[I was lucky enough to interview Andreas Ammer back in 2001, after being a fan of his extremely unique hoerspielen for some time before that. Since this interview, he's continued to make amazing works of audio art. And I must confess that I always listen to Crashing Aeroplanes on every transcontinental flight I take.]
Andreas Ammer interviewed by Nancy L. Stockdale
Andreas Ammer is one of the most prolific and acclaimed writers of contemporary hoerspielen ("radio plays") coming out of Germany today. But despite his credits as the author of "texts" and "konzepts" on the inner sleeves of CD soundtracks, it may be more appropriate to view Ammer as a collage-artist, more of a builder of texts than a writer of them. Indeed, his varied catalogue of works over the past decade reveals a man committed to integrating sound sources into his texts which transport the listener to a living world beyond words, all the while proclaiming a distance from those same texts that rejects commentary beyond the individual listener's interpretation. It appears to the outsider that within Andreas Ammer rests a fervent desire to paint a picture for his listener without manipulating the reception; what matters is as much the process as the comment at the end.
Key to Ammer's appeal is the way in which he blends his visions with the composers and musicians with whom he collaborates. Indeed, listening to the results of his complex and varied partnerships with people such as FM Einheit, Ulrike Haage, and Console, it is often difficult to find the spot where text ends and music begins. Such successful aural blurring speaks volumes about Ammer's commitment to making music out of words, an ability to reshape language past literal—or literary—meaning into something far more intimate and contradictory than concrete definitions. The shift from pop music to symphonic linguistics is subtle but powerful, and always provocative.
I met with Andreas Ammer to find out more about how he sees his artistic contributions while he was working in Los Angeles in March 2001. What follows are glimpses of Ammer's self-reflections on his various projects, as well as the ways in which he brings his concepts to life and the partnerships he has developed with other musicians thus far.
Geschichte Ist Ein Engel Being Blown Rückwärts
Ammer has used historical sound sources as textual fragments in a variety of his pieces, often confronting history head-on with a manipulation of original texts and recordings that rearranges traditional chronologies and interpretations into something other than expected. In this way he is taking part in a larger Western rejection of history as dictated from above; but whereas most of that frustration is masked in a belief in the authenticity of the History Channel and a trend toward the Hollywoodization of historical events, Andreas Ammer is far more subversive, and far more honest. In their epic three-act sound opera Deutsche Krieger, Andreas Ammer and FM Einheit illuminated the absurdity of historical commentaries by turning 20th century-Germany's darkest hours into pop music, letting the primary actors speak for themselves against a soundtrack of tension and fear wrought from the contemporary media of the eras in question. Funded by government-sponsored radio divisions for movements revolving around Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler, but denied government money for the final piece about the Red Army Faction, Ammer and Einheit nonetheless produced the final segment and brought all three together to blow the lid off of preconceived historical concepts.
NS: As an historian I just got blown away with the way in which you are using primary documents and the media to create new primary documents...but also art that is manipulating history. And so I thought I would start by asking you about the way in which you see yourself manipulating history and the contribution you are making to that larger act? I think the best example of that is Deutsche Krieger, in which you have completely manipulated the sounds and the message behind them.
AA: Well, in fact we stopped manipulating too much the nearer it gets to the present, when it has to do with our personal concerns, to our materials. You know there's three parts, and the first part is very far away, so nobody can remember; and even nobody did remember that there were actual traces—audio traces—left. Very few people know that existing sounds were there, that sound recordings existed from the time of the First World War. Even finding those little pieces—it's about 90 seconds, something like that—was so exciting!!! I said, "We have to do a radio play out of this." I made one first alone, and I was not satisfied. Only about the First World War. It was without a musician, and it was really not good. So then I asked Mufti—FM Einheit—"Do you want to mix that thing with me?" and he said, "Of course," and we did it, and we decided to make this trilogy. It was kind of weird because it was very natural to choose those three parts, you know? What was going on in the '70s in Germany—it was not a world war, it was a war of twenty people against the state—but it was a symbolic war. A kind of late hippie movement, but a very violent hippie movement. And we could connect those three episodes; one of the First World War where the media was the recording on phonographs...for the Second World War it was clear, it was radio coming up, the Nazis using radio in such a furious way that isn't done today, that might sound very dangerous, but they were so aware what this medium could do and how it could get very close to the people, how you can manipulate people with the media. And third were the German terrorists, they were the first who used television for their aims. They took this very famous hostage in Germany, and said, "OK, we've got this hostage, and we want this and this and this, and please answer us in the evening news." And they got a VHS sent to all the stations of the hostage speaking: "I'm a prisoner beginning on the Second of July and please free me!" And so this was broadcasted on the news, and so it was the first news—first not war, it was a civil war, not even a civil war, but it was—took place in the television. So we had three battles going on, and we had three medias connected to it, and that was kind of a weird idea because it has Ulrike Meinhof, who is in Germany a very dangerous woman, but who