Das Wort, das furchtbare lebenspendende Wort, ich habe es den dunklen Mächten entrissen!Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam
Happy Birthday Golem! Nearly 100 years have past, since producer and actor Paul Wegener along with Carl Boese released their dramatic masterpiece Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam on the 29th of October 1920. Back then, the audience at the UFA Palast in Berlin was overwhelmed by the sheer expressionistic force from which Wegeners silent film obtained its fairy-tale like fascination. The movie was such an enormous success that it found its way into American and even Chinese theaters. After almost a century since its release, one can only determine that the work of Wegener and Boese passed the test of time more than well. The Golem raises fundamental questions, which are still not properly answered till this day.
This could be one reason why 900RPM, an experimental drone project from Berlin, spent years on creating an contemporary, alternative soundtrack to this strange and somehow sinister masterpiece of the silver screen. We were able to see 900RPM perform live in a basement in Berlin, not far from the place where Wegener directed his »Golem« and where Poelzig and Richter created the dreamlike and weird scenery for the movie. Dreamlike and weird, like the soundscapes 900RPM are creating, with DIY drone instruments in response to the strong visual language of the moving pictures.
We talked with Mark Lindhout about the project, the movie, and the symbolism behind that age old myth about the servant made of clay.
- Hi Mark! First of all, it is a great pleasure for me to see that all the efforts you put into your first full length album are finally available in physical form. Just ordered the tape!
I spent some time with 900RPM’s Der Golem recently and was drawn directly into that age old story on waves of humming sounds while I discovered almost catchy drone vibes and felt like walking the sinister set of Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam.
I wonder, how many times did you and the guys watched the original movie to create such an intense connection between your sound and visuals?
- Thanks for this interview, Johannes, thanks for supporting us!
Yes, the release of Der Golem is finally available. This is the first time we released something with Sublime Retreat, and it has been great!
I do not think we could have pulled it off without Taras, the label owner. He found the sound-engineer, Sion Orgon, who mixed and mastered the album. Having a lot of experience in creating and producing experimental music, he really lifted our music to new heights. He added his own details, and allowed for strong coherence throughout the work. Especially on such a lengthy release, holding an atmosphere is hard to get right. Thanks Sion! Noise and drone are not particularly well-known for its popular appeal, but we must have done something right if you call it ›catchy drone‹. That is a good genre name right there. I love it!
The connections between our work and the movie are manifold. Most obviously, there is the directness that you mention, the performance being able to hook into the visuals so acutely. There is an explanation for that. In cinema’s early days, visuals needed to speak clearly. Because there was no guarantee that the people seeing the movie were getting the same soundtracks, since these were always played live. The bigger cinemas used theater organs of an almost orchestral size, smaller cinemas only used a piano. The reproducibility of film music was therefor low in terms of timbre and tone. Sometimes, not even a consistent score composition existed. Thus, a movie needed to be very clear, both visually and narratively. It needed to stand on its own. This leads to these movies often being a bit too on the nose for our contemporary taste. But this obviousness means the movie is well-suited to perform live to. It has abundant cues, a great help while playing. This is how we we write, practice, record, and perform live. We take our cue from the movie every single time we play, and we watch the movie each time we practice or perform.
How many times have I seen it? To be honest, I lost count a while ago. It must be over a hundred times by now.
Another connection is the the location. The movie was filmed, a hundred years ago, at the UFA area in Berlin-Tempelhof. The former set is not far from our rehearsal room where we wrote and recorded Der Golem. In the century since, the city has undergone severe changes: A world war; Two totalitarian regimes; Nineties fashion. Truly horrible things. Yet its core remains static. Romanticized conjecture, of course. Still, the two cities, old and new, are more similar than one might expect. Against a similar, if not exactly identical, global backdrop of instability the city is growing fast. That is nothing new, people have always moved to cities to do things that were impossible somewhere else.
That might have sounded too positive, too forgiving. Let me rephrase. Cities are vast, inhuman machines. Their lubricant is power, their fuel people. They provide distractions, but sever the connection to everything natural, disconnecting the human scale, subduing our innate individual spiritual power. They are opposite to all that nature can mean to humans. Cities are confusion and ugliness. Outright suffering next to willful ignorance. They are the quintessential human compromise to the lowest common denominator. Everything half-done, half-decayed, half-beautiful, instantaneously filthy.
