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Ralf Wehowsky

Ralf Wehowsky is almost the perfect example of what makes the experimental tendency in industrial music significant. He's impossible to locate, his music resists pigeonholing and refuses simple labels. It's neither industrial music nor musique concréte; it's not really computer music but nor is it really improvisation; perhaps it's all of these things. Possibly the most obvious division that has existed in the last two centuries of music-making is the division between "high" and "low" culture; between "art" music and "popular" music. Classical music is seen by its fans as having several qualities; complexity, sophistication, seriousness. Pop music fans in turn, look for immediacy, and glamour.

Industrial music's origins in the late 70s, with bands like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and S.P.K., had little interest in these qualities or distinctions; it was an attempt to embody musically a revulsion against social and political convention. But it's interesting that many of the more musically inclined groups who were linked in some way or other to industrial music, were both aware of the "high" / "low" division and suprisingly adept at dissolving it. These experimental industrialists took the tools of the more innovative contemporary "serious" composers – electronics and tape – but applied an amateur rather than a tutored sensibility to them. The music that resulted was frequently indistinguishable from that made by their "art" music colleagues. At last, the technology created a level foundation, where the music was finally more important than the cultural background of its creators.

In January 1980, Ralf Wehowsky and Joachim Stender formed the group P.D., which about a year later became P16.D4, which would become one of the better known and longest lived European "post-industrial" groups. Wehowsky's musical interests had developed from a taste for hard rock (Stooges, Black Sabbath) via progressive rock (Soft Machine, King Crimson, Faust), free jazz (Ornette Coleman, Peter Brötzmann) to "new music" (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Gyorgi Ligeti, Pierre Henry). His interest in rock waned until 1979, when groups like This Heat made him aware of new possibilities.

"In 1979/80 I perceived punk as a liberating new experience. Not that music or fashion were so interesting in themselves; just a rude form of hard rock and its descendants. Important was the departure from most of the illusionary clichés, which were dictating the thinking about rock and culture in general. No more pompous pseudo-romantic show worlds, no more virtuosity, no more illusions of authenticity ... Not that these ideas and tendencies had been completely new. But at that very moment they culminated, not in a 'movement', but on a relatively broad basis and with a lot of fresh energy. For a moment it seemed as if – seen from the musical side – groups like This Heat, The Pop Group, Throbbing Gristle, Nurse With Wound, Cabaret Voltaire, DNA, Pere Ubu, The Residents, to name just a few would represent different aspects of one exploding scene. Of course it was clear that the majority of these and their followers would march in different directions soon, mostly back into the arms of a more or less mainstream-orientated culture industry.

"Here in Germany, there was in 1979/80 a scene including groups like DAF, Der Plan, Materialschlacht, Din A Testbild, SYPH, PD and others, which was very open-minded and which met and mixed at festivals or other occasions with 'real' 3-chord punks, using the same systems of information and distribution. In 1981/82 this short moment was over and the separation between entertainment and advanced music established again. While we in PD and then P16D4 had used the opportunities given until 1981 and played a lot of concerts, we concentrated on studio work from that point on."

Ralf saw his music in the eighties as a kind of rock music, part of the progressive and experimental tendency that had been active in rock throughout the late sixties and early seventies. It's difficult, listening to much of P16D4's music, to see why he thought it related to rock, and it seems to be that Ralf would now agree.

"In the seventies I thought of groups like Henry Cow as being very original. Today, I know the sources they got their ideas from. Their records had great moments, but knowing these sources it's obvious that this group and similar groups were anything other than original or inventive. The other – probably more important – thing is that every kind of pop culture has lost its character as a counter-cultural model. All genres of rock music can only be seen as entertainment, there is no substantial difference between the so-called 'underground', and, say, Tom Jones. The only differences concern their special functions for certain audiences: to stimulate dancing, buying, the lyrical sentiments etc. Of course, this is not a new discovery, but even the idea of playing with the image of pop as a counter culture has lost its relevance during the last decade."

