How does one even begin to describe or account for the artistic phenomenon that is Felix Kubin? Born Felix Knoth, Kubin has been making music with piano and glockenspiel since he was 8 years old, but it was in 1980, when he acquired a Korg MS-20 synthesizer, that his musical imagination really ignited. He played in the punk band Die Egozentrischen and co-founded the experimental noise group Klangkrieg with Tim Buhre in 1987.
A self-proclaimed Dadaist and “messenger of exploding lungs”, he released his first solo album, Filmmusik, in 1998 on his own label Gagarin Records, which he founded the same year. Kubin is that rare thing – a serious yet playful artist, one with ambitious aesthetic and philosophical aims, but also one who is happy generate and live by a patently ridiculously self-mythology that posits him as the re-incarnation of Yuri Gagarin and “ruler of the syndicate of counter-noise”.
Kubin’s music is, in fact, incredibly broad in its scope; anyone lucky enough to catch his recent show at Corsica Studios will have witnessed the irreverent, virtuoso way in which he can shift and vault from searing digital noise to straight-faced crooning pop via pounding 4×4 techno, wide-eyed kosmische and snotty agit-punk. I say “he” rather than “his music” because it’s impossible to separate Felix Kubin from the sounds which he produces. Even though they’re largely synthetic, electronic sounds, Kubin renders them on-stage in such a way that it seems they’re emanating not from the machines, but from the root of his very being. Sound corny? Head down to Corsica this Saturday, July 5th, when Felix will return to perform as headliner of the Tippex Wedding Festival, and see for yourself.
Almost needless to say, his recorded output is no less engrossing than his live outings – drawing on a wide range of influences, from modern classical and tape music through to German folk-song and contemporary electronica, a Felix Kubin album is always an unpredictable, disorienting affair. There is perhaps no finer introduction to the catalogue than Music for Theatre & Radio Play, recently released on excellent German imprint Dekorder. As its title implies, it collects various soundtrack compositions that Felix has devised for dramatic works, both for the stage and the air-waves, so to speak. The radio play or Hoerspiel is a historically important and enduring form in Germany and for Kubin in particular, and as he explains below, this curious medium presents the composer with unique challenges and opportunities.
The interplay of sound, visual representation and narrative is a long-standing preoccupation for Kubin, and is reflected in his emphatically inter-disciplinary oeuvre: in addition to his “straight” albums, he’s scored countless experimental and independent films and plays, produced collage-style Hoerspiel, an opera and several animations, and is always open to interesting collaborations. Oh, and as co-founder of the dadaist/communist political party KED he explored the idea of media manipulation as artistic canvas. I mean, what have you done recently? There is seemingly no limit to Felix Kubin’s inventiveness, eccentricity and, above all, talent. Here, in a rare UK interview, Kubin reveals all…
Can you explain to me your interest in Horspiel? What is unique and appealing to you about Horspiel, and what challenges/pleasures does writing music for such plays present you with?
“I have composed soundtracks for two radio plays other than my own. The first one was for a Hoerspiel by Xentos Bentos, a very active experimental musician and radio artist who produced a lot for Resonance FM under the name Harmon E Phrazier. His story was called ‘The Raft’ and dealt with a bunch of very different survivors dying one by one on a raft in a mysterious way. The soundtrack to this play can be heard on my latest album Felix Kubin & das Mineralorchester.
“The second soundtrack I composed recently for a play by Beate Andres about a German race car driver called Rudolf Caracciola. That soundtrack was pretty manic and overloaded with information. Composing soundtracks for other people’s radio plays is usually an exception for me. Usually, I write and produce them for my own Hoerspiele. There I like to mix documentary and fictional elements in order to get a more lively texture than in a classical narrative structure. Plus, I can play with the evidence of truth. Hoerspiele have a long tradition in Germany as a cinéma d’oreille; Germans love to listen to them, especially when travelling. I grew up with plenty of records containing fairy tale adaptations – sometimes very violent ones – and all kinds of series, from science fiction to detective to horror. The pleasure about Hoerspiel is the drama and the medium itself. The dramatic component stems from its heritage of classical theatre. First radio plays were nothing more than theatre plays carried out live in a radio studio. By experimentation, Hoerspiel started to make use of the advantages of its transmitting medium and became a genre in and of itself. The biggest advantage of radio is the fact that it contains disembodied voices. All actors are invisible. They can be real human beings or just sounds. That provides a lot of creative space when constructing a plot. Every listener has to visualize what is going on in his or her head.”
“Most of my radio plays were done in a collage technique, only my last one Orpheus’ Psykotron has a classical story. I adapted a modern comic version of the Orpheus myth by Italian writer Dino Buzzati. In my adaptation, Orpheus’ doesn’t play guitar or lute but owns an electronic device called PSYKOTRON that can transfer his thoughts into music. He is able to ‘replay his head’.
