Enter the (Electronica) Partyzone: Interview with Barbara Morgenstern
by anna battista
The debate about electronic music is always rife. There are those who think it's just a cold exercise in blips and bops and see it as a robotic and inhuman kind of music; then, there are the true fans who defend the genre, claiming it's an original form of art that allows imagination and originality to prosper. Who's better to help us understand what electronic music is but Barbara Morgenstern? Considered the queen of German electronica, Barbara Morgenstern started her career as an electronica/experimental musician in the mid-'90s. Up to now she has released a few albums, Enter The Partyzone (Hausfrau Im Schacht, 1997), Vermona ET 6-14 (Monika, 1998), Fjords (Monika, 2000) and Nichts Muss (Monika/Labels, 2003), apart from various EPs, remixes and singles. So, what's electronic music for her?
"I think it's just a cliché to say that electronic music is cold," Barbara replies, while we sit in the café of the hotel where she's staying in Glasgow's city center. "I think electronic music can really touch you: for example, there's a new band from Austria called Radian who released an album on Thrill Jockey Records, they do quite abstract music but it touches me because they build up through it incredible atmospheres. I'm a big fan of Plaid as well and they touch me in a different way because their music makes me happy. I think making electronic music is like being in a playground: you can try this or that, you have infinite possibilities and you might be working on a track alone or with other artists, like I often do. I recorded for example with Mapstation, To Rococo Rot and Bill Wells and it always felt like being in a playground." Barbara has mentioned Bill Wells, so it's apt to remember that she appears on his recently released album Pick Up Sticks (Leaf, 2004) featuring To Rococo Rot and Mapstation's Stefan Schneider and trombonist Annie Whitehead. "I really love the way Wells writes his tracks," Barbara says. "I recorded with him while he was in Berlin, I think he's a great composer, he can play anything. I really like experimenting with other people like him because it's always a very inspiring experience. I've also got an improvising band with Mapstation and with a Polish experimental musician, and the best thing is when, while we're improvising together, we sort of meet at one point and start playing the same notes. I love collaborating with other artists. I would really like to do something with Robert Wyatt, but right now I want to concentrate on another project, an album with Robert Lippok from To Rococo Rot. We'll start working on it when I go back to Germany. We will also invite some singers to work with us on this album and one of them will be a Kitty-Yo artist. That's the main project I want to work on, then I'll start recording my new album."
Barbara will have finally time to work on her new album now that her world tour with Maximilian Hecker is over. The tour, which stopped in more than 30 cities scattered all around the world, was organised by the Goethe Institut. "The tour was about travelling around and playing, it was a big chance and I really enjoyed it. It was the first time I played with Maximilian," Barbara says. "The Goethe Institut suggested us to go and play together and we just said yes. The tour was great, the only problem was that, because of it, I wasn't able to work on my new album. I had my computer with me, but I couldn't compose while touring because I didn't have all the instruments I needed. When I work in the studio I use my computer, a Mac G3, but also my organ, guitar, keyboards and lots of effects. So I didn't really have many chances to work on anything. This means that I will have to compose during summer and work on the new stuff later on in the year. I'm not sure what the next album will sound like, I will either do more rough and wild music or more melodic music, but at this stage I'm not sure yet."
The German music scene has become quite hip in the last few years thanks to record labels such as Kitty-yo and Monika Enterprise. "The more I talk to other people from other countries, the more I realise that Berlin is very famous for its music scene," Barbara states, "there are actually people who move to Berlin because they really want to do music and know that there are good chances to do it there: think about Peaches, Gonzales, Jamie Lidell from Supercollider or Chicks on Speed. The German scene is really alive, Berlin is a meeting point right now. I would say that the German scene is also very open: people don't work against each other, but they try to support each other. I think it's a very adult and open way of behaving and that's what I like about Berlin, this networking and the fact that there's no competition between artists. Besides, the fact that there are all these artists doing stuff always pushes you to do better. One of the most active people in the Berlin scene is Gudrun Gut, the founder of the label Monika Enterprise: she does a radio show and organises from time to time parties, events and gigs involving every label from the Berlin music scene. Through her I got to know many other musicians. She's very into getting together and working together, she's always up for intelligent entertainment. Since she only releases women, there's also a kind of women networking in Berlin, and Monika is a sort of women enterprise, but not in a feminist and too obvious way. Gudrun likes to work with women and likes to support women, but not in a 'we-are-better-than-men' or 'we-don't-like-men' way. In the German electronic scene the male artists are really friendly and open, think about To Rococo Rot or Mapstation, they would never say 'come, I'll show you what you have to do'. It's another generation or artists and I really feel very comfortable in this scene. I don't think I would ever move from Berlin. I would probably like to move out of the city, but I would stay around it anyway."
