Ralf Wehowsky

I nterview with Dan Warburton
July 2005


Do you come from a musical background, as such?

There wasn't much active musicianship in my family when I was growing up. My parents didn't play instruments. They just listened to the usual stuff on radio and records. Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, James Last.. The pop section of their LP collection consisted of one Supremes LP and the German version of the musical "Hair". I liked the Aquarius piece a lot as a child. When I went to school at the age of 6 I had to learn one of the usual instruments – recorder or something. I refused, because I clearly disliked wasting time on stupid activities and playing an instrument seemed very stupid to me: whenever I wanted music, I could just switch on the radio. Maybe radio was my first instrument, but it would make more sense to say that my beloved Grundig cassette player was my first instrument. I got that about two years later and my interest in music really started, as I could make my own programmes. Nice mixtures of the then Top of the Pops (one of the first tapes must have included Alexandra – a German schlager-sängerin – Donovan, the great Moog exploitation..), excerpts from hörspiele and recordings of Kiki, our canary. Of course the best time for school kids to listen to the radio is after bedtime when they should be asleep, which is also when the more interesting programmes are on. That helped me find out about some sounds I wouldn't have otherwise heard. A few years later, when I was about 11 or 12, I spent a good deal of my pocket money at the local flea market on records. Used copies of “far out” music were very cheap and quite easy to find. When I was 12 my record collection included all time greats like Can's Monster Movie, Brötzmann's Machine Gun, Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, Amon Düül II's Yeti, Xhol Caravan's Electrip, Hans-Joachim Hespos's Black Series LP, ["Dschen", "Palimpsest", "Splash", "Kitara" published by the Hör Zu magazine] Alexander von Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra as well as the usual children's stuff (Pink Floyd, Yes etc.). When I was 13 I went through a very reactionary phase and decided I wanted to learn the guitar. My parents bought me one and I started taking lessons at the Conservatory (classical guitar) as well as with a private teacher, who turned out to be a big fan of Mr. Clapton and Mr. McLaughlin. Somewhere I might have some tapes of friends and me playing in 1974. Some guitars and lots of teapots etc. as percussion. Horrible stuff. (laughs) I remember it sounding vaguely like Amon Düül I without the studio. It took me a while to find out that none of these schools of playing had much to do with what I really wanted to do, and at that age there were many other things to discover, so I left the guitar in the cellar for a couple of years. Until 1979, when I saw some concerts of local “punk bands” that were so electrifying that I immediately felt the need to pick up an instrument again. Of course they didn't use any three-chord scheme. There were hardly any chords at all. It's a shame they were too disorganised to make any proper recordings, but listen to the 7" Bka/Kinderfreundlich Materialschlacht made in 1979, and you'll get an idea.

How did you hook up with the future members of P.D./P16.D4?

At one of those concerts I met Jochen Pense, who I knew as a regular visitor to many of the jazz / free jazz events I went to in those days, like the Moers festival. He was a mathematics student and guitar teacher and fully agreed with my thesis that it was the time for people like us to join the punk zoo. I went to see Joachim Stender, who had organized this particular concert, and asked him about starting a group together. It was the perfect time, as the group he'd been playing with, Messehalle, just had split. He said yes right away. We didn't want any jazz guitar in the band, so Jochen was condemned to play bass. We bought a guitar amp and a cheap little mixing desk. A few weeks later we recorded our first record, Alltag, in my parents' basement. The dense sound of that production really gained a lot from playing everything – two basses, guitar, and tapes – through that one amp. Another good thing about only having one amp was it was quite easy to get all the gear into one car when we gave concerts, which we did rather often back then. It was easier to take two cars, though, and one of Pense's colleagues, another maths student called Ewald Weber, had a car and helped us out. Not for free, though: he insisted in playing drums. We were open to bribery those days... so all at once we were a quartet. But not for long – a couple of months later we swapped the drummer for a drum machine. Gerd Neumann from Messehalle had bought it and wasn't happy with it. Messehalle never seemed to me to be a very happy crew; their drummer followed the drum machine on the way from Messehalle to P.D. soon afterwards. Since we preferred the rhythm box to his drumming, he sold all his percussion and bought a Korg MS20 synth instead. That was Achim Scepanski. So we recorded the first LP, Inweglos, with the two newly recruited members, Achim and the box. We made the mistake of borrowing two Revox machines for the proceedings, so the sound wasn't that good as on the Alltag EP. Maybe that's why I never was satisfied with the LP. I always preferred the recordings we'd made when Achim was auditioning, which were later released on cassette as Schwarzes Loch. Anyway, transport became a real problem now: Ewald's car was being used by Messehalle, and Pense had gone to England for a year to study. I remember one horrible trip to Limburg by train (Joachim, Achim and me) when we almost broke down under the weight of the instruments. During our next concert in Mainz we asked the audience for promising craftsmen with their own means of transport. Among the candidates was the crew of a bass-keyboards-drum-trio, who had been playing Canterbury-influenced instrumental music for some years. Achim Scepanski and I played some sessions with them (some recordings – the Grauer Oktober Tapes [scheduled for release next year on Howard Stelzer's Intransitive imprint] - survived), and finally Roger Schönauer (bass) and Gerd Poppe (drums) joined P.D.. We played some concerts, although Joachim Stender still didn't want to abandon the “no more drummer” dogma. On the day we played a festival in Frankfurt in December 1980 (organized by Christoph Anders, later of Cassiber fame) with the holidaying Pense, the question was discussed intensely. As a result we offered the audience extra value for their money by playing not one concert as P.D. but two: one by The P.D. (Scepanski, Schönauer, Poppe and myself) and one by PiDi (Stender, Pense, and me). The initiated know that the first group changed its name into P16.D4, the latter into Permutative Distorsion, releasing one EP and one cassette album in 1981. P.D. was used as meta-sign. Groups ought to have a name. We didn't want or need one, but for communicative reasons we had to define something that could be used as one without the usual implications. Therefore P.D. was not an abbreviation, but it could be used as one. Police Department, Permanent Demolition, Prävalente Dipsomanie, Permutative Distorsion, all were possible and were used. After the aforementioned split we had to change, but we wanted to keep the name. So we did both at once. It was obvious for everyone that P is the 16th and D the 4th letter of the alphabet. This year of turns and changes is documented on the eaRLy W 2 – Nur Die Tiere Blieben Übrig LP and the eaRLy W 4 – Ajatollah Carter CD.

