Since 2008 Jan Jelinek has been releasing recordings from the archives of an electronic ‘outsider’ musician, Ursula Bogner. Born in 1949 and employed as a pharmacist for Schering, she devoted her leisure time to exploring electronic sound, constructing a home studio, attending workshops and building up a body of tape and synthesiser pieces that reverberate with a ghostly, eerie intimacy.
Except, of course, she probably didn’t – Bogner is widely believed to be one of Jelinek’s various musical personae, despite his carefully constructed story of a chance meeting with her son followed by the donation of an archive of reel-to-reel recordings, photos and writings. After the first Bogner release in 2008 – a compilation of fragmentary works dated ‘1969-88’ – another, more fully realised album, Sonne = Blackbox, followed in 2011. This release took the tale further, coming with extensive documentation of Bogner’s research into esoteric areas such as space travel and Wilhelm Reich’s theories of ‘orgonomy’. More recently, Jelinek has taken his discovery out live, with performances in which he and Andrew Pekler interpret Bogner’s compositions.
‘Andrew Pekler & Jan Jelinek play Ursula Bogner’ was on my list of must-sees at Mutek festival in Montreal a few weeks ago. Sonically, the Bogner releases, with their gently unearthly analogue miniatures, ticked many of my boxes, whoever the man or woman making the music was. I’d no problem with being Jelinek’s target audience conceptually, either. It seemed pretty clear that he intended to comment on the ongoing fascination with unearthing marginal figures from electronic music’s past, an archival itch that, four years after the first Bogner release, seems no closer to being scratched. That he chose a female musician was significant. Composers like Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Eliane Radigue and Ruth White are not only outliers because of their obscurity; their gender puts them even more intriguingly on the margins (although, as more musicians/engineers of all genders come to light, perhaps the well-meaning but slightly fetishy edge to this strain of archive fever will die down a little). The Reichian ideas about libidinal orgone energy that Jelinek added to the mix could even be seen as a gentle dig at the essentialist ideas of tactility, mysticism and sensuality that often linger around descriptions of electronic music made by women. Jelinek's take on sound and gender seemed sharp, funny and on point, and if women’s roles in shaping electronic music are finally coming into the light, what’s a little irony along the way? On the flight over to Canada I'd been reading about science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, whose stories published under the name James Tiptree Jr were praised for being “ineluctably masculine”; electronic sound, like science fiction, offers a space to play with identity, subvert stereotypes.
My misgivings start to take shape in the dark, hushed space of the Monument-National theatre, where it is harder to ignore who is turning the dials. On stage, Jelinek and Pekler manipulate tape machines and oscillators. Their actions are projected on one half of a screen above them, the rest of which plays out a slideshow of Bogner ephemera: schematics and diagrams; linocuts of planets; photographs of Bogner’s home-built orgone accumulator. And, of course, photos of someone purporting to be the woman herself – at home, at work, at play. High, delicate and disembodied voices echo out from whimsically named ‘Sombrero Galaxies’ into the ornate domed room, and Jelinek pitchshifts his own voice up to an androgynous tone to narrate a text. The mixture of pure analogue abstraction and the vocal-based ‘emotive register’ spoken of in the sleevenotes to Sonne entices me to drift off into a fluid, utopian post-gender future space, like the calm galaxies depicted in Bogner’s planet prints; something it's easy to do when listening to the records.
But in this three-dimensional setting, the physical facts keep asserting themselves. At an electronic music festival whose performers are for the most part male, the Ursula Bogner project doesn’t feel so different from anything else on show. I find myself asking, as a static image of Bogner hovers over the stage, whether it's OK for male musicians to co-opt a history that isn't theirs. Does Jelinek's ironic objectification of a woman who probably never existed edge real women’s art even closer to the margins, trivialise it for those of us who think rediscovering it is less a subject for satire and more an urgent political project? Is the endpoint of this playful exercise in gender-bending postmodernism just a theatre full of people staring at a photo of a woman, listening to music made by men? The sounds that come from this configuration of Jelinek, Pekler and the hypothetical Ursula Bogner are inviting, but their live presence alienates, leaves me thinking that this collaboration is better left in the disembodied realm of recording, where one isn't so easily reminded of the still-skewed realities of who actually gets to make, perform and benefit from music.
