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Interview with Burkhard Beins

img  Tobias Fischer

Improvisation may be all about the moment. But at some point, a succession of seemingly isolated moments can turn into a story - or, as in the case of Berlin's underground scene for improvisation, even a fully-fledged history. Composer, performer, percussionist and sound sculptor Burkhard Beins experienced this history first hand and actively shaped it both as a solo artist and a member of various ensembles whose influence continues to be felt today. And yet, despite their somewhat legendary status, desperately few of the gigs in the early 1990s took place on a stage set for momentous events. Many of them were organised late at night in old, sometimes empty back houses and in front of small audiences. The music, too, was more sparse and quiet than ever before, solitary notes fading away into an agitated silence, breaths, clicks, pops, hiss and 'accidental' background noises moving to the fore. Whereas the outwardly similar Onkyo in Tokio was the result of strict laws against loud performances, 'Reductionism' was a conscious response to the antsy ping-pong interactions typical for the improv community of the era. Like many others around him, Beins never wanted to establish a school, a new set of rules or even a genre. What interested him was the uncovering of new expressive potentials by turning conventional wisdom upside down - and, to a degree, an approximation between the radical freedom these improvisation offered and their results, which often tended to feel composed and carefully mapped-out. Of course, by the time the term Reductionism had become widely used, it had already become obsolete for many of its pioneers, formerly attractive and revolutionary techniques having fossilised. And yet, the impetus of the early concepts would continue, evolve and expand in many fruitful collaborations such as experimental super group Perlonex as well as the solo careers of musicians like Axel Dörner, Andrea Neumann and Ignaz Schick. Beins's own path, meanwhile, took him into entirely new directions, new collaborations, new approaches.

In the formidable book Echzeitmusik, published by Wolke, as well as an accompanying 3CD compilation on the Mikroton label, he and many of his peers reflect on their intriguing time in Berlin, offering memories, analyses, interpretations and a map of the most important venues and artists. When Beins claims that "it will be the first substantial documentation of this underground experimental music scene in Berlin of the past two decades, its musicians, groups, venues and festivals remembered and described from various inside and outside perspectives", he isn't exaggerating. While flicking  through the 400 exciting pages of this tome, you're taken right back – to a time, when a series of seemingly insignificant moments created history.

In this interview with Burkhard Beins, we speak about the Echtzeit phase as well as some of the other milestones in his career, which continues well into the present.

Interestingly, you've singled out Pink Floyd's Ummagumma and Frank Zappa as important first influences.
One thing that especially appealed to me was their extensive use of the studio as an instrument. In the days when they started, for a more mainstream pop or rock music production, a successful application of studio technique usually meant that it shouldn’t be really noticeable anymore with regards to the results. These people, however, deliberately brought it to the foreground in manifold ways. Of course it’s something that later became one of the prog rock clichés, but nevertheless the music of the early Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa had been my cue for investigating more cutting edge music.

I was born in 1964 and the experimentalism and weirdness of psychedelic music and krautrock had as much an impact on me as the energy of punk. So it can come as no surprise that I was fond of those groups in particular which managed to build bridges between what were back then opponents, like This Heat, Zoviet:France or let’s say Tuxedomoon. It was all of this combined and more, for example the New York Downtown Scene of the early 1980’s, which made me start experimenting with tape loops, simple ways of multi-track recording, sound collages and found objects myself.

But then, in the early 1990’s, I left this kind of work pretty much behind in favour of playing live music with acoustic instruments. It nevertheless came back to my attention again a few years ago when I started working on my solo contribution to Berlin Drums and my solo CD Disco Prova, this time with laptop and sound software at hand. In my collective work of the past two decades those early influences were probably less apparent, but they might explain my preference for long term group work. The concept of a band as a working unit for collective creative processes is something I’m really after, and for me this idea clearly comes from the area of rock music.

Meeting Michael Renkel would eventually turn out to be a catalyst. What was your first encounter like? What did he add to your own work/ in which way did he complement your music that made him interesting as a collaborator?
Michael and I have been friends since the early 1980s. We had influenced each other quite a lot by recommending and playing all sorts of off-mainstream records to each other. At some point, we both participated in a few music sessions with various musicians which usually ended in a loose mixture of blues and punk and which were never entirely satisfying. I remember that at some point we both thought we should try something different without the others. This collaboration then became our duo Activity Center which exists until today.
With Michael, there is a certain general sense of rhythm and space we seem to have in common, how to arrange musical material in a course of time maybe. And the combination of guitar and percussion is an ideal one anyway. It already makes a full band due to the wide range of possibilities of both instruments - from percussive all the way to tonal elements. Also, both instruments provide lots of options for preparation - and abuse. A lot of times, our roles of being guitarist and/or percussionist become pretty much blurred and we therefore like to credit ourselves for playing 'guitar and percussion' or, respectively, 'percussion and strings'.

