March 2013

Ralf Wehowsky

By Piotr Tkacz

This interview occurred on the 8th of December 2012, before the show in Warsaw held to celebrate the release of the P16.D4 retrospective box “Passagen” on Monotype Records. It was a special event considering Ralf Wehowsky hadn’t performed live in 17 years, and this interview is one of the few in-person interviews ever done with Wehowsky.

Piotr Tkacz: Because of the context we are talking in I’d first like to ask what performing live means to you, how important it is?

Ralf Wehowsky: Playing live was important in the first years when I started making music with the group. We had about ten concerts every year for few years. At this time we still had regular instruments. Then pieces were constructed on tape and it was difficult to realize something like this on stage. There was a period when we combined pre-recorded tapes, live improvisation and visual elements, only two guys were taking care of that – there were films, photos, scenography, something like an electronic version of Theatralische Musik

So it was like a happening also?

Do you know Mauricio Kagel films? There you have musicians doing some actions, performing. Some of the pieces we did later with the group were like an electronic version of that, we developed those ideas in another direction. All those live appearances were group works, only possible because of the group of people. When the group ended its existence I only did very few concerts by playing pieces which were already recorded. So the only live element was to adjust it for room acoustics, but I wasn’t very satisfied with it, because people need this visual aspect. The other possibility is to close your eyes and just listen – like in this acousmatic model with the orchestra of loudspeakers. That was maybe one of the reasons why I stopped playing live in the early ’90s. Apart from some occasions like birthdays, when there were meetings with other members of the group and we performed some text pieces, reciting poems, Dadaistic Dada- or Fluxus- inspired kind of action.

My artistic practice runs on two levels: compositional, which I do completely on the computer and improvisational – by myself or with other people, like Johannes Frisch who lives nearby and we have met regularly for ten years to play. For this special occasion here in Warsaw we prepared a mixture of pre-fixed structures dealing a little bit with Polish-German relations. On our first ever release, in 1980, we had this old piece “Besuch im Einkaufszentrum” with the sounds from a shopping mall in Germany and now I’ve asked guys from Monotype to do some recordings in Warsaw, so both will be combined together.

I’m interested in how you approach technology or how you see the relation between technology and creating music? For example there is a quote from Edgard Varèse who was saying that he has this music in mind but he can’t create it because there are no machines which would make it possible and they need to be invented. Have you had similar thoughts maybe – that there is something lacking in technology, that it might be stopping you?

Well, of course I’m from another generation [laughs] than he was. One big difference is that for me it was normal to have music around, not to go to a concert to listen to it, but on records, radio. That was certain technology which was available and it had its positive but also negative sides. I mean, records go from start to finish and I sometimes thought listening “oh, it could stop here and those five minutes could be left out and those two seconds are so great that they could be repeated ten times” and such things.

I remember a comic book with a story about a boy who brings new record and plays it to his grandfather and he says “I’ve heard something like this”. The boy responds “No, it can’t be, it’s a brand new record, it’s completely new sound” and the grandfather says “I remember when two trains collided and both had cattle-trucks with pigs and they squeaked – that was this sound.” I thought it’d be nice to hear something like this but all my beat or rock records never sounded like this, they weren’t as good as that grandfather said [laughs]. I was wondering why they don’t have more sounds like that – and that was before I ever heard musique concrete. I felt it had to be possible to make recordings of those kinds of sounds, to make records with them and to organize those sounds. Now we come back to Varèse who once said that music is organized sound.

When I started experimenting with tapes I had something like this in mind: that you can organize sounds of instruments but also “found sounds”. So it wasn’t that I needed some machines to realize precise ideas. It was more that it could be fascinating to create records which go in certain direction and work with sounds in the way they hadn’t been organized before.

It’s not absolutely necessary to have completely new sounds but to compose them in a never heard way or to confront sounds which have their meaning. I find this interesting, like the idea of “cinema for the ear” but on the other hand I appreciate more abstract concepts of construction. Not really the idea in itself, because if it’d be so great you wouldn’t need to realize it, but to start with something abstract and then find out how it sounds like. It’s important, okay, if it’s worth listening to.

In one interview you said you regard music as a way of confronting reality – could you say more about it?