One of the central events at the CTM and Transmediale festivals in Berlin just over a week ago was Manuel Göttsching with Joshua Light Show (whose line up now interestingly includes Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters). The show was introduced by three of the festival organisers. They asked in tense tones that people not move around the seated venue, and also that the audience resisted the urge to film the show on smartphones, as the intention was to attempt to create an immersive experience reminiscent of an original Joshua Light Show performance.
This immediately created a rift between the festival organisers and their audience, not because it was an unfair request, but because CTM and Transmediale had three cameras covering the event (one still photographer, one for the live stream and a secondary video camera). Of these three, the LCD displays of two were in the eyeline of around a third of the audience.
Before I get started though, I'd like to add that this post is not about the ubiquity of the smartphone at live shows, or the proliferation of the amateur documentarist. That's a knee jerk reaction I'm not remotely interested in. The truly uncomfortable part of the show was when two thirds of the way through a member of Joshua Light Show emerged from behind the projector screen onto the stage.
Picture the scene, it's a small-ish, reasonably low stage, in a sit down modern theatre. She's dressed in a black top and sequinned skirt, but wearing a giant cream and metal headset of the sort pilots wear, and is edging awkwardly further towards the spotlight, glittering in the halo from the spotlight focused on Göttsching. Her arms are outstretched, in them is a handheld video camera pointing straight at Göttsching. She draws closer, until she's obscuring the view of him, and circles slowly, like David Attenborough around a rare tree frog.
Göttsching ignores the camera, but the audience doesn't. In those few seconds the atmosphere in the whole room shifts, and there's a tension in the room. A couple choose this moment for a toilet/bar break. Others shift in their seats, whisper across to one another. The spell is broken.
The images she films are then sent back to the team behind the curtain, where they're altered and projected live, in glassy fragments among psychedelic lights and swirling ink flows. The effect is definitely not analogue, but it's also not what's making me antsy. It's her presence as a recorder, not the digital nature of that recording that's making me uncomfortable. I'm already trying to ignore three cameras. This puts it up to four.
This is the first time that Göttsching and JLS have performed together in Berlin, and the show has been two years in the planning. There's a large portion of the audience that wants to film the show and stick it on YouTube, or just people who want to get a photo with their smartphones, because this is an Event. Joshua Light Show, for those 15-20 minutes, are the ultimate spectator, in a crass display of how our modern recording habits disengage us and can ruin an atmosphere.
The filming also brought up another more philosophical issue, about the cultural currency of AV performance. It's often the case that even with reasonably 'big name' visuals, the musical aspect of a performance is the seller, and those creating visuals are subordinated on the bill. This can usually be explained by the bigger audience for music, and hence, the bigger name gets higher on the bill. But on these terms Göttsching and Joshua Light Show is a rare performance – a conjunction between an audio and a visual arts festival, with Göttsching and Joshua Light Show equal on the bill. In coming out from behind the screen Joshua Light Show are asserting their right to be on the stage (even if it didn't work, it was a legitimate part of the performance). It's uncomfortable. Joshua Light Show clearly feel they have the right to be out in front of Göttsching, but the reaction of the audience suggests otherwise.
What Joshua light Show are doing feels inappropriate because at an AV show, the V part of the equation is not allowed to mess with the music. The performer is centre stage, and the visuals are an accompaniment. But visuals can make or break a show (they definitely elevated Roly Porter's performance earlier on in the festival), but they're often treated with mild suspicion, as if really arresting visuals are some sort of distraction, or a bogus enhancer of the music. After Roly Porter, friends commented on the fact that they weren't sure if they enjoyed it, because they were worried they'd been sucked into the visuals and weren't able to asses the performance properly.
In Berlin this week that gap was boldly pointed out to me, and the fact that the digital processes jarred with the aim of the show only added to the discomfort. The way we experience music live is all about sight as well as sound. Great music is not diluted by visuals, and visuals do not cover up for part-baked audio. The two should work together. It's just a shame that The Joshua Light show misjudged their front of stage intrusion at CTM.
(Despite the requests, one audience member did manage to film sections of the show. Watch a section below.)
