E-Mail-Interview mit Peter Henning veröffentlicht in „namenlos#7“, Schweden 2008
To begin with, I would like to ask you how you initially came to work with sound. Is it something you’ve always been interested in? I read on your web site that you studied literature and music to begin with, playing the flute in a classical orchestra and in jazz bands. How did these interests develop into your occupation with text and sound in other contexts?
I came to music through flute and piano lessons that I got as a child. But maybe I should say I came to scores by these lessons, because playing was more or less separated from hearing. It was more how to learn how little black dots correspond with certain positions of your fingers. In this time I never thought about what I liked to hear, I came to sound later – through hearing. And I think this is important. I listened to something on the radio, I can’t remember the piece, but it was a piece in the program of “WDR Studio for Acoustic Art”, I was maybe 19 at that time. I had played a lot of classical music up to that point, and was just starting to play in a rock band, but somehow this all existed before I was born and for me it all had to do with using fingers in a correct way, which blocked me, I guess. Acoustic Art – making music with sounds of our environment, playing with the meaning of sounds, that was the first time I was really fascinated by something that kicked my ear. During my studies I continued playing flute in the university orchestra and a classical chamber orchestra, I did two street music tours all over Europe, I heard a lot of jazz and improvised music and at the same time I started writing. At university I had the chance to study literature and music. That was a unique solution. I got a special permission to study music with future teachers that meant I got instrumental lessons, had to study harmonies, hearing formation and so on and could use it as a second subject in my literature studies. But that was quite a traditional study. In my literature studies however I had the rare opportunity to study all the history and contemporary art of radio play with a professor who had a very distinguished sense of art and was interested in avant-garde fine art, literature and music. It was a school of hearing. We listened every week to a whole piece and talked about it. We never listened to any extracts. I think that was very important. Always whole pieces. A lot of people get nervous when they have to listen concentrated for more than ten minutes. But once you find out, what you get, when you stay, it becomes really fascinating. He also invited a curator from the local arts exhibition hall and we learned to see visual poetry and art. It was more about perception then about history. I also ordered the radio brochures from the station looked through all the descriptions of pieces and listened highly concentrated to almost every piece broadcasted by the „WDR Studio for Acoustic Art“, then I wrote a thesis about „Collage in radio plays“. Although I played music and wrote in this period, I never thought of making my own plays at that time. Then I started to work free lanced for a radio station in South Germany. I wrote my first plays that were directed by other directors. I was always disappointed, because I didn’t like the sound. At that time I stopped all my practical music, because it was a small city, and I didn’t find a group except a choir. I worked as a director’s assistant, editor and trainee. In 1998/99 I worked as a dramaturge for radio plays, it was the kind of work I always wanted, but I became totally unhappy.
After a long inner struggle I gave up my well-paid and safe job and moved to Berlin. That was the time when the first digital sequencer programs were sold. I bought a new computer and installed ProTools. A friend asked me to participate in the „plopp-award“, a competition for free radio play producers. So I learned the program very fast by doing and – won the award. Also at the same time I recall my interest for experimental music. I came into the scene of Berlin Improvisers and one day I looked around in my flat, I saw all the instruments that I didn’t play anymore in the shelves. And with the inspiration of the Berlin scene, with the new possibilities of digital editing and a lot of free time I started to play music in a totally different way than I learned it. I prepared the piano, I used contact mikes and field recordings, I removed the corpus of my flute to use only the mouth piece, I looked for my old Korg rock organ and played with the registers, I recalled the Djembe rhythms I learned years before and transformed them. I asked myself, what I really want to hear. With the possibility of recording myself, I found my way. It then also changed my work with actors and speech. I am a total late fuse and I enjoy it.
Could you explain further how your new approach to music affected your work with actors and speech as you say?
I always listen to speech as music and I try to find new ways of musical speaking now. I worked for example with simultaneous speaking because this kind of speaking has a certain sound. In „call me yesterday“ I let two actors hear a story on headphone. They had to translate the story spontaneously and I recorded them. This kind of speaking has certain rhythm and certain sound of seeking. In „false friends“ I let them speak on certain pitches, like Robert Ashley, but then mixed several different versions so that I got something in between speaking and singing. In my composition „rochenununterbrochen“ I asked 20 persons to do an hour of automatic speaking, that is to say they had to speak for one hour without the shortest interruption, not even a second was allowed, and each of them recorded himself alone at home in my absence. I then did a composition with extracts of each hour. I try to give actors tasks that distract them from acting so that they have to think about something else. The voice is a wonderful instrument; I cannot imagine any instrument or computer that allows you to trigger so many features at one time. The voice is directly connected to human mind and can be controlled in a very complex way.
I also often try to integrate documentary speech into a musical structure. I do not change the original rhythm, of single words. I always stick with the natural way of speaking but use maybe three, four words as a pattern.