is, for the Leftists, kind of a heroine, too. Nobody agrees with what she was doing, but nearly everybody agrees with what she was saying and wanted. She was a journalist before and she said, "OK, this society is still so Fascist, all the same people being in the positions," and she was writing this in articles beforehand. She became kind of an icon for the Leftist movement. And you might not have heard that our Foreign Minister [Joschka Fischer] now was accused that he 30 years ago was in contact to someone who was in contact with her—it's still not solved in Germany, this thing. So you've got the three [histories] together. We were very free in arranging the materials in the First World War, so we even edited single words from a poetry reading we had, to put up a new story, and we had this one speech of the German Kaiser, and we edited every word and put new poems out of his Declaration of War. Because we thought dealing with history in the right way was a history of media, because the media are making fakes all the time. In fact, the first document we have, that was the Declaration the First World War in Germany, it was an original sound recording, but it was a fake. Because it was a speech that was not recorded when the speech was recorded, but two months later the Kaiser went to a recording studio and he said, "Oh, I've made this speech, let's record it for history!" That was the first fake, and since the first original thing was a fake, so we felt, we too could do fakes on our own, and to make kind of fun. But in the Second World War it was not fun anymore—it was in abstract no fun, and it was not fun for us listening to Hitler all the time; we sat in the studio and it was so awful, weeks listening to that...I think the second part is the worst part of it. So the third part, we got personally involved. We tried to put ourselves back, the music changed, the music is more—more music. The first two parts are more collage, the third part is more getting into our lives. It gets more 4/4 music and so on, getting also more sound that goes to the heart, and it was our personal reflection with the material. Hearing this woman speak who was an icon, nobody in Germany knew that these documents exist.
NS: And so you found them in an archive?
AA: No, not even in an archive. Broadcasting stations didn't support us for the third piece because of terrorism and so on, but you could set up an underground system. I told this man who was working as a publisher to do this, and knew that he will know other ones—"Oh yes, I have a tape here." So it went on, and after three months we had original sounds by Ulrike Meinhof. And we had some connections to broadcasting stations who had some other material, and so we managed to find all that. And it's not in the official archives, too, it's really a kind of sound archeology.
NS. You have created a new archive then with your piece, in a way.
AA: That would be the most beautiful thing.
NS: How has "Ulrike Meinhof Paradise" been received in Germany, since you weren't able to get government funding for it like the other two?
AA: It was not broadcasted, so...! We didn't get any money for it!
NS: So only if people buy it do they hear it?
AA: Yeah. The whole piece was received with, is one allowed to do that? Can we make music out of Hitler? And can we have such a non-reflective view about terrorism? Because there's no reflection on it, just the documents, and all the reflection is done through the music, and how the documents are treated, and that is what people said. They had fear about it, because everybody knows that music can create moods, and that was what we were trying to do with those pieces. Because two things that go mostly, I think, to the bodies and the minds: it is pop music that can be understood in all the planet, and the other thing, that is the Opera. Those two are different things; you know, a pop song concentrates all the moods one had in a life in three minutes, and it works. And the Opera does it the other way round, an opera takes very intense moments and stretches it. That's why all the people die for two hours in opera, you know? You have to stretch these moments, these intense moments. And both of those we are trying to do. So, put in the power of pop music, and put in the intensity of an opera, and put them intellectually together. So that's what we are trying to do in those works, just to get some intensity in it. And not to get too...we never want to do a rock opera, that's the worse we could do. What a great end later! To do a rock opera!
NS: My own personal opinion of that piece is that the music is very good at setting that mood of commentary without actually putting a commentary into the words. I think especially at the end of the Hitler piece, the silence that emerges from it at the end is very powerful commentary.
AA: Even after hearing it many people say, "You can't put a piece like that to write commentary on it," but the good thing about when you work with sounds like that is that everybody's bringing his own history [to it]...in Germany naturally everybody has an opinion about terrorism, and has an opinion about Nazis, and not so much about the First World War...but the hard thing about doing things only for the ear is how to create a world. You can easily create it in the cinema, you can easily create it in a book, but it's very hard to create a world only for audio things, because sounds are not semantic, you know? You can hear this [knocks on the table] but you don't know what it means. There are very few sounds that are semantic. There is the telephone ringing and there's the sea-side, there's birds singing...I think you won't come to about more than twenty semantic sounds. The rest is abstract, abstract art. From there, it's very hard with abstract art to create a semantic mood—that's what we want to do. You only have to say "Hitler" and everybody brings their moods with them. And then you can play with this. Even in the Hitler part we tried not to do it very drastic and military...We also tried not to do it in a very sentimental way...I think it was the hardest thing to do and it didn't quite work...I think, it's 60% of what's possible, I'm not so satisfied...I know what I didn't want to do, I'm not so satisfied with what we did instead.
NS: How did people react to that piece when it was broadcast?
AA: We don't know, you never know.
NS: Do people talk to you about it?