It might be a city built on sand but going underground in Berlin lands you between a rock and a hard place: on one side, the raw, existential rock-soul-noise drummed up by Einstürzende Neubauten and any number of unstable units permed from the small pool of artists, chancers and nay sayers they started out with in early 1980s West Berlin; on the other, the precisely calibrated monochrome Techno ricocheting off reinforced concrete walls in subterranean bunkers and abandoned industrial plants in the lawless grey zones opened up in the Eastern sector when the Berlin Wall was breached and brought down in 1989-1990.
Of course, much else has happened before and after and around these two black hole energy fields in the 30 years since Einstürzende Neubauten launched in 1980, especially after the Wall came down and made Berlin the default destination for outsider types from all over the world, among them former DDR artists like Carsten Nicolai and Rammstein, the latter conceivably being the biggest German group in the world. But none of it is so deeply rooted in the city and its ongoing endtime dramas of total war, destruction, occupation, cold war division and reunification as the music Neubauten hammered out on old West Berlin’s foundations, or the Techno scene that stealthily colonised wastelands of ruin after the collapse of the DDR.
With so much to tell about themselves and where they come from, these two grand narratives continue to overshadow all the city’s other smaller, yet no less revealing stories. The good news is you can find many of these untold stories in Danielle De Picciotto’s Berlin memoir The Beauty Of Transgression. An American artist who drifted into West Berlin via Cologne in 1987, she has been a shyly reluctant protagonist yo-yoing back and forth from the sidelines to the dead centres of all the great and small histories she has been actively involved in; and her diaristic accounts of them patchwork together an extraordinarily vivid and comprehensive portrait of Berlin city lives, her own and other creatives. These were frequently eked out in impoverished conditions, albeit ameliorated by a support network of scene bars and clubs and galleries either offering waitressing work or free drinks to artists on the other side of the counter.
De Picciotto is one of the very few people granted free passage between the city’s rock and a hard place. Shortly after her arrival in Berlin she became partner to Dr Motte, with whom she helped launch Berlin’s Love Parade. Another enduring friendship through the book is with Dimitri Hegemann, founder of the Tresor club; though Motte participated in The Untergang Show where Neubauten et al announced their existence, and Hegemann was the organiser of the early 1980s Industrial/Noise showcase Atonal festivals, the respective scenes gravitating around the city’s rock and a hard place rarely had anything to do with each other.
As an artist without a clearly defined portfolio, De Picciotto has worked for 30 plus years on both sides of the divide, only for her contributions to go largely unrecognised. She has acted as fashionista, dresser, stage designer, events organiser, exhibition curator, film maker, adviser, musician, vocalist and more; much of the time, her energies have been expended in the service of making others look good, or in creating costumes and backdrops for the memorable happenings that advance Berlin’s reputation as a laboratory for louche, decadent art experiment wherein the usual laws of gravity are suspended and hierarchies of high and low culture are turned upside down.
Unfortunately it’s not to easy to upturn or overthrow that other hierarchy, which seemingly only permits women to act in a supportive capacity to the more serious work of men; it’s unsurprising but no less shocking to see such a hierarchy repeatedly reasserting itself in the supposedly more enlightened Berlin underground circles De Picciotto passes through. And that’s despite the presence in these pages of so many extraordinary women, among them Gudrun Gut, who also moves freely between rock and Techno circles. Working with Gut and others, Picciotto grows optimistic about the changing status of women in the underground. But her relationship and eventual marriage with Einstürzende Neubauten’s Alexander Hacke quickly shattered any dream of sisterhood when she found herself the target of murderous envy from the more extreme female fans clammering for the group’s attention. Happily, their relationship has held true, with De Picciotto and Hacke now equal partners generating a series of mixed media projects incorporating literature, music and film, and pitched beyond the long shadows cast by Berlin’s rock and a hard place.
Danielle De Picciotto’s The Beauty Of Transgression: A Berlin Memoir is published by Gestalten. She’ll be reading from her book, with music supplied by Alexander Hacke, at the Idler Academy, London at 7pm, 2 December.
At this year’s Mutek, the series of A/V performances (as well as Amon Tobin’s bombastic stage spectacle) were notable for treating visuals with an extra gravity that isn’t often extended to VJs and A/V artists. Across the festival schedule, visuals were brought to the fore and rendered in pin sharp graphics.
