Above left: Bianca and Sierra Casady of CocoRosie, photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux. Above right: Robert Wilson, photographed in Bochum, Germany by Oliver Schultz-Berndt.
Sound was always an intergral part of Robert Wilson’s vision. Since the early seventies, the Waco, Texas-born artist and director has been parsing out the emotional value of theater into what has come to be seen as characteristically Wilsonian component parts: sublime set design, highly choreographed staging, and the music of dreams and nightmares.
Teaming up with the likes of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson or Antony Hegarty (amongst others), Wilson has transformed the theater into a fantastical refuge—from the drab everyday to the melancholy and the macabre of everynight. Earlier this year, he tapped sister duo Sierra and Bianca Casady of veteran freak folkers CocoRosie to help compose the sonic accompaniment for a production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan at the Berliner Ensemble in the German capital—an appropiate location and musical choice for a story about a boy who never grows up. Here, in this conversation taken from the Fall, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, Wilson and the Casady sisters discuss the leitmotifs of their very particular Never Never Land: death and androgyny. This conversation was moderated by A.J. Samuels.
Bianca Casady: Bob, it’s great to speak to you again. Jesus, I don’t even know where I am—that tends to happen on tour.
Robert Wilson: I’m in Toronto right now and we’re opening The Life and Death of Maria Abramović in three days. The scenery is actually still stuck in customs and the lighting has yet to arrive, so things are a little tense. But we’re also very much changing gears to what we had been doing in Berlin with Peter Pan. Surely what you, Sierra and I have put together is very different than the Disney version of Peter Pan—not to mention what Mary Martin did on Broadway or on NBC. We’ve created something quite dark. But the dark side is what makes the light lighter. The theme of death in general was not something I had thought about until you two stumbled on the idea. And that’s when it became clear that this should run throughout the piece, beginning with a song about death which changes and transforms, showing the different sides or passing and mortality. Death frames our Peter Pan and gives it another dimension and also invites the fantastical. You could never perform this “realistically”. I mean, how would you perform a dead person?
BC: I picked up a certain sense of mental illness and death as one of Peter Pan’s main “issues”. James M. Barrie describes the Lost Boys—Peter’s gang—as being “children who fell out of their cribs.” That struck me as a point of departure for figuring out a new way to tell this story: the idea of the Lost Boys as ghosts; not knowing whether Peter Pan was really alive; or whether Never Never Land was a more transcendental kind of space.
RW: Our collaboration was very different than working with, say, David Byrne, Philip Glass or Tom Waits, because you’re visual artists, too—even if the final execution is sonic. I recall when you and Sierra presented me with practically an entire visual rendering of Peter Pan, with plot and characters, in addition to text and music. You thought quite a bit about make-up and what the characters look like while trying to figure out how the songs and noise elements should work. Even most playwrights or directors don’t think as much about how they’ll look, surprisingly enough.
BC: Well, it was actually one of our first times working with theater. Our live performances as CocoRosie are a very multi-media affair, but working on a play, it was even more impossible to divorce the visual aspect from meditating on the story musically. It seemed to need to materialize all at the same time. I remember having Sierra as Captain Hook go onstage to function as an image reference, because she was writing these operatic diva songs for him and needed to find his voice by actually becoming him. What fascinated me from the very beginning was this process of theatrical improvisation—starting right away with spontaneous movement as a means to gauge space and expressive potential. Also, working with you made me aware of all of the truly rhythmic forms of theater.
RW: Thinking and imagining something is one thing. Doing it is a completely different story. You both were also amenable to change. If something didn’t work with the staging or the music…
BC: Because nothing’s precious! I’ve had the experience of changing things quite a bit on the fly, especially with designing installations for exhibitions because for me it’s part of the process. And also I became aware of the fact that place, in a geographical sense, doesn’t matter—Peter Pan would be what it is regardless of where it’s staged in the world and in whatever language. Eternal youth is a pretty universal concept, even though it especially fits to Berlin, even if we didn’t spend our times going out to clubs or whatever.