“My next radio play will be about the absurdity of instruction manuals, structured strictly by synthetic sequences.”
However, your new album doesn’t just consist of Hoerspiel soundtracks, does it?
“No, the CD Felix Kubin & das Mineralorchester also contains music for theatre plays. I have done works for Branko Simic, Christoph Schlingensief and Schorsch Kamerun, a new star in the German scene who originally comes from a punk rock background (as the lead singer of his band Die Goldenen Zitronen). Working for theatre always requires a lot of flexibility in the production process, as tracks are changed and added everyday. I always try to stick to my very own style of expression and have turned down several offers when I realized that my talent would be restricted. I usually don’t like it when the author already knows exactly what the final soundtrack should sound like. In that case it’s better to find someone who can carry out his ideas technically.”
Do you approach the making of theatre and Hoerspiel music differently to the making of film music? What’s special to you about making film music? Can you tell us about some of your favourite film composers and soundtracks that have inspired you?
“Soundtracks for theatre have to be changed every day in the production and they grow a lot with the development of the play. It’s a social process. When I compose for film, I am on my own. Concerning the content there’s not much difference. In both cases I have to leave space for the voices and the action sounds, unless there’s a part without text. Composers who inspired me are Krzysztof Komeda, Ennio Morricone, Bernard Hermann (who actually stole a lot from Charles Ives and Bela Bartok), John Williams, Simon Fisher Turner and lesser known composers of Polish and Czech animation film music.”
You’re very active in music and the visual arts. Do you have any desire or plans to involve yourself in other media – to make films, or write plays/literature, as well as write music for them?
“I don’t see my artistic expression limited to any discipline. Last year I created a dance performance piece at Tanzquartier Wien, a famous place for modern abstract dance. It was very new and difficult for me but I liked it. I also compose on commission for Hamburg’s ensemble Intégrales, a modern chamber orchestra. This is most exciting for me at the moment. I will create a work based on a documentary record about a catch fighter, something like Japan Noise for percussion, prepared piano and a Japanese screamer called Miss Hawaii
“Theatre hasn’t really touched me so far but I can imagine producing something there at some point. I made some short films in the 90s, also an animated film about Myra Hindley, the British child murderer. These films will be released on DVD by two great video artists from Cologne who call themselves GrawBoeckler.
“One of my favourite projects I contributed to is called 1%. It’s a permanent installation for the elevators of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication conceived by Viennese artists David Jourdan and Yuji Oshima. They asked a selection of artists to create short tracks that would be played randomly inside the elevators at a chance of 1%. I always loved elevator music, it’s very subtle and seductive. In general, I am interested in the different frames of artistic presentation. It makes a huge difference if something is exhibited in a white cube, on the radio (while driving a car, for instance) or in public space where art is not expected. I am interested in cultural agreements.”
Your performances seem to me very theatrical, very concerned with movement. Is this fair to say? Has working in theatre informed the way you present yourself and your music on stage?
“I’ve been playing live for 20 years, and I am aware of a lot of stereotypes on stage. I have experienced all kinds of reactions to my concerts, so I developed the idea of a vacuum on stage. Inside this vacuum I feel very close to myself, closer than in most other social situations. I know that I have to become the music that I make instead of playing it. All movements follow the vacuum.”
Do you feel politically engaged at the moment? Does your recent work address political issues, either directly or indirectly?
“I hope so. I am not interested in day-to-day politics, rather in philosophy and subjects concerning concrete life. I also think that democracy is strong in solving social problems and finding compromises but it’s weak in aesthetics. In art, I can’t be democratic.”
Pop music can of course contain political subject matter, but do you believe that contemporary pop music can have a political effect?
“The way a band or an orchestra is organized has far more impact on me than a political phrase. Sun Ra and his Arkestra were so amazing because they didn’t draw a line between their private and artistic lives. They just invented another set of rules saying: ‘We are from another planet, so we are not bound to your laws’. On the one hand, they were organized and disciplined; on the other hand, pretty anarchic compared to the square world of the Bourgeoise Jazz scene. To write a hip line like ‘Anarchy in the UK’ takes seconds, to live this idea takes a whole life. Only the latter defines if someone really is adapted to conventions or not. Unfortunately, words do come easy.”
Would it be fair/accurate to call your music escapist?
“For me, the function of an artist is to communicate philosophy in a sensuous way. Philosophy can never be escapist but it can be poetic. I want to change the world of thoughts by any means – if necessary, by nightmares.”
What is the role of humour in your music, and is humour important to you in general?
“Humour is a parasite I cannot control.”