Ajatollah Carter is one several RLW projects that have appeared on Absurd.

Yes, I've been in contact with [Absurd's] Nicolas Malevitsis for over 15 years. I remember he wrote to me when he was still at school in the late 80s and asked me to send hundreds of LPs! (laughs) We stayed in touch.

When did Achim Scepanski leave the band?

In 1981. He left to finish his studies and become a techno tycoon I haven't had much contact with him over the past 20 years, and haven't heard from him since Force Inc's demise. After Achim left Gerd Poppe handed his sticks to Ewald Weber, who'd fled the unhappy Messehalle crew (they were trying to get luckier under the name NTL – Non Toxique Lost – NTL – and are still around today). The remaining triumvirate (Schönauer, Weber and myself) became the core of P16.D4 until the group disbanded in the late 80s / early 90s. Though it turned out that the commitment of Messrs Schönauer and Weber was highly variable, and sometimes near zero, so I tried recruiting new personnel in 1983, which is why many pieces on the Distruct LP are co-written with people like Gerd Neumann (ex-Messehalle, too – but still with NTL), saxophonist Peter Lambert and pianist Stefan Schmidt, who became the fourth continuous P16.D4 member. He was from Hamburg and moved to Mainz after studying with Pense in England. He was a mathematician too, as well as a connoisseur of Cage and a church organist.

When did Achim Wollscheid join the Selektion crew?

1984 or 85. Achim did the cover for Distruct, and we released his first LP (S.B.O.T.H.I. - Swimming Behaviour Of The Human Infant) as Selektion's third LP in 1985. Achim and I used to travel to an industrial disco in Wiesbaden once a week, drink heavily and rewrite the history of 20th century art and music. We also broke up lots of private parties by turning the kitchen into a seminar room and playing “our” records. It was clear that Achim wanted to stand on his own two feet and become a full time artist, so the idea like asking him to become a member of P16.D4 never arose. Instead we produced the next release, the double LP Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie, as a collaborative effort between P16.D4 & S.B.O.T.H.I.. Today Achim is still working in the fields of sound and light installations. Selektion isn't working as a label anymore, but we are in regular contact, and there'll no doubt be some more collaborative projects in the future.

What did you think of the rock scene in Germany when you started?

German rock in 1979 and 1980 was a complete disaster. Ten years earlier there'd been lots of fascinating things going on, but after about 1973 commerce and stupidity reigned (again), as they did everywhere. The victory of unchained capitalism over taste and humanity. There were people doing uncompromising work, but there was no scene or publicity for them, nothing like the L.A.F.M.S. in Germany. The worst things were those with a ”progressive” or “electronic” etiquette. Labels like Sky released heaps of incredible tasteless crap.

What about Asmus Tietchens' work on the label?

Asmus's Sky LPs weren't the worst of that bunch, but they were far from listenable. He wasn't taken seriously, being perceived (if at all) as one of the enemies. When Steve Stapleton announced the release of a Tietchens LP on his United Dairies label everyone wondered if he'd gone mad. Fortunately Formen Letzter Hausmusik proved the sceptics wrong. It had nothing to do anymore with the “electronics lite” style of his Sky LPs. Our first collaboration followed a few years later [Captured Music, SLP 019, 1988].

How did P.D. compare to other German punk and Industrial outfits?