Above: “To die would be an awfully big adventure,” exclaims Sabin Tambrea as Peter Pan in Robert Wilson and CocoRosie’s production at the Berliner Ensemble. Since his initial appearance in J.M. Barrie’s novel The Little White Bird in 1902, Pan has fascinated readers and audiences with his combination of eternal youth and suicidal tendencies. Barrie based the character (commonly played by an adult woman) on his brother who died at fourteen—hence, the boy who never grew up. Photo: Lucie Jansch.
RW: For me, if I’m making a piece in New York, it’s different than in Berlin. I can’t explain it, but of course German actors, both stylistically and obviously in terms of language, have a different approach to theater. And that’s surely a reflection of place. I think if we were doing this in Texas where I’m originally from, it would be pretty different. I’m from Waco and grew up in this ultra-conservative, right wing community. It was only a few years ago at Baylor University that they started to allow “social dancing” on campus! When I was growing up it was a sin if a woman wore pants! The theater was a place of ill repute, and it was a sin to go. Back then it was still considered a disgrace that Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, had died in the theater. At my high school on Friday afternoon there was a general assembly, and if you had seen somebody sinning during the week, you could put their name on a piece of paper and put it in a box so everybody in school could pray for the people in the prayer box. It was also a very racist community—and still is to some extent. It’s seen as a disgrace in many parts of Texas that Barack Obama, a black man, is in the White House. Although things are changing, it’s still like that.
BC: Have you ever done any plays in Texas?
RW: Not in Waco, but I did in Houston. I directed Parsifal, which was the first time Wagner had been performed in Texas, believe it or not. I’ve said it in the past and I’ll say it again: the landscape and the Texas sky, or should I say skies, is in all of my work somehow. It still gives me inspiration.
BC: I feel inspired by concepts of androgyny, and that was a part of the attraction of Peter Pan. I also think it’s unusual for Peter to be as shadowy and self-reflective as we ended up making him. That gets established pretty early on in the play when he sings, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.”
RW: I never think so much about whether it’s a “man” or a “woman” playing a role. I just look at the character and cast accordingly. I did King Lear with a woman. I did the Shakespeare’s Sonnets together with Rufus Wainwright and all the men played female roles and all the women played male roles. Sabin Tambrea who played Peter Pan in Berlin also has very feminine aspects to his personality and that’s what makes the character rich. I mean, look at Mick Jagger—he’s very female… and male too. Or take Marlene Dietrich: for the first half of her stage performances she’d perform in men’s clothes and the second half in women’s clothes. And that’s what makes her interesting. Indeed, Peter Pan is both male and female, but it doesn’t have to be thought about in just one way.
BC: You know Bob, when we first met to plan Peter Pan I was a bit nervous. I wouldn’t quite say intimidated, but…
Sierra Casady: It’s a bit strange to go from death to romance, but I would like to go on the record by saying just how interesting our very first encounter was, Bob. It was romantic; I was mystified by how handsome you are.
RW: Oh, God, please. I was knocked out by how sexy you are! And how well you listened to the actors’ voices and figured out what worked for their ranges and qualities. I think it can be challenging for a singer or composer to hear another voice sing their material. But you two are visual artists and that makes an enormous difference. For example, I think Tom Waits is great and I’m going to work with him again soon, but Tom doesn’t get involved with the look of a piece. He thinks more like a songwriter. I construct pieces visually. I always start with a work silently, and then we add movement and only then comes the music. But often when working with composers, they get frustrated about working initially with silence; they want to know the melodies and lyrics, and they want to know them immediately. But physical movement can often stand on its own, adding music and text is another layer. That’s how I like to think of it. Pure sound has a narrative quality like any visual or textual event. I’m not a composer, but I like suggesting things and seeing where that goes. In the long run, I can’t remember who did what with Peter Pan, and that’s the sign of a great collaboration.
CocoRosie’s fifth studio album, Tales of a Grass Widow was released this past May on City Slang.