Another thing I wondered on this subject is how you define „music“ in relation to radio play. I noticed for instance that you released a CD together with Alessandro Bosetti (which I haven’t heard though), and many elements of „call me yesterday“ struck me as sounding much in line with contemporary experimental/electronic music. At the same time, a radio play seems to be part of a different context compared to the practice and documentation of the music mentioned. I can of course think of examples that cross that border, especially historical works, but there seems to be fewer contemporary ones.
This definition problem seems to be part of my life. Unfortunately there are some words, which are understood by professionals but not by the rest of the world. One week ago I tried to introduce myself shortly as „Hörspielmacherin“ (radio play maker) a common word in German radio scene. But the immediate answer was: „?? This is not a German word!“ So I stick with „author, director and sound art composer“. In Germany it’s sometimes difficult, but outside of Germany it’s even worse. Compared with all other countries in the world Germany has a broadly varied landscape of radio programmes. We have ten national public radio stations where other countries have only one. All of them have radio play programmes and most or them sound art programmes. We have regular places for pieces that cross the border between radio play and documentary and the „Studio for Acoustic Art“ of WDR is a worldwide renowned place for pieces in between music and literature. Pieces by famous composers like Mauricio Kagel, John Cage and Luc Ferrari have been presented there. In the 80s and 90s we had a turn towards pop music with important pieces by Heiner Goebbels and Andreas Ammer, later we had pieces with a more electronical bias, for example by Asmus Tietchens. And we have an important award for radio art, the „Karl-Sczuka-Preis“. So, most people in Germany have at least a diffuse idea of what I do, whereas people here in the United States, where I am right now, really don’t know where to put me.
For me it is interesting when sound is interspersed between music and narration, you can use the expectations of the listener and you can fool them, which makes them aware of their own perception. Unfortunately this special tradition never found really it’s way to the cd labels. There are big treasures hidden in the archives of German public radio. Only very few are published, like „Roaratorio“ by John Cage. Others by Kagel, Barry Bermage or even new ones by Tom Johnson are not available on cd. I recorded them of the radio and have my own private archive. But I really miss a label and think of founding one, also because I’d like to publish my own works. A single short piece like the one on the cd with A. Bosetti is totally lost and doesn’t make much sense, although I like all these labels for experimental music very much.
In the last years I moved more and more from text to sound, and started to work also outside of radio. I did installations and performances for festivals. I like for example very much the combination of documentary speech and musical composition without any comment. This is difficult in radio. Although there is a great model produced 1964 by the BBC: „Dreams“ (1964) by Barry Bermange (with music by Delia Derbyshire), one of my favourite pieces. I also did a video composition together with Steffi Weismann and we produced a live version of „call me yesterday “ with five performers, tape and two-channel video projection on rotating wooden disks. I hope that the tradition of acoustic art won’t get lost in German radio, but it’s good to have some other „channels“ to work for. As I didn’t study composition and normally don’t write scores, the so-called New Music is not my field. I feel closer to Berlin Improvised music and to French electro-acoustic composition.
I really hope you start the label – at least I would be interested in hearing those releases!
It’s also interesting that you mention the French electro-acoustic music as I read that you have been granted an artist’s residency at INA-GRM in Paris. That’s an institution embedded with a heavy musical history, much as the German Hörspiel tradition and so on. How do you feel working in that lineage? Is it hard to differentiate, or position, your own artistic activity from the history of those movements or is it something you don’t care so much about? I guess everyone is facing those problems in varying forms, but it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on it.
Maybe I should have said I like the French electro-acoustic composers rather than I see myself in this tradition. I admire the acousmatique tradition, the spacialisation, also the rhapsodic development in pieces and very much their way of bringing sounds into movement, let them breath, but even when I want to adapt some of their ideas I often find myself with mono or dirty sounds. I prefer sounds that reflect everyday life, like in „False friends “ where I worked with doppler effects and with mobile phone key tones. It’s also my character. I feel better with understatement and with humour. I could never adapt the pathos. So aesthetically my stuff is closer to electronic and improvised music. But I transfer these sounds into a literary environment. I try to evoke images with my pieces. Anyhow, in Paris I’ll work on a more musical more abstract piece, which is probably more open to French ideas, I’ll see what happens… I think it is important for me to do work at least once completely without text. In general I move more towards performance and another important „French“ (I know he was born in Greece) inspiration is George Aphergis, whom I admire for how he develops minimal stories or acting with the musicians on stage.
You mention that you like working with humour, and I think that some parts of „Call me yesterday“ definitely had humoristic qualities – but perhaps balancing against unmistakable seriousness as well. How do you approach this, is it something that you decide in beforehand or is it something that develops by itself?
