I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I became a fan of Kai Althoff’s art, in its multiple modes and means, thanks to the portal that is his band Workshop, a duo with Stephan Abry. I first poked my head in circa 1995, when Hamburg’s L’Age d’Or record label released Talent, Workshop’s wild, sample-based (exclusively? still a mystery to me), mondo-prescient third album. I crossed paths with Kai through various Köln-based and Köln-associated artist friends who clustered around The Red Krayola, and one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever played was a Workshop / The Red Krayola double bill (plus DJ Neon Leon), at the steirischer herbst festival in Graz, Austria on the same night that Albert Oehlen circulated his “New Stream” manifesto. (I recall hearing tell that Workshop had written an opera during the train ride from Köln with a running time longer than the train ride from Köln. Also: somewhere I have a photo of the gaffer-tape artwork marking the door of their hotel room.) The concert was part of Cosima von Bonin’s and Christoph Gurk’s “4 Plattenläden für Graz” project, in which four different record stores from Köln each moved their entire stock to Graz for one of four successive weeks.
Since that time it’s been ever easier to follow Kai’s art proper through a number of publications and exhibitions (most magnificently the ICA Boston’s 2004 retrospective), and due to the fact that several years ago he pulled up stakes and moved to New York. It’s strange to see him floating on foot—but still floating—‚’round the neighborhood. My entrée into Kai’s visual art will most likely always be vectored through his music—his most recent releases being three solo albums made under the name Fanal for the Sonig record label. Even though we’ve recently found ourselves talking extensively about his performance and exhibition practices, our on-the-record exchanges tend to find their way back to musical impulses.
David Grubbs What is the longest period of time that you’ve gone without making music?
Kai Althoff Oh , if only I’d remember. I think there was never a period longer than half a year. In the present, I guess it was when I moved to New York and had no equipment, there were longer periods. But to make this answer brief: I’m almost always making music, in one way or another.
DG Have you ever felt that you would never return to making music?
KA Never, Never - That is, the question of if or if not never occurred.<br />
I recall incidences in my childhood, when out of a feeling of impatience to wait for months without being equipped with sufficient machinery to make the music I wanted to, I would set up these supposedly final margins, that would justify not making any music somewhat philosophically. Truly it was just to ease my disappointment with what I had.
A four track reel-to-reel recorder, or such wondrous device.
DG Do you listen to music in the studio?
KA Yes, almost all the time.
DG Has your relation to listening to music while working on art been a more or less continuous one, or has it changed at different moments?
KA I dare, say it remained the same.
DG Do you see a correlation between those shifts in listening habits and shifts that to you are visible in your art?
KA The frequency of listening to music while being in my “studio” always remained the same.
always music . But the styles and conveyed content shift greatly.
Nowadays, or lets say since I moved to the US, and left all my music behind, records, tapes, - I started to record tapes from Utube, which I am listening to while doing things.
I would remember a certain kind of music that I wished to hear again, my heart and mind would ask for it! Thus I’d search for it, record it, and then would be swept into a
self-perpetual mode to try all other things that come offered alongside, things that I did not know before. Browsing. You must know, I only have a computer as of the year 2008. I never had one before. I never want another. This also includes long parts of dialogues spoken by actors, whom I miss. Whole excerpts of TV series. I do love cassettes still so much. I record on cassettes.
DG When did you move to the US?
KA I started coming more and more as of 2007, even before that, always staying for
until finally in 2009 I decided to stay for good. and why?
DG Why did you move here, or why did I ask?
KA No , why did I even move here_?
DG I thought of you this past September 11th. On September 11, 2001, the errand that I needed to do that morning was to go to the bank and send a wire for $500 to Sonig to pay them to license the Workshop album Es liebt Dich und Deine Körperlichkeit, ein Ausgeflippterfor US release on my own tiny record label. I was walking toward downtown Brooklyn to go to the now-defunct Independence Bank on Court Street when I saw smoke from the first airplane and then there was someone leaning out of a second- or third-story window saying, “A small airplane just hit the World Trade Center and several people died.” We stared at the building on fire for probably less than a minute, because it seemed that there was nothing more to see and that you couldn’t do anything to stop it or to help anyone. We kept walking, turned right at the next corner, and then the ground shook like when a truck goes over a plate covering up a hole in the road, and then suddenly there was much, much more smoke; it looked like a hundred times or a thousand times as much smoke, and then there was a silverish glittering in the air that we later figured out were thousands of pieces of paper in the air—as seen from across the East River. The mood of the people on the street changed instantly. I remember someone on a payphone sobbing hysterically. I dropped off my partner at her work a block away, and I talked briefly with a number of strangers on the street, and then I went into the bank to go ahead and finish my errand because above all I felt powerless standing on the street and watching something seemingly both near and impossibly remote. Some time later I couldn’t believe that I could be so wretched as to have gone ahead and stood in line at the bank and proceeded with my errand. I suppose that lots of people have associations with September 11 that would seem to have no connection whatsoever with the events of that day.
