Antje Vowinckel: Echtzeitrachen

A short case history of my sound composition, Rochenununterbrochen. An automatic hour, based on language improvisations by Echtzeit-musicians.


Why is somebody interested their entire life long in “Hörspiel” (radio plays) and improvised music? Improvised music lives in the moment – even though its concepts may become established and experiences engrave themselves in the musicians – whereas radio play or sound composition is a very controlled form of art, based on a clear division of labour and mostly institutionalized, one in which everything is prepared well in advance. Additionally, radio plays are an illusionistic/ representational genre that depends on believing the actors, a genre that lives on images, even though they exist only in our heads. Thus: two, in fact, quite different genres. Perhaps the common ground is simply that both genres exist without big events and without high admission costs? At least, this parallel appeals to my Westphalian sense of economy and understatement. In any case, in the past I often found myself sitting in front of my radio, getting into all sorts of radio pieces without knowing the artists in advance and without visiting any performing venue. And if I was not in the broadcast area of WDR, sometimes I would call friends who were and have them put their telephone receiver near the radio, so that I could listen to a piece.


In the first live concert of improvised music I heard, at age sixteen, there was no introduction from a presenter, as opposed to what I was accustomed to with the radio. I took the first set to be a warm-up session, and it was only with the applause from the audience that I realized I had already heard a concert. This “aha” moment of realization shook up my listening habits and also led me to become curious about new things in radio. I discovered the programs produced by “WDR Studio Akustische Kunst” and discovered non-representational, musically-bounded pieces, in which language was not connected to roles and plots, but had a material quality. Here one finds parallels to “Echtzeitmusik”, a genre in which the material and noisy qualities of instrumental sounds are often also featured. However,  language improvisation was nonexistent in these pieces, although you could find  it  in jazz programmes. Thus, I was enthusiastic about my discovery of a piece in which both came together: language and improvisation. Hörspiel – ein Aufnahmezustand by Mauricio Kagel was the most exciting piece in this direction. It still fascinates me today and was an important inspiration for Rochenununterbrochen. Kagel invited several musicians to the radio studio, allegedly to record their music. During the warm-up-time the microphones were already live, the tape was rolling and Kagel led extensive, but in no way pre-planned conversations with the musicians. These dialogues – together with the warm-up music – were the actual basis of the piece. In the end, it is a composition, but Kagel gained the material from improvisation. No writer would ever have been able to write such dialogues. Kagel had declared a supposedly minor matter as a major matter and only because everybody took the conversations in the studio as something marginal, those involved gave a more authentic impression than any actors could ever have produced.

The piece is now forty years old and there have not been many other comparable attempts in this direction, even though Acoustic Art has become considerably more established since then. When I moved to Berlin in 2000 I began listening once again to improvised music and Echtzeitmusik after having taken a longer break from it. I was still attracted by the absence of a star- and event cult in the music, but also by the new reduced and often surprisingly mechanical ways of playing, especially by the brass instruments players, who made their instruments sound like machines and refrained from any artificial dramatizing by means of expressive crescendos or eruptive staccatos as known from Free Jazz. The music is more conceptual and closer to the mechanical sounds of our environment. As a listener one feels challenged to find the charm directly within the inner structure of the sound. Small changes in tongue position, valve-pistons, or mouth cavity shape result in small shifts in the sound spectrum, which are less often heard as organic metamorphoses, rather becoming perceptible through abrupt, step-like contrasts. At some point I began thinking that it would be interesting to use the voice in a mechanical, automatic way, too, and to direct vocal performers away from organic arcs and gestural sounds that are similar to human conversations.

This was one basic idea for Rochenununterbrochen. Another thought about it arose from Kagel’s Aufnahmezustand and listening to old language training courses which I had used in my piece, Call me yesterday. Namely, the experience that authenticity can be produced deliberately only with great effort, but rather more often comes to pass as a side-effect (like the music in the exercises made to train perfect pronunciation or like the utterances that Kagel gained by pretending that a warm-up session was taking place).

I had this experience personally when I decided spontaneously, from one second to the next, on a rainy Sunday morning, to speak one hour without any interruption.  While doing so, I got up, took my shower, had breakfast and found the entire action amazingly amusing.

That encouraged me to ask twenty musicians experienced in Echtzeitmusik to do the same thing and to record themselves during this time. I provided them with the technical equipment and instructions and then left them alone. “Without any interruption” was meant as, without even a one second pause: speak, speak, speak or sing, but in-between just breathing and not thinking.

Of course this method is reminiscent of the “ecriture automatique” of the French surrealists, and also of the “stream of consciousness” in the literature of James Joyce, etc. I was, however, mainly interested in the repetitive and mechanical character of this stream of speech. When one is forced to go on and on speaking, one first relies on conventions and templates – this is normal and part of the process. Later, one loses control and gets tangled up in repetitions. One starts seeking instead of finding. These are the moments that interested me. Moments in which associations developed in tiny steps and thanks to the experience of Echtzeit-musicians were often connected to the sound of the words. These musicians have a certain feeling and ability to consider everything – however banal it may be, or maybe even the result of a mistake or gap – as material and to stay on the ball with it, not jump or sort something, but rather develop it; an ability which I found consistently impressive in many concerts of Echtzeitmusik.


Rochenununterbrochen was produced 2007 by WDR „Studio Akustische Kunst“ and received an honourable mention at the Phonurgia Nova Award 2007. Further broadcastings in DLR and SWR.

With: Antonia Baehr, Sebastiano Ciurcina, Axel Dörner, Kai Fagaschinski, Fernanda Farrah, Margareth Kammerer, Christian Kesten, Annette Krebs, Barbara Loreck, Chico Mello, Andrea Neumann, Ana Maria Rodriguez, Caroline Scholz, Britta Steffenhagen, Sabine von der Tann und Annouschka Trocker.