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Gudrun Gut
Vogelmixe Fred Bowler , September 7th, 2016 19:03

Wherever you look, the political dimension of art is being denied and taken for granted. Pure aestheticism is rejected as cynical, but art's capability of changing anything in the grand scheme of things is put off equally quickly. In either way, many would agree that art is in one way or another representative of a larger culture. The highly political question of who is being represented (by what art), though, lurks just around the corner: the quest for the inclusive representation of minorities has led to a number of incentives for cross-cultural communication, many of which take the form of celebrating diversity, in the way the Notting Hill Carnival does.

A couple of years ago, cultural theorist Mark Terkessidis and Run United records founder Jochen Kühling started a project called Heimatlieder aus Deutschland (“Folk songs from Germany”) in which they sought to collect together the songs which people of diverse backgrounds had brought with them when they came to the country. The idea was to reflect on the fact that Germany's culture along with its population could no longer be defined as a sealed off, homogeneous entity, but rather as a fluid and constantly changing construction. “Heimat” literally translates to “homeland”, more than anything else, so in hearing these songs sung in Croatian, Portuguese or Korean, we realise that home here refers to at least two different places. They aren't primarily songs of exile and mourning but about inter-culture and hybrids, about affirming multiple coexisting identities, cultures and homelands.

Last year saw the largest upsurge in total immigration since the late 1940s, in a country where up until 1998 citizenship was still being exclusively defined by ancestry. Increasingly, there has been a widely felt need, arguably mainly amongst a cosmopolitan elite, to search for new ways of negotiating identity/-ies in the context of the German nation state.

It is against this backdrop that the second volume of Heimatlieder was published last year and has now received a complete remix by the Berlin underground icon Gudrun Gut. On the album there are eight traditional songs, originating from Turkey to Cuba, Bulgaria to Cameroon, all interpreted by musicians based in Germany. Having each received a special “birdsmix” (Vogelmix) treatment by Gut, these tracks want to remind us of the arbitrariness of national borders and the transience of our experience of both cultural difference and similarity.

Gut has been working mainly in electronic music since the early 90s. Before that she founded the new wave outfits Mania D, Malaria! and Matador, and was part of the “Geniale Dilettenten” (“Ingenious Dilettants”) group – the West-Berlin equivalent to New York's No Wave scene, which spawned groups like Die Tödliche Doris and Einstürzende Neubauten. In recent years she has been refining her approach to composition and has further developed a surging interest in the human voice, while channeling her idiosyncrasies into more subtle expressions (listen, for example, to the odd-tightness of ‘Früh’, from the album she made with Faust's Hans-Joachim Irmler).

On Vogelmixe, Gut has opted for a sound that is reduced and accessible on the surface, yet becomes quite strange upon further investigation. The remixes give the original pieces a new, digitally digested appearance. Most noticeably, she cuts and edits vocal and percussive elements and refits them into loose dub-techno compositions. The first half of tracks are quite upbeat, but as time passes, the mood of the album takes on an increasingly dreamy, faraway quality. While a track like ‘ZaNeYen’, with its ritualistic conga drum beat and rhythmic vocal loops could file as leftfield Tribal House, and the subsequent “Marhba” does nothing that a random minimal-tech track can't do, the second half of the record feels spacious, it starts breathing its own air. Initiating the second half, the rhythmic structure of ‘La Sombra del ayer’ is kept completely intact, making for a captivating attempt at Cuban dub music.

In ‘Toma de la ca’ one hears ghostly fragments of a melody being spun somewhere behind a layer of wind and water noises. At some point a vocal track sets in together with a pounding synthetic bass drum and a few minor chords played by an organ, producing an uncanny disharmony with a woman's melancholic singing taken from the original Portuguese Fado. The eerie tension is held up until the end of the album, despite some of the vocal elements feeling a little redundant. And one wonders: As they aren't really something to dance to, what was the aim of this second half of remixes?

Of course the idea of reworking traditional music is no news at all. In fact, the first volume of Heimatlieder aus Deutschland published in 2013 was accompanied by a remix album titled New German Ethnic Music Vol. 1. Here the title references the “New American Ethnic Music” Henry Flynt released from the late 70s onward. In Flynt's work, the political question of representation looms large. To him, there is an emotional profundity in hillbilly and blues form lacking in commercial music which he tries to emulate. But Gut, for the most part, does not seem primarily concerned with affect, and as the record's cover photograph testifies (she is unromantically seated in front of her iMac), she's certainly not buying into any tales of authentic rawness or whatever you want to call it. The remixes are composed in a deliberately artificial manner, evoking a very different comparison.

Arthur Lyman released an album, Bahia, in which he offers slightly estranged versions of the exotica canon, focusing more on the later, darker hours on the tropic island. Comparing his versions to the ones Martin Denny recorded at around the same time, one comes to think of Lyman's as quite a different imagination of the exotic: bird calls are important in Lyman's music, coming to symbolise something that goes beyond “easy listening” – an uncanny desire for another place and another time. Similarly, Gut uses the “Birdmix” as a metaphor for transcending place (Homeland/Heimat) and musical structure (Song/Lied). In flying over this “world music from Germany,” she strives for something not already present, but for something new, intangible and ephemeral. Of course the bird narrative complements the theoretical underpinnings of the entire inter-cultural project. But Gut goes much further: a Vogelmix may represent everything – a celebration of the cultural other, of common humanity, of reciprocity – or nothing at all, leaving political determinacy off the hook.

At their best, Gut's remixes succeed in being unassertive and genuinely strange takes on contemporary inter-cultural music.