What was it about percussion instruments that eventually made them interesting as your main source – their physicality, the immediacy of producing sounds, the sounds themselves, a bit of all?
In many kinds of music, percussion stands for a selection of various instruments, and often percussionists are more or less deciding their individual set-ups themselves. In classical music, percussion has always been regarded as some sort of a weird factor and was by no surprise playing a major role in the 'liberation of sound' within 20th century’s contemporary music. This probably still makes percussion more easily accessible for someone who has initially started as a 'non-musician', at least not as a trained instrumentalist of any sorts.

In the Western culture area, there is not such a defined cultural baggage attached to it. And in the beginning it was actually mostly the clichés of 'free playing' I felt I had to work away from. But in general it turned out to be an instrument that is largely approachable as a wide field of possibilities. With a certain amount of experience you can control bowed cymbals, chimes and bells as well as drums treated with a variety of objects and materials up to a certain degree on a macro level while they always remain full of surprises within the micro details. If I decide, for instance, to bow a specific cymbal in a certain musical situation I’m generally pretty much aware of the range of possibilities I can move in. But there are still so many variable parameters involved that the actual result is at least in detail largely unforeseeable. It's not only about the pressure and tempo of bowing. With bowed cymbals certain overtones might or might not happen depending on the room acoustics and/or other frequencies in the room played by other musicians at the same time. This ratio between control and surprise, anticipation and discovery is what I’m actually after in a live music context.

You've described your circle of artistic friends in Berlin as "a handful of people working on similar subjects". What, other than silence, were these common fields of interests?
I was saying this about the late 1990s, I guess. A few years later, after the inevitable R-word was already invented, a lot of people tended to bring the whole thing down to simply playing as quiet as possible or the use of long silences. The spreading of this improper simplification and the fact that some musicians were beginning to adopt that as a new directive for their own playing were clear signs for me that it was turning into a cliché. Initially it was also a lot about finding a different pace, for instance. To us, a lot of improvised music seemed to be too much driven by a kind of 'horror vacui'. A fast and nervous pacing was always felt even when no sound was produced. We were deliberately trying to replace this by a very slow pace, which should also remain the basis of all playing even if very dense, loud or fast movements were decided to be played. Going back to silence was a good starting point, to place sounds consciously within the existing silence instead of continuously struggling with a sweeping stream of sound or sometimes just going on 'scribbling' until a new idea comes up. This was working well as an antidote, at least for a while.

In which way, did you feel, did different constellations of these few people result in constantly and sometimes completely different results?
I think in general each constellation gets its own character through the members of the group and develops its specific group aesthetic over the course of time. Also during this period (approx. from 1996 to 1999), we were forming groups with clearly distinguishable focal points. In Das Kreisen for instance (with Robin Hayward and Annette Krebs) I was playing a wooden suitcase on a keyboard stand with its lid open, bowing its wooden edges or playing all sorts of objects inside. Sometimes, I was suddenly conjuring up small sheets of red cardboard or plastic tubes which I began to wave stubbornly in the air, while Robin was sitting stock-still and highly concentrated behind the huge bell of his tuba, and Annette relentlessly investigated the details of hiss she could produce by bowing the contact-miked fretboard of her guitar. There was never a satisfying recording of this trio - probably not least because there was such a strong visual and performative side to it.

Annette and Robin were also in Roananax (with Axel Dörner and Andrea Neumann). Compared to Das Kreisen I remember this quartet as far more factual, while Rotophormen (Andrea’s duo with Annette) also had its own focus based on repeatable, checked-out sound modules and a characteristic juxtaposition of string sounds and electronic treatments. And although it already had previously existed for quite a while, Activity Center was touching similar grounds during this time. I remember for example that Michael was introducing the use of stop-watches to delay spontaneous decisions within the playing process. But altogether Activity Center never ceased to have its absurd and surreal moments. Our double-CD Möwen & Moos from 1999 might work as a representative document for what we were after with this duo in those days.

