“I wanted to create a record with no score performed, but what is written is drawn to be played.”
Ursula Block’s seminal catalog of art records and anti-records, entitled Broken Music, includes several artifacts that today are coveted by collectors of unusual records. One seminal item in that catalog Njeqove Olovke Glas, a.k.a. His Pencil’s Voice, a “record” produced by the conceptual artist Braco Dimitrijević:
The piece is an LP jacket with a piece of cardboard inside; the “record” is a piece of cardboard inside the jacket. Dimitrijević used a pencil to draw a spiral on the cardboard record, meant to represent the its grooves. The title, His Pencil’s Voice, is no doubt a reference to the early record label, His Master’s Voice:
Little is known about His Pencil’s Voice, so I emailed Braco Dimitrijević to learn more. He is a man of few words, always keeping things to the point when conversing via email. He explained that His Pencil’s Voice was created for a solo exhibition in London’s Situation Gallery, which was a linchpin of the modern art scene in the seventies.
“What bothered me always was the process of realization from the idea, the sketch to the final art work,” he explains. “This was not only in visual arts, but in music too. So I wanted to create a record with no score performed, but what is written is drawn to be played.”
In essence, Dimitrijević saw His Pencil’s Voice as a more direct way of producing a final art product, cutting out the laborious production process. “I drew by hand the spiral on the paper and brought it to printers to make a zinc plate to emboss and print the label,” he recalls. “In other words, unlike a classic record where the music is written as notes, which are then played by one or several instruments, recorded, and listened to, for my record what is written is played directly by the record player.”
Dimitrijević points out to me that he has made analogous works using photographs and stone as media, but doesn’t elaborate. I suspect he is talking about the series of works from the start of his career that began life in 1968 as “Accidental Sculpture” and “Accidental Drawings and Paintings,” both projects he started while still in art school in Zagreb. On one occasion in 1971, he made a “portable monument” — a stone plaque that could be placed anywhere, which bore the inscription, “This could be a place of Historical Importance.” This seemingly satisfies the same criteria as His Pencil’s Voice, in that Dimitrijević is bypassing the creation process by designating any environment as artistically significant.
The other analogous project is his “Casual Passer-By” series of photographs, which is archived at the Tate Modern art museum in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For that work, he took portraits of people that he encountered on the street. His rules were simple: he took the first person he encountered that was willing to participate, documenting the person’s name along with the time and date. This image was then pasted, like a billboard, on a London bus for two weeks. By bypassing the usual selection of a formal “model,” as well as the typical methodology done to prepare for a photo shoot (makeup, lighting, set design), he again skips the typical artistic production process in favor of something more direct.
Dimitrijević isn’t sure how His Pencil’s Voice ended up in Ursula Block’s book, but he does tell me that it was included as the final record for an exhibition called “The Record as artwork: from futurism to conceptual art,” which was assembled by the famous Italian art historian Germano Celant. Celant is known for introducing the term Arte Povera (“poor art”), referring to a process of creation that breaks from the traditional practices and materials used in art, instead favoring cheaper and more rudimentary materials. One can see this tendency in His Pencil’s Voice, which substitutes graphite on cardboard for a professionally reproduced vinyl record.
Over the years, Dimitrijević has produced an extensive body of work, and I reflect that he may regard His Pencil’s Voice as one minor work among many. To wrap up my questions, I ask him what his thoughts are on this piece, nearly forty years after the fact.
“I did a good job,” he tells me, with characteristic brevity.
Thanks to Braco Dimitrijević for the interview. Visit his website here.
Felix Kubin is no stranger to unusual music. With Tim Buhre, he formed Klangkrieg, which produced noisy experimental music from 1987 to 2003. One tape they put out, covered in Anomaly Index‘s earlier article about the inventive Cling Film-Records label, came in a sealed tin can. He also released a record with René Heid’s iconoclastic record label, Rund um den Watzmann, that functioned as a zoetrope; as the record spun, an animation was produced on its surface.
In contact via email, Kubin enthusiastically described a project that recently materialized, a seven-inch record called Bücher Scannen that was created for a special jukebox designed by Ilija Lazarevic and Felix Boekamp. “It’s a jukebox full of theme-oriented seven-inches with mostly noisy recordings,” he says. “Their topic here was ‘Schaben’ (Scratching) and you can hear me rubbing microphones on books — my understanding of tactile reading.”