SC: Part of our process in CocoRosie is not to be separatists in regards to how we work on things between each other—musical, visual or sentimental. We let all of those lines be very blurry. Often we’ll be thinking and discussing ideas visually and then it will come out sonically. In Berlin with you, we’d be thinking about music and then just jump onstage and ask one of the actors to help inspire us to compose by doing something physical. And you allowed us that space. I think one of my favorite moments was working on one of Tinker Bell’s solos when everyone was all very in the moment and the mood. We suddenly realized that we had been thinking only visually about this until that point and had no music, so Bianca and I rushed into the bathroom and wrote a song in, like, a matter of minutes, then gave it to Tinker Bell, and it came to life. My nervousness working with you, Bob, disappeared after we realized that there were no expectations from your side about what we had to deliver.
RW: I find if I have too many ideas in my head before I go into a rehearsal, I don’t actually look at the room and see what’s happening directly in front of me. I have to remind myself that spontaneity counts. Trying to force fixed ideas can be an incredible waste of time. In the beginning I used to be afraid that if I didn’t come to rehearsal with lots of ideas, I wouldn’t know what to do. But as I got older, I understood how unproductive visions you have alone in your room could actually be. Spontaneity can turn into something formal and vice-versa. I recently did the Lady From the Sea, the Susan Sontag adaption of the Ibsen piece. I changed it completely and I feel good about that.
BC: Sierra and I recall lots of quotes from working with you and since then, when we’re onstage, one especially comes to mind. I remember you yelling to Captain Hook’s pirates: “Stop enjoying the music so much!” We think about that all the time. We’re not the kind of musicians who want to look like we’re having too good of a time onstage. I often have to remind Sierra not to look like she’s having too much fun. But it’s also a reminder of the importance of formality and idle moments. Taking turns singing, I’m sometimes left to just stand around. I search for formality in those in-between parts. Why? To not look like I’m simply bopping along to the music. ~
Robert Wilson’s Peter Pan with music by CocoRosie will be performed at the Berliner Ensemble on February 12th and 13th. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Thomas Meinecke is a German writer, house music afficionado and founding member of German avant-garde/post-punk outfit F.S.K. His most recent book, Analog (Verbrecher Verlag), is a collection of essays he wrote for Groove Magazine between 2007 and 2013. He lives in southern Bavaria with his wife, the artist and fellow F.S.K. member Michaela Melián. In this piece from our Fall, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, he considers the collection of remixes by Terre Thaemlitz’s alter ego.
Terre Thaemlitz is an artist of many incarnations, although the core message of her body of work circles around mutual topics: transgender issues, queer rights and the marginalization of the sexually dissident. In order to approach her art it’s worth distinguishing between the many aliases she uses. He or she? Under his main name, Terre appears as a rather masculine-coded being with a “discursive” approach to musical work, and that was how I met him—he uses both pronouns—at a congress about feminism in Zurich’s Rote Fabrik a good ten years ago. We both were invited as panelists and sat on stage together as biological males confessing to a political attitude of feminism, after which he DJ’d as Sprinkles in women’s clothing. Around the same time, we were also both invited to take part as panelists at another congress, this time in Frankfurt on communism, after which Terre performed a set of sonically scratched-up tracks that didn’t focus on rhythm or danceability but instead used sound as an element of irritation, an agitation toward a bigger narrative in which he tackled politically charged topics. These “socio-analytical compositions” engaged me to such a degree that the whole experience ended up in the closing scene of my novel Musik.
By way of contrast Thaemlitz’s queer DJ Sprinkles persona earned her spurs in the New York house scene of the late eighties and early nineties. She’s one among few who can give a true insider’s view of the context from which New York deep house emerged: a scene of lost souls in shady Midtown Manhattan bars that had to deal with stigmatization and police brutality, black-market hormones, diseases and suffering. In this regard the Kami-Sakunobe House Explosion record from 2006 is outstanding: a record that, on the surface, is a sequence of danceable tracks and enjoyable to everyone with a soft spot for connoisseur house. Yet listen actively and the chorus of marginalized voices, interspersed throughout, reveals the ingenious concept behind it.
