Auto Auto

He's had death threats, multiple injuries and even trouble finding cars to smash, but, he tells Hannah Thomas, nothing can stand between Christian Von Richthofen and his music.

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Published 29 Jul 2007
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With bare, bloody hands, a middle-aged man stalks across an Edinburgh scrap-yard sledge hammer in hand. As bewildered onlookers tremble he strips down to his vest, eyeing up a nearby car before pounding his tool deep into the gutted car's chassis in a shower of glass and steel shrapnel.

To the uninitiated he may look like a crazed vandal but the chance of him being slapped with an ASBO is less likely than it may first appear. Christian von Richthofen, a classically-trained percussionist, is the creator of Auto Auto, one of the most anticipated shows at this year's Fringe where he and his three cohorts create beautiful music through the destruction of an unlikely instrument – the car.

"Listen to its beauty, the window sounds like a bass drum!" he declares, pounding on the windscreen with his bleeding fists. “It is impossible to find this range of timbres encapsulated in a conventional instrument!” Richthofen’s excursion to the scrap-yard is in fact a mission to find the “perfect” vehicle – a knackered Vauxhall Astra as it turns out – for his show’s Fringe debut. However this is not as simple a task as it first appears. Richthofen, it transpires, is as particular about his "instrument" as a concert pianist. "This car won't do," he says, mournfully shaking his head. "In Germany we always play the magnificent Opal Kadet and it will be hard to adjust to a different model." As he dismisses the battered vehicles one by one - "too thick," "wrong doors," "no wing mirror" - Richthofen decides to launch a nationwide appeal for cars. "We must ask the Scottish people to donate their autos," he says, triumphantly beaming at his increasingly twitchy PR. Turning to me with a glint in his eye he says, "Can you write about this in your magazine? Tell them we are desperate, that we need more cars to smash!"

Auto Auto is described by its creator as a “crazy musical comedy show with erotic violence at the end,” with Richthofen and his two friends Rolf Clausen and Kristian Bader, professional musicians from Germany, determined to prove that the car is more than a mode of transport. Throughout the course of his show's one-hour duration, the miked-up Astra will be systematically smashed with sledgehammers, bashed with bare hands, and finally annihilated with an angle-grinder all in the name of music. Another 25 cars salvaged from scrap-yards will face a similar fate at the hands of Richthofen’s trio before the spectacle’s 26-night run draws to a close. “Automobiles are made of many different materials: plastics, metals, glass, which all create a fantastic assortment of sounds when hit,” Richthofen explains.

The show sees the trio perform a percussive extravaganza to music ranging from Bach to Benny Goodman, from hip-hop to Tchaikovsky, executed entirely upon the various surfaces of the car. The idea emerged out of a social project devised by Richthofen to teach young German vandals “how to hit the car in the right way.” “I wanted to highlight the problems with mindless vandalism, so I decided to teach them to demolish the vehicles to music and simultaneously create art,” he says, absent-mindedly tapping the wing mirror of a nearby car with his finger. “Above all I wanted to prove to them that anyone can make music out of anything. You don’t need to invest in expensive instruments to become a musician.”

By transforming the car into an instrument and by creating music through destruction, Richthofen hopes to challenge conventional notions about music. “I want people to reconsider what music is, where and how it can be created,” he says. But why the need to smash up the vehicle with such violence? “As musicians we have a sort of sexual relationship with the car," Richthofen explains, his expression deadpan. “We have explored every inch of the auto to discover all of the sounds, and sometimes we must fight with it – strangle it – to create new feelings of passion.”

But with blood still streaming from a recent wound – the result of shattering a windscreen bare-handed in the quest for such passion – Richthofen acknowledges the perils of his craft which have seen him hospitalized many times. “Even though I try to be careful there is blood all over the place by the end of every show. The car is not made from satin! But luckily I have survived so far - though with lots of scars and scratches.”

Besides the personal dangers of car-bashing, I timidly suggest that the good intentions driving Auto Auto could perhaps socially backfire and ignite non-musical vandalism, but Richthofen claims that the majority of his audience “understand and appreciate the poetry of this type of destruction" and would not equate it with vandalism. “What we create in Auto Auto can never be described as vandalism,” he says, seemingly offended by my insinuation. "If this type of destruction was wreaked upon a car out of context then it would become an act of mindless devastation.”

But the frosty atmosphere soon dissipates and Richthofen is keen to drive home the political message belying his show. “I don’t like cars,” he says, now hammering on the roof of his PR's Audi. “There are too many of them around causing so much environmental damage and waste. It seems like we have reached a point of no return – in Germany people dump their cars as soon as a new model comes out.” He leans forward conspiratorially and jokes: “I encourage children to sneak out at night time and smash up their fathers’ cars to music. That would be a better use for the vehicles.”

It may seem somewhat unlikely but in the six years since its inception, Auto Auto has become an international success, touring Germany, Belgium and Holland to rave reviews. But for Richthofen, the most memorable performance to date was at a Mercedes car exhibition. “They had no idea what to expect,” grins Richthofen, “they had come to the convention to chat about the wonders of cars are and we were there to smash one up in front of them. They watched us demolish the Opel Kadet open-mouthed in utter shock. We were on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Leipzig the next day. People were shocked, but they loved the show. Audiences are drawn to the passion with which I perform. I pour so much energy and sweat - about 3kg in fact - into every show. Music is my leiderschaft – my obsession; people recognise this and the majority respond well to ‘Auto Auto’ as a result.”

But not everybody appreciates the “art” of Auto Auto. “We have been attacked on more than one occasion and often receive death threats,” he says. “One person threatened to come to my house and smash up my car. I said to my colleagues, “Let the motherfucker come, I’ve only got a bicycle!””

Whether he will inspire similar reactions at the Fringe remains to be seen but any potential assassins should be warned; armed with a seven kilo axe, a sledge hammer and a blistering passion for music, Christian von Richthofen is not a man to be trifled with.