»The issue of signal vs. noise«

GERALD FIEBIG – echo chamber vs. screaming chamber: Spoken texts as acoustic art

Interview: Martyn Schmidt

After 30 years in poetry and 15 years in sound art, Gerald Fiebig’s »voiceworks« fuse the two strands of his artistic practice in one single release. In addition to electroacoustic compositions based on both his own voice and that of long-time collaborator Michael Herbst, Fiebig presents, for the first time ever, a collection of sound poems. These run the gamut from nonsensical, rhythmic, yet stil rather semantic spoken-word pieces to exercises in voice-based performance art.

Anhören / Streaming: »Dynamitfischen im Schauspielhaus« vom Album »voiceworks« (atemwerft 2021):

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You’ve been known for quite some time as a poet and sound artist alike. But the connection of these two fields in an actual kind of sound poetry is a rather new thing for you. How did this come about?

Well, I started out artistically with poetry, I’ve been publishing and performing it since the early 90s. Then, in the mid-2000s, audio art entered the picture as well, and ever since I’ve been looking for ways to connect the two fields of work in a convincing manner. The albums Pferseer Klangtrilogie and Phonographies, both published in 2013, were two attempts in this direction. Both albums make connections between text, or rather writing, and sound. In these cases my voice was mainly just the vehicle for making the texts audible. And then I received your offer to release an album on your label atemwerft . . .

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. . .
which is focused on publishing material that is exclusively voice-based.

Exactly. And when I set about making the concept for the album I realised I had composed a number of pieces over time that were in fact based on voices – either my own or that of Michael Herbst, a friend who I’ve been collaborating with for many years. But there was only one piece which could be called a kind of sound poem, namely Rolling the Stone of Demosthenes up the Fucking Hill. So I made a point of writing texts for the album that expanded on this sound-poetry aspect so the album would connect an almost »normal« poem like dynamitfischen im schauspielhaus with electroacoustic compositions and radio works. As such it kind of covers my entire practice of the last 30 years, or sums them up, if you will.

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So it was basically the wish for a synthesis that made you start out into a whole new genre?

Yes and now. You see, sound poems are a new thing in my published work, you’re definitely right about that. But they’re not the first I’ve ever written. Biographically, something comes full circle here, because I already started writing something resembling sound poetry at the age of 15 or 16. That is, at the same time as I started writing poems at all, or very shortly thereafter.

»I’ve always liked the acoustic component of the noise metaphor, but also the latent subversive element, with noise undermining dominant, ideological linguistic forms.«

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Did you only write them or actually perform them?

I performed them, too! I discovered Dada through the arts class at school at 15 or so and founded the duo Los Hermanos Morales with a friend from school, Gerald Sorko. I mean, compared to the historical impact of dadaism, this was a rather harmless bit of adolescent fun, but as far as our self-image went, we were totally Dada. We also performed as a duo, and this also happened in parallel to my first steps towards getting my »normal« poetry out into public.

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I remember that this was quite important for me over the three or fours years we did it because to me it felt like something of a subversive corrective to the cultural model of the so-called poet which I was about to invest myself in, a model which I found – well, perhaps not exactly bourgeois, but let’s say: old-fashioned, and therefore a little suspicious to me. This dada thing was practically my internalised counterculture against myself. And the great thing about Los Hermanos Morales was that we had music, too. Gerald played the viola, which I found thoroughly fascinating from the point where I discovered The Velvet Underground with John Cale’s drone viola. My discovery of punk at age 16 also connected itself quite quickly with dada because even back then I chanced upon a book that outlined the parallels between dada and punk.1 We also had at least one song that had more of a punk rock lyric. [laughs] Considering all that, this duo was a hell of a great vehicle for trying out all sorts of things that caught my interest back then. And which continue to influence me.

1 Bernd Hahn/Holger Schindler: Punk – die zarteste Versuchung seit es Schokolade gibt. Hamburg: Buntbuch Verlag 1983.
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Are the sound poems heard on Voiceworks more of a reminiscence to those formative influences – or also a vehicle for the things you’re interested in today?

Definitely the latter. It’s just that thinking about it now I realise how much I still profit from the collaboration with Gerald, even today. (By the way, this is not a fake, what with alter ego and all – he just simply happens to have the same first name as I do.) [laughs] Much in the same way as my sound work has profited immensely from the things you, Martyn, and I worked out performing as a hybrid spoken word/sample poetry/songwriting outfit from 2005 to 2007.

