 2000 kilometres further it drops to zero metres above sea level. "In the German-speaking shipping industry, we call it "to the valley" when you go with the current. Of course, steering a ship under these conditions is much easier because the current supports you on its way. You travel faster and use less energy." The opposite happens when a ship goes upstream – "to the mountain" - that is, against the current - explains Luger. "You use more energy and you move more slowly."

Hubert Achleitner looks out across the water, he seems lost in thought. The banks of the Danube with their gentle slopes pass by. The leaves of the broadleaved trees are shining yellow, red and orange. The sun is low. It is one of the last days of autumn. Silence. Then broken by the musician. The captain's words are making him thoughtful. "Going with the current means losing height. Going against the current means gaining height. You could see that metaphorically too." The musician has always practised social criticism in his songs, including on the current album Zeiten und Zeichen, with which he is currently unable to tour, thanks to the coronavirus. Where are we currently headed in Achleitner's view? And does he find the direction problematic? He emphasises the populism that's breaking through and touches upon the Chancellor. In the musician's opinion, ideals barely played a role for that man and he instead based his values on populistic calculus. Such as with refugee policies. How does he explain that Sebastian Kurz is very popular with Austrians? Why does the mainstream support him? "Because people think he's Santa Claus!"

The singer-songwriter's voice grows louder. The staging of the turquoise party, the ÖVP (Austrian People's Party), the hype around Kurz as a person, his appearance – it all seems almost esoteric. "On the whole I have something against esotericism, pretending to belong to an inner circle while the rest of mankind is supposedly groping around in the dark." Instead, faith and being a Christian play an important role in the artist's life. This faith is also an example of his endeavour to swim against the current. In contrast to most Goisern residents, Achleitner's family was not religious. Only his grandmother prayed. "When she did, there was a very special atmosphere in the room. I hooked on to that."

The pandemic, terror, anti-democratic movements in the USA – the world musician also sees the opportunity in global crises to explore new shores. Mankind has regulated itself and now the self-imposed rules must be reassessed. There's a great deal that should be rethought. "We just need to make sure that we don't collide. I also think that certain developments will be a kind of breaking point." He sees politics as incapacitated by the economy, because international corporations are able to act outside national rules. However, Achleitner sees internet media as a dangerous development, because it can spread false reports almost unhindered.

Does he worry about the welfare of future generations? "I'm not worried about the young, but rather more about the older people who haven't grown up with the medium. The over-60s are responsible for most of the false reports."

The captain turns off the engine. The Danube bus drifts along, moving at the speed of the current, about 4 or 5 kilometres per hour. Captain Luger comes onto the deck. What is the connotation of the term "current" in nautical language? "The word "current" is emotionally charged for every skipper, we are rather ambivalent towards it. On the one hand, it achieves something good when you go with the current. If the current becomes too strong though, it can quickly become a massive danger." Nonetheless, there are not many captains who can resist the attraction of the current. Luger mentions the eddy zone. When they went upstream with their ships - against the direction of flow - they looked for these marginal areas, from where it would be easier for them to make progress.


The eddy as a place to pause for a moment in a battle against the current. Achleitner once again comes up with a second level of meaning. People, no matter how much they rebel against something, ultimately repeatedly need the eddy. "It gives you time for regeneration." What's the difference between that and the anchoring place? That the eddy doesn't offer ultimate security, you're not secured anywhere. Are you free and yet protected? Only seemingly so. Because there are changes of current in the eddy too. And they, the captain explains, as he turns the engine back on, could quickly carry you out of the comfort zone.

The Danube bus picks up speed. The destination is the start point. The boat docks. Where will Hubert Achleitner's next journey lead? He doesn't know. Who knows in these coronavirus times? He has visions, he says. But he doesn't like to talk about them. Suffice to say, he wants to land his next project diametrically opposed to the previous one. It is his maxim to always break with his own traditions. "Because you have to keep an eye on your own, inner current too." It's something you have to constantly keep confronting.

FURCHE Podcast with HvG: 00.00 - 10.20