When the Neue Deutsche Welle appeared about 1979 there was a big misunderstanding: many took the art school rhetoric of (some of) their English or American protagonists as if it was meant seriously: the Dada quotations, constructivist covers etc. Of course for the most of them it was just the PR hype of the day; today it's cool to quote Schwitters, tomorrow Deleuze and then Iacocca. The good thing about it was the change in the cultural climate, which made it possible to join the public discourse from a position coming from and developing these countercultural traditions.
If I might be allowed a little diversion, I believe there is a long cultural tradition, which can be found throughout the 20th century and now continues into the new millennium, one which belongs neither to pop culture nor to "high" culture but breaks into both of those fields. The main characteristics of this tradition are being critical, i.e. not being satisfied with the world as it is (nor with culture and music as it is), and using music (or other art forms) to explore and deal with reality including the way we perceive reality. This leads to consequences which are incompatible with the central tenets of pop or "high“ culture: There is no interest in functional music/muzak: music to dance to, march to, sing along to, or go shopping to (which is the function of 99% of pop music after all), nor is there interest in respecting the conventions of musical systems that evolved to please the clergy and the aristocracy. Being able to criticise needs knowledge about the objects of criticism and about its tools, reason and language, which become objects of criticism too. A fine early example of this can be found in Dada, which didn't just attack social and political nuisances but language itself, with lautgedichten (sound poetry) that I wouldn't hesitate to describe as music. Another consequence is being aware of the relations between form and content and their history. There are also forms and methods that have worn out; for example, chord progressions express nothing anymore today. They've degenerated into clichés. Basing a track on steady 4/4 time indicates stupidity as sure as death.
Dealing with music as a means of confronting reality leads to the consequence that there can't be one musical "style“, a linear progression or a properly defined line of ancestors. Reality and constructions of reality not only change in time; they also differ horizontally and vertically at any given time. This may be one of the reasons why this position as one approach regularly is being ignored. Of course the whole thing is not a 20th-century invention; I only think it makes sense to concentrate on such a rather short period, especially as the speed of technological and sociocultural changes is so enormous.
Standing in a tradition that has rule breaking as one of its most important rules it was clear that a new movement, which started with the rhetoric of rule breaking was a good vehicle for own operations. In other words, the main difference between us and most other groups of the Neue Deutsche Welle was that we knew what we were doing. If you listen to early NDW records like Plan's first release, the so-called Fleisch EP, or some of the stuff on the Zickzack label, and compare it to later releases by the same artists it becomes clear how much they were just following trends. A bit of avant-garde rhetoric one day, some New Romanticism the next, and so on. For us, the Wahrnehmungen/Selektion crew, it was the perfect moment to try out in practice how to translate our ideas into our own contemporary language, insofar as the early years were a time of trying out different sorts of vocabulary and semantic models. Of course there's never a secure model, but since, say, 1982, as documented on the "classic" P16.D4 LPs, Kühe in ½ Trauer and Distruct, there were stable reference points (others would say an unmistakable identity) to develop or diverge from. Maybe one of the reasons why the early material has a continuing fascination for me lies in seeing what other directions could have been possible. Hence the eaRLy W and P16.D4 reissues of recent years. An especially important release will be the V.O.D. (Vinyl-On-Demand) triple LP set [see review in October 2005] as it will feature six of those approaches, each taking up one LP side. In a way I took off from some of those loose ends for recent projects, especially those with Bruce Russell, Johannes Frisch, and the Views CD.

Could you describe P16.D4's working method?

You could say we had a certain set of methods, mixed to varying degrees, and developed over the years. Some of the elements could be listed as follows:
Avoiding plunderphonics. I wouldn't say every use of other people's recordings is an ethically and musically weak action, but I prefer using self-created material. It opens a completely different emotional access to the material.
Improvising. Not only for the joy of the moment (the recording of such an improvisation is not primarily a document, like an Incus record, for instance) but as sound material, a source for
Transformation. No sound is only what it seems – it bears numerous possibilities in itself, which can be revealed by processes of transformation
Composition. We used classical western principles of structuring pieces a lot, which surely set us apart from other groups, but notes were never of real interest – you won't find the structural elements in tone-related parameters (melody, harmony). We didn't work with tones, but with slices of tape.
Reduction. Though "everything” was allowed in the stage of creating ideas, we always limited ourselves to certain sound materials and working methods for each piece. When the basic ideas and sound materials are clear, a framework of preset limits opens the freedom to work within.
Mixing became one of the most important elements in the creation of pieces – regularly three or four people were involved, using many different strategies often within the same piece.
Collaboration became a crucial part of our projects. Starting from reflections about the working process within a group of artists (as in a rock or jazz group) we practically institutionalised the idea of irregular confrontation with other artists.
The proof of the work always had to be in the hearing. If a piece had succeeded or was good enough to be released never depended on how close it came any initial conception. The point was if it was emotionally charged and fascinating to us after repeated listening.

Could you choose a representative example?

