Blixa Bargeld (photo by Thomas Rabsch)
Blixa Bargeld has a formidable musical pedigree. As founding vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist of Einstürzende Neubauten, he helped invent industrial music, complementing the debased tape loop samples and bleak spoken word maneuvers of contemporaries Throbbing Gristle with a form of music that took "heavy metal" to its logical extreme, incorporating literal industrial tools like jackhammers and junkyard scrap. He was also the original guitarist of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, an equally notorious band working in more of a post-punk/no wave rock idiom.
Blixa lived in Beijing during the particularly vital pre-Olympic years, when all kinds of musical undercurrents were coalescing into what is now a fairly well defined, if insular and rhizomatic, experimental music scene. In that time he frequently attended Yan Jun's weekly Waterland Kwanyin experimental music series at 2Kolegas and worked with several Beijing musicians then just starting to make a name for themselves (Zhang Shouwang's White and White+ projects both recorded in Blixa's Berlin studio; read more here).
Blixa is currently in town to put on Execution of Precious Memories, a performance series he initiated in 1994 that re-contextualizes locally-sourced memories into musical, spoken word, dance, and theater arrangements. After launching the project in Berlin, he has subsequently staged it in Argentina, Cameroon, Sweden, Poland, Japan, and elsewhere. Now that he's back in Beijing, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his previous time here and how he's seen the city's musical landscape change over time. So earlier this week I went to Dangdai MOMA to check out a rehearsal. In the end, I only had about seven minutes during a break to ask him about this particular performance, on which he is currently laser focused.
You can catch it tonight and tomorrow at the Chaoyang Cultural Center, where Blixa will direct eight local actors and an improv pit orchestra including Yan Jun, Li Qing, and Li Jianhong.
SmartBeijing.com: So you've been doing this for quite a while. Since 1994, correct?
Blixa Bargeld: I believe so, yeah.
SmBj: And you started it in Berlin?
BB: The first one was in Berlin. The first one was with a Polish composer called Zbigniew Karkowski, I believe he lives in Japan right now. You know him?
SmBj: Yes I've seen him perform here in Beijing.
BB: Ok, yeah. The first two I did together with Zbigniew. Zbigniew had a commission to do something for a literature festival, and he didn't have any text, so he needed someone who could provide him with text. So that's how this whole thing started, I provided him with basically a libretto for the first two performances. And then I started doing this without Zbigniew.
SmBj: How did you first come up with this concept to collect memories and re-contextualize them?
BB: That was basically a kitchen table discussion with Zbigniew, and somehow the word "memory" was uttered by somebody. And because at that particuar time I basically had some loose interest about how memory works, how consciousness works, the mechanisms of self-narration that make memory. And, at the same time, I was working a lot with forms and questionnaires, that was something that I did at that time. So these two things combined together ended up being a questionnaire, a form to generate text that deals with precious memories.
SmBj: After the first performance in Berlin did you perform with Zbigniew in Japan as well?
BB: Yeah. In Tokyo and in Osaka, with three traditional and five noise musicians. [Laughs.] I remember Masonna was there, and those two guys from [Violent] Onsen Geisha, they were part of it. They were all invited by Zbigniew. There was Dror Feiler, he plays saxophone and bass clarinet, a really great composer. He was there. And, forgive me, but this was 1995, I don't have all the musicians on hand. Merzbow… no, Merzbow was not there. Basically we had better musicians in Osaka because the noise scene is much bigger in Osaka. And then I spoke the text in Japanese, and I had a Japanese actress. So it was a duo on stage. I did perform in the first couple of those performances, also continuing from there to Buenos Aires, and from there to I believe Yaoundé, Cameroon. I did speak the text in the first couple of performances. That meant I had a language coach for Spanish and a language coach for Japanese to learn pronunciation. But increasingly, I took myself out of it. In Poland I was still performing a bit of the music, composed a bit of the music, but I was unable to learn any Polish. I ended up saying one sentence or so. I really could not say anything. Swedish and Polish were the most difficult. I think I would even do better in Chinese than in Polish.
SmBj: In these other locations — for example, Buenos Aires and Cameroon, and you've also performed this in New Delhi — do you also collaborate with local musicians?
BB: Yes, I collaborate. The only one that was completely just a spoken word performance was Buenos Aires. There were local musicians, but they were only employed as speakers. I didn't do anything with sound or music in the Buenos Aires performance. I think I only played stones for about five minutes in the performance, because one of the memories stated that the most memorable sound that they know is the sound of the particular stones in the parkways of Buenos Aires. So I got a basin full of those stones and played with the stones. But there was no music involved in that particular performance.