Then again, everything in a city is a projection. Its hateful inelegance is, perhaps, only a reflection of contemporary culture and Zeitgeist. Yes, that resonates, because these projected ideas are always predatory. I perceive these ideas as a direct attack on my senses and inner balance. They grasp with hundreds of tiny hands after your resources, after your body. After your soul. Cities are dangerous places for the mind, if perhaps less so for the body. In that spiritual sense, a city is an inversion of nature. Where nature punishes if you act stupidly, cities will do so when you act smartly. Nature rewards balance, whereas in cities, self-preservation and balance are punished unrelentingly. A city —Berlin in particular— truly is an enormous, never-ending altar of sacrifice.
So, every time I consider the movie, I acknowledge this aspect. The machines and systems we build around us, seemingly helpful, reveal themselves to be death-traps upon closer inspection. How can it be otherwise? You cannot create brilliant food from inferior ingredients, as you can not create intelligence from stupidity. The Golem is a metaphor for this. Combining demonic power with human flaws can never create an obedient servant.
The folks that created the movie a century ago, they also lived in Berlin. The same city I see every day. The trash, the junk, the disturbing ugliness of its countenance. It is everywhere. In the water, in the food, in the air I breathe. It is in me, as I am in it. The movie’s creators channeled this knowledge as well, consciously or not. That is another connection I feel strongly.
- How do you keep your inner balance in that nightmarish moloch as you describe it?
- That is a good question —to which I am not sure I know the answer. Probably, in the long run, you can not thrive in such a place. The only ones that deal successfully with the insanity a city offers are people that accept it as normality. Most of those capable of doing that are disconnected from their humanity. To see aspiration or spiritual unfolding violently destroyed does not faze them. Which is another way of saying that they too, are insane.
But, let us get back to inner balance, if even just for the short term.
Like all ships at stormy seas, you will need an anchor. Something that grounds you, gives you energy, and refills the spiritual fuel tank. For me, it is creativity and my connection to direct family —be they such by blood or choice. For others, it may be something else.
Creating keeps me sane. The act of creation brings us humans halfway to being gods. It shapes our world, and directs our senses. It is aspiration made real, and the only true way to communicate our real human nature.
Since I mention human nature: Destruction is a part of the creative process, too. In art, it is an important tool. Destruction is a way of closing, unbinding, and finalizing. However, it must be consciously applied. Too often we see people arguing for destruction out of incompetence or an inability to see what is being lost. This institutionalized (and thus blind) destruction of spirit and environment is neither the way to balance nor to ascension —Anyone who claims otherwise should lead by example.
The thing I do know —and there is nothing new in that statement— is that vanity does not facilitate stability. Living superficially, indulging in pleasures without bounds, that will dissolve your spirit. You will end up being just another piece of trash on the sidewalk.
- Could a project like 900RPM exist under other, more sheltered conditions? Every time we are on vacation in Berlin, I sense that same feeling of disgust and alienation, but at the same time I am also aware of an endless stream of creative energy and possibilities.
- Ah yes, the humming of the city. Smoke and mirrors. It is just a numbers game. The more resources in one space, the more possibilities. When you are here, you look for these things, and you will find them. Subjectively, in great numbers. However low the relative rate is. This is a big place.
To be more specific: It is very hard to find affordable rehearsal space here, and if you are creating the more involved kinds of art, such as sculptures or installations, you can forget about finding a studio, full stop. This city is selling itself to the highest bidders, who only care about their return on investment. They will choose something that makes money: Offices and luxury apartments. Not art studios.
I am not trying to play the victim of gentrification here. The fault lies as much with the hedonistic circle-jerking bunch that call themselves artists in this town. What weak spirits we are. Germany offers so many ways you can join up and get funds, locations, and events. You just need get together, and do it. Unfortunately, most ›creative‹ folks can not even look past their ego. They can not compromise in any meaningful way. So nothing happens.
Who can blame them? How could they act in any other way? This is a place of hedonists. It feels like a playground, made just for you. Why would you go through all that trouble, why would you take responsibility, if your next high and new single-serving friends are just around the corner? Better think about the future some other time. A fitting quote comes from this article: »I spent a lot of time talking about the arts over beer or coffee, or at 4 a.m. over a mirror, but I didn’t see a whole lot actually being created.»
Considering that the population of the city’s metropolitan area is over 6 million, I find its cultural output truly disappointing. Most artists are mainly living the life, but not actually putting in the hours. The ones that do are disconnected from the scene, from the city. These artists can do their work somewhere else, just as well.
So, could we exist without the city? I think we could, and we would do rather well. I mean, the amenities are useful. Public transportation is good, and we have our jobs here. The copious amounts of trash do form a singular compelling argument in favor of this city.
In final conclusion, though: We do not need this exact place to create stuff.