When you moved here, did you leave various recordings behind primarily out of necessity—out of material considerations—or was it also a matter of cutting ties, starting again or starting otherwise?
KA I did not really leave recordings behind. I left all my devices and instruments behind. So I could not really make music in the manner I was used to. But soon after my move I started to work with my friend Brett Milspaw on pieces of music. He wanted to be the singer. And this he became .We rented a studio in Williamsburg. uchchch.
We called ourselves Arizona.
Maybe half a year after this I bought a synthesizer to start to make music for the movie
I had worked on with Isa Genzken prior to my coming here for years and years, to use it in our edit, but in the end it was used as part of a theatre play score. The movie has no music so far.
DG What’s the film with Isa Genzken? Do you foresee completing it?
KA So, this movie, is a movie compiled of supposedly funny skits, in loose order.
It was her initial idea that we should do a funny movie. We both either wrote ideas on those scenes in letters to each other, or had some ideas waiting for the other upon our next meeting. Parts were improvised, and others rather planned out. The movie was shot in Berlin, where she lives, Cologne, and some parts in New York.
Isa Genzken has made an edit of this movie, that goes by the name DIE KLEINE BUSHALTESTELLE; GERÜSTEBAU, which premiered in Berlin and elsewhere.
very successful !!!!To describe this is an undertaking I will fail to accomplish.
But one scene, being the opening scene in her edit, shows her and myself as prostitutes.
We are slightly intoxicated from drinking in between our sessions with clients,
and I am possessed by a spirit to extensive degree, affecting my voice to sound coarse and strained.
I tell her of a practice of a client to penetrate me with the tassels of a thick decorative rope, used to hold bold brocade curtains in place. She blames her parents for
her life’s course , and I vehemently argue upon the fact that parents are NO longer to be blamed for where we ended up. Later she rides on my back , as our intoxication proceeds, and it ends with us dancing in sleazy manner to the soundtrack of MTV’s Sweet Sixteen. As I encourage us to go further and further with losing ourselves in the all mirror-lined entrée of her apartment. This is only 40% of what can be said about this. This is not funny, yet funny enough, but it scares me.
DG Is there a value for you in having projects such as this that linger on for years and years without being completed?
KA No, not at all. Some things cannot be done differently though.
But then, In the last year, in spring, I got all things I needed and started again to make a lot of music. And I wanted to make my first record, entirely done in NYC. As if it would lead to a different ME. I decided to sing in English. I did maybe 12 songs. But then I realized I needed to continue to be FANAL. It feels very different to me. Even if only one word is sung in such song, but it is a German word, I feel as if freed from some silly experimental exile, which I have imposed on myself for reasons unknown. So I made a song about a woman, ME, that will drive her husband to the airport in Kairo, while she will remain in the desert with the others, as an alien, amongst these aliens. And it culminates in the ERBLINDUNG MEINER SCHEIDE. As if the endless suns and their multiplied force in the desert have scarred her vagina. The way I sing this and the way the words are set, move myself to great extend. Yet it would have such different impact on me if it was sung in English.
I would not believe myself. And though the words are only a fraction of the music,
the credibility and weight is a thousand times more potent . It really is ME ME ME ME .
DG I understand what you’re saying about needing one song in German, or just one word even, so as not to feel that you’ve submerged yourself in some kind of overly familiar exile’s ritual, but what about this group of songs led you to this one, and not another, being sung in German?
KA I don’t know.
DG As it’s so crucial to feel yourself—to recognize yourself—in what you sing, how are you able to make peace with singing in English? I haven’t heard any of these new songs, so I don’t know what the subject matter or forms of expression are in the new English-language songs.