How do you feel living in Hamburg has impacted on your work and on your attitudes to life?
“Apart from the beauty of Hamburg’s harbour it didn’t have much impact. I drew my inspiration from other sources than the local scene, I have always been involved with an international scene of musicians and artists. The only important place in the 1990s was Uli Rehberg’s record shop, Unterm Durchschnitt. On his label Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien he had released the early works of industrial bands like Throbbing Gristle, Laibach, SPK, John Waterman and later on other obscure stuff like Mechthild von Leusch, Werkbund and his own animal poetry. This was the place where artists like Asmus Tietchens and other impresarios of the ‘Atonal’ gang would hang out. Other than that I have always been an outsider with my music, as far back as I can remember.”
How has Germany changed in your lifetime? How do you feel, in the most general sense, about the political, social and cultural climate of your hometown and of the country at large?
“I am sure that there are cultural identities, even if they are subconscious. I was lucky to start making music when the Germans were loosening up a bit through punk and German New Wave. It was a very anarchic time and there was a lot of experimentation in pop music. Germans have a tradition in electronic music, and they like pure forms. On the other hands, I think the fact that my father was a scientist influenced me a lot, as well. The experiment was always important for me. I had no exchanges in philosophy and music with people of my age. Nowadays, I have much more exchange with friends abroad.“
How do you feel electronic music, and the public’s attitude to electronic music, has changed since when you began making music?
“The dancefloor has made electronic music popular. I remember that the audience could take a lot of noise and annoying sounds towards the end of the 70s. During the rise of DJ culture in the 90s, electronic music became a new kind of muzak in supermarkets and clubs. I think, many people expect from it a soothing effect in order to relax from a hard day’s night. Tape-music turned into tapestry, ‘Wohnton’ – home music. At the same time, the democratization of production means, the invention of home-recording, gave many people the possibility to express themselves at home. They didn’t need a rehearsal room and could even produce their music under headphones. I’ve been in Tokyo at the tiniest places of noise musicians: they create their madness under headphones! The socialisation of this music completely differs from the band concept: for a long time it grew from living room studios into the dancefloor, whereas a band needed to chart the way from rehearsal rooms to the stage. The most obvious period of this development were the laptop “concerts” – which was nothing else than a musician bringing his home-recording studio to the stage and presenting his tracks. Look, I have made this at home. Since five years, also electronic acts have started to perform and improve their charisma on stage.”
How has your own approach to composing/recording/producing changed since you began making music?
“That’s a difficult question because I don’t know exactly how my thoughts were coming and going when I was young. I definitely was much faster in putting together tracks back then. I didn’t think about arrangements a lot, everything happened subconsciously. At a very early age I made up one rule: never use a sound twice. Today I work differently. I produce a lot of sounds, mostly banks in my sampler or improvisations that I record on DAT and into the computer. These sounds I use in several contexts. But I mostly sample my own sounds in order to create my unique universe, unless I refer to a certain topic like ‘expressionist classical music’ or ‘Hanns Eisler’ (communist fellow composer of Brecht).
“I went through different phases of composing and music styles. In the beginning it was nervous, fast and playful, then slow, psychedelic and dark, then a conceptual blueprint of communist music and afterwards it became more and more abstract and electroacoustic before I started to enjoy pop structures again.”
You recently helmed a workshop in which you created a short opera with students in five days. Tell us more…
“It was a crazy marathon. Within 6 days I forced myself and the students of the Staedelschule in Frankfurt to compose and perform a playback opera. The libretto was the only starting point that we had. The rest was done from scratch. The students were singing the lyrics in free improvisation. Afterwards they composed the music to their vocals. We created the piece in an inverted order.”
Can you tell me about your work with ensemble Intégrales? What has the experience of working with them taught you?
“I was always very much into modern classical music of the 20th century, but my knowledge didn’t stretch further than the heroes of the 60s: Ligeti, Penderecki, Stockhausen, Nono, Ferrari. Varése I discovered much later. He still is a total mystery for me. In my cultural environment, contemporary classical music was often seen as a musical form that got stuck in a dead end. All the pop tarts didn’t like it anyway and even the noise specialists hated the academics. But I have always been very interested in different scenes of people and approaches to art and music. I am in contact with people who hate each other’s works. At the moment I feel a growing interest in contemporary classical music, especially the big range of dynamics, playing techniques and development of a good dramaturgy.
“This summer (2008) I have plans for a very interesting project together with the ensemble Intégrales. I want to record sketches of music, some abstract, some rhythmical and repetitive, using unusual recording methods for classical music. The recordings will be done by Tobias Levin, a producer of progressive pop music. We want to experiment with the sounds of different rooms and with special positionings of microphones. Normal recordings of contemporary music are done like a puppet play, or theatre. I want to work like film, with close-ups, changing rooms and focuses.”
