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.