KA I cannot make peace with it. And this is why, after several attempts, I gave up and returned to sing in German, if I was singing at all. Ach uch, they were about things, which, when addressed in English seemed to be equaling a problem of mediocre quality sure to be resolved by any intelligence accessible .
The content changes right away with the language. As if America provides the coverage of all necessities, but cannot go beyond. This of course is truly stupid. It is a notion to be confirmed, and a feeling I generate because of my chosen ignorance and lack of being able to adapt. It’s not right. I wish to stay here.
DG Do the new Fanal songs share some of the same subject matter as those on the previous Fanal records?
KA I think they share the outset.
I always feel disgusted by ANY subject matter and creativity and the wish to express, because this all adds to the world, and I am in hugest doubt that if I think twice, I’d be able to value anything enough, that it would need to be added. I dread, that I add because I am born, and was born a so-called creative child.
I have to be numb to have pleasure in creating songs and subjects and value them high enough to be wanting them to be heard and possibly then even having to defend them and their content.
Good things may or may not start beyond the numbness
And sometimes with music , the combination of a tone with a word with my gaze into the
surrounding matter , …….
How does it feel to you to fill the world with sound and words. Also teaching words?
DG I have never conceived of it as filling the world. That image definitely stops me in my tracks. It’s very different from how I picture the transmission outward of the various recordings and writings that I’ve sent out into the world. I suppose I’ve sent them into the world with the best hopes for them, that they will find ears or eyes that my person might never encounter. I think of issuing a small spray, the smallest flume of these materials. And yet they’re persistent; I’ll hear from the most unlikely places at the most unlikely of times that something I’ve made—and often something that I myself don’t exactly hold in the highest esteem, something that will seem like an especially obscure or beside-the-point or hopelessly context-dependent recording—will be a piece of music that has for any of a limitless number of reasons been for one individual, for a stranger, decisive. I don’t have remorse about filling up the landfills of the world with my records (I don’t really sense that this is actually happening), and I don’t regret the volume of words and sounds that I’ve propagated theoretically continuing to vibrate in the ether. Of course I might wish to have let certain projects bake longer or for certain others to have been finished (left unfinished) sooner. But your image of words and sounds filling the world—the words and images of one of countless individuals setting forth words and images … it seems a good chance that I’ll be dreaming about this tonight.
KA …_____________________________you have opted deliberately or not for the positive sides that such piling up and growth encompasses. It seems to come with a feeling one has toward the world: to use it as a tool or to refuse to use it, although to use it would be to admit that there is no other tool one was granted .
It is to be submissively accepting the constraints, and use them for the best.
This makes warm hearted, yet practical people, that live lives easier, and will not easily be embittered etc.
DG In what ways do you imagine your words and images—even single words, single images—filling the world? That each emission expands to fill a or the world?
KA In a book on the history of clothing I read once the subtitle: the mish-mash of styles at the end of the millennium. Isn’t this now? Well, there it meant 1900, but I feel now it lasts ever since 2000. I feel it will last forever now.!
Every expressive utterance, will add to progress. You have to develop confidence to believe your contribution is of enough value to be exclaimed. Positively, good parents teach their children to speak up and also that ultimately they have a hand in this world and their way of walking it. Walkabout. The world to treat them accordingly.
DG Is the phrase “a or the world” meaningful to you? (Is “a world” a meaningful term in your experience?)
KA Some world.Just where we happen to be. It may even be made up by you.
This world could just be your idea of worlds.
It angers me even not to be sure, but over all my doubts seem to imply wanting to challenge creation, also stubbornly childish, _____also it may be the onset of stages of megalomania.
DG You also asked about teaching. I imagine that the words that come flying out of my mouth when teaching don’t continue to vibrate in the ether. Maybe this is my best-case scenario wish: that because what’s said in the classroom is fairly spontaneous, I’m glad to think of it as more naturally dissipating through the standard medium of erosion-prone memories. I think I can best get a handle on my own practice as a teacher by thinking of moments that were especially significant to me when I was a student. The first few examples I can think of are more like instructive failures. I have in mind a Jesuit philosophy professor that I had when I was an undergraduate. It was a course on Plato, and it was the final class on the Phaedo, and the professor wanted to express something poetic—something in excess of words and concepts—about death. I liked the professor. I remember that I shaved my head halfway through the semester and he pulled me aside after class one day to make sure that I wasn’t undergoing some kind of a severe crisis. He concluded the final class on the Phaedo by playing a song that clearly was hugely important to him: Jacques Brel’s “My Death.” I remember the agonizing experience of him shouting an improvised English translation of the lyrics, negating any chance to experience the piece of music. The meaning of his deep feeling for the Jacques Brel song—the cassette recording of the Jacques Brel song—was entirely lost on the class. It was unquestionably the most excruciating moment of the entire semester, and it stuck with me, and I’ve found myself thinking about it, I would say, not so infrequently ever since.