Kubin’s career certainly hasn’t been short on ideas. The reason I contacted him was to learn about an obscure limited-edition record he put out in 2016. It was a lathe-cut record that collected the sounds of different people sneezing.
Over email, Kubin explained that 2016 was a busy year. He composed what he calls both “the biggest music piece of my life” and his “Stockhausen moment,” a 70 minute opus called “Falling Still” that was was performed by a boys’ choir and string orchestra, accompanied by extended percussion and quadrophonic electronics. He also played concerts across Europe, “invented a synthesizer orchestra for 20 vintage KORG MS 20 synths played by students during a 5-day workshop in Gent, Belgium,” put out two records, and served as a jury member for an experimental film festival in Berlin. Perhaps best of all: “In October, my brother and I took our mother to New York for her eightieth birthday. She had never been in overseas before.
“That was 2016. A really busy year.”
Amid this frenetic schedule, he hatched the idea for Coughs & Sneezes. “The idea came during a train ride in Italy,” he tells me. “A friend and I were thinking about the different sounds of sneezes, even certain characteristics of countries.” Kubin reflects on the curious cultural specificity of this physiological process, pointing out that a sneeze sounds like “a-choo!” in France but “hatchi!” in Germany.
“[We considered] how nice it would be to have a selection of those on a record. When Renate Nikolaus of the Hasenbart label approached me for one of her handmade lathe-cut editions, [I thought] the sneezing could fit very well, especially in winter.
“So I started asking many friends of mine to send me recordings. That’s actually not so easy because most of the time you don’t have a recorder at hand when you are sneezing. So, I recorded a tutorial video. A kind of indecent little film, I can tell you.”
That “indecent” film demonstrated the use of a long Q-tip to tickle the upper interior of one’s nose. Not everyone implemented that method. “Some tried to use dodgy methods like sucking water into their nose or doing a handstand. The lucky ones had hay fever, they could go on sneezing forever … Some just stood in the sun waiting, as Wilhelm Busch, the famous inventor of Max & Moritz, suggested in a comic.”
This collection of sneezes was not entirely unprecedented. When Kubin was sixteen, he used to “archive” sounds from around his home. “I was always into sound archives, that’s true. On my release Chromdioxidgedächtnis (chrome dioxide memory), which is more a study of the history of the cassette tape than a regular album, there is a part where you can hear my brother and me doing the ‘counting in’ for noises that I wanted to record for sampling. That was back in 1985. My sampler was a Boss Digital Delay with a sample function of 0.8 sec.”
Another precedent comes from one of Kubin’s main gigs, creating radio plays — a very popular entertainment format in Germany. I reflect to Kubin that the typical process of editing audio might involve editing out the coughs and sneezes, rather than isolating them. “For sure, I love sounds that are meant to be edited out,” he says. “That’s what strikes me also with documentary recordings, you get a lot of redundancies, breathing, searching for words… the human being out of control. Already in 2004 I started to combine documentary with fiction, implant one into the other, play with the different forms of language and context. I have always been interested in the context where things happen. That’s why I love to create for very different, if not contradicting, forums and contexts. I examine the rituals (of speaking, acting, listening and moving) of different contexts and societies.
“I also love sounds that happen to me, instead of me looking for them. I often carry a little recorder with me and when I encounter a good sound, I quickly record it. I have a huge archive of these ‘one shot recordings” that I’ve collected over the years. In 2010, I made a radio play out of them called ‘Säugling, Duschkopf, Damenschritte‘ (‘Infant, Shower Head, Female Steps’) which is constructed like one of those sound archive records for Super 8 film enthusiasts in the 1960s. All the sounds are announced, then the descriptions get more and more poetic (and obviously wrong), until the play sublimates into a piece of musique concrète.”
Looking back, Kubin is fond of Coughs & Sneezes. “I love this record because it has a humorous and unique concept. It didn’t sell fast, if you consider the small handmade edition of 93 copies. I think it’s one of those records that people will appreciate more when it gets older, as with most of the things I do. That seems to be my destiny. The early four-track teenage music that I made in the 1980s was first released in 2002, and became quite popular then. I’m lucky that I started so early. I still have lots of sneezes.”
Thanks to Felix Kubin for the interview, and Renate Nikolaus for her images of the lathe-cutting process. Kubin’s many projects are outlined in detail on his website. The Hasenbart Records website is here.
“I’m quite sure that you destroy your record player by playing the disc, but that’s what it was about.”