I have produced some more narrative pieces that were funnier, but after a while I found it too shallow. If a joke is too clear, it evokes some relaxation, but nothing more. I wanted to be more serious, to evoke images and create gaps that the listeners could fill with their own imagination. But if you want to be serious there is always the danger of pathos, the danger of taking oneself too important and being too suggestive and as I am not a pathetic person and don’t want to manipulate listeners I feel a natural and urgent impulse to break serious things – sometimes by interruption, often by showing the contingency of things, seldom by random processes. That’s why there often comes some humour into my pieces even when I didn’t want it and started with a serious theme. That happens without thinking. But then – as a result of that process – I accept it. Sometimes interruption or ambiguity is a gap, which the listener can fill with his/her own associations. It’s a difference if you start with the intention to be funny or if it is your only mean to balance pathos. Maybe one day I’ll find other means to avoid it, and then I could finally start to make serious pieces…
„Call me yesterday“, the piece mentioned a few times now, is – whether humorous or not – to a large extent based on sounds from language course records and tapes. I find the theme really fascinating since I’ve been collecting these records myself, what was it you found interesting with them and what were your thoughts on working with that material?
I first listened to one of these old-school-courses at a friend of mine. I was fascinated by the melodies in the phrases, which are a side effect of exaggerated pronunciation.
Then you come to the point where you have to repeat phrases. The speaker gives you a word or a sentence followed by a break of some seconds where you are expected to imitate them and then they repeat it again. Many of my generation know this procedure from language labs at school. I think, when you listen to these courses, you repeat it maybe two three times, and then stop it. After a while you find yourself listen silently, but highly concentrated to the crackles of the vinyl in the empty breaks.
That was the point when my imagination started to spin. I looked on the vinyl and I had the impression that the grooves enlarge more and more until they become orbits in the universe. Seconds turned into light years. All the speakers seemed to drift apart from each other into far away galaxies. Sometimes somebody says „hello“ or „bonjour“ but they never get any answer. They seemed to be completely isolated. I found that this image is a clear metaphor for what happens actually with these courses. They were made with the intention to connect peoples, to support communication but in reality the opposite happened. Because of the overemphasized meaning of pronunciation you felt inhibited and in foreign countries you didn’t dare to open your mouth. Of course modern language courses have improved. But I think beyond the language teaching the courses stand for a general phenomenon in life. If you expect perfection you block the whole process.
On the other side, the concentration on perfection evokes side stages where something authentic can slip in, some expression that was not intended. Nobody ever thought of making music in these courses, but in fact there is a strong music with strong formal aesthetic characteristics in all these courses- the melodies, the rhythm of repetition and breaks, the vinyl crackles, the white noise. You just have to listen to it as music. I thought it would be worth to distillate this aesthetic so that you can enjoy an extract of it without being forced to listen to hours of exercises.
In the process of working I always had to resist the temptation of constructing new sentences. Once you start with it – and of course it is easy to do so – everything is possible and nobody would believe the real sentences anymore. I used fragments but I did never combine parts of sentences to build new ones. If I combined two lines like in the „farmer in the field“ passage, I took care that they keep independent, that you can realize how I mixed it. I think otherwise I’d lost credibility.
It has to be clear that I took only phrases that I found. I think for example that you can only accept the phrase „call me yesterday“ which occurs quite late, because until this point it’s clear that I didn’t construct it myself. In fact it is a result of an exercise in which you are given some key words to build a sentence with. „Call, me, yesterday“ and you have to answer: “Why didn’t you call me yesterday“ (I didn’t use the explanation but other examples of this series that gives you an idea of the principle). If I had started to construct my own sentences before, the ambiguous poetry of this phrase would have been lost. You would assume that it was my own combination.
As I remember it, the piece also featured some narrative sections in the more traditional sense. The one I recall most vividly is a part where a woman tells us about the time she mimicked another woman’s snoring, doing so in order to make her aware that she, the narrator, was aware of it. Such an instance has a very „human“ feel to it, contrasting the language course fragments and the musical bits. Was this a written part or a captured anecdote, and what were your motives behind the inclusion of that kind of material?
This story „The dormitory“ I wrote and experienced myself. I felt that I need a contrasting part. I didn’t only want to make fun of the courses but to show also alternatives. In that story the communication is based on what is only an aesthetic or didactic pattern in the courses: repetition. The woman tries to reach something by repeating the other, tries to stop her from breathing loudly. In the end you don’t know, if it worked out well or not. I wanted to show that you could communicate, that you could even tell a story without understanding everything. Ambiguity can be more interesting then exact translation. The question „did she or he understand me?“ in any context proves more interest in communication than a perfect pronounced „Bonjour“. Trying is more important than the result.
Also the way in which I recorded the story reflects this idea. I wrote the text in German, let it be translated into English and French by other persons and then spoke it myself. Then two actors heard this text on headphones and had to translate it spontaneously. One translated into German, one into French.
