At a Certain Point I Thought It Was Too Holy

A pub conversation with Ulf Sievers

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 Andrea  Neumann:  Most people  only  know you  as the  electro-nerd from  Larry  Peacock.  But you've also been a companion of the Echtzeitmusik scene for many years now. Tell me a bit about your musical background again.

 Ulf Sievers: I started out as a guitarist. I played with the Hamburg  band  Blütenstaup  for  a  long  time.  Then, at the end of the nineties, I started working  with the computer. I wanted to expand my horizons sound-wise. At the same time, I moved from Hamburg to Berlin. In the meantime, as you've already mentioned,  I started  playing  with  Larry Peacock. We make  electro-pop,  but you  can  hear influences from the Echtzeitmusik scene in our music, too.

AN: When was the first time you came into contact with the  Echtzeitmusik scene?

US: It must have been around the mid-nineties.  I was still studying in Hamburg at the time, but I was in Berlin a lot, visiting friends -there were just an insane amount of things going on here at that time. So they took me to concerts.

AN: What was your first impression of the Echtzeitmusik scene?

US:  I was fascinated, thrilled. Just because of the places, the  squatted  buildings; there  was  Anorak for example . And of course because of the music. I found it very inspiring how people played together freely, beyond the limits of genre. However, the aesthetic then was really underground, much wilder and more anarchic than  a few years  later. The music  stood  for a  certain  life-attitude that I connect with  post-reunification  times  in  East  Berlin. For me, that was the 'Wild East', where  an  unbelievable amount of things were possible.

AN: You're describing the Anorak scene in the mid-nineties. How did it continue?

US: There was still the Hochzeitsraum and a couple  other temporary  locations  where  free  improvised  concerts took place . There was  a  lot of experimentation. If you were  lucky,  in the course  of one evening you could hear several formations that played freely and still sounded quite different from one other. At the end of the nineties, though, the scene transformed.  Musicians who were quite active at the beginning became oriented differently; they weren't so present anymore. Instead, a small, solid core group of musicians played together quite a lot  and  developed  a  sound  aesthetic  all  their own. It was defined as 'reductionism' later on. But for me, that was the point when I sort of stopped following things.  All  of a sudden there were  once again  so  many  rules for playing  and  so  many unwritten  laws  about  what  was  allowed  and  what wasn't allowed in the music. It was more of a turnoff for me. But maybe it was because of the sound that emerged as a result: at a certain point I found it too quiet and too holy.

AN: What exactly do you mean by 'holy'?

US:  Well, silence became a quality in itself.  It was practically celebrated . The sound  emerged  from silence and faded away into silence.  That's what I mean by 'holy'.  I don't know at all anymore what was holier, the silence or the sound.  It got so calm and quiet that you weren't even  allowed to go in and  out during a concert anymore.  Drinking beer had already become a disturbance…  I once asked an acquaintance after a concert how she liked it. She said to me -no lie- 'Well, in the second set, at the beginning of the last third, there was such a beautiful moment. I liked that.'  Seriously, I didn't want to hear something that precise.  With such strict criteria, at a certain point I stop having fun with the music. It's too stressful for me, too. What should I do during all the time that's left over?  Do I wait for this one good moment? Anyway, for me the scene had become too Protestant.

AN: What exactly do you mean by 'Protestant' in this context?  You yourself grew up Catholic, as I've heard?

US:  Yeah, yeah,  that's correct.  I went to a Catholic  boarding  school for boys . Prayers  every morning and school mass once a week.  Many say, however, that I have  a streak of Protestantism  in  me. Maybe that's why I have such  an  allergic reaction to other Protestants. What I mean by Protestant is that the  music was  powered  by so  much earnestness and zealousness. There was  something completely doctrinaire about it. And  labour-intensive. I mean, you don't have to leave the stage and feel like you're totally fabulous, but this other extreme, this self-Iaceration- 'It wasn't very good. 'The improvisation  wasn't successful this time',  and  'The thing we have to do better is .. .'-       I anyway find all this copious talking after a concert difficult. I've always thought, what are you searching for actually? Maybe you're looking for something that can't exist at all. That's a paradox indeed, the perfect improvisation,  right?  Failure  is  pre-programmed  in that. But this anger was probably perceived as productive. To  some  extent, the suffering  caused  by imperfection was  really  overglorified, taking  into account,  of course,  the fact that the old  cliché  of the genius artist who sacrifices  himself for his  art is embedded in this attitude. Anyway, that's not really my thing . And you could  have a little humour, joke about it, right? But instead, people got angry. A fight would get started by something as little as someone playing the right note at the wrong time.

AN:  Haven't you experienced this in other musical contexts where there are also rules, where people also get angry when you  play something the others don't like?

US:  Sure,  but take  my old band  Blütenstaup. We decided together on individual songs that proceeded according to clearly agreed-upon structures and rules. One 'rule'-and there were others, too- was that I never played a jazz guitar solo because I knew that the others think that's shit.  But like  I said,  it was clearly agreed upon. I believe it was different in the improv scene. Lots of old contracts detailing how music should be made were annulled - I thought that was  really cool  and liberating- only  to  quickly  lay  down  new  rules again that weren't always transparent and clear in the end, or that were open to very different subjective interpretations.

AN:  But you were always fascinated  by the scene, too, weren't you?

US:  Yeah,  no  doubt.  I was  enthused  much  of the time and thought the whole thing was really inspiring. I improvise too sometimes, but more in  order to generate new ideas.  It is,  ultimately, a finished song that I want in the end. In this regard, I can  of course ask myself the question of whether I'm impatient,  product-oriented,  and  too  capitalistic. I've always understood Echtzeitmusik as  a critique of music as  commodity.  But then doesn't it make more sense  in  that regard  when  some things  are not totally perfect? Anyhow,  it really  got on  my nerves from  time to time. From a certain point on, it was simply a question of aesthetics. The musical guidelines were too narrow for me.  So  much  was  made taboo all  of a sudden, things that were still  important to me.  In any case,  I wasn't ready to completely give up parameters  I was  fond  of,  such  as  pitch  and  pulse/ rhythm,  and  I couldn't give the  necessary appreciation  to  the  new  qualities  that  were  supposed to emerge.  Research  noise-like  sounds?  Yes.  But what's the problem with going on to process these new  sounds  in  rhythmic  structures?  This  was  almost  considered  provincial.  That  did  make  the scene  seem  narrow  and  elitist to me.  And from a certain  point on,  I asked  myself whether this narrowness isn't also uncreative.  Whatever. We could rant about my ambivalent relation to the Echtzeitmusik scene forever.  Let's get  another drink instead.  I have to leave in  a minute. The babysitter gets off work at eleven.

Translated by William Wheeler