“Extase Des Sozialismus” from Kühe in ½ Trauer might be an interesting example. It's based mainly on an three-man improvisation: Ewald playing sax and the two others manipulating the sax sounds in real time, with ring modulators, filters, distortion, and so forth (soundwise I heard something similar on a record by John Butcher and Phil Durrant not long ago). The ten-minute long recording was then edited down to five minutes, with some parts completely removed, some repeated and others sent to another place within the piece – completely restructured, in other words. This was then combined with a piano recording and a tape of looped choirs, both also edited heavily to fit the sax. The choral material, by the way, was taken from a record – so you see that none of the abovementioned principles of work were dogmatically adhered to. Of course, we made it completely our own: different excerpts of the original recording were looped, layered and mixed with changing contours over time – the composer of the “original” wouldn't have been able to tell where the material was coming from. For the final version all parts were running through but only the sax track was constantly to be recognisable. The others were mostly below the threshold of audibility – but not the threshold of perception. If they'd been any quieter, the impression would have been completely different. It took a lot of mixing before the relations between the parts, which were changing permanently, could be “heard out” and laid down on tape.
The results of our own brand of musique concrète influenced our way of improvising very much. Whereas in the earlier days the “ideal” of “free electric improvisation” was very important (side 4 of the Zamla Mammaz Manna double LP Schlagerns Mystik is a good example), we were now heading towards something I once described as musique concrète improvisée. Examples can be found on the Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie, Tionchor and Acrid Acme records. The piece "Half Cut Cows" was a typical live piece from mid 80s concerts. It was based on one of the sides of the Kühe In ½ Trauer LP and played by two turntablists as instrumentalists. The Kühe LP was already very complex, but the performances of "Half-Cut Cows" enhanced this complexity while combining it with spontaneous improvisation: the turntablists knew the pieces on the LP well enough to impose a rough compositional structure on the performances within which there was a lot of freedom, with parts ranging from almost indiscernible staccato attacks to loops of repeated longer segments.
These methods were developed for the SLP project, which was presented at many occasions in the late 80s / early 90s. This was based on side 4 of the Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie dLP, which itself was a result of many processes of transformation. Side 1 of the LP was recorded by P16.D4, side 2 by S.B.O.T.H.I. (Achim Wollscheid) and both partners used each other's materials, intermediate materials and finished pieces as material for their own pieces. Side 3 had some pieces of musique concrète improvisée by both partners, while side 4 consisted of three tracks. The first, by P16.D4, used sides 1 to 3 as source material, the 2nd, by S.B.O.T.H.I, used track one of side 4 and the third, by P16.D4, used the second and third tracks of the 4th side. For SLP, four turntablists used this LP side and the mixing was done by a computer program specially written for this purpose by Joachim Pense. There was a score for the four instrumentalists, who all used a stopwatch. The mixing program itself had precisely determined parts as well as improvised elements (determined randomness for the computer.)

What equipment did you have at your disposal?

By 1982 we had two Revox B-77 (two track), and one Teac 4-track reel-to-reel-machines and one Teac 8-track-mixer. I usually recorded our improvisations on my B-77, listened, listened again, and again, did cut-ups and transformations with the B-77 and then did a sketch for a piece on my 4-track. During the “studio parts” of our meetings these sketches were listened to, discussed, listened to again and then worked out. For the final mix usually four mono parts came from the 4-track, 2 from one of the B-77´s, and 2 from a cassette player, all mixed down to the other B-77. The parts were often sub-mixes of more parts, mixed down at an earlier stage. All eight tracks underwent permanent change in panorama, volume and equalisation during mixdown, and as I said, this was often the crucial point in the creation of a piece, and involved the participation of several people with lots of improvisation. It was a great relief for me when it became possible to record all the above-mentioned mixing parameters (and more) with computers in the 90s!

How did you hook up with the so-called cassette underground?

It was clear to us from day one that we wanted to stand on our own feet. We released our first record, the P.D. Alltag EP by ourselves (without even thinking about another label) and offered it to everyone we thought could be interested. It worked out fine. One of the first distributors we thought of, Recommended in London, took (and paid for!) 200 of the 1000 copies pressed. The rest were sold within nine months. Even so, releasing records was rather expensive – and we were very productive – so we founded one of the first German cassette labels in mid 1980, and called it Wahrnehmungen. Tapes were copied on demand from persons and distributors of the so-called cassette underground, so editions were highly individual, and varied between 200 and 500 copies. In 1980 our contacts were mainly national, but by 1981 already I had a piece on a tape produced abroad, by the Italian mail-art project Trax. The positive side of the cassette medium – independence from economical pressure – was offset by the downside of the lack of self-restriction. There was far too much crap, and we never liked crap. We never felt completely at home in the so-called underground scene and soon moved on to concentrate on vinyl releases. We released our last cassette in early 1982 (from then on it was vinyl only, and later CDs), but we kept on receiving lots of tapes from artists all over the world.

One of the contacts you made through the cassette underground was with Merzbow.

The first contact with Masami Akita dates back to the year 1982. You won't believe it, but it was through Recommended Records' Japanese branch, Eastern Works. They'd ordered lots of the Offene Systeme and Masse Mensch releases and I took the opportunity to ask for interesting contemporary Japanese music in exchange. I got about a dozen Merzbow tapes and immediately invited Masami to take part in the Distruct project. Which of course he did, supplying some recordings of his flute playing!

