Abstraction & Banality
The return of a pioneer of German pop, and electronic music in general: Holger Hiller spoke with Klaus Walter about Albert Oehlen, Scooter and himself
Scottish songwriter and eccentric Nick Currie, better known as Momus, rates Holger Hiller’s song ‘Oben im Eck’ (Up In The Corner, 1986) as one of his all-time favourites, describing it as follows: ‘It’s a mysterious, surreal, plodding, detached art song, a sort of Paul Celan poem set to sampled harps, with a sinuous, wandering melody line and the disembodied warbling of Billy McKenzie [singer of Scottish pop duo Associates] behind Hiller’s light, octaved vocals. The result is utterly lovely, but really stands outside any sort of pop or rock tradition.’ This accolade can safely be extended to the entire oeuvre of this exceptional musician: outside any sort of pop or rock tradition. The Scot’s reasons for singing the praises of his German kindred spirit go beyond the prophet’s lack of honour in his own country. Hamburg-born Hiller lived in London for a long time and, like Momus, he has close ties with Japan, where he has a son with musician Izumi ‘Mimi’ Kobayashi. In 1980, Hiller founded the band Palais Schaumburg in Hamburg with Thomas Fehlmann, whose work since, both alone and as a member of The Orb, has moved between techno and pop. The same applies to Moritz von Oswald, who played drums in the second incarnation of Palais Schaumburg. By then, Hiller had moved on, as he so often has before what he does enters the mainstream. Palais Schaumburg was named after the stately home in Bonn that housed the chancellery in former West Germany, a long way from the Reichstag. Other bands of this period had names like Deutsch-Amerikanische-Freundschaft (German American Friendship) and Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), magic formulas of post-war West Germany. Palais Schaumburg’s music evokes that period’s mood of reconstruction, all the hard work involved in the ‘economic miracle’ – and the hard work of forgetting. This is especially true of ‘Wir bauen eine neue Stadt’ (We’re Building A New City), the band’s adaptation of a song cycle for children by Paul Hindemith. In Hiller’s singing, you can hear the skeletons rattling in the cupboards of the new buildings. Old videos show a skinny guy shaking the hyperactivity out of his body in a style made familiar by contemporaries like Johnny Rotten or James White. Hiller developed an early interest in sampling, pioneering techniques from which others later benefited more than he did himself. Today, he is further outside pop or rock tradition than ever, and also outside convention. For his current work, he has joined forces with his old friend Albert Oehlen to confront the trashy Eurodance of Scooter with avant-garde compositions by Iannis Xenakis.
How did this project come about?
I hadn’t seen Albert Oehlen for years. We’ve known each other since around 1980 in Hamburg. Back then, there was a certain mutual curiosity between a group of painters that also included Büttner and Kippenberger, and a number of bands like Die Tödliche Doris and Palais Schaumburg. When we met up again in Berlin, we decided to work on a joint project.
The result consists of circular pictures placed alongside clear vinyl records. What came first, the pictures or the music?
We worked on them in parallel. The prints refer in their format to the records, and the music refers to the way the digital prints are assembled and to the text fragments Albert used. We worked quite fast.
You have images of these works on your website, but only brief excerpts from the music, all less than a minute long. Why?
Why not? The point was not to release music, but to make joint works as part of an exhibition. The project was interesting for me partly because I have no previous experience in this field, and also because it raised the question of how to create a dialogue that avoids awful pseudo-synaesthetic effects where a false link is made between colours, forms and sounds, or where one is subordinated to the other. Neither of us would have been interested in that.
What do you mean by awful pseudo-synaesthetic effects?
I mean there’s a tradition of certain kinds of translation between the visual and sound, beginning with Scriabin’s colour organ, via Kandinsky’s musical sense of colour, to techno VJs using synaesthetic criteria. I find Scriabin amusing, but an approach like that isn’t something I can use at the moment.
According to your website, the works are ‘juxtaposed and framed’. Is that a way of distancing yourselves from ‘pseudo-synaesthetic effects’ and describing your treatment of the materials in the project?
Yes. In any case, I chose clear vinyl records as counterparts for Albert’s prints because it struck me as the closest visual equivalent for a kind of ‘no comment’ approach. I then composed a piece of music for each of the works and had a set of records made in editions of one, like the prints, which are monotypes. Buyers also receive a CD of the music. They can choose whether or not to make it publicly available. I leave that up to each buyer. I was interested in all this because it was new for me and because usually it’s the other way round.
