Unearthing obscure aspects of World War I: Interview with Blixa Bargeld

Einstürzende Neubauten mit Frontmann Blixa Bargeld (links) © Mote Sinabel
Einstürzende Neubauten mit Frontmann Blixa Bargeld (links) © Mote Sinabel

The German cult band Einstürzende Neubauten are going back on tour in November 2014 and using archived recordings of voices from a World War I P.O.W. camp in an experimental performance. Interview with frontman Blixa Bargeld.

It had been a long time since we’d last heard from Einstürzende Neubauten when, on 8 November 2014, they premiered their new LP Lament live in Belgium. Before this interview really got under way, Blixa Bargeld made it clear that Lament is just an audio record of a stage performance that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.

When the Belgian city of Diksmuide came to him with the suggestion of putting together an event to commemorate World War I, he was not immediately gung-ho. But the band decided to take the job. Even in our interview in Paris, Blixa Bargeld seemed rather reserved at first, but it soon became clear he hadn’t kept his distance from World War I for long. Whilst working up the performance piece, he sent scholars in search of obscure and hitherto by and large unknown aspects of the war – and they found some.

Mr Bargeld, in “Lament” you and Einstürzende Neubauten have put together a performance piece about events that occurred a hundred years ago. Was World War I a subject near and dear to you?

It was not a subject dear to me, no. (Laughs.)

And yet you agreed to do it.

Well, you got to make a living.

Still, I found what I heard on “Lament” very powerful and riveting.

I didn’t necessarily want to spend a whole year delving into war and death. It’s not exactly mentally exhilarating, it rubs off on you. Either you keep your distance, you keep it at arm’s length the whole time, in which case the performance will accordingly not gain in profundity. Or you have to emotionally let yourself in for it, and then it becomes disquieting.

So which did you do?

Both. (Laughs.) At first I tried to keep it at arm’s length, and when that didn’t work anymore I had to let myself in for it.

When I heard the beginning of the performance, the “Kriegsmaschinerie” (“War Machine”), I really got frightened. What was it like for you during the recording?

Not like that at all. Kriegsmaschinerie is based on statistics that show how the defence budgets all skyrocketed in the years leading up to World War I, much as they are now. Another element of the piece stems from my annoyance at the expression that a war “breaks out”. War is neither imprisoned nor is it an epidemic like Ebola, so it doesn’t “break out”. War either moves or doesn’t move, but it’s by no means a prisoner breaking out of a cage or anything of the sort. During Kriegsmaschinerie a sort of leviathan is created on stage, a colossus of large metal parts. What you hear is precisely this work of creation, this assembling and parts around moving around.

When you say war doesn’t break out, does that mean it’s ever-present?

It would at least be far more interesting to see it that way. When people talk about the Third Reich, for instance, they use expressions that wash their hands of any blame: “No, there were no powers or generals behind it who’d made up their minds long before to jump-start this event again. It’s a monster breaking out of its cage!” This expression gives me the creeps.

I wonder how these thoughts of yours are mirrored in the music. Why do you treat a subject like World War I artistically? Does music have any advantages over conventional historiography?

When we started working on the project, of course it was already foreseeable that 2014 would be bombarded with the subject all year long, caught up in the World War I commemoration machine. Not just in Germany, same thing in France of course, in England probably too, in Italy it’ll get going in 2015. So I had to find something that hadn’t been flogged to death yet in November 2014, at the time of the premiere.

I had two research assistants, a historian and a literary scholar, whose assignment was to unearth obscure aspects of World War I. That’s how we came upon the Harlem Hell Fighters and the phonograph cylinders [recordings of WWI prisoners-of-war from many different countries] from the Humboldt University audio archives. Both are so arcane that we can reveal an aspect that was previously by and large undiscovered.

Since you worked directly with an historian, it’s only natural to ask how you feel art relates to history? Do you think an artist or musician has a certain responsibility to history, to work with history?

I don’t know what music is or is not capable of. I’m a representative of the rare breed of the avant-garde entertainer, and it’s important to me that the entertainment part doesn’t get forgotten.

I always want things to be somehow character-building to a certain extent, for every spectator or listener to be able to come away with something for themselves. But I didn’t want to write a schoolbook or documentary report or let the didactic side predominate. I could have put my foot in it by, say, trying to write a bunch of protest songs denouncing war as such, particularly World War I, from one angle or another, and complaining that no-one has learned a thing from it.

Another clanger would have been to keep everything at arm’s length and write a sort of documentary play about World War I that could then be performed in school history classes. Needless to say, I didn’t want to do either of those options.

Do have any idea why Diksmuide picked you?

I’m often asked that question. (Laughs.) Then I always ask back: Who would you have picked? Probably not Rammstein [a German industrial metal band], right? Plenty of artists are going to be involved into the year 2015. I assume they wanted a German artist or artistic entity on board and there aren’t that many tenable candidates. Inside Germany I only know six bands and solo artists who’ve been commissioned to write something about World War I. In this commemoration machine, there aren’t that many artists they’d want to commission. Ultimately, it’ll probably run the gamut from dance to drama. They’re holding an exhibition right now, as a matter of fact, at the Goethe-Institut in Paris.

Is that a bad thing?

Nah, it’s not a bad thing. There’s this famous saying: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” [George Santayana]. The various events may rate differently, of course, and I’m sure some are better and some worse. The ones that are worse are those in which the commemorative approach aims at sealing things up conclusively: close the drawer, end of story.

The really interesting thing, though, is the connection to the here and now. One thing that struck me whilst working on the project – and this is not a new theory –is that the Second World War was just the continuation of the First. If you take this a couple steps further, you can ask to what extent the Cold War and its proxy wars, to what extent the fault lines that are still visible within Europe today, are still part of the selfsame conflict.

In the year 2100 we’ll probably be able to look back and say: the period from 1910 to 2020 was the age of the world wars. Then they won’t be called First or Second World War anymore: it’ll be a complex construct that goes on and on. Naturally I hope it won’t be like that. But whilst working on the ”Willy-Nicky-Telegrams” [in which Bargeld sets to music the telegraphic correspondence between German Emperor William II and his Russian brother-in-law Czar Nicholas II], for example, they seemed like e-mails between Angie and Vladi [Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin]. It’s all still present.

Einstürzenden Neubauten are touring in 2014 

8th November Diksmuide, Belgien
9th November Zinkhütter Hof, Aachen, Deutschland
10th November Capitol, Hannover, Deutschland
11th November Tempodrom, Berlin, Deutschland
13th November Les Docks, Lausanne, Schweiz
16th November Muffatwerk, München, Deutschland
17th November Le Trianon, Paris, Frankreich
19th November Koko, London, UK
20th November Le Guess Who?, Utrecht, Niederlande
27th November Center For Urban Culture, Ljubljana, Slowenien
28th November Auditorium Manzoni, Bologna, Italien
29th November Auditorium RAI, Turin, Italien
30th November Auditorium Parco Della Musica, Rom, Italien
3rd December CRR Konser Salonu, Şişli, Türkei
11th December GlavClub, Moskau, Russland
12th December A2 Club, St. Petersburg, Russland

Saskia Müller
a Munich-based freelance journalist for the FAZ, among others,
conducted this interview.

Translation from the German: Eric Rosencrantz

Copyright: Goethe-Institut France
November 2014

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