Experimental music is frequently accused of elitism, of just not trying hard enough to reach a larger audience. It can convince itself that its small audience shows that it attracts only "discerning" individuals. The editors of Vital magazine have drawn on the musical similarity between the more bizarre fringes of techno and some avant-garde music to suggest that a point of entry exists where more "intelligent" music can infiltrate the mainstream. Pop theorists also often get excited over such entryism, particularly where accessible pop forms hide more subversive content (e.g. the Pet Shop Boys). Ralf Wehowsky's view appears to be that such strategies are pointless; all popular music serves the purpose of entertainment. It's a catalyst for passive consumption. Even for indie rock stars who talk about rebellion and alienation, they're all just selling entertainment to identifiable market sub-sectors.

Experimental music too, has its market. However, Ralf's wish to set his music apart from rock has other motivations.

"You might ask, what is the difference? Is your music not entertaining? Of course it is, like any music or art. But it is not a functional instrument for any purpose outside of itself. If you listen to a record like 14 you can't reduce it to one function. There might be moments when tracks seem to be useable for arousing certain emotions, there might even be periods that can lead you to dance, but these are only transitory moments on a search for something which could be called – for want of a better term – beauty. A beauty which is not identical with the images of advertisement agencies and MTV but which has its foundations in a human sense that is more than personal preference, which combines subjectivity and objectivity, emotions and thoughts.

"This doesn't mean to deny the fact that sounds are overlaid with codes, especially historic meanings and associations. To compose therefore, for me, is a way of dealing with these codes: working with them consciously, sometimes searching for ways to avoid them, often creating labyrinths for the ear or playing with their possibilities for betrayal."

As with many post-industrial musicians, for Ralf Wehowsky, the instrumentation is merely a means to an end. The music he creates is abstract in nature. The sounds have no obvious reference points. Ralf explained how his technique and material has evolved.

"When I was a student, I had been taught classical guitar at a conservatory, and had also studied with a local jazz guitarist, which wasn't satisfying in any respect. So I tried to forget everything I had learned, when I picked up the guitar in 1980. Nevertheless, I never really felt comfortable with guitar-playing; the whole history of guitar (especially rock-guitar) seemed to be a burden on my shoulders. I felt much more comfortable when using the tape recorder (reel to reel machine). Its possibilities (multitracking, cutting etc) were much more appropriate for my intentions. When I say intentions, I don't mean having an exact picture of a track/composition in mind when starting to work. If that were the case, I would never realise any track as the realisation would only be a boring act of handicraft. Generally, I only have a vague picture in my mind about what could be done with an instrument, or with a basic idea (be it a concept or a materialised idea, for instance, an already recorded improvisation). During work I usually see that only parts of the original plan work out while the instrument or the material take other parts of the session in their own direction.

"These days, I'm using mainly digital equipment: a computer to run sequencing, hard-disk and sound transformation software, and to direct other hardware (a sampler and DAT recorder). I don't think it is 'better' than any other equipment. But it's appropriate for creating music which deals with the important issues of our time. Of course stones, conventional instruments, natural and industrial noises could also be used. But the ability to integrate such sound sources is a typical feature of digital equipment. As hardware and software is built to produce mainstream pop music, it's necessary to find its limits and drive it beyond to get something interesting out of it. So any work with these machines means dealing with the inherent issues of pop culture, providing the opportunity to transcend it."

A new album by Ralf under the name RLW should be out by the time you read this, on Christoph Heemann's Streamline label; a collaboration with Bernhard Günter is also due out now from V2. For the future, Ralf plans to work on a project based on texts by Markus Caspers (who as created covers, liner notes and films for Selektion), with the possible participation of Rudolf Ebner, Edward Kaspel, Scott and Karla Foust (of Idea Fire Company), Dave Grubbs (of Gastr del Sol) and others. Other projects include recordings with John Watermann, Ullrich Phillips (of German free improv group WIE), K2 and others.

Selektion colleagues Achim Wollscheid (ex-S.B.O.T.H.I.) and Bernhard Günter also remain active. Achim is currently working on the cover for Itineraire, a long term project he has started with Frans de Waard and which includes contributions from Asmus Tietchens, Giancarlo Toniutti and Bernhard Gόnter. In 1995, Achim will be in Japan for some time, which will eventually bring another collaborative release by himself and Masami Akita (Merzbow) amongst others. Bernhard Günter is meanwhile in the final stages of finishing his second CD, Details Agrandis, and has just started a collaborative work with John Hudak and John Duncan.

Clearly, whatever Selektion's many achievements have been in the past, there will be many more to come.

Interview by and © Brian Duguid 1994 & 1995.