AA: I had some public performances, not doing it live, but sitting in a small theatre, and many people said, "You can't do it!" And they were asking, "What are you? You're not a fascist, you don't look like a fascist! But you're doing Hitler and you're doing this terrorist woman, so what are you?" And that's what I like about those three people, you don't get them in one, you know? One might be a heroine, but it's a heroine you don't have to deal with, and the other is the most worst that happened to earth, but put them all three together, it creates kind of a portrait of the last century, the good and the bad—mostly the bad, the history that was a bad history. What many people said is, You can't deal with the Second World War in twenty-two minutes. Like, that's a little bit American! You know, in twenty-five minutes I'm going to tell you everything about the holocaust! But we tried to get to the pop song way, with a very few simple impressions and to put it in a small story, but it doesn't mean that it can't be touching, or mean very much to you when you hear it.
Ammer's earliest works with FM Einheit revolved around traditional classics from the Western literary canon: Radio Inferno sent up Dante's masterpiece meditation on Hell, Apocalypse Live was conceived as the televised Weltuntergang projected from the pages of Revelation, Odysseus 7 cast Homer's famous hero into space. Their most recently broadcast works, however, have left fiction behind, but the rendering of art inspired by primary texts remains. Frost 79°40'—an elegant collaboration between Ammer/Einheit and Finnish electronic maestros Pan Sonic—tells the story of British explorer Robert Scott's unsuccessful bid to be the first man to reach the South Pole through the letters and diaries of the protagonists, while Marx Engels Werke tackles the worldview of perhaps the most influential ideological partnership of modern history. However, their current work-in-progress for the European Broadcasting Union, Crashing Aeroplanes, was—like Deutsche Krieger—inspired solely from sound samples, as was Ammer's most recent release with electronic musician Console, Official Olympic Bootleg. Nevertheless, whether he is working with sound samples or canonical texts, Ammer maintains an ardently postmodern distance from his creations, commentating via the power of a cut-and-paste editor rather than a self-righteous pundit. For Ammer, the texts—oral, aural, or visual—stand apart and alone.
NS: So, looking at the things you've done with Mufti, you seem to always gravitate toward apocalyptic sorts of themes concerning the canon of literature, and radically shifting it, but still remaining within the sense of something epic. I just got The Seven Dances of the Holy Ghost [co-produced with Ulrike Haage] so I was just listening to that, and in that too you are working with religion which is the ultimate epic. So I am curious about how you envision yourself in writing those texts and the way in which you take on classics, like Odysseus for example, putting him in space.
AA: So we don't do literature anymore! That's just because we decided that's enough, we had done everything so what else could we do? From the Bible and Dante and Homer—what else can you do? My first work together with FM Einheit was the Dante piece, and it was no great idea, in fact I didn't know it when I suggested to do it, 'cause I wanted to read it once, and I tried it twice and I failed! So the only way to read it is to do work with it! What's funny about Radio Inferno is that...it might sound stupid if I tell it now, but it's re-defined this stupid thing called "Radio Play." No one did a radio play like that before, and very many people do radio plays like that now. So to do it with that extent of music, and with that role of the music...normally it was, one says, "blah blah blah." and then the other says, "blah blah blah," and then when it gets dramatic the music was coming in. It was clear we didn't want to do that. We wanted the music to be part of it like an opera. And literature? I hope I never will write a book. Not because I don't like books, I like books very much; because I think of so many beautiful books I couldn't write. One is better when those exist, but there are so many forgotten books, and even the greatest books are kind of forgotten. But I don't want to make a weird thing, "Oh, Dante's such a great writer!" It's just that you can look at those books and just take some sentences that go to your heart and your mind and make your own story out of it. A friend of mine often called it something—"literary DJ"—putting a beat from here and a melody from here and mixing it up together. In fact, that's the way I work very much, having lots of books around me, and reading here, "Oh that sounds good, I'll take that down," and then you have just one sentence that you like. There is a better example from Apocalypse Live. At the end there is a kind of blues song. The text there, it isn't changed from the Bible, it's exactly one sentence from the Bible, only one sentence, it makes up about 4 minutes, and in the sentence there is a list of what goods will be destroyed when the world goes down. And it's very surrealistic—I forgot what it is, elephants and camels and bread and very weird things coming together—and it's the perfect surrealistic poem, but it's written in the Bible and when you read it in the Bible it doesn't sound surrealistic. But if you take it out—and you must not change anything—just cut off the sentence in the beginning and the end and you don't mention God anymore. That's what I did in this way, anywhere I think God was mentioned in this sentence I put it out because I didn't want to make a metaphysical piece. So the sentence works now as a sentence in the Bible and as song lyric and as a kind of surrealistic poem. I could not...those weird assemblance of things could never come to my mind, even if I said, "OK, think about the twenty weirdest things to put together in a poem." It would never have come to my mind. I don't make jokes of those texts, you know? I take them very honest. I like them—not so much the Bible—but I think they're wonderful passages, wonderful texts, and you don't have to destroy them to use them, you can use them to take them out of their context or leave them in. Take it like you do a sample, and you make something new with it, and you put it in a context that's your own context. On Apocalypse you don't get it so much on the CD, it was a stage show, you know? And we had in between the texts the most famous anchorman of German television [Hanns-Joachim Friedrichs]. And we filmed him and he was sitting in his normal news studio where he sat all the time, and there he was doing the in-between texts. And he'd say, "OK, we've heard enough now from Babylon, let's see how things are down over there." So there's a slight change, we took all the things in quite different contexts, with commercial breaks...but everything stays its own. I don't make a joke about the anchorman, I leave the anchorman alone. And we had a real pater, from a cloister, reading those Greek texts, and we left him being a pater. Even the three singers, one free jazz guy Phil Minton, and the second was Alex Hacke from Einstuerzende Neubauten, and the third was a countertenor [David Greiner]—the three most different people you can imagine—this old free jazzer who all the time is going [does his best impression of free jazz improv singing!], and Alex is kind of a Hank Williams fan with a cowboy hat on and boots on, and the countertenor was very stiff with a white collar, and they didn't dress up for the show, they just came how they are. That can also make a collage, in this case out of the singers.