Let us be honest, and get back to reality: 900RPM existing outside of the current construct is pure conjecture. Things are as they are. We are not going to pack up our lives and move off to the countryside to start a 900RPM-commune. I appreciate the city for offering me the possibilities it has. I fear and hate it, for the influence it might take.
In the end, though, it is always the people you meet, the interactions that arise, that make the difference. The opportunities and possibilities are within yourself.
These are not bound to a place. You create them yourself.
- Could you describe the evolutionary process, 900RPM took from 2014 starting out with a joke about making noise music with a washing machine, to such a big and serious project like Der Golem which kept you busy for a long long time now?
- We surely did not start out as thorough nor as focused. I remember the original conversation: It was about noise drone, and how a washing machine had all the sonic capabilities needed for that style. It was jokingly put forward that we could »make an album with just a washing machine.« Within that same conversation, we immediately found common ground and productive inspiration.
David and me both agreed on the nasty rigid nature of most kinds of music production. For example: As soon as you announce you play the bass, musicians expect you to perform a certain way. They expect grooves, riffs, and all that. That has a place somewhere, but is not very conducive to experimentation. If you use predefined processes, you usually end up with a predefined track. Since there is a lot of conventional music out there —oftentimes played better than we could ourselves— we did not feel the need to add to that canon.
Unconventional instruments were thus always a staple for the band. They facilitate exploration of sounds, without preset expectations. As an added bonus, nobody knows what these instruments should sound like, since they have no precedent. A perfect opportunity to focus more on sound, and less on virtuosity. It feels like a less technical, a more grounded way to make music. Because it is still, after all, music. I mean, we are not extraterrestrials. However strange our stuff may sound at times, we understand the need to connect aesthetically to people. So you will hear recognizable movements, build-ups, and patterns.
Personally, I find conventional music a great delight to listen to, but extremely cumbersome to create. When I feel that that a performance requires a huge, flashing, pink elephant that you can hit with sticks, there is no conventional way to take. Yet, this is an equally important part of the total composition, for me.
The grammar of conventional music is one you really need to grasp before you can stretch its boundaries. If you learn and excel, invest large amounts of time, it will deliver great results. However, it comes with limitations in medium, shape, tonality, melody and rhythm. For me personally, creating music is a bit of a mix-and-match. While using some of the aspects of conventional music, I leave others mostly alone. I am not very interested in melody, yet I do love texture, and rhythm as a byproduct of that. To paraphrase Brian Eno a little: When I look at musical notation, there is no way to deal with texture. Were I to write down my music as notes, it would be a jumble of very complex notes, followed by ten pages of almost nothing at all. And it would still be missing the point.
Some very interesting work on musical notation was done in the 1950’s – 1970’s by Iannis Xenakis, Krzysztof Penderecki, and John Cage. However, I have yet to see a partiture that can reliably describe a texture, like two harsh drones and their interrelated build-up. Then again, perhaps that is not necessary. Such vagueness forms an expressive inner space within the music. No need to create a map with infinite detail. One accepts that only the work itself can truly be its own description.
My stance on the subject of conventional music systems is similar to Jaron Lanier’s critique on MIDI, from his book You are not a gadget (2011). He describes MIDI (a digital music notation system) as a strong influence on music, making it rigid and systematized. On the one hand you are given a tighter grammar with more precision and a better understood vocabulary of musical expression. On the other hand, it is awfully one-dimensional. There is a loss of flexibility in playing, and an enormous loss of serendipity. Which brings us to why and how we, as 900RPM, build our instruments and why we work the way we do. It is half-planned, and the rest falls into our lap by experimentation and luck. No special competence needed. It goes wrong often enough. Just use what you find, accept what is offered. It is all part of the serendipitous process.
- We had the opportunity to catch you live in Berlin, while performing the ›catacomb concert‹.
The strange and unusual music instruments caught my attention almost immediately. All those analog devices and cables, percussion parts and drums in frameworks along with the homemade string instruments induced a feeling of being in a sound-alchemist’s secret laboratory.
What skills where needed to create that arsenal of atmospheric stuff and why did 900RPM choose to create their sound mostly the DIY way?
- Ah yes, that was a great gig. Good atmosphere. I am happy about how it turned out.
I mentioned already that the process is one of serendipity, and that is what you see in our setup as well. It took a long time for things to evolve as they are now. We had been building and experimenting for years before we finally got to a point where our instruments were performance-ready. So indeed: Why DIY?
We have a couple of reasons for building our own instruments. As mentioned earlier: Conventional instrumentation limits experimentation. The experimental motivator is always a fundamental aspect of our work.