Since we're talking about Berlin, I ask Barbara tips about the coolest clubs. "One of my favourites is called Maria and a few friends of mine work there," she tells me, "I often go there, they have good concerts and happenings. For example, they organise a one week conference every February called Transmedialen about video art and electronic music and they usually invite very good electronica acts, so I go there every time. Then there's a very old club called WMF, it was one of the first techno clubs in Berlin and they are good friends of mine as well, so I usually play there lots of times."
Barbara might be happy to be part of the German electronica scene, but in the past she wanted to be a jazz pianist. She indeed trained to become one, though she later abandoned her classes because she hated having to rehearse. "While I was taking jazz lessons, I was studying to sing and compose, two things that I found more entertaining," Barbara remembers, "my love for jazz is still strong and shows in my love for improvising, but to me doing music means to invent music, not rehearsing, so after I gave up wanting to become a jazz pianist, I started playing in a band and actually had my own band in Hamburg. I was also in another band which had a big record deal, but all the members of the band soon started concentrating on solo stuff because we were really tired of compromising with the music biz. It was then that I started to play alone." As soon as Barbara finishes telling me about her past as a jazz pianist, her guitar player appears and we invite him to join us. He looks at us, then at the microphone, smiles, shrugs and adds, "I've got nothing to say." Barbara bursts into laughter and shakes her head at the amusing scene, adding, "He's the best interviewee…" So while we let her guitarist go, Barbara tells me how she met him, "Patrick was studying music, but had stopped for a long time and was working for a music software company and a friend of mine suggested to contact him and see if he was free and wanted to play the guitar while I was touring. We played together for five gigs and it absolutely fitted. During the world tour organised by the Goethe Institut I played with a drummer and with Patrick on the guitar, though I quite like to play in two because when we play only in two it is easier to improvise."
I know that apart from loving playing and improvising Barbara loves another thing, people dancing to her music and enjoying her gigs. "There are two kind of good concerts," she explains, "one is when you think the gig was musically really cool, but the audience was ok; the other is when the music is ok, but the people in the audience are fantastic. I once did a very cool gig in a very small town on a Monday. There were only 50 people but it was great to play there. We played at the beginning of this tour in Buenos Aires in a club and thousands of people came and they were really enthusiastic, though I'm not sure if that was the best music I ever did. When people react, you feel enthusiastic, it's important to have people reacting because they can give you a lot of energy back. If you play and nobody reacts, it's like you're playing to nobody. When I started to play my solo stuff live, sometimes I was really depressed if people didn't dance to my music. I guess sometimes it is easier to make a connection with the audience if some of the people know your music because they might be looking forward to hearing some songs and to supporting you."
Apart from a new album there are a few other projects in the future for Barbara, one of them is writing the music for a German radio play written by a contemporary Berlin author. "The play is called The Finnish Philosophers and it's about the future, technology, nature and God's sense of life and will be staged in a Berlin theatre as well, " Barbara reveals, "It is very interesting for me to collaborate in such a project because it is another way of working with language. Language is really important in this play so I think it will be really good for me to compose music for it, it will be a new thing to do. I was once asked to write the music for a film, but in the end the director said my music wasn't emotional enough and was afraid that electronic music was too cold, though I think he was afraid to use something that was not known or was more original than traditional soundtracks. So I think writing music for a play will be a different and exciting experience." Barbara is also planning to do more gigs with Robert Lippok from To Rococo Rot and to record with other artists. One of the musicians Barbara would like to work with is Four Tet. "That would be a dream!" she exclaims, "I fell in love with Four Tet's albums. I think he's great and his music is really touching."
Before leaving Barbara to do more interviews, I wish her all the best for her future collaborations, I'm sure all her dreams of working with this or that artist will become true one day. In the meantime, remember, the next time somebody tells you that electronic music is cold, monotonous and lifeless, they might have never heard of Barbara Morgenstern: if they had, they would know that electronica can mean fun, originality, creativity and improvisation.