The sowers’ return

Martyn Young of Colourbox once said – “… Things became very abstract. Records that would have been seen as very avant-garde in the mid-Eighties, are now regularly heard in the Top 10.”

A statement reflecting both – the triumph and the downfall, the hype of “anything goes”, as if by any means or channels unusual and formless. These days, “installation art” and/or “conceptual art” happens to take over even more mercilessly than before, making it hard to detect interesting from dull, ingenious from redundant. But then again, there are always honourable exceptions. There always will be – whether in sound, image, form or printed word.

Ever since their early beginnings, Bernd Kastner and Siegfried M. Syniuga, created some of the most challenging and fascinating music – which by its own definition belongs to a fairly isolated world where artistic integrity remains intact from any outside influence – whether “commercial” or “non-commercial”. And of course, in their case, it isn’t just about music – Kastner and Syniuga’s work is one of a true manifesto, underlined with obscure history facts and social references. Whether freeform or organised sound, they add their magic touch to turn the distrubing into something of a mesmerising beauty. The element of confusion is a powerful weapon when you know how to use it. And when you know how to use it, the experimental world is entirely at your feet. In all of its sensuality. Starting out as EKG (documented on one of those very early 80s experimental LPs, the triple v/a sampler “Massa”, released through the Klar! 80 label), Kastner and Syniuga then formed Strafe für Rebellion and established themselves as the explorers of the obscure sound that is just as celebratory – not to mention the emotional impact mixed with brutality, like on their avant-funk invoked s/t debut album (“Portuguese People” in particular being one such moment, where pastoral beauty faces merciless hegemony, a wake-up call message with a killer chorus – “When those countries who plead for humanity – most are those countries which commit the worst crimes themselves”). From this debut, they continually evolved and developed a style that veered more towards the field music compartment with equally stunning results – “Öchsle – Bad People Have No Songs” and “Lufthunger” are among the conceptual masterpieces of the genre.

The eclectic beast of Strafe für Rebellion’s output is the exquisite ear for composition with the even more exquisite will to help building listeners’ imagination – what you hear in their music isn’t necessarily what you think it might be… by carrying out information about the sounds’ whereabouts as full-detail as possible, the picture may be to some extent revealed but at the same time, its mystery remains unsolved. I remember hearing their music for the first time around 1993, on a private edition compilation cassette called “Der Frühling”, made by Tomislav Burić (he was once fronting a group, called Raped Miss Mountain) – Tomislav did this cassette for a friend of his, inspired by the Egyptian Book of the dead. Along with the likes of Vasilisk, PTV, TG, Coil, Zone, Psychick Warriors Of Gaia, Somewhere In Europe, Sixth Comm, Nurse With Wound, TAGC and Mother Tongue, there he included a piece called “Airportfrogs”, by Strafe für Rebellion (the name itself abstract enough in Tomislav’s own expressive handwriting that I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce). What sounded like a merciless electric guitar noise fest (or chainsaw at its second closest), turned out to be the sound of the screaking door… Combining it with a field recording of the very frogs gathered near the Düsseldorf airport (hence the title of the piece), crossing over into this gorgeous melancholy of the piano part played by Makiko Tsuchya, then slowly fading away in sheer mystery. The piece stayed a particular favourite and couple of years later I managed to get hold of a compilation “Vögel”, containing selected official and previously unreleased music by the duo that only broadened the fascinating picture of the duo’s music world. Especially the ready-made songs that add to the experimental perversity but are in fact ingenious cover-versions – “Abendhimmel” (Leonard Cohen’s “The Sisters Of Mercy”), or “Long March” (“Walking After Midnight”) and “Love Bees” (“Crazy”), both delivered smoothly by Moyra Kirstin Boyd after Patsy Kline’s popular standards.

It turned out, by 1993 Strafe für Rebellion had built an extensive catalogue of releases – weird and beautiful in its honesty, in their world everything is “organic” – whether metal or plastic to name a few. The simple fact; Strafe für Rebellion’s music cannot be categorised, which makes it both – an astonishing achievement just as it is a frustration. In their thirty-something years span, Kastner and Syniuga remain dedicated academics, noble in their music mission and non-descript in terms of genre capture. To much pleasant shock of a surprise, in 2014, after their considerable absence from the avantgarde’s eye, Strafe appeared with their brand new album on Vienna’s experimental music label Klanggalerie – called “Sulphur Spring”. It showcases a new chapter in their fascinating catalogue and for the occasion, Mr. Bernd Kastner agreed to give us some answers.

SD: What is the meaning of “Strafe für Rebellion” – who is punished and who rebels against who? BK: There is the myth of Prometheus. He was a Titan not a god. He has taught the humans and told them how to use fire: Prometheus was punished by the gods for having done this. The eagle Ethon was eating from his liver every day but at night the liver was renewed and grew again. This could be an explanation what ´Strafe für Rebellion´means. But the real meaning is to be found in the gorges inbetween the letters.