How do you see your work with relation to "classical" electronic music and musique concrète?

The dogma says that classic electronic music and classic musique concrète were at the opposite sides of the musical spectrum. There was personal confrontation and competition between Cologne and Paris as well as a fundamentally contradictory conceptual background. Electronic music was seen by many as a logical extension of serialism – insofar as musical parameters could be controlled even more precisely when the whole composition was built element by element from sine waves – whereas musique concrète was never abstract, despite Schaeffer's concept of a classification of sounds by purely musical parameters, independent of their social background and association. I happen to think most musique concrète composers used those associative powers quite consciously, as Walter Ruttmann did back in the 30s with his great, depressing Weekend. Of course the "classical" epoch ended for both electronic and concrète in the 1960s – and we haven't mentioned the large number of composers working outside such conceptual boundaries outside Cologne and Paris.
As I said above, those sounds were just as much part of my childhood as schlager, rock and jazz. It was never a mystery for me that splicing tape was just another way to make music, like playing piano, guitar or whatever. Our experiments with tapes started back in 1980 (and can be heard on Alltag), and we worked over the years to integrate it fully into our sound. Coming back to your question: P16.D4 and RLW music wouldn't sound like the way they do if electronic music and musique concrète had not existed. But they're two influences among others. We never avoided the associative use of concrete sounds, but used them in a non-illustrative way that left room for different interpretations. The listener has enough freedom to find /construct his own meanings. Whereas in pop music you hear a bike sound in a song about bikes (the Ronettes, Steppenwolf…). How obvious! How dumb! What a waste of time!

One of the pieces on When freezing air stings like ice is entitled "Even Stockhausen knows when it's not Cage". Do you like Stockhausen and Cage?

I like most of Stockhausen's 50s and 60s work and almost none of the later stuff. I like it despite its theoretical background. Basically, the idea of control is suspect to me, and the religious conversion is a pain in the ass. But even his serial pieces from the 50s simply sound great. Their crystalline clarity is so much more entertaining than any easy listening music! And Kontakte, Hymnen, the two Mikrophonie, Prozession and Aus Den Sieben Tagen are simply feasts for the ears. Interestingly enough, I often find music dedicated to the harmonies of the spheres much more relevant to this world than works explicitly intended for human beings. I guess that has to do with simply abstracting oneself from any apparent market or audience demand, and just doing the right things instead. As for Cage, don't trust him when he speaks of indeterminacy; he deliberately chooses which elements to use and how to organize them.

How did you hook up with Bruce Russell?

When I saw the first copies of "Logopandocy – The Journal Of Vain Erudition", which accompanied the first Corpus Hermeticum CDs, I was completely blown away. Such a combination of intelligence, knowledge and good taste is extremely hard to find. At the same time I found out about that whole family of New Zealand abstract free improvising electric musicians who'd picked up the loose ends where others had stopped in the 1970s, coming from a completely different angle. The Kim Pieters / Peter Stapleton releases were (and still are) great. So it must have been in 1995 or 96 when I wrote to Bruce to exchange some records and ask him to take part in the (then untitled) Tulpas project. From then on we kept in touch. In 2003 he was able to realize his plan of coming to Europe, visiting some friends and fellow-artists. When the date was set I started thinking about what we could do musically besides sitting in front of my computer, so I unpacked my old guitar, keyboard and amp and tried out a few things – something I hadn't done in about ten years. When Bruce arrived I'd recorded about two thirds of what was to become the Views CD. when you listen to Views and Sights you'll find that the instrumental settings are similar – though the resulting music is completely different. What was fascinating for me was that improvising together worked out as if we had been playing together that way for years – only more thrilling. It was the first time in about 15 years, since some of P16.D4´s musique concrète improvisée pieces, that I could release pieces as they were played and recorded, without significant edits.

You've recently released another duo project, this time with Johannes Frisch. How did that meeting come about?

I met Johannes for the first time in early 1998 when he interviewed me for a magazine he was writing for. It was just a few weeks before I moved to another city, so we lost touch soon afterwards. Five years later I met him again, by which time I'd unpacked my “conventional instruments” and was getting ready for Bruce's visit. So the idea of asking him to play a duo was in the air – and we did it shortly after Bruce left. The first pieces were relatively close to the Sights recordings – there was little or no editing – but as the months passed I found it increasingly fascinating to use the tools I'd developed on my own in previous years, on longer stretches of the recordings, not on the milliseconds of material as I used to do in the 90s. When the time came to release the Frisch / Wehowsky duo, a lot of the earlier pieces had been put back into storage. the Tränende Würger CD concentrates on newer or highly reworked recordings. We'll have to see what the next steps will be.

Can you explain the album title?

It's hard to translate: träne means tear, and würgen means strangle or throttle.. Tearful throttling?! I think it sounds better in German! (laughs) It derives from the names of the poisonous plants we chose as track titles. We liked the idea of something that was beautiful and crystalline, but also dangerous.

