Burkhard Stangl

Doubt and confidence. About Wir werden by rdeča raketa

“I would like to tell people nice, beautiful words, bright words – bright like the November sun in the Karst. But my word is heavy and taciturn, bitter like a Karst juniper berry. It entails suffering you’ve never seen and a pain you wouldn’t recognize. My pain is proud and reticent, and the pine trees and junipers of the Karst plains understand it better than people”. The writer of these lines – taken from the posthumously published anthology Pesmi (Poems) – is the Slovenian poet Srečko Kosovel (1904-1926), who’s poem rdeča raketa was the namesake for the duo Maja Osojnik and Matija Schellander: Jaz sem rdeča raketa, vžigam se in gorim in ugašam / I’m a red rocket, I flare up, burn and fade out. The precocious and brilliant Srečko Kosovel, the main representative of Slovenian expressionism and constructivism and a figurehead of the Slovenian avant-garde, is considered the most ingenious lyrical-philosophical talent of Slovenian modernism – a Slovenian Rimbaud. Oh, I in a red suit! / Oh, I with a red heart! / Oh, I with red blood! / Tirelessly, I flee as if I alone must bring fulfillment.

First the name. Then the music. Then the text. Then the photography. Then the language. Then the landscape, the Karst and the sea. Then Kranj, Bilčovs, Ljubljana, Vienna. Then politics. Then the campaign. No! With rdeča raketa, there is no “then”. Everything is right here, you can feel it, and later you know it: loss, crisis, war, threat, fury, struggle, destruction, dystopia, sadness, the fragmentedness of life, even utopia, the robust, the quiet, and the intimate.

The LP Wir werden (We will) is pure music: gentle, forceful, menacing, obsessive, precise, undeterred, undisguised, brazen. It evokes poesy at once subtle and profound – and desperate. Wir werden tells of a time that is broken – both in the past and in the present. The main musical device employed is distortion, a new interpretation of the acoustic material. Perhaps to ensure that the strange and disconcerting is impossible to miss? Rdeča raketa honors Kosovel’s demand that an artist find “the most exact expression of a total experience, which, through this organic form, will be immediately affective.” The artful interweaving of spoken language (based on Osojnik’s texts) with analog-electronic and digital sound generation (synthesizers, computers), subtly deployed samples and field recordings, and acoustic instruments along with elaborate sound processing (bass recorder breaths, voice moans, a hundredfold layering of double bass sounds, high culture piano out of tune in normal and reverse mode) ultimately creates a wondrously heterogeneous mixture, which – condensed to an indivisible whole – transcends the field of music alone.

Looking at the LP’s cover, one is immediately reminded of Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square from 1913/15 (which is exactly when the young Kosovel began his first attempts at writing). The cover is also reminiscent of the Slovenian music and art group Laibach, who used Malevich’s painting Black Cross on billboards for their first multimedia project Rdeči revirji (Red Districts), which was banned before its opening by the Yugoslavian government. The provocative and polarizing works of Laibach – though not the focal point – have nevertheless noticeably influenced rdeča raketa, both politically and when it comes to Laibach’s innovative methods (for example, their very early and radical use of sampling). Even the typeset on the cover of Wir werden is tinged with the aura of old modernist media. The jittery typewriter font reminiscent of concrete poetry has its acoustic analogy in the broadband noise produced by a tape recorder – noise that can be detected over the entire length of the record, usually just at the threshold of perception: the noise of the 20th century. Furthermore, the record comes with a photographic work by the Italian sound and visual artist Dominique Vaccaro. A serene image of idyllic ski slopes: mounted in the background, an apartment block in reinforced concrete frame construction and now completely devastated that looks like a terrible pharynx with sharp, rotten teeth – ready to swallow whole the peaceful vacationers. The photography is dyed red. And the more I flee, the more I burn. / And the more I burn, the more I suffer. / And the more I suffer, the faster I fade. / O, I who want to live forever. And / I go, a man, red across a green field, / with iron clouds overhead, / across the blue lake’s silence, / I go, I go, a red man! (Kosovel: Rdeča raketa)

The duo rdeča raketa remains unseen on the record; no portrait adorns the cover. Photos of Osojnik/Schellander can be found online – and all of them are elaborately staged. They are photographs from a different era, reassuring in their unfashionableness. Maja Osojnik could be Tina Modotti; Matija Schellander, Yves Klein. A fictitious couple with a shared past. This photographic, Benjamin-style “tiger’s leap into the past” contextualizes cultural memory to the latest contemporary art. What goes for these staged photographs holds true for the work of rdeča raketa overall: it gives rise to a conscious awareness of a continuum of history, which then adds a new dynamism to the thought of political shambles, societal disasters and squandered personal opportunities. Wir werden talks of temporary homelands and homelessness; there are no safe dwelling places anymore. “The fortified house is really only fortified through the hope to leave it alive” (Paul Virilio). A life between doubt and confidence: We will fill the empty rooms with regret, bleed dry the loneliness and be satiated by the quiet intentions, as it says in Osojnik’s poem. Rdeča raketa explores feelings of security in art, takes possession of speechlessness in order to regain the ability to speak, and asks: “Do we live in a system that is constructing itself, or in a system that is collapsing? Does society today not appear as a kind of sculpture which is erected, and before it is finished, the foundation has already been spoilt, nibbled away?” And: “Where do we really turn our gaze?”

Wir werden is pure music. It is also, however, a concept album. The all-encompassing theme on Wir werden is the search for a collective movement and the personal happiness and beauty it can provide – Wir werden (we will) other people – amongst the emptiness that is brought about by a society which is breaking apart in the here and now and that leads the individual, sobered, to turn towards him or herself.

(January 2013)

Translation by Lea Rennert, 2013. “Rdeča raketa” translated by Ana Jelnikar and Barbara Siegel Carlson, from “Look Back, Look Ahead” (2010).