SD: German underground culture has a truly rich history – Düsseldorf particularly standing out in this context. Your beginnings are linked with the explosion of Punk. Which music revolution was the most inspiring to you?  BK: Musically, we are interested in all epochs, in any style from all over in the world. There were the first Dada recordings from Raul Hausmann or the futurist approach of Luigi Russolo with his Intonanumori (Soundmachines) and his Rumoramonio (Special instrument). Francesco Balilla was interesting at the beginning of the 20th century.
In Russia, Alexander Mossolow composed “The Iron Foundry”. There were many other musicians who dared to tempt old established music patterns. The French music concrete based on those experiments. Of course, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry is to mention. We like the Italian Luigi Nono and his ´Fabrica Illuminata´. In America, Harry Partch was important, so was John Cage and Morton Feldmann.
We listen to Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany (Gesang der Jünglinge) and in Italy Giacomo Scelsi is important. The Strafe roots were also nourished by Steve Reich, Phil Glass. A more resent musician is Gloria Coates from the USA. From France, Gerard Grisey and Pascal Dusapin. In the late 1960s, there were MC5 and the early Stooges… in the 1970s, bands like Henry Cow or Pere Ubu, This Heat…
We listen to music from other parts of the world a lot, from different ethnics. There is the beautiful sound of Sardinia and Corsica. From India comes Bidur Malik & sons. The hypnotic court gamelan from Java (the Pura Paku)… The last but not least – the very inspiring series of records from the Museum National d´Histoire Naturelle (CNRS in Paris) must be lifted out. Especially the instruments of De Musique du Monde and Les Voix du Monde. We are fond of Ethiopian music and of music from Madagascar. In the European renaissance there is Johannes Ockegham. Again in Spain, in the 13th century, all the songs for King Alphonso X. (Mozzarabic music). Later: Antonio de Cabezon (Mexico) and in the 16th century: Antonio Morales (Spain)… Yes, there are many others…

SD: You started first as a group called EKG. Some of the music from that period was made available on the v/a boxset compilation called “Massa”. There is a similar pattern in these earlier pieces, which seemed to have informed your  later work as Strafe F. R. BK: EKG was more of a conservatively structured band with a guitar, a bass, vocals, drums – and the MS20 was played! Of course, there were special noises to be heard. Strafe F. R., in contrast to this, was a concept project right from the beginning.

SD: In an early 90s interview by Brian Duguid, you mention you like to torment and harass your instruments. In this context can “violence” be accepted as “emotion” – or a “feeling”? BK: We are not so much interested in the musician who is attending to his violin too much, fixing the strings in a craftsman way – this is not our way. You can be sure that a traditional concert-musician takes care of his instrument in a very different way than we do. But we do not harass or torment our own music instruments just for fun – this is a misunderstanding! We are searching for sound and constantly explore methods how to worm secrets out of the well-known classic music instruments. Well, by doing so it can happen, that an instrument is damaged or impaired or even breakes completely.  There is no predelection for a certain instrument. Any instrument (also a handmade one) deserves the purpose to evoke sound. If this sound is not according to our imagination, we might alter or even destroy the instrument in order to sound more strange, unheard, irritating, in order to make it scream.
However we will never destroy an instrument frolicsome because it is a rollicking gesture (like The Who did in “My generation”)… This kind of show affectation is boring. We dislike this! We are not interested in the violent act, but the sound is more important than a piano string or the valuable wood of an instrument.

SD: Besides music, you are also active with sculpture work. Is there a connection between these two worlds? Your music always had this aura of an exhibit piece… Can sound be viewed as “physical” – an “object”? BK: When we prepare a performance, it can be neccessary to create a stage scene which often is only constructed for this peculiar event. A stage scene can consist of several sculpture-like objects, but usually it is more of a room-installation which has nothing to do with our personal art that we produce separately from each other. Years ago, we made a performance in Boston/USA at the ICA. The main subject was the “Morgenthau Plan”. None of all those Harvard students from the nearby university had ever heard anything about those ideas from 1945. The concept was to change Germany into a purely agricultural country. During the performance the two of us were dressed in gardening – uniforms. The students didn´t have a clue.

SD: For years, Strafe Für Rebellion have resisted the temptations of the Internet. Recently, you decided to step out of the shadows and started your own, official webpage – providing the public with a proper review of your past and present work, which for many years remained obscure. In your opinion, is Internet a benefit or just a necessary evil? Do you feel compromised by this decision to obey the Internet giant? BK: The internet is neither a world-wide evil, nor is it the promissed paradise. It is a giant and a dwarf at the same time. Google is the giant. The net is a complicated arrangement with many facets. The net can bring utility to us, the stock- exchange speculator also uses it, he has very different criteria. For many years, we made all our recordings with analog equipment. But we are no luddites! We have nothing against downloads, it’s just another form of presenting music. However we do not need to have a kindle, as we both appreciate printed books and vinyl records.

