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For many listeners with an interest in unusual music, Germany has been an effective shangri-la. In the 50s and 60s, Karlheinz Stockhausen's movement from total serialism through improvisatory, process and electronic music represented the most obvious sign of German avant-gardism. In the seventies English-speaking listeners turned to Faust, Can, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk as the more accessible representatives of an adventurous tradition that never achieved quite the same recognition in Britain or America. In the eighties the name of Einstürzende Neubauten became best known, combining "industrial" methods of music making (found scrap materials, noise elements, dominant percussion etc) with a flair for exciting live performances. Throughout this period, the big names have tended to disguise the existence of hundreds of other innovators, so that only the afficionadoes are likely to be familiar with Gunter Schickert or Narwal. Of all the lesser knowns, I consider Strafe für Rebellion to be one of the most consistently innovative, and undervalued.
A duo of Bernd Kastner and Siegfried M. Syniuga, Strafe FR have existed since 1979. Over the course of several albums since then, they have developed a style of abstract instrumental music that owes a lot to their use of home-made instruments, found objects and field recordings, but is never subservient to them.
1989's Vögel compilation is perhaps definitive, containing tracks from as far back as 1981. Take Boston, recorded in 1988, and utilising "a goods train passing by, birds, howling wolves, steel nails beaten inside a steel pipe, blow with a hammer on a steel case, squeaking spring on a wooden holder of a roll of toilet paper, e-guitar played with a violin bow, male voice, wrist watch, beats on a metal tube (using foam)". None of these are gimmicks; the music that results combines brief snatches of rhythm with low animal / mineral drones and a groansome male voice to produce music of real imaginative power. Unlike other Düsseldorf groups whose music suits the city's image perfectly or is striving to escape it, Strafe FR's music is timeless and placeless; it may create an effective imaginative space in your head but it transcends any connection with a real place.
Strafe FR explained their musical techniques to me as follows: "As you probably know we do not use any electronic music instruments. We do not condemn electronic music instruments at all, it is just not our approach. One central aspect of our work is the use of field recordings, either wild or domesticated animals, machines and all kinds of noises that we think are peculiar in some way. We go searching for sounds during trips, we occasionally find them or we consciously go looking for special sounds (visiting a zoo, for example). When we do field recordings already some compositional elements come into being - they go beyond the pure documentary sounds and beyond the quality of our normal archive. We also use 'normal' music instruments and 'prepare' them, there are also self-made music instruments or noise machines. But we never use anyone else's pre-recorded sounds; we have never used samplers nor rhythm machines." They are also careful to point out that all the instruments they use and recordings they make are only tools; however peculiar they may be, Strafe do not see the use of these as an end in itself.
I don't know if Strafe would want to identify themselves as post-Cageian, but John Cage's ideas are clearly relevant to their music. If Luigi Russolo legitimised the use of harsh, mechanical noise as part of music, then Cage legitimised all other sounds, including the environmental recordings that feature prominently in Strafe's music. Their use of amplification on small sounds (such as the squeaking toilet paper holder in Boston) seems reminiscent of Cage's Cartridge Music, which amplified musicians playing directly on a record-player's stylus with tiny brushes. Strafe's Rising Sun makes the connection more explicit, as it employs the "grinding noise of a thin wire on the rotating turntable of a record player (amplified by a tin can)".
Another Cage connection is Strafe's approach to the use of conventional instruments. "We are interested in each and every 'traditional' (ie non-electronic) musical instrument that we come to know and that we find. No matter if it is a lute from 100BC, a Bechstein grand piano that is out-of-tune or an electric guitar. First of all we are not interested in handling those instruments in a craftsman's way, we are ready to drape those instruments, we torment and harass them. What is decisive is the sound itself, and not the esteem in which the instrument is held. This is also valid for musical instruments or sound-producing mechanisms that we have developed and built by ourselves."
This is one area where Strafe FR are way ahead of most of their peers; an interest in all sounds, a willingness to accept unorthodox ingredients for their musical recipe, and most important of all, an ability to create powerful, evocative music out of these unconventional sources.
Another area that makes Strafe of particular interest is their interest in extra-musical ideas, both as inspiration and information for their recordings. The "concept album" is, of course, not a new idea (nor one that it's easy to mention nowadays without sniggering!) But Strafe are perhaps unusual in the way that non-musical concepts often dominate musical theory in the way that they think about and produce their own music.
"The main idea in our work is of course a musical one! But the starting point can well find its origin in non-musical fields. When we make music we might have in mind a concept from a research scientist or an explorer such as James Cook. We have no interest in the kind of scientist working at BASF to develop a new sort of tape material. He is a professional man and just a narrow specialist. On the other hand, there is a scientist doing research on bird language. He created a bird language machine to carry out analyses. He got over the documentary method and proceeded into the music of birds and was able to differentiate the character of each kind of birds. He composed a symphony of bird language. By doing so he left his research realm and enlarged his interest - now he was no longer a specialist, and became a searcher who we are interested in. Another example of a non-musical model could be Erasmus of Rotterdam, as he broke conventions as well. Yes, as a rule we are more closely tied to non-musical models than musical ones. A musical model might be John Tavener, John Cage, or John Lydon.