NS: One of the things that I wanted to ask you about is the multi-linguistic character of a lot of the work that you do, and how you see yourself as an artist working with several different languages in the pieces and the theory behind that.
AA: It's not so much theory behind that, it's that I like language as sound, very much, and so, from the beginning I liked very much when I started being very concerned with sound poetry. And in fact my first radio play that I did some fifteen years ago was about sound poetry, but I recognized that when you use a language you don't speak it's for you like sound poetry. So, I don't speak Italian, and so when we had this Italian artist speaking the Dante voice [in Radio Inferno] that was perfectly for me like sound poetry. It had nothing to do that it's a semantic language for other people, so I can take this and put it up as a wall of sound that has meaning for others but not for me. And I like that very much, and sometimes it comes out of the actors. Phil Minton doesn't speak one single word of German, so if I want to work with him I have to write English texts, and he will make sound poetry out of them! That's the way it goes, and I like it! It's kind of weird because sometimes I spend so much time writing texts for him and then he speaks it and nobody can understand! And I like that very much!
NS: So, you don't have a sense of European identity being across the borders, or anything like that?
AA: No, nothing like that. It's just to get away from the content a little bit, and to speak again of the Opera, it's like, if you go to Opera it's more beautiful in Italian even if you don't understand Italian. And even for us listening to English or American pop music it's the same; for us you don't get every word, but you get very into this music, and maybe you get more into this music because you don't understand everything. And it's for me to create a natural way of not understanding everything, to use so many languages that you can't understand everything. I tried to escape from literature, because we've done so much and I thought I must try some new things, so I, with Mufti, did this one Frost about Robert Scott, this man on the [South] Pole, the second man on the pole, and now we did the Marx thing.
NS: I think that Frost piece is amazing.
AA: I like that very much. Pan Sonic, they're so wonderful. What I like about it is really the music. It was the first ever only writing for one actor [Günter Rüger]. And it's a 72 year old man, and it was a stage show, too, and what I liked about that was that it's about a great, heroic man that's writing all about this great, heroic fight to the pole, and what a great British man he was, and there's a small, 72 year old man, you even hear it in the voice a little bit, you hear it, he's very breakable! You don't dare to touch him—"Mir ist kalt! I'm freezing!" And then the Pan Sonic music in the background.
NS: It's great though, because that edge in his voice, it shows to me as a listener the regret of the whole experience.
AA: That's what we tried to do...And it's normal literature but you can't write texts like that, you can't write a thing like this, and I can't write it. I like very much literatures, written words that are authentic. It needn't be a good text if it's a true text. And I changed very little in those texts, I just left out to bring some rhythm in them.
Turning Away From the Linguistic Turn
Despite a conscious decision to abandon literature as a primary influence, Marx Engels Werke, the most recently broadcast Ammer/Einheit production, keeps the pair grounded in fictive literature of a kind, since humans have thus far failed to implement the ideology so eloquently espoused in the Communist Manifesto. But the turn Ammer and Einheit have taken away from canonical prose is made more dramatic with their current project, Crashing Aeroplanes, an endeavor which injects art into the final moments of mundane routines gone irrevocably wrong. In these two projects there is the potential for as much outrage and reflection as in Deutsche Krieger, both in the context of societies' reactions to human decision-making in the name of ideology as well as the limits of artistic expression. How far can these composers legitimately go in their quest for making every thing musical?
NS: So, you presented Marx Engels Werke in Dresden, right? Is that true?
NS: How was it received? What's the difference in the audience in Dresden as opposed to in Munich?