Then there is the manufacturing process. Building something requires a deep dive into the materials, the logic, the processes. It increases your understanding of music, and the world in general. The understanding you gain by building something yourself is deep. It is the closest we as humans can come to gods, by shaping the world around us into a middle ground between our concept and base physical reality. You are in control, you are creating, and that is empowering.
The same goes for the analog devices you mentioned. Tape recorders, self-built analog effect pedals and synthesizers. These are adjusted to my level of skill with a soldering iron. I dislike to use anything which I can not repair. To me, that feels unnatural.
In general, our extremely wasteful civilization produces so much detritus, so many objects, that it would be flat-out insane to just throw it all away. This is the ›ecological‹ motivator, as I call it. 900RPM is —in that specific way— a statement against wastefulness: We show that, with effort and focus, it is possible to conjure quality from found objects, from trash. That statement is less about ecology directly and more about the philosophical attitude associated with it. If you strive for balance, how can it be acceptable to use up the world around you, without replenishing? This is not only anti-social and self-damaging, but it is hypocritical. It disconnects humanity from itself and from the world around it.
No love lost between me and any religion, yet I do think humanity has a responsibility similar to the description in Genesis, where god creates man to »work the garden and tend it.« The current wanton destruction of resource and spirit by our civilization is truly despicable. It is without honor. It is a virus-like behavior which I have always associated with systemic religions, be they Christianity, The Free Market, or something else.
So 900RPM uses that which is left behind by others. Trash, many would call it. Yet the things often considered trash, are not. The wonderful German adage »Ist das Kunst, oder kann das weg?« explains it well.
Both trash and art are in the eye of the beholder. Where art is aspiration to the eternal and trash the excrement of civilization, combining them —even exchanging their meaning— and still indubitably creating aesthetic quality from it, is a true closing of the circle. It has a certain elegance and, I would say, a sense of completion.
When I walk through the filthy streets of Berlin, I often see washing machines standing on the sidewalk. For me, it is clear that the object is not trash. I see a collection of electric motors, steel baskets, screws, bolts, copper wiring, driving belts, knobs, relays, rubber washers, springs, sheet metal, and strangely shaped blocks of concrete. These are all things I can do something with, build something from. This is not really a skill to learn, but rather a change of perspective. An understandably difficult change of perspective. Everything else in this world is trying to convince you that trash is trash, and art is art. And that is just not true. There is no line but the one you draw.
When it comes to sound, we have definitely been guided by our love for heavy music. 900RPM’s sounds are drawn out, atmospheric. Moving from soft and distant textures, to shattering drone explosions. It needs contrast, spread out over a lot of space and time.
I have personally been greatly inspired by fellow Berliner Aidan Baker, and the likes of Black Boned Angel, Locrian, and Barn Owl. All those wonderful bands that regularly build songs over an hour long, that do not shy away from the right noise. Those influences are clearly audible in Der Golem, I feel.
- I read an interesting article about Edvard Munchs time in Berlin recently and know that your vita also involves art history. Is there common ground between expressionistic art and drone music in your opinion?
- The obvious parallel would be that both forms of art do not shy away from distortion. Either in color and visuals, or in audio effects and processing. It is more about the perceived shape of things, and less about the exact techniques or meaning behind it. In expressionism this was done by channeling emotions into the work, something we almost take for granted nowadays.
There is another culturally historical parallel at play here as well. Expressionism came into existence in a time where rigid art practice was the rule, the status quo. These artist wanted freedom of artistic expression, and started breaking the rules of art. It was an escape of sorts, into the realm of free composition and the abstract. The same goes for drone. Somewhere during the 90’s the production style in extreme music started to improve. Very clear and high-end production took over. It was often played very fast, as well. I noticed that in the first decade a sort of fatigue set in. Because there was indeed something to be said for those grainy demo tapes. There were whole landscapes inside the music. Pretty awesome, intimate stuff.
Yet those landscapes were gone after the high-end audio treatment. This fatigue —this tiredness of relentless speed and dynamically squashed clarity— morphed into the early outcroppings of drone. It was a breaking of the rules, in almost all aspects of what conventional music stands for. Melody, rhythm, structure, length: They are all meaningless when it comes to drone. It was an escape from the shackles of over-produced music, into the swampy yet adventurous thicket of not-knowing-exactly-what-you-are-listening-to.
Although this is my personal perspective, the cultural pendulum does sway. Then again, drone is of all times, of all people. The most fundamental human expression that is musical, humming, is drone. Almost all folk music in existence incorporates it. So does most religious music. So I think there a fundamental need within us. A need for the layered, intertwining textures of the drone.