Furthermore I think that the aforementioned simplistic view also ignores the fact that for some people who were involved at the time it had been, as much as it was a dominating subject, not necessarily a totally exclusive musical engagement. Not only that Axel kept on playing deconstructed Monk tunes with Die Enttäuschung, it was also in 1998 when Ignaz Schick, who also collaborated with Andrea Neumann as Petit Pale at the time, founded Perlonex (with electric guitarist Jörg Maria Zeger and me), a group that doesn’t necessarily identified with being predominantly quiet or sparse.

Releasing one's first album is always an important event. How satisfied were you, at the time, with Nunc?
We had dissent in the group about "set z", which was probably the track from our recording sessions that was most distant from what I described earlier on as 'fast and nervous pacing'. Originally, this track was twice the length, staying in a similar area for another 5 minutes or so. I remember that Michael and me were arguing for putting the entire piece on the record, but we had to compromise in the end. So unfortunately only the first half appeared on the CD. Altogether Nunc documents a certain turning point for me.

Yarbles was actually recorded almost within close chronological proximity to Nunc. Do you feel as though these two projects are connected somehow or are they, to you, entirely unrelated?
I can recall that I was trying to see Nunc and Yarbles as two different possibilities I could probably pursue at the same time. Yarbles was the closest to something like free jazz I ever came on a record (if free jazz is the right word at all). With Martin Pfleiderer (sax player in both groups) I’ve sometimes also played even more overtly free-jazzy duos back then. But after I had moved to Berlin I gradually lost interest in this particular path and concentrated mostly on another direction at least some parts of Nunc were already pointing towards. In 1998 I found a different parallel platform for more loud and noisy activities with Perlonex. This time, jazz wasn't involved.

Was Yarbles, thanks to its inclusion into the Hathut catalogue, a breakthrough in a way?
It appeared in some of the major music stores and we even had a review in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, which is pretty rare for this kind of music. But I think we only got two or three invitations for concerts where organisers approached us because of the CD. It’s the same as with The Wire reviews, you can never really recognise a direct effect, neither with regards to concert opportunities nor sales, but somehow it helps that your name gets around. So I guess there must have been some positive outcome on a less obvious level.

Around 2000, you felt fed up with Berlin and gladly made use of the opportunity to move to Rome for two years, which proved to be a good place to re-orientate yourself. What were the results of those ponderings? In which way did you arrive at new conclusions about making music?
It was actually 2004-2006, when my partner at the time, a computer scientist, had a research grant at the La Sapienza University. We had temporarily sublet either her or my flat during that time but always kept one of them still to have an option for staying partly in Berlin as well. Also I wouldn’t say I was fed up with Berlin. It was more like being away over longer stretches of time, and not only for touring, was taking me out of my daily routines and thus made me more aware of the current developments going on in Berlin and how I relate to it. The number of new musicians and artists arriving from all over the world was beginning to increase even more at that time while musicians I was working with more closely began to follow a somewhat wider range of individual paths. It was also coinciding with my reawakened interest in electro-acoustic and multi-track solo activities.
Compared to Berlin, Rome has a much smaller experimental music scene. It was great to work with musicians like Fabrizio Spera, Luca Venitucci or Mike Cooper while being there, but it still left me with a lot of time for my solo work which I might not have found to the same extent otherwise.

The years around 2000 were highly influential in terms of kickstarting a lot of the group projects you would persue for the next few years. So would it be correct to say that this time set a kind of inner compass?
If you want to put it that way, some kind of inner compass had been probably set by going through that needle eye of so-called 'Reductionism', but probably to the same degree by starting to work with Perlonex. When we finally formed Phosphor in 2000, after the idea of a slightly bigger group had been around for a few years, it felt to me like 'Berlin Reductionism' was already over, although that term only had been coined very recently. It was good to form that group at this point, because it kept those musicians working together something that might not have been the case to the same extent since all those small working units of the late 1990s, which I have mentioned before, had ceased to exist (apart from Activity Center which existed before and after), and everyone became more busy with other projects, some of which were noticeable more international. In my case with The Sealed Knot (with Rhodri Davies and Mark Wastell) for instance.

How do you remember your encounter with Keith Rowe for Grain and then, later on, for an untitled album on erstwhile? Had you already been performing together as a duo before you first recorded together?
I first met Keith Rowe when I got invited to join a larger ensemble led by him to perform Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise at Kampnagel, Hamburg, in 1993. After this, we were performing for a few times together with other musicians. "Grain 3", the live track on Grain, was actually the first time we played together as a duo. It was an invitation to participate in an all day festival at Berlin’s Podewil. After the set, Ignaz Schick offered to put it out on Zarek, but since it was not even 30 minutes long we came up with the idea to record more. So when Keith came back to Berlin later the same year we set up a recording session.

