Interview with Burkhard Beins and Ignaz Schick
by Konstantin Samolovov for Krapiva.org, 2018
KS: If someone of them asks you what does the term Echtzeitmusik mean, how will you answer?
BB: Echtzeit is a term borrowed from computer science where it is used to distinguish real-time from process-time operations. The latter means that an operation had been defined before its execution (like in pre-composed music) while the first means that it's all happening in the same moment. Perhaps 'real-time composition' would be a more precise term when it comes to describing a musical strategy or method in use, but the term 'Echtzeitmusik’ allows for a little bit wider range of musical approaches.
KS: The scene has started in the early 90's. Its peak is in the beginning of a new century. Most recordings were made in the next decade. A lot of involved musicians are still active. It's a long time for an underground phenomenon, if we compare it with other subcultural movements where origin, splash and fading passed by so fast within a few years. How can we explain such a long story?
BB: Because it is not a specific aethetic or style that Echtzeitmusik represents. So there’s not much potential for turning it into a fashion that becomes hip and than sells or wears out. It seems more that everyone in this scene is just constantly busy working on their individual ways of self-(re-)invention. Certain aesthetics became temporarily more recognized or even dominant throughout the development of the Echtzeitmusik-scene, though - like the so-called 'Berlin Reductionism' in the late 1990's. Mostly because this term was coined in music reviews and it became a kind of label. To such an extend for a while that some people thought Echtzeitmusik is just a synonym for Reductionism (as many people still think it's just another word for improvisation). But these things come and go in waves over the course of time. Now we are more in a phase of multiplicity again, I would say, but Echtzeitmusik still exists as a scene, although constantly transforming.
KS: The scene is not included in the official German culture, as it’s been stated in the book Echtzeitmusik Berlin. Is that still the same?
BB: Well, we have more access to city or state funding nowadays. Partly it's because we gained some recognition within the contemporary composed music world. But partly it’s also a generation thing. If you’re showing long enough that you are staying on the case you will be regarded as a serious artist at some point.
KS: There is still no page on Wikipedia about Echtzeitmusik. Information on the internet is rare and mostly in German language. Nevertheless it is influential on a global scale and caused that people came to Berlin from over the world and made the scene international. How was the communication between squatting musicians and the rest of the world possible, in the 90's without internet and even mobile phones?
BB: The fall of the Berlin wall was causing a kind of open window for underground culture and social experiments in the east center of the city for a while. And it stayed open surprisingly long - throughout the 1990's - until the renovation and gentrification pushed the squatters and artists who made Berlin so hip and cool finally away. Only the squats which accepted long-term legal contracts (with special conditions) are still present in Berlin-Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. In these houses are the venues where Echtzeitmusik still takes place in those areas. Otherwise it moved back to areas in the former West part like Kreuzberg and Neukölln, or meanwhile even to some new areas which are not that central anymore.
But how did we communicate back then? When we arrived in Berlin – attracted by this open window – we just met in concerts at the Anorak, Lychi 60 and some Free Jazz venues. And musicians travel they meet other musicians from other countries and spread the word. It was mostly all word-of-mouth.
KS: Would it be right to say that reductionism was necessary to take the musical material apart and to minimize the means of expressions as, for example, suprematism or cubism did it in art in the beginning of 20th century? Does reductionism have the potential as an independent genre or is it just a method which should stay in that time?
BB: To us it seemed necessary as a strategy for getting away from what we were unhappy about in improvised music back then, including our own playing. We wanted to break the always ongoing stream of sounds which we felt often just went on even if no strong idea was at hand. We decided to start from silence instead and to place singular sound events into it. This was also leading us away from expressive playing towards some kind of sound research. But I personally started to loose interest in it as a musical aesthetic in the early 2000's, when it started to turn into a genre. The spectrum of possibilities became wider again. But nevertheless this intense period of investigations unlocked the option for us to stop and to allow silence, and to include very quite sections in our playing. If that is the outcome of it, then it was worth the effort, I would say. Also in that sense 'Reductionism' would have, despite its name, extended our range of possibilities after all.
KS: What or how to listen? - that's the question of people facing quiet music/reductionism for the first time. Recently I tried to describe my sense of this music to my friend who just started to be interested in it and I came up with such comparisons - staring at the water, fire or stars in the sky. There are pattern which are real, relatively unchanged but to a certain degree chaotically changing. There's a concentration of the view, which is the reaction to the pattern as well as the reaction to the context. Do you have your own condition/skill for quiet music perception? To what extent is this rational activity, and to what extent is it an emotional/intuitive one?
BB: I think it can change your perception of time. Slowing it down, sometimes almost to the point of standstill, while at the same time sharpening and focusing all senses. And I like the idea that this may involve both, intuition and reflection.
KS: The book Echtzeitmusik Berlin describes the club 2:13, which was established with your direct participation, as a place focusing on long-play projects where musicians had time to get a sense for each other, and the common practice was more important than contacts and decisions like in ad hoc. improvisation - is it essential in Perlonex and your another projects?
BB: Improvisation definitely still is essential. It just means working on a level beyond the state of "let's see what we can do together".
KS: The first and the last albums of Perlonex were recorded with a ten years distance. Long extended structures are the basis of both ones. But the form is quite different. Perlon is psychedelic and fragmented, sometimes it comes up to dub. Perlonoid is "divided-on-two", the sound increases then suddenly falls, that repeats once more (if we don't mind the short coda). Changes are almost invisible, the form is absolute. What has been changed in your approach of making music during this period?