- If you had to compose a ’soundtrack‹ to one of Munchs paintings, which one would you choose?
- A soundtrack to a Munch painting, nice idea!
To be honest, I am not all too familiar with his work, but from what I know, I think I would pick The Sun from 1910. That painting shows traces of romanticism, while heralding the abstractions to come. It holds a rigid composition, but is almost washed out in its strokes and elements. That fits my musical sensitivities nicely. The whole thing gets bonus points for looking like a nuclear explosion.
The soundtrack I envision would be something around twenty minutes long. It would be played as a never-ending loop, with a gap-less beginning and end. Going with the colors and lightness of the visual, there needs to be lots of space, a feeling of cold, but slowly warming up near the middle —just as the painting does. I would base it off field-recordings of twanging metal objects, echoing empty streets, wind, and perhaps softly breaking glass. Those will be layered atop a distantly spaced, distorted bass drone. Something along those lines.
- As far as I have learned, there is a lot of socio-critical context hidden in 900RPM’s work. So, whats up next? Metropolis maybe?
- Hidden is the right word. This interview is probably the first anybody ever hears of it. We do not use vocals or lyrics in our work very much, and most definitely not to convey a message. The only vocalizations we ever do are rhythmical or textural in nature. So yeah, it is hidden. Music like ours is not the right vehicle for social criticism. If you want to be politically active you should write a manifesto, I think.
Your suggestion, to create music to another film. We have talked about it, and however nice that might be, it is a very heavy workload to create such a huge composition. Added to that, it is also relatively limited, since you are temporally and atmospherically locked to the film. I think we are done with the movie soundtrack thing for now, and we are going to take it nice and easy for a while.
To give you a little bit of insight: We have been talking about some ideas for the near future, varying from a cover album of cultist hits, to field-recorded contact microphone cityscapes, or the electromagnetic sky burial of our Facebook profile data. Or a piano composition based on delay effects. Ideas are never in short supply. We shall see where we go from here.
- Thank you Mark for this thoughtful and intense Interview!
Maybe one last and heavy question: Seems a little bit like our social and economic systems in Europe are on the brink of collapse right now and the party is over, at least for a while…
What is your personal vision of »Utopia«? Could the current crisis mark some sort of a turning point for society?
- From a spiritual perspective, the pandemic is a blessing in disguise. Occidental civilization needs to slow-down and introspect. People need to see where truth and value lies: It is not your job, your money. It is not your possessions, your looks, your status. You only ever really have you. You must accept who you are, since you are going to be confronted with that person quite a lot, these coming months.
»I don’t like it!« they will say, to which I respond: »All medicine is bitter.« Chips will fall. Relationships will break. People will go a little crazy. Although that is not surprising, when you suddenly discover a complete stranger living within you. Especially shallow people are going to have a very hard time, due to their spiritual inattentiveness. They fully deserve it.
Ecologically, the measurements against contagion are already proving to be amazing. It is truly one of the best things we could have ever done for our world. The temperature in the city is lower, the birds are more present, the air is of better quality, the skies are clearer. I would prefer it stays this way. It shows that ecological change is very possible. It is a question of wanting it to happen, and being motivated enough to do it. Unfortunately, it also shows that only the fear of death really moves a herd. Let us hope the politicians will not get all horny because of all that power, and then conveniently ›forget‹ to give us back our freedoms. It is so nice and quiet now.
Economically, I could not care less. The way we currently behave ourselves in the name of ›The Market‹ is ridiculous. If that replacement god gets destroyed: Good riddance.
In time, people will agree. Around me, some are losing their jobs after years of loyal service. Most others are being financially squeezed by their employers. Forced to take self-paid vacation. What amazes me: These people are surprised by this! Which in turn surprises me: To expect morality from an intrinsically amoral organization, that is plain idiocy. The blind are truly leading the blind in this spiritual desert of a civilization.
My heartfelt hope is that this opportunity will be used by many to reflect and improve: To become a greater, better version of themselves; To use the time which is given; To think; To create! I hope the current societal changes will put things in perspective and re-prioritize humans. I hope people will open the door to the freedom and light within us all. Reality will always throw you curve-balls, so external projection of utopian requirements is doomed from the start. It is the philosophical equivalent of the garden of Eden, which is a cage for immature minds to finally escape. A rebellious action, required to become truly independent, to be truly a part of this world. All the tools to achieve human happiness are at our disposal, inside of us. The process begins by looking at yourself, passing through the fear, into the light. Utopia lies within us.
Now stop reading, pull yourself together, and go make some fucking art!