The next duo concert we did after Grain was happening a few years later and it was the one that became the Erstwhile live-CD. As part of Erstwhile’s Berlin Amplify Festival we played in the tiny black box of Club der Polnischen Versager. Half of the room was already filled by us and Christoph Amann’s huge mixing board and recording equipment. There was quite some (not necessarily negative) tension in the room and it felt just right when Keith picked up a live broadcast on what was going on in Iraq while the music became more and more fierce.

You mentioned that probably by the time the term Berlin Reductionism caught on, you were already busy with other things. What were your main challenges towards the mid 00's? What were important releases and performances for you as an artist?
After some extensive touring with Perlonex during the first years of the 00s we started to occasionally work with Charlemagne Palestine, which meant confronting ourselves with a wild card. It’s great to work with him. Apart from the similarities we clearly have in our musical approaches, there is also quite some potential for creative friction and struggle.
During that time also The Sealed Knot went through some interesting changes. In 2004, when we recorded Unwanted Object, Mark had suddenly changed from cello to double bass and we temporarily decided for the quite rigorous concept to fully concentrate on the slight deviations in strict repetition, which was clearly distinct from everything we have done before.
Founding Trio Sowari was another interesting move. This trio is probably the group I’m in where we most clearly build on musical material that comes from the 'reductionist phase', even with a tendency towards formalising our individually achieved material to a certain extent, but at the same time always trying to keep the playing process flexible and to expand the boundaries of our already established territories. With our 2nd CD shortcut we made a step towards more clearly shaped short pieces. It almost became a 'concept album' (another aftermath of my early influences?).
And also joining Polwechsel has been a great challenge. To work on compositions and concepts by other group members in a kind of collective process. In the beginning John Butcher was still in the group and we worked with John Tilbury on some pieces which became the Hat Hut CD Field.
BBB (with Boris Baltschun and Serge Baghdassarians) and later SLW (with Toshimaru Nakamura, Lucio Capece and Rhodri Davies) became another two interesting groups, especially for exploring layered electronic and drone sounds. The former probably in a more austere, the latter in a rougher and noisier manner.

It was also the time when I started various solo projects. Over the years I was setting up and performing a 'concert installation' piece called POR. For this piece I’m attaching large boxes of polystyrene in different parts of the room (ceiling, columns, doorframes etc.) and long pieces of twine to it. Those are gathered and fixed in one spot with a certain tension to it. For the performance I’m standing between those strings, rubbing and scratching them, which produces different qualities of friction and hiss sounds coming from the resonating boxes. In 2007, I also developed a pure installational version of it called "Sekante", where 7 chip-controlled propellers play the strings and make the boxes resonate after certain on and off sequences individually programmed for each propeller.
And last but not least, I came back to working on solo pieces involving field recordings, recorded percussion material and electronic equipment, which has resulted in my piece for Berlin Drums and two solo CDs so far.
Meanwhile this has also led to a live-electro-acoustic set up I’m playing in certain groups now and also in occasional solo performances.

You once stated that "it’s the suspension of the composer-interpreter-audience division we are all working on to a certain degree, or the division of the temporal succession of composition-score-performance if you want". Why were and are these interesting points for you?
I just think that the fact that we are all predominantly composer-performers is one of the main characteristics of the scene. Regardless if one works solo or in groups, it’s our own music we compose and perform (not necessarily but often in the same moment). So, not conceiving music to be performed by others or making interpretations of music composed by someone else, but to go out there ourselves to do our own thing fundamentally informs and shapes the musical results. This is also why the aspect of sound research and the extension of the individual instrument plays such an important role, or maybe more precisely, why it’s possible in this way and to this extent at all.

Something that became more prominent in these years, too, was a medial differentiation between electronic and acoustic means. Without reverting to the theme of genre politics, does this division mean anything to you? I'm thinking in terms of both means allowing for different potentials of sound creation?
I recently read an interview with the aforementioned Tuxedomoon’s bass player Peter Principle where he stated that they "always tried to make acoustic instruments sound electronic and electronic instruments sound acoustic." This is an idea that very much appeals to me. I really enjoy playing acoustic percussion in electro-acoustic group contexts, trying to make my acoustic material sound electronic while other group members are probably trying to make their electronic equipment sound 'human'.
I think that both, acoustic and electronic instruments, often benefit from being juxtaposed, confronted or blended with each other. And their different potential often becomes even more apparent through the differences and deviations within the seemingly similar. A manual repetition and a loop have two different kinds of precision or irregularities, two objects manually rubbed at each other create a different quality of friction sound than electronically generated noise even if they appear to be pretty similar at first glance. This creates a certain tension which seems to be specific for those electro-acoustic hybrids. Of course this doesn’t mean pure electronic music or entirely acoustic groups don’t have their particular charm as well.