IS: Well, the long extended formal structure was eminent from the very beginning of our music and the Perlonex history. In a way we have been playing variations of two pieces over and over again all the years. The first one is a rather long piece with certain form options but varying/differing materials and a second shorter, more static and reduced piece which is a calmer coda like answer to the more extended opener. We have continuously reworked and refined those two structures, which have certain tension arcs which we are coming back to, but could be also completely reshaped the next time we perform or record. While the structures and tension arcs kind of stayed, the material we use sometimes drastically varied. This has to do with some natural development and changes of each of us in instrumentation but also changes in personal preferences in stylistic questions . In the early days you would still maybe hear some kind of defragmented groove references. Pretty soon we gave up more direct rhythmic associations for rather abstract repetitive layers. But this would still not keep us from collaging some quite disparate flavors into the mix, like Burkhard's passion for Punk and Industrial energy, Joerg's love for psychedelic elements or Indonesian gamelan music or my passion for folk music, Musique Concrete and early AACM free jazz abstractions. In the early days it was maybe easier to identify and hear those different and often opposing elements while nowadays we much more abstract, blend and melt those ingredients into one dense & intense amalgam. There were also some continuous shifts and changes in the instrumentation. Burkhard pretty early on got rid off the classic HiHat and his Temple Blocks and started focussing on what can be done with a certain (limited) array of objects and textures, going into extremes here, really squeezing everything out of certain materials. Joerg was maybe the most consistent, playing his guitar through the same array of pedals. But at some point we also got him into bringing all kinds of old guitars to our sessions in Berlin spicing up the sound. The most drastic changes probably happened in my set-up in the early and mid-period days, switching from sampler and md-players run with effects to using laptop and sine wave generators running through loopers and pedals and at some point settling with turntables (objects vs. vinyl set-up), sine waves and looper. The tools and materials have been maybe refined, but in a way the approach and attitude of how we make music hasn’t changed so much. We still throw this three different personalities into the mix, it is still the same exciting and mostly surprising magic of three different and seemingly opposing characters coming together playing this obscure sound.
KS: What is the reason to publish Perlonoid seven years after recording it? Does the time/present moment is important for you?
IS: We had this fantastic recording sitting in the shelf for years, and when we decided to reactivate the group after a sabbatical period we needed for various reasons it was a logical decision to put out that particular piece of music at that point before we would move on. The record is a perfect summing up of what we had worked out in our first ten years. It is an extremely consistent, almost perfect example of our music and it would have been dumb not to share it. In this case it does not matter when it comes out, it's kind of timeless and illogical anyway …. The whole business is speeding up it's own extinction like mad, it's getting more and more absurd, with a younger generation of music consumers not even paying attention to physical releases anymore. But I still believe that it needs those disturbing little objects, and for me it does not matter if it is on the suddenly super archaic format CD. We have still loads of amazing archival recordings from different Perlonex periods waiting to come out, and I really like the idea that there is no logic when they will come out. Most important is: if you want to know who and what we are doing right now, in the moment, you will need to get up, move your ass, and come to one of our concerts.
KS: If we talk about pop music the hit recipe is obvious - melody, lyrics, production, promo, and the matter of taste finally. Are there some common points for the evaluation of experimental music? Can we talk about subjectivity (matter of taste) here, or is it such a conceptual work that you have to know the key to understand it?
BB: The difference is that there is more money involved in the pop market. That's why it’s structured in a different, more commercial way. You can also work with lyrics, melodies and song formats in a very experimental way, but it might not be regarded as pop anymore when it's too far out. Not to talk about commercial success. Similarly you might not have an easy stand in experimental music if your music is very harmonic, smooth and pleasant. Some musicians are addressing exactly these codes and limitations in their work, thus making the unwritten rules become visible. Still there are always individual preferences at work here too. 'Taste' if you want. Experimental music can be very attractive if you look for something more off-mainstream, music which matches the complexity of our realities better than a music which mainly offers pleasant dreams. But beyond that, I also think a lot of experimental music has the potential to be spontaneously accessible for everyone without any background knowledge as long as they are open enough to leave their musical conditioning behind.
KS: And then, how should we think about hierarchy within the scene? There are indisputable authorities, whose appearance on the stage seems to guarantee the excellent quality of music. But an old musician can get tired, make a mistake, may not feel a partner or context, just play the same things making the situation comfortable for himself.
BB: The 24-piece Splitter Orchester might be a good example here. You can observe the way the Echtzeitmusik scene works in nuce, so to say. It's an experimental field for musical as well as social interaction and in grassroots democracy. Authorities are not disempowered just because you have declared a group to be non-hierarchical. And also you don’t actually want to loose the strong impact such authorities can have on the group. At the same time it is necessary to invent strategies to make sure that also the quieter ones get the chance to be heard. Interaction in a group of this size already becomes quite complex when you try to avoid having leaders. Real democracy is always pretty exhausting. And it requires the full commitment of all participants. But the engagement also prevents you from getting tired and lazy.
KS: Are the common interests and self-identity inherent for the scene? Are theoretical discourse, discussions, texts necessary or are some dozens of people who play the same music at the same venues for the same people enough?
BB: Our recognition at least within the world of contemporary music increased since a couple of books and several Phd dissertations had been published. To develop the music it might be enough to just get together again and again at the same venues, but it might easily just stay there if there is no accompanying theoretical discourse. This insight was leading us to the publication of the '27 questions', to run the 'Labor Diskurs' discussion rounds and later to the Echtzeitmusik book project.
KS: And these three of '27 questions' which are great for me as I'm involved in the St.Petersburg scene. How would you answer?
Is there any "popular" potential in this kind of music?
Do we need a dedicated space?
Is our musical scene merely a resort for failed existences and dysfunctional people?
BB: The 27 Questions are meant as starting points for reflection/discussion. We have actually never published any answers ourselves. Maybe one can tell a little bit from our choice of subjects and the way we put the questions what we were after? - By giving answers ourselves we would rather narrow their potential than adding much to it, I believe.