But in fact I’ve been interested, for quite some time, in the relationship between signal and noise. As early as 1998 I put an epigram by Umberto Eco into my poetry volume rauschangriff in which he argues that things which are noise in everyday communication because they decrease the understandability of the message – things like complicated manners of speaking, unusual words and so on – can become messages in their own right in the context of a poetic message, because poetic texts are texts to which you can apply an aesthetic code within which this »noise« makes sense.

What I’ve always liked about this is the acoustic component of the noise metaphor, but also the latent subversive element, with noise undermining dominant, ideological linguistic forms. Just as noise theorist Paul Hegarty wrote later: »Noise is like the avant-garde«, a movement, an impulse that puts existing forms into question.

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This noise, considered as the non-semantic element of language, is foregrounded in your sound poems much more than in what you call your »normal« poems. Is that what fascinates you about sound poetry today?

Absolutely. And that’s also what connects them to my acoustic work, because the issue of signal vs. noise is a major concern there, too. Not necessarily as ecstasy through harsh noise – I love listening to that, but it’s rather not what I do myself – , but as a self-reflexive moment of sound, if you will, a sonic critique of ideology: as soon as you hear the unwanted noise, you cannot help but realise that you’re listening to a recording, to technology. It ensures you don’t forget that you’re dealing with a mediated construction instead of a so-called »authentic« reality.

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There are two types of pieces on Voiceworks. On the one hand there are speech-based tracks on which the voice is used as raw material for a technological transformation. On the other hand there are pieces in which the speaking voice is used as an instrument itself – perhaps supported by preparations like the stones in Rolling the Stone of Demosthenes up the Fucking Hill. How would you describe the relationship between these two types of pieces?

There’s different aspects to this. I basically like working with »minimalist« source materials in my electroacoustic compositions, and the voice as a sound generator that’s available to every human being simply lends itself to that. But the pieces that can do without software, computer, and thus without electricity are perhaps more likely to point a way towards the future. I mean, we are now going into a phase in which more natural disasters and the inevitable glitches in moving energy production onto the track of renewable sources will cause electricity shortages and more frequent blackouts. This will not really make it easier for an art form whose very name contains »electro«. This is why I currently think about ways to make sound art with, at best, purely acoustic means, and the sound poems on this album fit this description quite well.

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Would you rather categorise Voiceworks as part of your musical or your literary list of works?

The great thing is that it can equally be inserted into both contexts and thus potentially erases the boundary between them altogether. And that is in keeping with my basic conviction that spoken texts and music, just like sound installations and radio art, are eventually all just subgenres of acoustic art. Concerning the, let’s say, translatability of text into music (and vice versa), or the composition of texts as musical performances, I have received quite a lot of impulses from the artistic and theoretical work of Stephan Wunderlich and Hans-Rudolf Zeller. Actually, the last piece on the album, vanishing ceaselessly, was composed as the playback part for a piece I wrote in 2008, commissioned by Stephan Wunderlich for the festival Experimentelle Musik in Munich, which he co-curates with Edith Rom.

And that’s also how the pros do it, isn’t it? Michael Barthel, for instance, makes a point of always calling his speech performances »concerts«, and quite certainly John Cage would also have considered his lecture performances as musical events. And also with artists like Kinga Toth or Jaap Blonk, or in a slightly different way in your own work, Martyn, the boundaries between poetry and music tend to be totally blurred. And that is something I find fundamentally desirable. I think that since you started atemwerft, your label catalogue has been giving me quite a lot of impulses as to what’s possible in this open, intermediate field. Which is why I’m really honoured and grateful to now be a part of it myself.

This talk, Gerald Fiebig being interviewed by Martyn Schmidt, took place in summer 2021. © atemwerft 2021 / aw 009


»Voiceworks« comes as CDr and Digital-Album via www.atemwerft.de. The CDr-release is a limited edition of 55 numbered copies, the first 15 copies come signed by Gerald Fiebig. Every CD is hand-stamped & hand-numbered, provided with a white seal and comes in cardboard-fold-out cover with hand-cut linen-paper folder including sleevenotes. Black CD in vinyl-look with haptic grooves.

Available at www.atemwerft.de

Ein Gedanke zu “»The issue of signal vs. noise«

  1. Pingback: Voiceworks | Gerald Fiebig ::: audio art

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