You'd mostly worked and enjoyed working as part of groups, so how do you operate as a solo musician?
When I play solo, I’m trying to create those electro-acoustic areas of conflict on my own. The setup I’m using at the moment has overhead mics over a table with acoustic sound sources like (e-bowed) zither or bowed chimes and small handheld electronic devices like a custom-made oscillator with little built-in speakers or clicking electric gas igniters. A bowed chime sound might become juxtaposed with a sinewave of close pitch, another pre-recorded tone of acoustic or electronic origin might be added via an edirol player. This whole situation might become electronically locked up and an e-bowed zither could be played on top of it, etc. Since this kind of circuit involves open microphones everything that is coming out of the speakers in the room is at least partially reentering the proceedings, very much dependent on the acoustic of the specific room.
It’s another field of possibilities to work in where I might have several elements more or less under control or aim for a certain goal, but where the result of the process is to a large extent emergent and unforeseeable. Again it’s all about balance between control and surprise, anticipation and discovery, scheme and event.

How would you describe the development leading from Disco Prova to Structural Drift?
Working on Disco Prova was very different to the live-electro-acoustic music I have just described. It was more of a step-by-step process. It has several mostly shorter pieces which are all centered around a particular idea or subject. Only a few of them are based on recordings of realtime playing processes which became layered with other elements or reconstructed in certain ways. Other tracks were entirely constructed on the computer from disparate sound sources.
Although there was a certain amount of post-production involved, Structural Drift, at least the first two long pieces out of the three, is far more built on basic tracks played in one go. This has to do with its history of origins. In 2009 I had a sound art residency in the remote moorlands of Worpswede, a village in Northern Germany. In parallel I was recording and working on Structural Drift and developing and practising my electro-acoustic set-up there. So this CD was kind of a first result of this new set-up, but with a fair amount of subsequent editing and treatment applied to it.

After 2007 the amount of releases in your discography has considerably increased. Is this a question of your projects reaching a moment of maturation or simply of opportunity?
This might have been true for the period 2007 to 2010. But the last couple of years the number of my releases has actually slowed down quite a bit again. People don't buy CDs so much anymore, probably because they download a lot of music now (and hopefully also go to concerts more often instead). As a result the prices for them went down and some labels gave up or at least put out less than they did. The ones still running okay seem to be besieged by an increased number of musicians keen to release their music on them. So it's not that easy anymore.
I think, and probably always had that feeling, that the CD is just a transition medium. In the end, binary data doesn’t necessarily need an object as a storage medium at all. So the current decline of the CD, not the amount of new releases but its status, doesn’t really come as a surprise.
At the same time there seems to be a resurrection of the vinyl record, which I personally really appreciate, because I always loved vinyl a lot. Earlier this year our Mensch Mensch Mensch LP came out on the British label alt.vinyl. It is the debut release of my electro-acoustic duo with Liz Allbee which is rather dealing with drone/noise or dark ambient than with improvised music, I would say. And there is another vinyl release in the pipeline, a new record by Polwechsel on God Records.
But of course, CDs are still not totally off the radar. The percussion quintet Glück will have it's first record out on Mikroton early next year as a CD, for example.

What are your current plans for your various projects?
All January and the first half of February 2015 I'll be travelling to Australia and Southeast Asia. First to Sydney for playing the Now Now festival. After that I will give workshops for music students in Singapore, Bangkok and Hanoi based on "Adapt/Oppose", which is a modular sign system I developed for organising certain aspects of group interaction while leaving other parameters to be decided by the players. Over the last years I have worked out several group versions based on this with different ensembles. A quartet version you can hear on the recent Polwechsel CD Traces of Wood, and parts of the new Glück CD will also be based on it. But I am also using "Adapt/Oppose" extensively in workshops.
I will also play concerts in all these cities and in Kuala Lumpur - solo and in collaborations, on percussion or live-electronics -, so it will be quite a variety of activities altogether. This long journey will end with a one week residency at Muong Studios outside of Hanoi where I have the honour and pleasure to work with their huge collection of Vietnamese gongs.

Burkhard Beins Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Ingo Scheffler

Homepage: Burkhard Beins