Here's a clip of Purform, whose set was most collaborative, with the audio visual elements merged into a coherent package, where neither medium is the prime mover. It's this duo that got me to thinking about the effect of hi res visuals on the audio in an A/V show. Here, the monochromatic visuals were rendered across a three screen array.
The effect of these super hi-res visuals is a sort of synthesthetic illusion, whereby the audio is exaggerated because of the visuals. There's a phenomenon like this in consumer technology: people watching a higher resolution screen think that they are hearing better quality audio than those watching a lower resolution screen, even when the audio is identical. The same phenomena seemed to be happening in the context of the A/V shows too, particularly at Amon Tobin.
Tobin's stage set up was one of the centre pieces of the festival: 3D projection mapping onto a stage set constructed from giant white stacked cubes. The visuals run the gamut from abstract lights and animated graphics to Transformer-like robots and enormous spaceships in starry skies. The extravagance of this spectacle appeared to give the booming of the bass an extra dimension, and at the very least the sound for Tobin was noticeably better than for other artists in the same venue.
The AntiVJ/Murcof collaboration benefited from a similar synesthetic illusion: flexing, angular, monochrome noodles, designed to react according to the frequencies Murcof was pushing, stretched their vibrating coils into the foreground of the broad screen, gave the bass an extra dimension, feeling like it got deeper into my head. It reminded me of the the Lustmord show at Unsound Festival in Krakow last year (also performed at Unsound New York), where curling smoke trails spiralled into blackness.
Whether the brain's mixing up of good sound and good visuals is a real effect in A/V performances or not, generally speaking visual artists at Mutek were treated as legitimate acts alongside their musical collaborators. This doesn't happen often - one reason suggested to me has been that great audio visual shows are suspicious: the more paranoid among us immediately ask what the visuals are distracting us from in the music, like the card trick that distracts you from the fact you've had your wallet nicked. Are the bright lights just a diversion from what's going on somewhere else in our senses, or are we just too used to music being performed with little or nothing in the way of visuals to be comfortable with it being done really well?
Daphne Oram (1925-2003) was a pioneering British composer and electronic musician. She was the creator of Oramics, a synthesis technique which used visual images to create electronic sounds. She is credited with creating the very first piece of commissioned electronic music for the BBC in 1957 (the score for Amphitryon 38) and was instrumental in the formation of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, becoming its first director in 1958.
Leaving the BBC less than a year later, Oram founded her own electronic music studio where she produced the electronic soundtrack to the 1961 horror film The Innocents, as well as various concert works and compositions. After her death in 2003, the British improvisor and instrument builder Hugh Davies inherited her archive of papers and tapes. Following Davies's death in 2005 the collection was accessioned by Goldsmiths, University of London.
The Sounds Of New Atlantis: Daphne Oram, Radiophonics And The Drawn Sound Technique will include a presentation by Dan Wilson tracing the evolution of the philosophies behind Oramics, and Daphne Oram's progress in reconciling the physical and metaphysical aspects of sound; a biographical sketch in the form of a presentation by Jo Hutton, looking at Daphne Oram's role at the BBC in developing electroacoustic music and radiophonic art in Britain; a joint presentation by Mick Grierson and Chris Weaver on the evolution of the Oramics machine, its potential significance as one of the first British computer music systems, and the plans for its future conservation, plus a video presentation by Graham Wrench, the former RAF radar engineer responsible for building the first prototype of the Oramics machine. London Cafe Oto, 7 April, 8pm, £4.
The Oram Collection website, run by this month’s salon guests. Includes scanned archived press cuttings.
Daphne Oram An Individual Note Of Sound Music And Electronics, introduced by Oram as a “sniffing the air in all directions to see whether we can catch a scent or two of intriguing interrelationships between electronics and music”. Out of print, but PDF available here.
The Story Of The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, 2008 article from Sound On Sound, complete with photos and diagrams of how the Oramic system worked, plus Graham Wrech: The Story Of Daphne Oram’s Optical Synthesiser.
BBC tribute to Daphne Oram, notable for the embedded audio interview with Oram from 1972.
Oramics, a short film by Nick Street, which gives a glimpse of the original Oramics synthesizer from 1957.
