“Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.” (Anna Kavan)
In 1956, during research on music in protohistoric settlement areas, a historian by the name of Mechthild von Leusch came across a collection of ancient documents which she was able to identify as possible scores from the submerged pagan village of Rungholt – the Rungholter Tänze. Convinced by its cultural significance, she decided to reconstruct the found manuscripts and ultimately transcribe them into a modern musical notation – not knowing if they ever could be realised, let alone on which instrument. As believed, it wasn’t until the early sixties – whilst studying under Oskar Sala – when she was first introduced to the idea of playing these scores through means of electronic equipment. In those early stages of electronic music – the Moog synthesizer was just about to be invented – composers were more or less operating in the dark, experimenting with rather primitive equipment they knew little about, so each step was a small discovery. Von Leusch ultimately managed to realise all 28 Rungholt dances, yet her achievements were given little attention outside academic circles. When she died in 1989, they were about to slip through the cracks like it happened to a number of women composers that were neglected in the reception of early electronic music.
This is more or less the story that came to light when her work was first made public a couple years later by Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien – a small German record label founded by someone called Uli Rehberg, also known under various aliases such as Ditterich von Euler-Donnersperg, Dr. Kurt Euler or Werkmeister.
Rehberg is somewhat of an eccentric character. For years, he ran the (now defunct and legendary) underground record shop Unterm Durchschnitt in Hamburg, which was not only stuffed with obscure records and strange GDR memorabilia (see the name of his label), but was also an crucial gathering place for a local scene of left-field artists like Felix Kubin or Asmus Tietchens. Through his label he became a key-figure in the emerging industrial and experimental music scene by releasing early recordings of SPK, Laibach, Throbbing Gristle and other passionate attempts at cultural deprogramming; in addition he organized first shows of Whitehouse and Nocturnal Emissions on German ground. Rehberg’s work as an artist, however, is not that easy to categorize – over the years he produced an opaque body of work, mixing sound, poetry and political satire. His craft and specifically his music are characterized by the nihilist attitude of late 70s industrial, the spirit of Dada, northern German myths and marine tales, GDR nostalgia, the rhythmic electronics of Cluster and the narcoleptic calm of composers like Eliane Radigue or La Monte Young (“The Volga Delta”). He says that his art should be “tedious and demanding”, yet there’s an element of absurd humor pervading most of it when he writes hilariously twisted and basically untranslatable lyric; postulates to:”Start the day with dying!”; has released joyous socialist propaganda songs under Liedertafel Margot Honecker or is supposed to have played Bitches Brew in its entirety during DJ sets.
Make of that what you will. It’s the ambivalence of things, indulging in irony, finding things ridiculous and nonsensical, yet treating all of it with equal seriousness and rigor. Rehberg’s ways of working can therefore appear confusing and mysterious.
In 1990, he committed himself to curate the musical heritage of previously unknown historian Mechthild von Leusch. As the self-proclaimed ‘Werkmeister’, he published all of her compositions, more specifically adaptations, along with the aforementioned life story and an odd image of an elderly woman, seemingly asleep – or already dead. Which prompts the question of what images can really offer within the (re)construction of a past life. If one regards music as a medium of memory then you need signs or subjects to address these past echoes. Here, Rehberg makes use of the dual nature of photography, by betting on its core aspect, the seemingly genuine story that’s inherent in it. On the other hand he interweaves her biography with all sorts of historical events and people that factually existed – for example, the composer Oskar Sala – to suggest some kind of authenticity. When reading the full story in the booklet, you can’t help but smile a few times at its almost ludicrous attention to detail and, in general, the sheer audacity to come up with such words.
I’m not sure if it was my frail condition at the time or discovering Rungholter Tänze that was causing my strange dreams later on that same day. I remember waking suddenly in the deep dark hours of the night. While an ephemeral image of the elderly women still in front of my inner eye, a ghostly, synthetic choir, reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s choral work, comes up, creeping and reverberating around, sounding as airy as it is claustrophobic. Spoken word passages in some foreign language – maybe ancient Frisian? – are heard, perhaps the same tongue in which the inhabitants of Rungholt had once communicated. The actual electronic adaptations come across as metallic, cold waltzes, mirroring themselves in whatever hall the music has opened up, crystallizing into a brief sharpness, before disappearing again after three or four minutes. There’s a ritual solemnity about these stark rhythms, evoking the secretive netherworld of submerged Rungholt that Mechthild von Leusch – in some parallel world – had intended. Seemingly moving in a continuous flow, calm and horrifying, both in high speed and slow motion – just like my bizarre looping thoughts that night.
I’m not gonna lie, these electronic miniatures, as mysterious and original as they seem, sound awfully close to some material Asmus Tietchens was producing a decade earlier. It’s probably not an insignificant fact that they’ve been comrades for a long time. Whatever the case: the creation of Rungholter Tänze remains an arresting dreamlike amalgam of sound and storytelling, or as cult-blogspot Mutant Sounds once cryptically described it as “one of the most psychologically deleterious hallucinogen fodder ever fabricated.”