"There are historical or biological models that can inspire our music. An example is when creating a drum rhythm, not to think about the measure, but about a Roman slave galley. The musical inspiration is not Kraftwerk, but a sick lion, Faraday rather than Stockhausen, a film about animals rather than Monteverdi. The music theory is never decisive or authoritative. In this sense, we do not plan to create a mood in minor or major."
Strafe extend their interest in non-musical factors to the way in which they affect the listener as well as the music-maker.
"Music is more than an acoustic phenomenon. The perception of music is dependent on the ability (and capacity) of the human ear - how the ear functions technically and how the brain is able to work out those informations, knit them together with the information from the other senses, your thoughts and your individual experiences."
1991's Lufthunger succeeded in combining several concepts into a coherent whole. Ostensibly, it is a 10-part symphony stretching from the Cambrian period of 530 million years ago through to the most recent 2 million years of the Quaternary period, describing and mirroring geological and ecological evolution. On a more musical level, it explores themes of gradual and catastrophic change, the sleeve notes pointing both to how human perception of prehistory is affected to a great extent by our negative view of catastrophes, and also to how in the much briefer history of music, sudden new developments have also been viewed negatively. Strafe FR suggest a third important influence: "Lufthunger could only be created in the year 1990. That is why it does not only deal with the pre-history! At that time the Gulf War ('Desert Storm') took place, which certainly influenced us emotionally and in terms of general atmosphere."
Strafe's next release, Öchsle, was a more lyrical project, illustrative of Strafe's continuing interest in language. "In Öchsle we used words that we 'translated' from an original Hamar (Ethiopian) chant into German in an onomatopoeic way - but the choice of words was not incidental ... We have also developed our own peculiar Strafe language according to our own special way of working. There is also the natural human (vocal) language and the musical language. That is why we have created several radio plays using our music as a soundtrack." The lyrics, composed of these 'translated' words, are left as a chant, and form the major element in several tracks, but several others are solely instrumental, exploring Strafe's usual wide choice of instrumentation and textures.
The most recent album, Moor, represents something of a surprise, as it turns its attention to the rock and pop music worlds. Of course, Strafe's own unique use of rock sounds and patterns swiftly removes the familiar framework in favour of music that retains the energy, textures and devices without having to pay too much lip-service to the form itself. "Moor should offer different opportunities and a variety of different musical windows. Moor of course also has a lot to do with our personal interpretation, how we both perceived the music of the past three decades, which the two of us have consciously heard and listened to."
However much the critic might want to dwell on the way Strafe FR recontextualise the familiar rock elements, the group's own vision is much less prosaic.
"If you take Moor as a landscape, it offers a lot of possibilities; either to drown, or to get marshy, or to get bogged down, or to get blinded by beauty. You watch a rare animal or plant and the next step there is muddy soil. There is a good smell of heather, but also millions of summer-gnats and the black grouse. A moor also has its unique acoustic. In the musical Moor there are some contact mines to be found; there are sloughs, poison snakes and slow-worms to be found in the world of pop music. After a short time big parts of pop music disappear inside of mud holes where they rot and decay. Occasionally some of this rises again as a moor corpse - these revived corpses appear in pop museums but they have historical relevance only, they are spent and past. The contact mines in the pop music can cause destructive explosions which give birth to new possibilities, or just create new holes in the ground.
"You need all your senses, feelings and personal atmospheres to experience music. It is important to push away your blinkers, the way of perceiving that automatically has the tendency to fall back into its old narrow position."
These wide open spaces have to be taken as an allegory, since as soon as you hear the galloping beats and electric noise of Moor's opening track, Bog Bay the images that come to mind won't be those of the quiet countryside. The instruments employed are more conventional than those that Strafe usually adopt - Schoolmaster II even consists only of piano and electric guitar - but the musical possiblities are as uninhibited as ever. On Stradivarius, which mixes distorted riffs with pounding drums, and inappropriately classical singing, it requires a quick double-take before you recognise the presence of the violin. As ever, it is the total sound that determines everything else, and Strafe's juxtapositions of melodic and noise elements are as striking as ever. There's even a sense of humour present, and in places it's very obvious:
"We are neither the first to use noises in music nor have we invented a new kind of music - noises itself are not yet music but they become music if we put them in the order of a composition. We are very much interested in language ... We do have a special Strafe humour. However, humour can be understood or it can be misinterpreted. We cannot prescribe humour. Humour can be a variant that stimulates every work."
Where next? Strafe do not play live very often, and then only for special events, rather than as part of a tour, but the possibility of an appearance in Britain has been suggested, and may yet come to pass. Keep an ear out, because whatever happens, it should be good.