KA Were you beaten in school? By peers? In elementary school?
Where you popular?
DG I was in a handful of fights—wrestling, pinning or being pinned to the ground … probably 50/50 success rate—before age ten. I wasn’t ever beaten up by bigger kids. I have never been able to wrap my brain around fighting. I don’t understand how fights end; I always imagine that people
get so worked up that they run the risk of beating one another’s brains out on the concrete, and I’m sure that’s why I’ve never gone looking for fights. Was I popular? Not especially. I always had at least a small group of close friends. I was regularly mocked for eccentricities and affects from some quarters (still probably the case), but regarding popularity I think I was always spared from occupying either extreme.
And you? Do I dare ask?
KA They end when one is sitting on the chest of the loser, and have him secured, so they can spit into his face. Or they kick you in the side until blood comes from your mouth.
I was victim to many fights and it made me grow stronger each time it would reoccur. Even when I was losing so often.
DG Are there moments from your schooling—from any phase of it—that echo throughout your art?
KA ohhhhh yes, so so many: But only high school days, and earlier. Later not so much.
But also, I am taught all days still. If I really want to learn, I can be receptive. And then it will resound on and on.
DG Had you lived your entire life in Köln before coming to New York?
KA Yes, and truly I never regretted this at all.
DG What did you see when you would walk out of your studio- or work-space in Köln, and what do you see when you walk out of your studio space in Brooklyn?
KA When I stepped out of the house I lived in, which also was my studio, I stepped on a tiny quiet Cologne street. It had a church at one end. It had the house of registered catholic youth and yet the house next to me seemed to be involved in prostitution. It was a bed and breakfast. All was peaceful. Opposite was a house , owned by an older couple , that seemed to be remodeled after the war , and had all allure of the wealth amassed during Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder. A period I embrace with totality. I could see their interior,
expensive items. Old rugs, and polished copper pots to house bushes of geraniums.
I liked these people a lot. Their rain drainage was fashioned from copper too. This is not common.
NOW , I see the Marcus Garvey residential rehab pavilion. I can see old people in beds, and some walking around in agony , slow, some in wheelchairs. I don ‘t know what to make of this yet. In front of this juvenile delinquents using the word nigger and fuck to an extent that I need to cover my ears.
I know how much I liked Burning Spear’s record Garvey’s Ghost. It certainly
is unsettling. To see myself in the midst of . It takes a confidence ,(again) that to develop I wished I would never be forced. To feel righteously put into this environment. Who is to decide?
DG Is it a problem that we haven’t talked more directly about your visual art?
KA I don’t care
DG At the end of John Szwed’s biography of Sun Ra, there’s a description of Sun Ra ill in the hospital, with little time remaining in his life, and friends bring him recordings of the Arkestra to listen to. If you were in Sun Ra’s shoes, would you spend that time listening to music that you had made? Or music that Sun Ra had made? Or doing something else entirely?
KA I think I would listen to my own music if I was forced to . I think maybe it would be pleasant or reassuring. I think my moods will shift rapidly according to my state. Within minutes from fury to mellow sweetly cloying withdrawal.
Yet ultimately, because it is a state of surrender, I will fight back, and in these states to meekly listen to the own achievement may as much anger me as it may ease me. I may be disgusted to contemplate on the past, while it may equally help me to look at the void which forces me to participate, because it is the way lives end. I will not listen to Sun Ra.
DG I would have been completely surprised if you said that you’d likely be spending time on your deathbed listening to Sun Ra.
KA I think I will scream and cry or really give up. Cause life is rewarding only to a certain extent. It requires a humbleness that I feel is a violation of birth’s promise. I cannot tell if music will play any part in anything then. If the best will be, music will run through me. that really none knows of . The true substance of music and God.
Frightening enough or to resolve all: Something will be.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee