Rory MacLean meets Marc Weiser
Music maestro Marc Weiser bridges the two centuries, and disrespect is the key to understanding his work. ‘My education was all about attitude,’ he told me when we met at his local Berlin café. ‘About not respecting tradition, or popular taste, or politicians, or artistic limitations.’ He smiled, ‘I’m like the punk rocker who steps up on stage to play Stockhausen, having never before held a guitar in his hands. I’ve always lived in the middle of a hurricane.’
Weiser grew up in Düsseldorf, the respectful and conformist capital of the industrial Ruhrgebiet. Yet it’s natural that a conformist society produces radicals. Rebellion grows out of convention – it’s the correlate. So on that city’s stable foundations, built by the steady labours and hidden fears of the dutiful, hard-working burghers, free-thinkers – among them artists like Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter and Weiser - goaded the conformists to question, to rebel, to be independent.
Weiser’s artistic education began at the Ratinger Hof, the city’s notorious underground arts café, operated by Carmen Knoebel, wife of painter Imi Knoebel.
‘In the late Seventies Germany was so stiff, so defined,’ said Weiser. ‘At the Ratinger Hof I first saw and heard another world, another reality. Music touched me.’
The café-bar, around the corner from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, was a meeting point and melting pot, where artists mingled and fought with rockers and mods, then listened together to punk bands like 999, Wire, Mittagspause, Fehlfarben, Charley’s Girls, West Berlin’s DIN A Testbild and DAF – Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft.
‘When you are young you are an enemy of the whole world,’ he said with a smile. ‘I’m still the same today.’
Aged 16, Weiser taught himself the guitar. (He’d studied the flute for almost a dozen years but ‘that wasn’t very interesting for a young punk rocker like me’). He began to record himself at the same time and to cut up early hip hop and electro boogie recordings, creating loops, running the ‘stupid, repetitive rhythms’ through his mono Moog synthesizer.
‘I defined music as noise, or "Klang" which means positive noise,’ he said. ‘I started to give concerts at parties and art galleries, combining my "Klang" with film footage, improvising, having fun. I realised that I wanted to express myself through my music, not simply to play other people’s stuff.’
In Düsseldorf as in many other cities property became more expensive through the 1980s, and the subculture was priced out of town. Berlin was the exception, and Weiser decided to move to the divided city.
‘I had long blond dreadlocks. I found a squat without electricity or phone. I started busking, mixing music, and organising people. I became fascinated by creative rights – copyright, master rights, sync rights – and drew up my own contracts. I realised that all an artist possesses are his or her rights.’
In his disarming and individual manner, Weiser worked on both sides of the microphone, making music while acting as a product manager for labels like WEA, Eye Q, Harthouse and Königshaus. After the Berlin Wall fell, he staged concerts in the old East, helping to erase the border also between art and club culture. In Hackescher Markt he spearheaded one of the first squat clubs, the legendary Imar at the same time as launching Club Transmediale, the annual festival for electronic music and new media. He was programme head at Maria am Ostbahnhof for three years.
Weiser also co-founded the audio-visual, electronica duo Rechenzentrum which played more than 500 concerts worldwide, from Canada’s Mutek to Spain’s Sonar festivals, in Asia, Russia, Siberia and South Eastern Europe.
‘Rechenzentrum’s music was always hard to define,’ he told me. ‘Soundscapes combined with improvised pop music; sometimes with a bit of reggae, a bit of folk, something melodic and friendly.’ And always reversing expectations, confounding his critics, and (usually) delighting audiences.
Since the 2008 break-up of Rechenzentrum, Weiser has worked again as a solo artist, securing his leading role in Berlin’s electronica scene, scoring classic films, dance and theatre pieces at the Volksbühne, the Berlinische Galerie and a dozen other venues as well as for Allianz and Lufthansa.
As we spoke I wondered about the sea-change in popular music, and the surrender of revolutionary ideals for consumerist culture. In days gone by a musician’s success tended to be judged by how his or her work changed society, not by how many CDs he or she sold. ‘How does one really succeed today?’ Weiser asked. ‘Same as always. You have to listen to your own voice. You have to concentrate to hear it. You mustn’t get stuck in a rut. In the end all that matters is having a good idea, and forgetting everything you’ve learned.’
‘And being disrespectful?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely,’ said Weiser. ‘It’s all about not having respect.'