AA: They were not yet ready for it. It was very more distant—"What are they doing?" It comes out, I think, of the communist education. They are not free to think about it yet. They don't feel...I think...they feel a little bit distracted when we do it this way, not commentating it. All the time, every interview we did for it the question was, "So, are you fond of communism or are you against?" And we always said, "Yes!" But I don't write a piece like that to say, "Oh yes, I am against communism!" or "I am fond of communism." That's weird, but in the East everybody wanted to know that. And even in the piece there's no answer, because we did it like the other ways, we just took the text and we made something out of the text which hasn't been there before. And we have treated the texts in an honest way, and we didn't look down on it. We're not making fun of it, we're not making a hero out of it, we're just saying, "OK, this is a text, we sing it!" And in the East they were...there was applause in the end but it was much more silent than it was in other venues. The last show was really great applause, but the audience was so young, I think they heard of most of the texts for the first time. In the theatre in Dresden there were more people between 30 and 60 and they were sitting there thinking. But it was very good to do it there, and in fact, one of our actors, Günter Rüger, he is from the East. He's the only one who could sing the DDR anthem the right way. He taught us! But we didn't want to have this communistic kitsch, you know? We didn't want to have this. There's no communistic songs... no. We had a plan to do it in the beginning but we eliminated those parts. It just has to stand apart. There's another story in this, not to take going into it...basically, it's to listen to what was said there. And it's still a good text. Marx was a great, great writer!
NS: Absolutely. And I think in fact the Communist Manifesto is so brilliant because of its simplicity.
AA: Yes, and it's the same text how I said before. Everybody's going in with his own feelings. He's going with a feeling into it, and the only thing he gets back is a text. And the text, it doesn't put those feelings into you. Marx Engels Werke, I think it's the most extreme thing from the musical side we did, it's very loud, louder than anything we did, and it's even very strong beats, and Caspar Broetzmann on the stage making such noises—people really [grabbing their ears] saying, "Ok, that's it!" And when Phil Minton had his 60th birthday [during rehearsals] we found out he's the youngest of our singers! Such a thing is going far, far from punk rock and Phil Minton is 60, and we had an actress playing Marx [Jennifer Minetti] and I think she was 63, and we have a very old, very nice man playing Lenin [Günter Rüger], and he's 73! But we didn't get it till we had Phil's birthday because it was so natural. Our drummer [Saskia von Klitzing], I think she's about 23, so we have a range from 23, Mufti and me being about 40, and our frontmen being far from 60! We like that very much. It was not a concept, not a concept in mind, but I think it was a sub-conscious concept, not to have a youth thing, not to have a thing...for...well, for nobody! It's a whole range—from 25 to 73—the ages on stage all working together.
NS: How much do you guide your actors as far as the interpretation that they give your texts?
AA: As less as possible. Part of that has to do with, we only work with actors we know. If I choose Phil Minton as an actor, it makes no sense to say, "Phil, can you make that sentence very clear?" That would be a very stupid idea! So if you want to have Phil Minton on the show, then you want to have him on the show because he's dealing with texts and music this way. And I like to work with people who have their own way. I don't like to work with people who say, "OK, here's a text, what should I do?" I don't like it, because I don't want to say to anybody how he should do a text. I like to work with people who are such artists of their own that they want to do a text in their way. And that goes both with musicians and with actors, so...mostly I don't like to work too much with actors, because they often say, "OK, how do you want to make me do this?"
NS: How does the process work when you are working with a composer, what you choose to put in the book versus what they're bringing into the music, who's influencing who and how that negotiates itself?
AA: Normally we don't say one is the author and one is the composer, because our way of working together is not that way. Those works are not works of texts with a composer doing the music besides...With FM Einheit I've worked eight years, so we know each other, we've spent very many days in studios and on stages together, where we know each other very well and...if you have a stage show, it's clear that the text must be a text to go into rehearsals, and mostly the music is developed during rehearsals, but there has to be a text first. But it's not important because when you have...anybody speaking the text and the music developing to it you can throw the text away. Often Mufti says, "Oh, that's not a good text,"—he never said this but I can feel this from him—so I throw it away. And often I've said to him, "That's not the kind of music I imagined," and he said, "OK, I'll throw it away, OK, but I imagined it." We don't have very much roles, I think we choose each other because we can trust each other. Very often he does a music I don't like, but I choose him as a composer...and I'm not a composer, so I have to trust a musician, and I think it's the other way round. I think he often doesn't like the texts but he chooses me as a man who has to deal with the world and the content, and he has trust me for a very long time. I've trusted him for a very long time and the music, and sometimes he's destroying my texts at the same time as I'm destroying his music. But we never give anything away to the other, or say "OK." We put it together and see how it fits together, and if it doesn't fit, mostly we both change! And something's wrong!
NS: I'm sure that over time you've developed an unspoken language in a way between yourselves and the way you work.
AA: Not unspoken, but we don't talk so much about what we're going to do...we're talking about, OK, let's do a piece about this and this. We have just done a piece about Crashing Aeroplanes...
NS: So what is that about? Airplanes crashing?