I recorded these spontaneous translations and mixed them. You can hear how the actors try to find their words, sometimes they make mistakes, sometimes they correct themselves, and sometimes they translate different. It’s very different from normal reading, because you can hear them thinking. And you have again repetition and ambiguity the main ideas of the contents of the story. I hope it draws listeners into the process of trying, searching, filling gaps with own imagination. It also corresponds with the other story, „the Japanese man“, another example for the poetry of misunderstanding.
In the light of what we’ve discussed, what do you think there is to be gained by broadcasting pieces such as this on the radio, do they work in the same way as when listened to from a CD player in another context? And you’ve touched on it before, but what would you generally say is special about the radio play format, and how do you view its role today and its future?
I would like to know the answer myself… Broadcastings of the piece were scheduled in the radio play programs, which are normally more on the literature side, or in programs for „acoustic art“. Listeners of these programs are more used to follow a piece from beginning to end. I think that makes it easier to get the general idea of the piece. It’s also nice to have a big audience that does not only consist of experts. A friend advised me to shorten the beginning for the radio because it is to slow and everybody would switch off after 30 seconds. I refused and whenever I joined public presentations of the piece the beginning worked well, because the audience had time to concentrate. Maybe it doesn’t work in radio, but I take the risk… I don’t know if there is a difference if you listen to it as a music cd. Today I’ll go for a live broadcasting to KXLU here in Los Angeles. I will present extracts like from a musical cd and talk a little. I’ll see what happens…
In general there is a big change concerning the meaning of radio play in Germany. Recently I taught at university and none of the students connected radio play with radio
(The German word for radio play is „Hörspiel“, like ‚hear play‘). They all thought of audio books. That was a shock for me. The main part of all audio books consists of readings of bestseller books read by well known actors. There may be interesting things, but the publishers don’t take any risk by publishing unknown writers. A certain percentage of the audio books are radio plays that have been produced in German public radio stations with money of the stations, which is in fact money that comes from the fees that every owner of a radio has to pay: it’s kind of a tax. That means public radio has a much bigger budget, but is also obliged to fulfill the so-called educational mission. They can afford and have to produce high-level productions for minor groups. Public radio stations are not allowed to sell their productions but they worked out deals to publish them together with audio book publishers. That’s fine for bestseller productions and crime, but the publishers are not interested in avant-garde things or even funny and intelligent but not well-known authors. They can’t afford to pay themselves for a production with several actors, original composition and several weeks of production time, but in their brochures they mix readings and radio plays. Often the directors are not even mentioned. The audience is also different. I once heard about a woman who bought the radio play version of a famous German novel. The next day she came back to return it because „something was missing“ and asked for the reading. It is irritating for me, because it seems that she got even more, if you consider, that someone really thought about how you can adapt the novel for hearing which is a different process than reading, that there were more actors and an original composition. I learn from that, that the majority of audio book buyers are readers and they don’t care about sound but about the original text version.
So I doubt that people like me can really benefit from the audio book boom. At the same time public radio stations start to offer downloads on their websites. That means there is another, new way of distribution. Here you have an audience that is more interested in sound and genuine radio art. But there are still some loopholes in the law, concerning the payment of the writers and also concerning the question if public radio stations are allowed to use fees to maintain websites instead of producing radio programs.
Both new distributions the audio book and the Internet do somehow cut off radio play from its tradition in radio. A lot of people think it’s something new, (which can also be very positive) and have no idea of the history of this genre. The treasures of German radio play are not easy accessible, many pieces still sleep in the archives. When I was 20- 25, I recorded a lot myself on audiotape. Pieces by Cage, Kagel, Fontana, and many others – if you want to get a copy from a radio station you can only get it for educational purposes. But because of the old contracts where every technician has some sort of copyright it is difficult to publish them.
What I like is the idea, that users might listen to a piece more than once. In former times you had to switch on the radio on time and after the emission it was gone. And only very few people recorded something. It’s easier now to make copies and give or mail them to friends and talk about it. When I listened to a great radio play in former times I could almost never talk with somebody about it, and share my impressions. So I hope downloads will help to establish a radio art scene and discourse.
You know, one aspect that I like very much about radio play but which is also a big problem is that there is absolutely no prestige and no social profit from listening at home to a radio play. That means that there are not so many narcissistic artists. And also the listeners are different from let’s say the audience of classical concerts or opera where many people go for social reasons or to show their cultural standards. If someone is at home and switches on the radio to listens to a radio play you can be sure, that he/she is really interested. But on the other hand, it’s a pity that you can’t discuss a piece with other people and that there are only few cultures of criticism. So we also need some public events like festivals and competitions to have some social meetings and discourse. So far the stations have organized these events and I hope they will go on. In the last years there are more festivals and competitions and also people come together to listen to radio plays in private situations. That’s really a new trend.