In 2001 Selektion released a nmperign album, and you've recently been working on a project with Bhob Rainey. Are there any plans for a similar collaboration with Greg Kelley?

As a devoted consumer of advanced music I got hold of nmperign's two marvellous Twisted Village CDs soon after they were released. Achim Wollscheid met Bhob and Greg when he was touring the States in the late 90s, and they helped him set up a concert in the Boston area. So it wasn't difficult to persuade Achim to agree to a release of an nmperign album on Selektion. I was in regular contact by mail with Greg and Bhob and the idea of a collaboration evolved very organically. I don't know why it started with Bhob and not with Greg. Maybe because he'd already started work on the Erstwhile CD with Jason Lescalleet. Maybe a Kelley / RLW project will follow sometime in the future. The collaboration with Bhob is extremely intense: we started back in 2002 and still haven't finished the three pieces for the planned CD yet. What normally happens is one of us works on a piece, sends it to the other who says: “Great. I was just thinking about a small change just after 17 minutes or so." Two or three months later the new version of the piece arrives on CDR and sounds more like a new piece based on the old one than a mere variation of it. Every new version makes the CD better. You'll appreciate the amount of work and passion we've put into it when you hear it. Whenever that may be.

You seem to have an enthusiastic following in the States, with Bhob, Greg and people like Jim O'Rourke, David Grubbs and Howard Stelzer. What do you think the attraction is for the Americans?

Maybe it's the exoticism of something coming from Europe.. Perhaps it's also because America is a big place and there are more people outside the mainstream. But a lot of my contacts date back to the 80s, long before the people you mention were active on the scene.

How did the Cases project with Kevin Drumm come about?

That started through my contact with Perdition Plastics, who released Points of Reference in 2002. I'd heard about Kevin from Jim O'Rourke.. I think at the time they were sharing a flat together or something. I knew his albums on Perdition Plastics. So we got in touch and he sent me a CDR containing about an hour of improvised material. I listened to it a lot and heard a certain structure to it, a possible connection between the different improvisations. I selected a few extracts and combined the transformed material to form 12 sections, which eventually became two complete pieces. It evolved rather slowly. I was working with computer programmes to analyse dynamics and pitch. I'm not sure what Kevin thought about the idea at the time. We still haven't actually met.

One of Selektion's releases was Bernhard Günter's Un Peu De Neige Salie, and you subsequently worked with Günter on Un Ocean de Certitude. How did you meet up with him in the first place?

When I moved to Koblenz in 1988 I took part in several projects by Peter Wiesenthaner, an experimental composer who lived there in a kind of loft and held concerts and lectures for small audiences every few weeks. At one of those evenings, it must have been in 1990, after presenting some of my recent work, I met this guy who'd turned up that evening for the first time. He worked in the guitar department of the local rock shop, and had sold Peter some equipment, and was interested to see what a flautist – which Peter was – would do with that gear. His name was Bernhard Günter and he'd been doing ethno-fusion-rock since some years. He lived nearby, and it was the start of an intense cooperation, which went on until I left Koblenz after 1995. Bernhard didn't know anything about the last 10 or 15 years of experimental music – he was more into that virtuoso jazz-guitar thing, David Torn, Bill Frisell and the like – so he listened to lots of records from my collection. After a year or so had changed his way of creating music completely and we started working on some pieces together. Our first concert was held in December [18th and 19th] 1992, at the Mutter-Beethoven-Haus in Koblenz. About that time he also joined the Selektion team, but he never really agreed with Selektion's non-profit philosophy of investing money in new projects, so he left and started his own label in 1995.

Can we speak of a P.D. / RLW greatest hit?

In terms of the largest number of copies made, that would be the Skartrack flexi (1980): 6000. As was usual with flexis back then, it came as part of a magazine, one published by a Students Union in the Freie Universität in Berlin for an election campaign, in an edition of 5000. The other 1000 were our promos and given away free. The regular releases Selektion did on vinyl and on CD were editions of 1000. To date Kühe In ½ Trauer has sold 3500, Distruct 2600, Masse Mensch 2500, Inweglos, Tionchor and P16.D4´s Music and Bruitiste sides 2000 each and the Tulpas box-set 1700. As we were always busy with new projects we never had time to take care of reissues, so they were handled by other labels. Apart from the flexi, the piece "Kühe in ½ Trauer" has had the highest circulation. It's also appeared on two compilations; all in all 5500 copies spread around.

The idea of the remix, or the collaboration, is essential to you. Why? What do other people bring to your work?