This brings us to Queerifications & Ruins, a collection of remixes DJ Sprinkles has made during the last three years, which operates in a similar area of conflict. We hear remixes of music from artists all over the world: France (Hardrock Striker), Lithuania (Corbie), Scotland (Marco Bernardi), Japan (Oh, Yoko), Italy (Hard Ton), USA (Ducktails, Area), Berlin (June), and the list goes on. What’s remarkable throughout is the way she imposes her very own style on almost any source material, giving the sense that these two and a half hours could have been made out of one piece. And while Queerifications is a playful record, there’s a sense of respect and almost tragic momentum; in fact, there are moments on the record that almost possess the characteristics of ambient in their careful avoidance of musical peaks. Perhaps this is why it’s so intoxicating? You can hear that she’s sat at a piano and embellished these tracks, and it’s this musicality that I find thrilling: the ability to confidently add new ideas to the originals or to strip back when required. Indeed, I found these re-imagined pieces of music so congruent and striking that I felt no need or desire to hear the originals.
However, the most striking aspect of Queerifications & Ruins is that I instantly hear DJ Sprinkles’ very own language within it—a language that tells me about the heyday of New York and New Jersey deep house music; the early nineties; vogueing; ballrooms in Spanish Harlem; a deconstruction of social identities. There’s a real sense that this is where the music comes from and the political and sexual brisance is imminent in every track. It’s thrilling to see somebody who keeps on remembering this part of club culture’s past—its long relationship with struggle—by bringing the political and the dancefloor back together in such a unique and fascinating way. This is real history that you can dance to. ~
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
Niko Solorio is an artist and curator based in Los Angeles. He is the proud owner of a pair of Andy Warhol’s eyeglasses, bestowed upon him by none other than Jack Doroshaw, aka Flawless Sabrina. In the Fall 2013 issue or Electronic Beats Magazine, he gave us the full rundown on Warhol’s portraits of drag royalty. Interview conducted by Max Dax.
Warhol’s Queens is not a book that is merely concerned with the subject of drag or royalty. Rather, it’s first and foremost about photography and portraiture, Warhol’s portraiture. The high-resolution reproductions of the artists’ original Polaroids of both proper royalty and notable drag queens—her highness “Queen Andy”, Princess Sonja of Norway (now Queen Sonja), Princess Caroline of Monaco, and Empress Farah Pahlavi—appear to jump right off the page. The images and high-quality paper have a kind of exalting function, showing Warhol’s queens and real queens to be two sides of an illusionary coin, one subcultural and the other of the highest social order. It seems such an obvious pairing, though somehow it’s only through Warhol’s lens and aura-producing ability that we are able to see this clearly.
Sandwiched between all of these queens is, of course, Andy himself. He is the tie that binds, and in his self-portraits in drag you get the sense that he, in contrast to the other queens, is not trying to fool anyone. Warhol is aware that he does not make the prettiest girl and appears more than OK with that. He also appears to have the thickest make-up, and yet he always remains unmistakably himself. He cannot and did not want to hide, even before his fame as a student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburg, as author and curator Hubertus Butin writes: “Warhol stood out for his highly affected appearance, which he employed in a very specific way to demonstratively display his homosexuality.” Being gay was something Warhol always seemed fearless about, as his role as a judge in the 1967 drag queen competition documentary The Queen proudly displayed. The significance of that is not to be underestimated. The chief archivist of The Andy Warhol Museum, Matt Wrbican explains that “[. . .] the fact that Warhol lent his time and name to the event comes as no surprise, given what we know of the details of his personal life. But it was still a risk for him, not only because the local laws of the time regarding cross-dressing were quite draconian but also because of the social stigma.” The organizer of that particular drag contest is none other than self-proclaimed “gender clown” Jack Doroshow, aka Flawless Sabrina, who also happens to be my guardian, of sorts. I spoke with Jack, who I and many others refer to affectionately as “Grandma”, and asked him if he could share a few thoughts about the book. He told me, “With Andy, the more you look the less you’ll see. He had a way of illuminating the mundane and rendering it iconic. I don’t think Andy saw drag queens any different from Brillo boxes. It was just something that was always around but that people sort of ignored.”