AA: Yes, really. You know, from the beginning I started making radio plays, I always looked for sound sources that had some expression. That's where I first came—I think it's about 12 years ago—to these sound sources of the First World War, and it's moved on for years to the Deutsche Krieger. I got this idea about this Black Box—all the things recorded when an airplane crashes, and I thought, "OK, we might..." You can on the net download some of those files. Some people say it's not a thing you should make music about, but I think art has to go too far. It's a little bit too far, but I trust us. We didn't harm anybody with it, we didn't make fun of anybody. So we hook up some original sounds of crashes. We have this one crash, it's a plane that fell down on Amsterdam about fifteen years ago, we had a whole entire eight minutes of the flight, from lift off to...
NS: From the Black Box?
AA: No, this one was not from the Black Box, it was a dialogue with the Tower. And that was very impressive, because the first time you hear how people act facing death, it felt so impressive because they don't panic. They're doing routines, they know what's going on, and you know, you hear the people on the ground, "No, say that again, you have fire on engine three and four...?" "Correct, fire, engine three and four." And the people on the ground couldn't believe it. It was three minutes after take-off. It's very weird, and it was kind of hard to get the sound quality, it's not very good, in fact it's very bad! But you oddly don't care! Kind of hard to treat the material so that you get the situation, so you have to repeat some lines, and you have to work with speakers, but they don't make commentaries about it, they just make the situation clear. Mostly just time is running, and it's, "Amsterdam airport, 18:04," and then, "plane blah blah blah it's just taken off," and then, "18:07 plane blah blah blah engine three and four burning." And if you want to mention what was happening you can bring in the sound sample. In one piece it's very impressive I think, you hear they're going down, but it's not like Hollywood, they got very concentrated, and you hear those people concentrating, you hear this. Only in the last two seconds there's some crying, and it's, "going down, going down," and that's it. It's even impressive when you tell the story. We tried to capture that impression. So it has happened, so why don't we try to make art of it? We can't ask them anymore, but you can listen to it on the web, so why not try to honor those people, how their death was?
NS: So do you have anything in that piece that's reaction on the ground after the crash?
AA: No, we don't do any reactions. We didn't do it, because we're just concentrating on those planes, we've nothing outside, no commentaries, just imagery from some of the routines that go on in a normal flight, you know, the stewardesses, "put on your blah blah blah..."
NS: What's the music like in the piece?
AA: It's much analog synthesizers, and on two tracks we tried to develop rhythms out of signals, you have all that [Morse-like airplane static], to make rhythm of them, but mostly you don't hear the original anymore.
For the past few years Ammer has collaborated with Munich electronics wizard Martin Gretschmann, a.k.a. Console, producing three hoerspielen which have also been released as CDs on the pair's own label, Code: Loopspool, a reflection on Walter Benjamin, Bugs and Beats and Beasts, award-winning music from the world of entomology, and The Official Olympic Bootleg, a sound history of the modern Olympic games. The Ammer/Console productions are quite different from those Ammer has done with Einheit, illustrating further his malleability and aptitude for shaping his concepts around the strengths of his musical partners. What remains similar, however, is Ammer's use of collected sound sources to direct the plot of his work; and whether the topic is philosophy or mass culture, the inspiration comes from something already in existence, begging to be morphed into another thing which is entirely different and original.
AA: Console and I have our small CD, it's a 3-inch CD about Walter Benjamin [entitled Loopspool], it's kind of similar to Deutsche Krieger—it's not so much about history, it's much more about philosophy—and its also a work only working on sounds, dealing with the ideas of Walter Benjamin, who once said in his Passagenwerk, "We have all this rubbish of history, and you know what I will do with it? I will give them their purpose back, all this rubbish, I will use it!" He said it much more beautifully though! And that's what we did. I had some lectures from philosophers that were known to Walter Benjamin, and I had them talking about him, [Theodor] Adorno and [Ernst] Bloch [and others]...It's just about those philosophers remembering him...Adorno, he says he looked like a wet rodent! Here was one of the greatest philosophers and he looked like a rodent! And we had some passages from Bloch, and we cut it and edited it together as if they are having a struggle. And the music Console does, it's more electronic, more clubby, even a little bit easy-listening style. I like this very much because it's very un-upset, the piece. I always imagined those people sitting around a campfire, like remembering, "Oh, you remember, there was Walter there...!"
NS: Are you going to be doing more work with Console?
AA: Yes, definitely. Working together with him started out to be quite the opposite of Mufti but getting together with him started out to be just the same. Just because there we were, listening to each other and bringing the pieces together. Musicians are very good in hearing, and they're very grateful about content, because that's what they can't do. And I'm very grateful about emotions from the sound, 'cause that's what I can't do. And if you trust a musician, if you like him, it's very good! Console never had heard a radio play before until I think in fact ours!
NS: Maybe that's good, maybe he's not corrupted.
