Sensible Nonsense is a new column from Robert Ham taking us into the less-explored terrain of experimental music, giving us either a lay of the land or a map back home.
In this era of oversharing we live in today, there are many among us who want to earn credit for even the most insignificant of actions. This is especially true in the music industry, where folks use their tiniest connections to already successful artists to move their own careers forward. Up-and-coming artists advertise that one time they opened a show for The Hold Steady or were asked to lay down a bassoon line on a Joanna Newsom song.
This keeps me terribly fascinated with the artists who aim to maintain an air of mystery around their work. Someone like Jandek had me absolutely agog for years, digging through every interview and bit of information about his existence and his music. So when I hear a great or apocryphal backstory surrounding an album, my ears tend to perk up. This year, I was lucky in that two albums came along whose music had me already enraptured, but that I fell for even harder once I found out about their curious creation stories.
One – Kosmicher Läufer: The Secret Cosmic Music of the East German Olympic Program 1972-83 – was recorded by a gent named Martin Zeichnete and meant to be “a training aid for athletes” that were members of East Germany’s Olympic squad. Rediscovered by the Scottish label Unknown Capability Recordings, the five tracks of pulsing Krautrock a la Neu! and Cluster “should allow the average runner to complete a five kilometer run at a reasonable pace,” according to the reissue’s Bandcamp page.
The other, Folklore Venom, is the latest album of terrifying, ambient instrumentals released under the name Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement, part of a series culled from cassettes found in Papua New Guinea. The music is apparently the last known recordings of a group of missionaries that disappeared on the island nation in the ’80s.
As you may have guessed, the above tales are tall ones, cooked up by the music’s creators to add an air of mystery to these already mysterious sounds. Rainforest Spiritual Enslavement turned out to be another pseudonym of Dominick Fernow, the musician who also records as Prurient, Vatican Shadow, and Nuclear Pig Shit and has been a member of Cold Cave. He also runs Hospital Productions, the label that has released all of RSE’s cassettes. So far no one has fessed up to Kosmischer Läufer (“Cosmic Runner”) being a hoax, but the music is far too clean and modern sounding to be over 30 years old.
There are countless examples of artists releasing work under assumed names. Some of the most notable examples are already famous folk (Garth Brooks, Paul McCartney, Beyonce, and Eric Clapton, among them) who only want the mystery to last for so long. They do have units to move after all. But what is the compulsion for those musicians that are already flying well below the cultural sonar? What does putting an extra layer of mystery atop your music provide?
I reached out to a number of experimental musicians who have released work under cryptic pseudonyms to seek some answers. Understandably so, only two of them got back to me. Jan Jelinek, the German electronic artist who created the character of Ursula Bogner as a way to release a collection of burbling modular library music, rebuffed my request gently: “I’m in general not the ‘interview guy.'”
Norman Chambers, on the other hand, was more than happy to provide a peek behind the curtain. The Seattle-based composer was behind the work of Jürgen Müller, a supposed scientist and amateur musician.
As the story goes, Müller self-released an album of delicate electronic pieces inspired by his exploration of the ocean under the name Science of the Sea. According to the press release that accompanies the 2011 “reissue” of this album by Digitalis Recordings, Müller recorded all these tracks on his houseboat, using borrowed electronic instruments with the hope of becoming a film composer. “Jürgen’s musical gamble never quite paid off as he had hoped, and … he soon abandoned any dreams of a musical existence and instead chose to further his oceanographic career.”
“The backstory kind of wrote itself,” says Chambers, commenting via e-mail. “The idea of dragging synthesizers onto a houseboat is pretty hilarious, but also makes for a great concept.”Chambers said that he had initially planned to release these under his nom de musique Panabrite, but “noticed there was a particularly different sound than my usual work. There was something a little more refined, yet decidedly lo-fi about it.” Grabbing one of the most common German names he could find, he then worked up a yarn of a long-lost composer who had never gotten his due.
The real essence of so many of these pseudonymous releases is a spirit of playfulness, and quite often the mood of the music reflects that. But this being the Internet age, and people wanting more of a good thing, it can cease being fun when turds like myself come knocking on doors wanting answers or at least more.
In the case of Jürgen Müller, that meant folks emailing the University of Kiel, where he was reported to have studied, trying to track the composer down. Says Chambers: “It obviously wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation to have to elude rumors about this or that, but the whole thing got ridiculous. Nobody really heard of Panabrite, so it wouldn’t really have a big payoff anyway.”
Maybe the real lesson is that music fans like myself shouldn’t be afraid to shut down our critical brains and enjoy the façade for a little while, and to accept that the big reveal is only fun for so long. Or as Chambers put it when I asked if he was planning on any future releases by Jürgen Müller: “To do another similar album would just be stupid. I don’t want to get so caught up in a concept that I find myself making music I wouldn’t normally make just to appease the ongoing farce. You can believe what you want, but in the end, it’s just a record.”
Robert Ham is a freelance arts & culture writer based out of Portland, Oregon. He contributes to Alternative Press, Paste Magazine, eMusic, Tiny Mix Tapes, Portland Mercury, and others. Follow him on Twitter.