SD: In an era of information overload, experimental music also became more accessible and in that way – somewhat predictable. In similar ways, you once expressed a certain point of view regarding electronics – on the sleeve of “A Soundless Message of Death” you even state “Brennt die elektronischen Musikmaschinen – Burn the Electronic Music Machines”. But, isn’t this a contradiction – the overall impossibility to live and create without electronics? BK: We create all sounds by ourselves, but we have nothing against electronic recordings. If the sound is originally recorded by us, it can also be electronically changed. Our CD “Sulphur Spring” was not recorded by a windmill or by a bicycle dynamo. In the 1980s, we wrote an article in the major german music magazine SPEX. The title was: “Brennt die electronischen Musikmaschinen”.  This article is again a contradiction to the Zeitgeist of that time. It was a provocation and we were also amused about the immature electronic technology of that time. A music listener of today can only endure most of the recordings from the early 80s, if he gives them the brand of “hyper-retro”.

SD: Did Strafe Für Rebellion ever use an electronic device on any of their albums? BK: Musically, we are hunters and collecters. We do not buy our sound at Yamaha or at Aldi. We do not go to Kaufland looking for selected drum rhythm-machines.

SD: Your new album “Sulphur Spring” speaks of the everlasting problem of food and natural resources exploitation. BK: Globalization is existing since the Neolitic age. Within the near future, there will be a new wave of it. “Sulphur Spring” deals with the subject of globalization in the 18th century. In former times there were forms of globalization mostly influenced by the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese… We are no prophets, we also do not know the new Maya calendar. But in 50 years time, Mr. Zuckerberg will also be pensioning.

SD: Musically it relies more on improvisation, which – albeit present – wasn’t dominant in previous work. On some of it you also dedicatedly carried out the information about the sound source. Despite the improvisation factor, how close is your creative process to the “organised sound” principle? BK: To improvise does not mean to have no plan. To improvise in music does not mean it is equate with accidental or random. When we have a new project, we are conscious and deliberate. We have working plans! For more than 30 years, we are systematically recording a sound archive, which is orderly. When we decide on a certain theme, we start recording sounds referring to this. Sometimes this can last for years.
For “Sulphur Spring” we also planned a certain instrumentation. The heavy breath of the organ. The large church room that we were allowed to use for several months was fascinating and the atmosphere was inspirering to us. But this had nothing to do with the sacredness of the church. A church is a building and it is architecture. We are interested in architecture and we value each building by its architecture.  Our female singer is a Buddhist. She had real problems to get along with the reality of the Lutheran church. The church was tempting her. For her, singing in this church was like disputing and argumenting. This kind of controversy automatically changed the music. It was almost inevitable that action demanded reaction. Those reactions could have been wild, also ironical referring to the reaction of the counter reaction. It was like a ping-pong match.
A free-jazz like music style was developed, without beeing free-jazz. The big organ or the trumpet were the go-between and the mediator. The atmosphere of this christian church sometimes created an animosity that the singer had to get along with. It happened several times that we reacted musically implacable. And she did the same. If you are disturbed by an alien atmosphere because religion is a pain in the neck, this can make you insecure. The recordings in the church were a challenge for us. This had a lot to do with those contradictions that we mentioned before when talking about Strafe F. R. Technically, the recording situation in the church was also rather difficult. Most parts of “Sulphur Spring” were recorded live. Live recordings are always peculiar and imponderable.
We own this italian book. That inspired us to do “Sulphur Spring”. It was published in The 18th century in Venice. Right from the beginning it was clear, only Caterina De Re could be the singer. She was born in Australia, but her family ancestors came from a place near Venice. She speaks both English and Italian language.

SD: Strafe F. R. show extreme interest in the socio-political and the evironmental issues – natural disasters, animals, hegemony, human conflict, and of course – religion and esotericism… Newer albums have a more explicit conceptual side; especially “Der Säemann”, “Lufthunger” and “Öchsle”… “Sulphur Spring” is the closest to these. What are your views of the world, especially the one we live in now? Which one of your records do you consider politically the strongest, especially on a personal level – which record reflects you the most?  BK: When the CD “Öchsle” was released, it somehow had two titles. The second title – “Bad people have no songs”, was an ironic comment. But we only use the main title which is “Öchsle”. Translated into English, Öchsle means “little oxen” –  but it also means something else.
There was Mr. Ferdinand Oechsle, he lived in southern Germany and he invented a small object (called refractormeter) to measure the must weight of wine. This is the natural sweetness of wine. This method is only used in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg. There are different measurements in France and again, different ones in England.
“Lufthunger” is a clinical picture and it also means “Hunger For Air”.
When you are working on a subject for more than 30 years, it is obvious that at certain time situations are mirrored. It is a quarrel with the particular Zeitgeist. It  just happened that Lufthunger was recorded during the time, when the first Gulf-war started. This was not the reason why we released this CD and it particularly had nothing to do with this war. Zeitgeist can push you into a trap.

Strafe für Rebellion’s “Sulphur Spring” is now available from Klanggalerie via http://www.klanggalerie.com

For archived work please visit http://www.strafefr.de

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