The Alchemists Of Sound, BBC4 documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Available on Maldoror42 YouTube channel in six parts.
Daphne Oram obituary from 2003.
Regular contributor to The Wire Ken Hollings’s essay on the broader topic of “The British Space Programme As Musical Exploration – The Untold Story” from 2010, which takes a sideways look at the history of British electronic music, including Daphne Oram.
Once you've popped 'n' locked to this obscure slice of early 80s Transatlantic electro-soul, check for the credits, which harbour an unlikely link to one of the events happening at the Off The Page festival this weekend (and I don't mean Dave Tompkins's talk on the history of the vocoder: the track might be a prime slice of cyborg funk, but all the silicon synthesis is in the low end; the vocals remain strictly carbon-based).
Anyway, back to those credits: edited by Double Dee & Steinski, produced and engineered by Adrian Sherwood, mixed by Sherwood and Tom (Tommy Boy) Silverman, issued by Body Rock Records, a subsiduary of Tommy Boy itself, the original channel for technologized R&B. So far so good. But what's that? Hmm, a familiar looking name in the writers' credits. 'S Beresford'. Could it really be? You bet your life it could. But who'd'a thunk it? We all knew he was the nutty professor of Brit reggae, Adrian Sherwood's go-to guy whenever the On-U Sound boss needed some strange sonics or oblique strategies to goose up his latest bass odyssey. But Steve Beresford, the Everywhere Man of UK Improv, a playa in the emergence of boogie down fonk? You couldn't make it up.
This YouTube post is another nugget unearthed by the consistently dazzling Your Heart Out blog. I'm going to write about the blog in the Unofficial Channels column of the forthcoming April issue of The Wire. But for now, download Skimming Stones, the latest YHO post. It's a derive in the form of an essay through some of the dimly-lit back streets and alleyways of London’s late 70s/early 80s reggae underground (a favourite site of investigation for YHO) which along the way notes Beresford's presence at the intersection of any number of the capital’s contemporaneous sonic subcultures: LMC messthetix, subversive chart pop entryism, post-punk aktion, and of course, the alternative universe that orbited around the On-U Sound label.
At Off The Page Steve will be talking with John Keiffer (of the festival's co-producers Sound And Music) about a life lived in the thick of London's Improv scene. But one aspect of the Improv aesthetic that is not much acted or commented on these days is the way it enabled a musician like Beresford to operate almost at will across a whole host of musical activities that received wisdom still tells us were mutually exclusive – "to play, inspire, provoke and create,” as Steve Barker once put it. The same applies to David Toop, of course, another Off The Page guest, who in the period immediately following punk rock's year zero partnered Beresford in any number of audacious border-crossing sonic endeavours, from Alterations to General Strike, The Flying Lizards to Prince Far-I's Cry Tuff Dub Encounter Chapter 3.
It all feels a long time ago now. But so what? As Michael Chion tells Dan Warburton during his Invisible Jukebox interview in the new March issue of The Wire: "When I like something, I don't think of it as being from 1968 or 1980 or whenever. It's the present, for me." And for me, listening to Akabu’s "Watch Yourself” (or any of the many other records that Beresford, or indeed Toop, appeared on during the same period), the distant past suddenly materialises in the here and now to sound as immediate as any present you might care to mention.
The closing event of Off The Page this coming Sunday promises a collaborative and performative lecture by Claudia Molitor, Sarah Nicholls and Jennfier Walshe that will “muse on radical (or irreverent) modes of music notation”. What form this event will actually take is as elusive and mysterious as all the projects initiated by these mercurial composer-performers, who between them incorporate elements of film, theatre and multimedia into aesthetic strategies that playfully subvert the furrowed-brow, testosterone-heavy atmospheres of the kind of 'New Music' scenes they all emerge from.
When I asked Claudia for some inside information on her role in the scheme of the thing, she sent me the following photographs.
They look a little like images of hennaed hands, but with Persian tracery replaced by notes on staves. The mail from Claudia that accompanied the photos referenced Heidegger's theory of zuhanden (which translates from the German as 'hands-on'), using it to emphasise her highly tactile approach to the actual material process of composition: “Zuhanden? is a series of images that engages with my ‘visceral’ relationship to notation... In Zuhanden? the focus is on the physical reality of the act of notating and its transmission onto paper by hand."