Did you want to avoid the pieces of music being wrongly perceived as ‘a new Holger Hiller album with pictures by Albert Oehlen’?
Your old bandmates Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald have managed to progress smoothly from Palais Schaumburg to techno Cologne and techno Berlin. Why has your path been different, less linear?
My output between 1990 and 2010 was modest and my artistic activities less visible. Besides personal reasons, this was due to changes in the production, reception and status of music itself, as well as broader changes in society. You can talk about it on different levels.
What were the personal reasons?
For one thing, I became a father and took time out for that, which for me was very important. And I also wanted to do something normal for a change, instead of sitting around every night in front of the computer with stoned, paranoid musicians.
What do you mean by changes in the production and reception of music?
That’s a complex issue that can hardly be dealt with in just a few sentences. Perhaps one can say that in the 1990s, many musicians seemingly felt there was something in the overlapping of pop, subcultures, video and advertising that could prop up their self-image. This was a skewed view, but somehow it worked. At the turn of the millennium, with revenues dwindling and scenes fragmenting, musicians saw their precarious situation and their position within the industry more clearly. The status of music also changed, although that development had been coming since the 1970s.
Did your modest output express a refusal to accept these changes?
I wouldn’t want to overstate the notion of ‘refusal’, as I don’t know who it would be directed at. It’s probably more accurate to say that I deliberately turned away from the notion of myself as ‘bohemian’ in any sense and thus, indirectly, from having a continual output as an artist. And the changes in society that have played out as crises since the turn of the millennium cannot be adequately described using terms like refusal or conformity.
Wasn’t your entire solo career, even during more productive phases, characterized by the undermining of expectations? Or by a refusal to format your creative output in saleable units?
I wouldn’t put it like that. With regard to my music, it’s a development and not a refusal, and certainly not a systematic one. That would be boring. Expectations are very important, especially in music, and if I give a concert or produce some recordings I want to respond to that, for myself too. In these responses and in my development I almost unconsciously passed through and integrated historical traditions from the field of art. Maybe some people perceived that as a refusal. In fact, it was more of a reflective element.
Coming back to the joint works: Who gave the pictures and tracks their titles? Do you see plays on words like ‘Vin Vin Situation’ as part of a line stretching back to the days of Palais Schaumburg?
I do think it refers to that, yes. ‘Vin Vin Situation’ just reminds me of my time in London where terms like ‘win-win situation’ and ‘community’ could be (and probably still are) used to such corrupting effect due to their vagueness.
On your working method: Sometimes it’s ‘composing’ and then, in the press release for your project with Oehlen: ‘He appropriates snippets of Eurotrash group Scooter and symphonic videogame soundtracks, and embeds them into Xenakis and other twentieth-century composers.’ Is composing a general term covering appropriation, embedding and juxtaposition?
Appropriation, montage and collage are just a few specific techniques of composition, not the other way round. Sure, when Pierre Boulez refused to acknowledge musique concrète as a form of music, Pierre Schaeffer is supposed to have shouted something like: ‘The history of music is nothing but bricolage’. And that’s certainly true. But today it’s irrelevant. I could have written string quartets, but instead I used recordings of orchestras, Eurotrash and so on, because I was interested in the interplay between the banal and the abstract in Albert’s works. I borrowed that and pursued it for myself. I’m happy with the results.
Why use Scooter? Is it because they’re seen, especially abroad, as standing for a particular kind of Teutonicness? Because it’s never clear how much of a double game they’re playing?
I’ve never really paid much attention to Scooter. The reason is simply that Albert wanted to use words from Scooter lyrics in the prints. Which prompted me to take a closer look. To me, Scooter’s music feels quite threatening. But there are a few longer passages that develop a wonderful life of their own within the orchestral arrangements I’ve combined them with. In this new version, I was positively captivated by the lonely, sentimental Mickey Mouse voices that warble over the quieter, chilled passages of Scooter tracks. I think I’ve substantially improved the music. Sadly, they’ll probably never ask me
to do a remix for them.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Holger Hiller lives and works in Berlin. There will be a Palais Schaumburg concert at HAU2, Berlin, 30 December, with the lineup from the group’s first 1981 album. Janine Jembere’s film _Oben im Eck – Holger Hiller_ (Up in the corner, 2011) is being screened at many film festivals.
First published in Issue 3