Yaoundé, Cameroon I had two local musicians and two local television actors, which were fantastic. One of them was the official mascot of the national soccer team of Cameroon, who always had to dance in a lion costume on the side of the field. [Laughs.] He was a fabulous actor. After Cameroon, Kraków I had Polish musicians, yes. In San Francisco I had Nanos Operetta, which is a whole little orchestra. There are violin, cello, accordion, vibraphone, marimba, singing saw, very nice compositions. And I had Carla Kihlstedt and her husband, she's from Tin Hat Trio, she's a local West Coast musician but she lives somewhere else in the US now. A fantastic violin player and a great speaker, they were speakers. And I actually composed songs out of some of the memories. I wanted to do that here, with [Zhang Shouwang] from Carsick Cars, I wanted to give him some of the memories and I wanted him to compose songs out of them, but then he suddenly decided that he has to go and play at South by Southwest in Texas, so he's not here. That's how Yan Jun, my old friend Yan Jun got into this. My original concert was a little bit different, music-wise.
Blixa performs with the Nanos Operetta
SmBj: It was more song-based?
BB: Yeah, and I wanted to do that particular step of taking some of these memories and some of these texts and actually turning them into singable songs, and I thought that [Shouwang] might be able to do that. In San Francisco, in English, I could do that, but I don't think I would be able to do the same in Chinese.
SmBj: Considering you've had some experience in Beijing before, what actually brought this performance here this time?
BB: I was living here until shortly before the Olympic games, which also means there's a lot of change. I was here before the Olympic games, and it was actually a great time in Beijing. I really, really, sincerely loved it. I still love Beijing, but you know, the speed of change in this country and in this city is enormous. It was quite difficult before the Olympic games. That's where I know most of these people from, most of these musicians. I started working on that while I was living in Beijing. We already started the questionnaires, already had some of them back. But due to lots of… muddling in different institutions, it never happened. I think they were probably aiming for something too big, because they wanted to do a de-centralized version that is not just happening in Beijing, but they wanted to do something like Beijing, Nanjing, covering five or six cities, et cetera, and in the end it all fell completely flat. Instead of five or six cities, nothing happened. And then I left Beijing and the whole thing was dormant. It was only after I came here last year and I started talking to the Goethe Institute again. And it happened that the person that is responsible for the Goethe Institute now already knew that project and is happy to put it on in Beijing. He was pretty new in Beijing at that point and probably was not chained by the difficulties that you can run into when you do something in Beijing. So he said, "Yeah, we'll do it, great." And then I said, "Yeah, well, let's see if this is happening now…" But it actually did. So I'm very happy about that and I'm very grateful that the Goethe Institute have actually made the effort and started this again.
SmBj: I know you personally know all of the musicians playing. Did Goethe find the actors you're collaborating with?
BB: I did an audition. They asked me for contacts in Germany, and I have some friends that have worked in Beijing in theater before, and then I gave them the contact for that guy [points to a poster behind the actors on break]. I have worked with this particular company and theater school, so I gave them my contact, and [Goethe] contacted them, and word got out, and then I had forty actors to interview and see. I would have taken them all, if I would have had the budget for that. With forty actors we could do incredible things. But eight is what we could afford in the project so I casted them, I chose these eight.
Based on what you've said before, with trying to make the memories into lyrics for songs: it seems the lineup performing in Beijing is more improvised and abstract.
BB: I have made a graphic notation for Yan Jun for the start. I gave him particular outlines and parameters for what I need, what speed it is, and how long it's meant to be, et cetera, and everything else I will leave up to them. I will make my criticism heard when I think it is not the right thing, but apart from that I leave it up to them.
Yan Jun's table & tablature
SmBj: Do you think kind of this music will make it different from the previous iterations?
BB: They're all different. In San Francisco, these were scores, written scores, and proper sheet music that they were playing, and there were eight dancers. So that was a completely different idea. In Africa, the two African musicians were doing their thing, basically, with as much as I could tell them.
See what there is to see tonight and tomorrow night at the 9 Theater, in the Chaoyang Cultural Center. The performances are free with online RSVP, which are already all booked up. But Goethe says that whoever isn't there by 6:45pm will lose their reservations, and at that point it's first come, first served.