For me music is about communication. Once it was a rather one-way communication, addressing everything to God (and waiting for a reply), today it's more about communication with other human beings. A rock group is a typical example of a communicative system. In ideal circumstances there's no unique authorship, no separation between composer and performer, and a constant interchange of ideas and musical material. As our material from early on consisted of tapes (mainly of our own recordings), which were handed round and worked on in various configurations, the next step, i.e. using other people's tapes wasn't far away. Exchanging tapes was about transforming them into new sonic entities. In the 80s we didn't use the term remixing: we called it recycling. Thinking about what one's doing is as much fun as doing it. The general conditions of exchange and organisation were almost as fascinating for us as the music itself, which is why major collaborative projects appeared early in our recording career (Distruct in 1982) and continue to this day. Questioning oneself and being questioned by others is a constant source of inspiration. The practice known as “remixing” these days hasn't got much to do with such a creative process, of course. In most cases it's just cashing in by reproducing a commercial product with slightly changed parameters. I'd even say it's an opposite principle: not questioning a piece of work to create something new, but just repeating it without any artistic need.

We should talk a bit about Tulpas, its origins and title.. Did you start out with the idea that it would be a 5 CD set?

When I started the Tulpas project back in 1995 my motivation was rather selfish. I'd reached a point of my life when drastic change was unavoidable: becoming a father and taking up a job with more “responsibility” meant it was impossible to continue musical activities as they were before. So I thought I'd sum up some aspects of my artistic development so far. A "commemorative" CD on the other hand wouldn't have been very interesting, from my own point of view. I wanted to take what I'd done to a new level. I thought about extending the principles of collaboration and using my own back catalogue as the common source for all participants. There was no plan of how big the project would become at the start. I simply asked everyone I was in contact with at that time and whose work I appreciated and thought could fit into the context of the project. Nor did I hesitate to contact other people whose records I'd enjoyed (even though I had never contacted them before). People like Bruce Russell, Toshiya Tsunoda, the Noise-Makers Fifes..). It fell to Bruce to give the baby a name. As I said, I loved the “Journal of Logopandocy” mags, so it was only natural to ask him for a statement to be included in the CD booklet. He surprised me by comparing the whole idea to Tibetan mysticism, and Tulpas ended up as the name of the project. In 1997, after about three years' work, I pulled the plug on the whole thing. I had more than five hours of quality material, but I was completely exhausted, corresponding with about 50 participants as well as mixing (some participants came to my studio), editing (I edited one piece down from 20 to ten minutes) and so forth. I'll never forget the meeting we had at the Selektion office: when I told Achim [Wollscheid] and Charly [Steiger] that the whole thing had become rather big, I could see in their eyes they were wondering: two or three CDs? When I told them it would be a 5-CD-boxset, they were shell-shocked! Anyway, Charly did an absolutely great job on designing the cover, booklet and labels and Achim surpassed himself organising the release, with some help from friends such as Gary Todd.
Selektion did a first run of 1200 copies, with 200 as promos for the participants. The rest sold out within few months, and a second run of 500 followed immediately, now all gone. The response was very good, with lots of positive reviews, good sales, and requests for interviews. A few bizarre things happened, too: one American techno-dominated mag had a story ready to print about how such a project could only be possible in the age of e-mail. when I told them I had no e-mail, and that everything had been done by letter or fax, they didn't write back! (laughs)

Would you describe yourself as a composer, and if so, what is your definition of "composer" and "composition" today?

A composer is a human being organising sound purposefully without reproducing an existing piece of music (or significant parts of it). Of course, the definition is very basic. It includes free improvisation as well as Muzak (as long as it's not a copy of existing Muzak). So, yes, I'm a composer, though I must say I don't think the question has much relevance. It's of no of interest for me if someone is a composer or not. For me the relevant question is if someone produces compositions that are of importance for me. I think there are two criteria that make compositions fascinating from an experienced listener's perspective: the first is simply a question of organising sound in a way that the parts of a piece relate to each other and to the whole of the piece (something experienced improvisers manage, by the way). The second is about going beyond a certain simplicity. The pop “song” is a perfect realisation of criterion one, but it's completely boring in terms of structure; no intelligent human being could stand it for very long. The stupid, by the way, often criticise improvised or other challenging music as "unstructured". That's nonsense. The problem lies in human memory capacity, which isn't enough to cope with complex structures for more than a short period of time. But we live in the days of recording media, and one only has to listen often enough to be able to remember more and make out complicated and irregular structures. The pieces won't turn out to be a song or a sonata, but will be all the better for it. A lot of my pieces only reveal themselves upon repeated listening. Insofar as listening to complex compositional structures is closer to listening to free improvisation than it is to song-structured music.

They're complex in that the processes you use seem to be disguised or buried in a way. There's no "easy" RLW music. Are you deliberately trying to "hide" the formal artifice, the "how it was done", or do works just evolve that way?