Of course, thanks to Warhol, ignoring queens these days is no longer an option, something attributable in no small part to another social phenomenon he loosely predicted: reality television. That said, it’s only appropriate that his portrait legacy would not itself be given only fifteen minutes of fame but rather bound in a King James-like bible with a golden binding. I like to think of it as the Queen Andy version. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
L.A.-based Douglas J. McCarthy is a singer, producer, and founding member of EBM legends Nitzer Ebb. He toured his most recent solo album, Kill Your Friends, through Europe with Depeche Mode. To coincide with the current menswear shows in London, we present his comments on the new beat-inspired collection from the acclaimed Belgian designer from our Fall 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
In the midst of an array of live shows and studio work, Terence Fixmer and myself decided to take a break in Paris to see Raf Simons’ Spring/Summer collection during men’s fashion week. With buses waiting for us at Place de la Concorde and scheduled for a 7:15 p.m. sharp departure, we joined a large group of Raf aficionados and press for our trip to the Gagosian Gallery at Le Bourget airport on the northern outskirts of the city. Arriving under the shadow of the European Space Agency’s “Arriane” rocket, which stood erect by the side of the entrance, we filed into the already packed but spacious gallery that currently houses a joint show of Jean Prouvé architectural mock-ups and Alexander Calder mobiles. This delightful exercise in scale and modernism could easily keep a fifteen-meter-tall toddler occupied for hours.
With Monsieur Fixmer providing assistance to Michel Gaubert for the fashion show soundtrack, I already knew Raf was striving for a version of his nineties Belgian new beat club adventures, so I was surprised to hear a slowed-down version of Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam” which gleefully began to speed up as the models did a well choreographed march-around through and under the artwork. They bounced along in fantastically mismatched colored trainers, or stomped in secretly two-tone leather shoes, which on closer inspection revealed hot-rod style flames fanning back from the toe. All of the men had adorably skinny stick legs, which I felt was the only way to show the majority of this collection.
I immediately recognized motifs from my Nitzer Ebb youth, although to be fair, even though we did wear our fair share of shorts, we never donned the onesie variety. And there were plenty of other nineties signifiers too. These included brightly printed, highly flammable-looking A-line synthetic shirts emblazoned with faux billboard advertising proclaiming suitably silly English/non-English slogans like “Super Nylon”. It was rather like if the peloton from the 1992 Tour de France had just all ridden through a bunch of roadside awnings.
There were also more subtle pieces that felt like they have a better chance of making it to the showroom. The mathematical graphic knitwear and jackets had just the right amount of fun and restraint. The eighties NFL-like fabric used for the presumably laser-cut parka managed to retain a hint of retro whilst looking firmly toward the future. Additionally, there were plenty of Haçienda-inspired diagonal details on all of the outerwear, which, seeing as Peter Saville was sitting upfront and center, made perfect sense. ~
This text first appeared in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.
In advance of our poll for best records of the year, we present Mark Reeder’s review of the Pet Shop Boys album from our Fall, 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Born in Manchester, Mark Reeder was an early associate of the Factory Records crew before being drawn to Berlin’s political fault line in the early eighties. After producing various post-punk acts on both sides of the Iron Curtain, he founded the trance label Masterminded For Success and released some of the most important electronic music of the early nineties by acts such as Cosmic Baby and Paul van Dyk. Here he assesses the new Pet Shop Boys album and and recalls his role smuggling their music over the Wall.
The last time I can remember hearing the Pet Shop Boys played in a club was in late September of 1988. I had the pleasure of debuting their then new album Introspective in a former school dinner hall that had been converted into a clandestine gay disco deep in East Berlin. I was there with my mate Dave Rimmer, who is a former Smash Hits colleague of Neil Tennant’s. Neil had sent him a cassette tape of the album, and after a brief listen we decided to smuggle it over the Wall and debut it in the venue known as Busche, or in English “Bushes”. Aside from its being a perfect playground to present the new album, we also considered it a symbolic gesture and thought it would mean something to the gay crowd. So we took off for the border with the tape hidden safe and secure.
