Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Beautiful destruction: Einstürzende Neubauten's biography

[first time appeared in The Wire #339]

Blixa Bargeld and Einsturzende Neubauten: German Experimental Music
Jennifer Shryane

Ashgate 253pp Hbk

The first full-length study on the band, Jennifer Shryane’s book is already more in-depth and interdisciplinary than any fanatic of the group could demand – it was researched for a decade, and it has 17-pages of bibliography. A paradigmatic cult band and one of the most esthetically powerful bands of post-punk era surely deserves this kind of investigation. But on devouring the erudite pages of philosophical, cultural and artistic references one may have a feeling that the original topic gets a bit lost, or rather that the author’s flow has been suppressed to fit the rigours of academic presentation, thus obscuring Neubauten’s pop-cultural origins.

Einstürzende Neubauten - Interim Lovers from on Vimeo.

With Neubauten academic approach seems initially apt: their roots come from the high art just as pop and it is precisely the way they play with both the high and the low, that demands studying. Their meaning exceeds music or the Neue Deutsche Welle scene they helped defining by opposing everything it soon came to stand for. Their music embodied a vision of post-war West Germany: from the perfect name, to Entartete Kunst, cold war, DDR, Berlin Wall, Vergangenheitsbewältigung (German for ‘overcoming the past”, referring to the post-Nazi era just as to the post-unification process), architecture of ruins, decomposing cityscapes, fall of industry, Cage, Stockhausen, trash, punk, destruction, morbidity, dada, and in general the bleakest unfulfilled promises of modernity. You can’t think of them without seeing the city of Berlin, which was their site of creativity/destruction, and indeed they contributed to its lasting image as infinitely edgy place of experimentation, even if it bears little resemblance to the current reality. They also pressed heavily on the "Ostalgic" buttons, having had played in Berlin's Palast der Republik in 2004 shortly before the venue was demolished for purely ideological reasons, again, as a part of "overcoming the past".

The book is most interesting when it traces the historical meanings of the generation of so-called Nachgeboren (‘born later’, after Brecht’s famous poem), stylistically put between Darmstadt school of Serielle/Elektronische Musik and Kosmische-Krautrock eruption. Bargeld himself quotes Can, Kraftwerk and NEU! as major inspirations. It’s articulated, why Neubauten were cut off from, for example, the NDW label, as it become a curseword in result of German labels' rather careless ferocious signing and later - an easy term to put any German band from that era to the same sack. Still, musically, with time it seems it's the dance-rhythm oriented bands, like D.A.F., Grauzone or Palais Schaumburg, that get resurrected in pop music. It is because EN never were a band of tunes, they were a band of style, more like a conceptual theatre of method actors or performance artists, a cabaret in a post-Baader Meinhof house of fear that Berlin was, reenacting the German trauma in their driven shows. With their name calling for ‘new buildings’ to collapse, they were the model for a post-68 disillusioned generation lost in the ashes of history, unsettled by the uneasy peace West Germany had made with its past.

It is this cultural meaning that still haunts the arts and esthetics. They keep being referenced by the new generations of visual artists: in 2007, Jo Mitchell performed Concerto For Voice & Machinery IIat London’s ICA, a reconstruction of an infamous  Neubauten-related performance at the same venue in 1984 featuring Genesis P-Orridge and Frank 'Fad Gadget" Tovey, which caused some riots and destruction.

Shryane is passionate for ultra-modern elements of the band: the meaning of rubble, ruins, decay, destruction. Even when it comes to describing the music and sound itself, usually the weakest points of academic music books, it’s engaging, focusing on vocal, writing, sound and pivotal instrument-making techniques. What then makes it in the end underwhelming? Perhaps the presentation itself. We don’t really learn the way Blixa & co were absorbing influences or whether the namechecking by Bargeld came later. It’s great to know Bargeld acquired singing techniques from Artaud, Heiner Muller (a father figure and one of many, it seems), Diamanda Galas, Dadaist performances, cabaret and non-western practices, but it should be clear, that what Bargeld was absorbing is not identical with his creation. At points one would like the author to analyse the influences themselves, minus the band. Still, we have no doubts that their reading of Benjamin’s ‘Destructive Character’ and bringing it, with the meaning of ruins and faded industry, to music was really interesting. I only protest, when I’m supposed to consider still menacing what Bargeld is doing right now. Why was this band so subversive and revolutionary, if they fit so smoothly a set of high-art references? Without doubt, all the initial menace has faded by now, but the question is rather: was it there at all?

You’ve noticed the name written separately in the title and it’s not accidental: from his lyrics and way of life we know he likes being on the frontline. He smoothly adapted to the role of a celebrity and in a contemporary creativity-driven era, he’s a perfect gallery product, giving mostly poetry readings to his faithful audience who frankly, would probably just as well appreciate his reading of a laundry list. It’s obviously a result of his earlier output and charisma, but let’s not deceive ourselves: it’s as badass a thing now as having a latte in a Mitte bar. Fortunately, the book is rather a portrait of the whole era, not Bargeld, with compelling commentary on the newest German history and place of culture in it, best defined by “transparency” of sir Norman Foster’s Reichstag and Frau Merkel’s policies.

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