AA: Yeah! I mean, I hadn't listened to a radio play before I did my first one. All the people who say, "Oh, what have you done to our radio play?!?!" I didn't know what I was doing to radio play! And the first time I met him, he's about 15 years younger than I am, and he was....And then he got into this production of the Walter Benjamin thing, and I think he was astonished by himself! He started working on a structure of six or eight minutes, and he put it all together, and he had done 80% of the music or 90% of the music, and when you're listening to it for—what is it, 25 minutes?—for the first time, I think he was really astonished at himself that he had done this piece that was 25 minutes and it's about a philosopher he'd never heard before! And he said, "Oh, it's interesting! I like it!" And all in the studio where he works is still very much independent bands around, and they said in the beginning, "What are these radio plays?" and now they play the Bugs and Beats things in front of their concerts! Just when the audience comes in the concerts! And then afterwards is coming an independent guitar band! And they were all suspicious about me in the beginning, but that has vanished totally.
NS: Tell me about Bugs and Beats and Beasts.
AA: My idea was, let's make a radio play just with the sound of insects, because it's a sound source, because—choose your instrument! Like a composer says, "OK today I will write a concerto for 2 violins," so I choose insects! But mostly the entire piece, there's no instrument playing on it, just one cello, but you don't hear it as insect sounds. So I like it very much when I have a conceptual idea and this idea manages to work. Console and I thought we'd make music, I did that because the sounds are so close to contemporary electronic sounds that you don't hear that it's a cicada. And you make one piece of this sound spectrum and you can develop very good bass drum from it. You don't hear it's not a bass drum! It's only important for us.
NS: That's so interesting though because it says a lot about where music comes from, the human desire to replicate sounds that are already there.
AA: Yeah, that's what kind of the text is there about, taken from scientific books about insects—how they make sounds, and how their sexual life is—just descriptions; and they're so weird, because they live in such a weird world, those insects! We did one more thing called Official Olympic Bootleg. It's perfectly in German! It was also all the original sounds from broadcasts from Olympic Games. And what I liked about it was that you never have to say that this is a broadcast of 1936, this is one of 1984, because you hear it, just at that moment you hear—not even what they say, but howit's recorded—how the voices are, how fast they speak, you hear that it's from '36, '52 or '84. It's very weird!
NS: It's funny how the Olympics get this national imprint when the whole idea behind it is that it's an international thing meant to break down barriers.
AA: Yeah, but that was not the thing for me. The thing I liked was, we have those artificial heroes that in fact don't mean anything. But [the commentators] have these very upset voices! You can lose any sense of content with the commentary, they just, say "And they're off!" and the commentator—"They're off?" and it goes so quick, they can't get with their voice right behind them what's happening, who's first, and who's second and all, because everything goes so quick. One thing I tell often is about the radio broadcasts of soccer games. They're very, very close to what radio can do, because you never get an idea who is running from the right side, from the left side, and you don't get...you even don't get this cinema thing, but you understand everything. And that's very close what radio can do and has to do. It has not to make up for the cinema, it has not to say, "OK, this guy is coming from behind, and this girl has such hair," It has to do it in another way. And sport broadcasts I think are where it's mostly working. And you—in the moment when you hear it—understand what is happening without having a picture. So, that's why for this thing there's not so much content in it, it's just about the voices and the history of the voices of the thing. Actually it's the same German history in it again. We have some broadcasts of '36, we have some broadcasts of '72 when there was the Arab thing in the Munich Olympic Games, and we have some broadcasts of the Ben Johnson thing, but only it's not important. It's much more about how the century unfolds in the way that the 100 meters is broadcasted. And when we worked together on this piece it also was a live piece, but it was a very simple live piece, just Console and me and one DJ, and Console and me were at our Apple notebooks, and we have everything stored in there. His holds the music and I totally hold commentaries. We met in our rehearsal room for about, I think, ten days or so. We met at 11:00 and we went on trying out what we can do until I think 7 or 8 o'clock, and everybody was bringing in what he has programmed the last night. What Console and I did was to edit those things and get a rhythm out of them, during daytime we rehearsed, and then went back to our places doing the programming till three or four in the morning, and meeting again at 11:00—"look what I've done this night!" And I brought my things, and Console brought his things, and we rehearsed together for eight or ten hours, and then went back to our places, and all the time working. Working together, it was as close as you can get to something with somebody responsible for content and somebody responsible for non-content sound things, because it was perfectly one-to-one working. So, sometimes I had some speech loops where I said, "OK, let's make a track out of this one." Sometimes he had a rhythm and said, "Don't you find some voices for that?" It was how it's supposed to be.
The Logistics of the Thing
In an era when so much mindless McPop promoting fantasies of the unattainable gets dressed up in midriff-revealing sequined numbers and sold to billions throughout the world, the complex intellectual productions of Andreas Ammer can be downright boggling. But perhaps even more boggling—at least to someone living outside of Germany—is that the government often helps sponsor the hoerspielen he writes. This links his work to an artistic tradition beyond mainstream pop music, while at the same time, allows him to subvert time-honored cultural expectations and consumption by taking advantage of a well-entrenched media institution and tweaking it beyond the limits of convention. None of this can occur, however, without serious business decisions and planning; Ammer is clear that he works with his musical collaborators and actors in the spirit of equality and respect for genuine collaboration, and part of that is ensuring legitimate amounts of money to make his projects happen in the correct way, even in the midst of a downward turn for the music industry at large. And despite financial considerations, Ammer remains enthusiastic about widening his audience and making his work more accessible beyond initial broadcasts and stage presentations.