As was usual for all East Berlin discos, it took us ages to get in. Indeed, it was very much like trying to get into Berghain when you aren’t on the guestlist. But in the end, our patience paid off, and almost frozen to the bone we entered into the cosy, dark, ultra-violet-lit world of East Berlin’s most secretive sub-cultural club. Before leaving, I had carefully wound the cassette to the exact point where the forthcoming single “Domino Dancing” would play, and, confident the DJ would play it, I marched through the crowded dance floor, dodging the surreal sight of brilliantly white teeth, blonde hair and white clothing bobbing about in the blackness. I proudly handed the cassette to the DJ and above the din of “Cheri Cheri Lady” explained it was the new Pet Shop Boys album. He just looked at me suspiciously and then refused to play it. He turned to his tape decks and ignored me. I knew what he was thinking. Not put off, I was determined to do this guy a favor and make him come to his senses. Patiently, I explained again that it was the new Pet Shop Boys album. He still didn’t want it. I thought, “You’re not going to get away that easily, you imbecile.” Slowly, I told him again what it was and that it wasn’t released yet and it was just for him and that it was for free. Finally, the pfennig dropped as he took a moment to actually read the cover of the cassette. Then he just looked at me, gobsmacked. I knew I had him.
All of the sudden, Dave and I were the guests of honor. We were given a table at the edge of the dance floor and a bottle of sickly sweet prosecco. We sat back to watch the people dancing. The DJ picked up his microphone and mumbled that this was the fantastic, new Pet Shop Boys single. Unbeknownst to him, it was in fact the world premiere of this record. We could hardly contain our excitement. The DJ pressed the play button, and as the first percussive strains of “Domino Dancing” pulsated from the loudspeakers everyone dancing suddenly turned and walked off. Within moments the dance floor was all but empty. They didn’t know that tune, and it obviously wasn’t Modern Talking. We couldn’t help but laugh. Yet, regardless of such a dramatic fail, that single eventually went on to become a worldwide dancefloor hit for the Pet Shop Boys.
Indeed, many fans have been yearning for them to make a new dance album for ages. Neil said they’d already had a collection of ideas for club tracks and also wanted to work with the very talented producer Stuart Price. But his work ethic was very different from the boys and while collaborating with them on Electric, he eventually got Neil and Chris addicted to daytime television: “Gradually over a few weeks it started to settle in with Neil and Chris, and I went from watching disgusted faces trying to concentrate on the music to washed-out faces staring like a pair of crack addicts at Bargain Hunt.”
And despite their temporary TV addiction the album has exceeded everyone’s expectations. It’s rough and tough and the total opposite of their previous album Elysium, which was a relaxed, reflective, smooth adult affair—more like a dinner party soundtrack than one for a night out. Neil Tennant told me that after Elysium, he and Chris Lowe went into the studio almost immediately to record Electric, which is the first release on their new x2 label. As an utterly unobjective observer, I can thankfully say that the boys have given us something that we are all familiar with. They have remained forever young, and that shows from the very beginning with “Axis”, which sets the synth and syncopation-heavy atmosphere. The overall contemporary electronic feel combines well with Neil’s highly amusing lyrics. He really is the only person who could ever get away with writing a song called “Bolshy” or “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”, which has a very clever Louis XVI-sounding riff to it. Price’s intricate production mixes dance genres, unique instrumentation and all kinds of familiar sounds from the eighties and nineties to make this thing, in my opinion, a retro-modern twenty-first-century slammer. The cover art is also pretty striking, even though you can hardly read the band name stuck in small print and hidden in the spine. But it’s instantly recognizable, like a stylized or minimalized version of Peter Saville’s Unknown Pleasures design turned on its side. Of course, turning things around, sometimes on their head, is something we have almost come to expect from the boys, with the chillingly recontextualized Bruce Springsteen cover, “The Last To Die” perhaps another perfect example. How? Listen and learn from the masters themselves. ~
This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.