Do you draw any direct inspiration from contemporary music?
“Yes, in terms of phrasing, dynamics and concentration. Every single note in contemporary music is played with much consciousness, other than in free improvisation or club music. I like this sharpness of mind and timing. I can even see it when I am late for an appointment – classical musicians are the ones who get most angry about it. Because everything in their life is about timing, precision and details.”
Tell us about your encounter with Mariola Brillowska and how that influenced your subsequent work…
“I started to compose film scores to her unusual animation films in 1996. That brought me back to pop structures again. My first release as Felix Kubin was a collection of these soundtracks. I think my music has always been full of lively images, at least that’s what people tell me even today. I tend to produce soundtracks to non-existing films. Ten years ago I made a project with my friend Jacques Palminger which was called Psychedelic Charles Bronson evening. We used Bronson as a character whom we filled with our own fears and fantasies. We wrote poems in his name and analysed his film stills like graphologists. In the end we played a soundtrack to a non-existing Charles Bronson movie. I generally like to use common personalities as a canvas that I fill with new colours.”
Your music seems very concerned with unconventional or unexpected structure and narrative, with suspense and surprise. Is this true?
“Yes. It’s my way of not getting bored by myself.”
Can you explain your involvement with the Kommunistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands?
“Nowadays I think that it was basically a media experiment, in two meanings of the word. On the one hand, we acted like spiritual media in a sceance bringing back the ghost of GDR communism as realistically as possible. Our performances worked as catalysts for discussions and emotions, especially when the audience was mixed of people from east and west Germany. On the other hand, we acted very authoritarian towards the media, that is TV, newspapers etc. We tried to set as many rules as possible. We had our own photographer, nobody else was allowed take any photos in magazines. We only gave interviews when the authors had agreed to let us change the final text as we wanted it. Our arrogant behaviour created even more interest from the media. We were broadcast at the best times on German national TV. After two years I myself decided to stop the experiment. I had found out everything that I wanted and didn’t see any possibility to further develop the whole issue. After a while, the others stopped as well. At the climax of our development we hung posters of our party all over Hamburg while the elections were going on. Two of our comrades were arrested by the police. The citizens of Hamburg didn’t know what our party was about because our “demands” on the poster were quite obscure.
Is Dada still an important influence on you?
“Dada stands for a great culture that was extinguished by the Nazis. After the second world war, there was a big cultural hole in Germany. I refer to the time before the Nazis got in power because I can identify with that “Germany” much more in many regards, also humour.”
And tape music?
“Yes. Basically because it introduced the studio as another powerful instrument. Before that, musical memory only existed in notes or thoughts.”
You’re a fairly regular visitor to the UK. What are your impressions?
“England is quite different from Scotland and Ireland, of course. I was surprised that people always used the term ‘Europe’ as if they didn’t belong to it. The island mentality is very strong over there. But they seem to be very informed about music and very open-minded, at least if someone from ‘Europe’ makes the effort to hop around in their territory. What I always liked about England is that the border between mainstream and underground isn’t handled as strictly as over here in Germany. That’s why the BBC is so great. Concerning the curfew [licensing laws], it’s the opposite. It would be great if there’d be more time after the gigs to hang around and talk to people and have DJs going on. It needs some time to let ideas grow and encounters happen. On my tour, I didn’t experience the hierarchy between bands which are ‘important’ or ‘well-known’ and those that aren’t so much. I was especially surprised by the kindness of the staff that runs the Corsica Studios in London. But actually, all the organizers on the tour were really dedicated to music and friendly. I am sure this is also due to the Tippex Agency that organized it. I never judge the audience by its ‘warmth’ or amount of people. Only by their interest. I haven’t made any bad experiences here. The biggest surprise was Cork in Ireland. That was a mad crowd. My gig in Aberdeen had to be stopped after 15 minutes because the room was flooded by broken water-mains. Everyone was evacuated and outside it was snowing.
‘All the music/art I create is linked to my social life.’ – your words from 2002. Can you explain what you mean by this?
“I don’t make any distinction between private life and art.”
Is music-making and music-listening for you a pleasure to be shared or to be enjoyed privately?
“Exchange without currency means mental surviving. I don’t like the rule that one hand has to wash the other. A bit of dirt is good for the immune system.”
Is making art/music for you always a pleasure, or is it sometimes a burden, painful even?
“I don’t do art or music out of luxury but because I need to do it. I would be dead if I couldn’t do it. That’s why I often feel I am giving birth to something. That can be very painful. Especially when there’s a deadline I sometimes feel close to losing my mind.”
What, outside of music and art, gives you pleasure?
“I like moments that are unique, moments that will never come back again. Le petit mort.”