This has to do with the situation of someone who doesn’t work in a professional studio, with expensive equipment, but with technology that is widely available. I always found it more interesting to work with sounds which are around me. Sounds from the house, I don’t work in a factory so those industrial sounds don’t surround me [laughs]. Some people concentrate on those sounds which for me is a direction backwards because we live in a post-industrial age and they aren’t so important anymore. So, the idea of playing with sounds that are known and doing something new is one aspect. The other is that music should have to do with one’s own life. For me it’s not something separated like: once a month I go to the opera and the rest is normal life, I prefer to confront and combine it with the elements of daily life.

I was wondering if this confrontation would also be connected with faith or hope that music, or art in general, could change something on the social, political level? Do you feel any affinity with such ideas?

I find them sympathetic and there were periods in art when many people believed in this. The results are often quite fascinating – for example compositions by Luigi Nono. In the early days of rock and pop music many people thought it would lead to a change of social life, but I’m skeptical about it. I think music and art loses its own value when being used as a mere tool. It can be used, and that includes using it to make people buy more products but also for curing. But there is a very thin line between using it for a good reason and manipulating. I think there are obvious ways for using music for certain goals which degrade it to being just an instrument.

But there is still some hope, when music is more abstract and it can’t be easily identified with one particular direction, it makes people think about themselves and their relation to art, to life.

Maybe the problem with realizing this potential is not only in the content but also in the form of presentation. One could argue that some forms of concerts are conservative, for example.

I don’t know the perfect way, but if a presentation, be it of a fixed release or a concert, would question those forms – that would be a good thing.

You criticize what could be called functional music, but aren’t you sometimes attracted to a style or a formula of music-making which could be used to create something new?

Well, I have been doing that, solo or in a group, but not in a very obvious way. Because I feel there are bands which do more or less normal music and they change very few elements so there is, let say, an ornamental disorientation.

At the concert we’ll present a piece which uses a lot of rhythmic patterns coming from dance music. But it’s ambivalent for me, I have an interest in this music, some reflections about it, but I feel ambiguous about it, there could be also a little antipathy. I take some elements of music but to make something very different. It’s like with folk music being used by classical composers.

You have a long history of questioning the notion of the authorship in music through various collaborations. Do you think that what some DJs are doing, when creatively using someone’s other music, remixing, editing it is somehow related to your ideas?

What a DJ does, mixing someone’s records, for sure can be something of his own. But still, it wouldn’t be possible if those records weren’t created in the first place.

The other, more general, question is how much of its own identity any composition has. Because it’s almost impossible to do something completely new…

Without influences.

Yes, we all have them in our mind and we work with them in various ways. So if someone says that this piece is not new – of course, it can’t be completely new! The idea of authorship might be not so important as it was 20 years ago because nowadays there are a lot of DJs and people who deal with mixing music. But I have an impression there aren’t many people now who claim to be an absolute original, genius, the only one who could create something.

As for the influences, when you revisit your old music do you have thoughts like “oh, it was so obvious, I was under the influence of that and that and I hadn’t seen it”?

Becoming older I start to be more calm and tolerant even to myself [laughs], my earlier self. Listening to my old recordings I mostly think “it could have been than better”. There are pieces from the period when we still played instruments and listening to them I could spot some influences and say “the drummer has just listened to PIL” or “one of us have just heard the first Dome record” or such. It’s more about some elements than whole pieces.

Generally, do you often get inspiration from listening to someone else’s music?

I have to say I still listen to a lot of new music, there are packages coming every few days. Sometimes when I’m starting to work on a new composition it might happen that I draw inspiration from the music I’ve been listening to recently. For example I’ve heard a solo CD by a saxophone player Christine Sehnaoui and certain things impressed me. So I started to think how could I use a balloon to do something in that direction and recorded some sounds. The next step is not to go back to the record which impressed me to check if it sounds similar, but to listen to my own sound recordings. To know, to find out if they have the potential to develop something from them, if they are good, if they are of any use. I think permanent listening is not only consumption but also stimulation. ■

Photo Credits

Ralf Wehowsky and Johannes Frisch, Warsaw 2012 (photo: Piotr Mirski).

About the Author

Piotr Tkacz (born 1985 in Poznan, Poland) – journalist, improviser, DJ, organizer.