How will such a seemingly prosaic notion be combined with Jennifer Walshe's multiple personas (her Miller Corp website is a twilight zone of alt.realities and shifting identities) or Sarah Nicholls's 'inside out' pianos?
Who knows? But from where I'm sitting it has all the makings for a fascinating way to (sp)end a Sunday afternoon.
Everyone attending this weekend's Off The Page festival will get a free copy of a special souvenir booklet that has been produced in a one-time-only hand-made edition of just 200 copies. For the booklet, all the festival’s speakers, delegates, guests, etc were asked to select a favourite piece of writing or thinking on sound or music. The resulting selections range from the philosophical musings of Ernst Bloch to a poem by Philip Larkin, David Bowie prognosticating on the future economy of music to Ian Penman riffing on Bryan Ferry, Lester Bangs hymning Van Morrison to Alex Ward analysing Derek Bailey. The booklet in which all these and more are now reproduced has been designed and assembled by The Wire's art director Ben Weaver. We are holding back five copies of this one off document in order to offer them as prizes in a competition, just in case you want one (and believe me, you want one) but can't make it to the actual event itself.
All you have to do to win one is tell us which of the Off The Page speakers went for John Cage's "Goal: New Music, New Dance" (from his book Silence) as their favourite bit of music writing. Was it Matthew Herbert? Jennifer Walshe? Or Christian Marclay?
To enter, send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org with 'Off The Page competition' in the subject line. Closing date: this Friday 11 February.
The Wire’s monthly series of salon events returns after an extended Christmas and New Year break with an illustrated talk by the magazine’s former hiphop columnist Dave Tompkins on the history of the vocoder. The talk will be based on Dave's acclaimed recent book on synthetic voice phenomena, How To Wreck A Nice Beach (available from Stop Smiling Books)
In anticipation of the salon Dave and Monk One have made an exclusive edit of their How To Wreck A Nice Beach mix for The Wire. You can download it here. Also, click here to read Dave's extensive annotated track list for the mix in all its unexpurgated glory.
The Wire Salon: How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War Two To Hiphop takes place at London's Cafe Oto, 15 February, 8pm, £4.
In addition to his appearance at the salon, Dave will also be talking on (as opposed to through) the vocoder at the Off The Page festival in Whitstable this weekend...
It's by way of some sweet synchronicity (as opposed to careful programming) that appearances by Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti's Green Gartside will top and tail the Off The Page festival in Whitstable this coming weekend.
Way back in the days of North London’s burgeoning post-punk underground, writer Ian Penman was a regular visitor to the now legendary squat Green shared with the other members of Scritti Politti, and he has recalled how Wyatt's Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard albums would reverberate through that famously squalid Camden house night and day, insinuating themselves into the occupants’ addled but expanding collective consciousness. And sure enough, in 1981 when Scritti’s still sublime sounding “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” single was released by Rough Trade, who should pop up playing piano but Old Rottenhat himself.
What Green and his comrades recognised in Wyatt's music was a shared belief in the pop song as a cultural agent that could act on you rhetorically and sensually at the same time. (Of course, just a few years earlier this was the self same notion that Wyatt’s colleagues in Soft Machine had utterly failed to grasp, and so they kicked their greatest asset out of the group – duh!) The directions that both Wyatt and Green have pursued over the years have kept faith with the idea that if you build them right, pop's shiny plastic vessels will be sturdy enough to accommodate and transport anything you might care to load inside of them, even Stalinist propaganda and Derrida-derived post-structuralist theory.
This Friday in Whitstable, at Off The Page's opening night event, Robert will be discussing live on stage some of the music that has most animated him over the years, and without wanting to give anything away, all of his choices somehow reconcile the urge to innovate or proselytize with the desire to craft perfect pop moments. Meanwhile, on the Sunday afternoon of the festival, Green will be going head to head with Mark 'K-punk' Fisher in a discussion that will no doubt make the synapses snap as it attempts to deconstruct the processes by which such a seemingly flimsy form as the three minute pop song can both distill and amplify hyper-advanced philosophical concepts, and in turn can be re-energized (rather than overloaded) by absorbing such heavyweight material.