I surely never tried “to hide” things. I always mistrusted artists who tried to evoke the impression of mystic inspiration or magic atmosphere (a hangover from the age of Romanticism, by the way). Au contraire, there are often texts with explanatory notes on the realization of a project/piece. That said, I would caution against going too far with that, as I would against writing too detailed on the technical, musical and philosophical contents of compositions, simply because I don't think those aspects give a complete picture. Everyone listens with their own ears, own background of experiences and knowledge of all kinds, in which everything new will find its place. There's certainly no intention to make things sound “not easy” or “difficult”. In most cases my pieces simply sound “right” for me in the way that Helmut Lachenmann's opera Das Mädchen Mit Den Schwefelhölzern sounds absolutely “right” (though as a genre opera usually is a pain in the ass), whereas everything I've heard by someone like Madonna simply sounds “wrong”.
Regarding artifice I am regularly wondering how many artists waste their time by copying others instead of developing something on their own. Well, waste is relative. Financially, it seems to count. Remember the “pick the guitar like John Fahey” wave from a few years back? By counterfeiting and mellowing his way of playing some probably earned more than Fahey might have throughout his life. Obviously my enthusiasm for mimicry is pretty low. But no one is an island, of course.
When I hear things that impress me I try instead to avoid the techniques they use or to use them in another way, relating to my own set of methods and interests. Indeed, I'm relieved you haven't asked why I've been doing the same half dozen pieces over and over again for 25 years! I think there is a certain set of dispositions and parameters, which remains relatively fixed, but within those parameters there's a vast range of possibilities. Not to mention the simple fact of getting older while trying to bring experience and knowledge to bear on the creative process. Constant values like confrontation and discontinuous continuity will – and are ought to – lead to vastly differing sonic results. Not every time, but very often. Driving cheap everyday instruments over the edge sounds different if you use a cassette recorder or reel to-reel on one side of the spectrum, or a sampler or common consumer software on the other. Confronting oneself with changing partners in collaborations leads to different results from each collaboration, but none lack identity. They all throw light on different facets of the same identity.

You've recently released a second collaboration with Bruce Russell on the A Bruit Secret label. How did Midnight Crossroads Tape Recorder Blues come about? And what's with the blues?

I have very ambivalent feelings about "the" blues. There hasn't been much listenable blues during the last say 40 or so years, but there have been tons of recordings, concerts and radio shows. During the time of my “musical socialisation” in the early 70s, “blues” seemed to be a synonym for the pale, lifeless, formalised reactionary stuff that went under the flag of “progressive” and “expressive“ and "authentic”. Imagine Rory Gallagher and his ilk performing authentic blue-collar tristesse for an audience of thousands of boogie-driven kids in big sports arenas. Not exactly what Robert Johnson dreamt of. Not that the black blues- and jazzmen were any easier to stand, each of them living proof of the “errors” of free-jazzers or other outcasts in the eye of the traditionalists who were in charge. Every music school offered courses on how to learn the “authentic” scheme of 8-and 12 bar blues in three months. Thousands signed up, and as the self-declared heirs of one of the greatest popular art forms of the 20th century, they were – and are – merely performing acts of necrophilia again and again. The most decent behaviour is to steer clear from the cadaverous smell. On the other hand, dancing with the dead has been a legitimate concern since the Surrealists (Ptomaine, by the way, is the title of a party Asmus Tietchens organised using 100 rotten corpses by RLW and others), and digging in the sediment that current culture is built upon is certainly a fascinating subversive activity. Maybe that's why P16.D4 included a heavy musique concrète-type blues on the Nichts Nirgends Niemand Nie double LP, "Neger Am Laster". The piece was based on an organ/synth improvisation by Peter Lambert and myself, transformed by Achim Wollscheid and restructured in night-long cutting-sessions by Stefan Schmidt and me.
When Bruce arrived in Eggenstein in 2003 he'd already recorded an early version of "Kate's Blues". We discussed what could be done with the recording – Bruce planned to try out tape work himself. I recorded some instrumental takes and sent them to New Zealand, and a year later, when he suggested we extend the project, I recorded some more improvisations, did some sound transformations of his and my recordings, and added two drafts of possible reconfigurations. I should say that all the credit for putting together the pieces as they appear on the CD has to go to Bruce. I like the disc very much and am happy to have helped out a little bit.

Is there any chance we might see you performing live again?

I haven't played in public for about 10 years. Performing always entailed a lot of preparation, especially the visual aspect. It wasn't just a question of turning up and playing, like jazz or free improvisation. If I played live again I'd have to think about that visual aspect again very carefully. I've also avoided playing because of my job, which can involve a lot of travelling at short notice. It would be difficult to plan a tour long in advance. The third reason is my family. I have to look after the wife and children too! When they're a bit older I might consider it again.

Are you optimistic about the future for difficult new music such as ours?

I can't speculate about what might happen. There are some very negative developments in terms of the record industry. The decline of the market, which is basically due to mistakes by the mainstream labels, has impacted negatively on distribution. Many of the distributors who carried some of the independent labels have gone under. On the other hand, there are far more releases today than there were before. Nowadays almost everyone burns their own CDRs.

Do you still manage to keep in touch with what's going on?

Yes, I still exchange a lot of records with lots of other artists – you, for instance – and buy a lot of records. I have an hour's commute to work and I use it to listen to music on my portable CD player. Sometimes I can listen to it at home; it mixes very well with the children's voices.


An edited version of this interview formed the basis of the article War On Stupidity, which appeared in The Wire #259, September 2005. See also interviews of related interest with David Grubbs, Bernhard Günter and John Duncan.