NS: Just in general I'm curious, because in the United States we don't have anything like radio plays funded by the government on our national radio. Our national radio is funded by the public so it's not interested in such things. And so I'm curious about the audience that you get when these are broadcast in Germany, and the impact they have on the cultural scene there.
AA: So the radio play has a history more than an audience, I would say. When we started it was a very, very old fashioned thing, and nobody who wanted to do serious art was doing a radio play. So what we really did is gave the radio play some audience back—not so much that more people listened to it, but having it on CDs, and especially having it shown live on stage—then younger people listened again to it. Not so much, it's not huge masses, but some hundred people coming to the theatre. You know, it's coming out of the fifty years thing, people listening on the radio to something that was not yet television. So it has the radio departments for radio plays, they have survived on these public broadcasting stations, but they're very big in Germany still. And it's only two departments that cost a lot of money—one is the symphony orchestra, the second one is the radio play department. There's still money in it. And it's a good thing, because there are still poets making radio plays out of their books, but it's just not what interested me, and that's where I said, "I will never write a book. I want to work to get the most out of the medium, to have two loud speakers, and what can I do to make the most out of it?" And that's not reading a play with different roles, you know, but still it's much about what FM Einheit and I are doing, and now several others are doing it. Many people think it's like a disease, all the radio plays we go over again!
NS: Well, I used to live in Britain, and in Britain there's this tradition on BBC4, but it's very much this old-fashioned, yada yada...
AA: The old fashioned is just a backlash, you know, with all those audio books, but the idea we had connecting it to pop culture—it worked so far, so we have our own kind of audiences, more markets, emails coming from around the world from time to time...and it's nice, because you get in contact with people, and other people sending me things, and it's like a community that's there. And it's interesting doing other things with radio and with records. It's the stupid thing about pop music: it's so beautiful, but it's not managed to get more out of it than the three minutes! That's what we're trying to do. And there's so many wonderful musicians working in it, all the time stuck to make one song, next song, next song, and so on...
NS: Well, the whole industry machine is so foreign to what's actually happening with musicians a lot of the time, don't you think?
AA: Yeah, but the whole market is broke, so...! It's a great time for us. OK, we don't sell...we sell less records than we sold five years before, but it's in the whole market, so that now we're selling enough records to bring out the next record. It has gone a good way, I would think; just because the market broke down, all the other stuff grew more important. We sold very much of the Deutsche Krieger and Radio Inferno, but we didn't get in touch with people, and we're selling less now, but we're getting in touch with many people. And I think it doesn't have anything to do with the works, because we are working the same way, all the works are similar, and I think the audience also hasn't changed too much. I think that the market changed in a good way, that the people who are really interested in something, they get together in some way, they find a way, and I like that. We're not financing ourselves via record sales. All the productions we do, they are financed in advance—in former times only with radio play departments—but as things grew more and more expensive, we have much more to deal with theatres. The Marx thing, I think it took us two and a half years to get the money together, and half a year to produce! So, it's a greater art. Things get very expensive if you want to do it the right way. If you want to do it right on stage, if you want to work together with professional musicians—we always pay very close attention to all the musicians that they get paid very well—and so you have to get together real lots of money if you want to have it right. For Marx we were nine people on stage, nine people being together in a city for two or three weeks, and rehearsing, and I think for the whole show it was seventeen people, and we did a tour and the cost for the transport was so immense. So we got four producers and it worked out. But it's financed in advance, so if we manage to bring out the record it's just for keeping it alive and making it available. People still talk about Radio Inferno and its seven or eight years ago that we did it. It doesn't happen to a theatre piece.
NS: How did you get involved with all these projects in general, in the beginning? How did you get interested in doing work with sound and radio plays and things like that?
AA: It came as a coincidence. At the university I was very much into sound poetry. It was really a coincidence. I just wrote one script about sound poetry, and it was not planned to become a radio play. But it ended up at a radio play department. So it became a radio play! It could have been a feature, a weird feature, or something like that. And I did some other things, and then I said—I worked for a radio—I don't want to do words, I want to do music, but I am no musician, so I have to work together with musicians. And then in what way did I get to knowing to FM Einheit? I did a piece together—it didn't come out as a CD—with another musician, and I wasn't satisfied, so then at the same time FM Einheit was very much working for theatres, he had given a sign to the radio department, "maybe I would work for you on something," so we two were brought together. And so made a friendship until now...
[Copyright Nancy L. Stockdale, 2001-2015, All Rights Reserved]