While perusing an old issue of Preston Peek’s marvelous zine, Exotica / Et Cetera, I came across an article by a Dutch collector of abnormal and anti-records named Ed Veenstra. In that article, Veenstra provided brief descriptions of thirty or so bizarre records from his extensive collection. Several items stood out and are worthy of discussion on Anomaly Index. One particular favourite was a record made out of rusted metal. Named Hör Zu, it was produced by a German industrial group named Lyssa Humana.
Little information survives about the band, who were based out of Regensburg. However, I was able to get in touch with former band member Tilo Ettl, now a visual artist, to find out more about this unusual record. At first he couldn’t remember which anti-record I was talking about.
“Well, first I must admit that I destroyed everything I had from the Lyssa Humana time, because there was no interest at all by anyone,” Ettl responded. “After 15 years of storing the stuff I said to myself, ‘Why the hell are you keeping all that material?’ That was a quick and lethal decision, lethal not for me but for the anti-records I made. So I’m not sure whether Hör Zu is the disc in plaster or the tape with the mummy!?”
I ended up having to tell him it was neither. With that said, those unusual releases are interesting in their own right. The plaster record was called Ramstein Trash. “I took an old vinyl disc, mixed the plaster, quite fluid, then poured it onto the vinyl disc. Waiting until dry. That´s all. Sure you can play it. In fact it’s a negative of the original vinyl. If you are not afraid of ruining your diamond you can play the disc. At least two people did play it. (Great success!)”
Ramstein Trash is a little reminiscent of John Bender’s 1981 LP, Plaster Falling, which was a record that was coated in plaster, designed by Bender with the visual artist CV Mansoor. You had to pull a string embedded in the plaster to get to the record itself, which meant that collectors had to choose between listening to their record or preserving its value as a collectible. A Faustian bargain.
With regard to the Hör Zu disc, Ettl explains that he sourced his rusty metal from a factory near his hometown, Schwandorf. “[It was] quite easy to steal because there were no fences or security after they finished work at 6 pm,” he remembers. He was using that metal for his own sculptural art at the time, so it made sense to use it for an anti-record, too. The disc was named after a weekly German magazine for “ordinary families,” which included TV listings.
Ettl tells me the record was all about destruction and nihilism. “I’m quite sure that you destroy your record player by playing the disc, but that’s what it was about. Fuck everything.” He compares this to the aesthetic of noise music, citing the Einstürzende Neubauten track, “Hör mit Schmerzen,” or “Listen With Pain.”
He tells me a little bit about the mindspace he was occupying around the time he conceived this negative-centric record. “I was very ‘anti’ at that time, unsatisfied, unhappy, studying at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart in the painting class,” he says. He and the four other members of Lyssa Humana shared an enthusiasm for industrial bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, and would occasionally host performances in Regensburg. The band existed from 1986 to 1990.
Because of their short lifespan, Lyssa Humana now registers as little more than a blip on the late-eighties industrial scene. Ettl explains that this lack of longevity boiled down to the band members’ different personalities. “Edmund von Bachmeier was older, sort of a professional musician playing with [fellow Regensburg industrial band] Delir Noir. He was the ‘provocateur,’ but, because he had a real job, he had some money. William Kretschmer had been a student for 10 years and was pretty much into literature and movies. Walter Heilmeier was a semi-musician and really Bohemian, earning a living via some short-time jobs. And me, I was more into art and was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts. I still wonder how it worked for so many years.”
The band was sometimes accompanied by Heilmeier’s girlfriend, Margarete, who “wasn’t very active but also participated in performances and was something like a female alibi for a boy group.”
A tape has been uploaded to YouTube and serves as a capsule of the band’s approach, which in this case is a combination of sampled radio, bass guitar, and what sounds like someone playing with some metal junk:
Ettl dates Hör Zu to approximately 1988 or 1989. Being the art student in the group, he was responsible for crafting the metal records himself. He figures the other members may have been involved in planning the release. “It is one thing to have great ideas, but another thing to realize them. William [Kretschmer] planned, for example, an opera — an industrial opera with singers singing in destroyed cars after a car accident. Good idea but it ended in some attempts and some beers. The performances were true collaborations, everyone put some ideas into them and was supported by the rest.”
Regarding Hör Zu, Ettl cites the influence of other unusual records and anti-records. He pinpoints two creations by the notorious Rudolf Eb.er as sources of inspiration. One was the Zerstückelte Denkkurbeln compilation on the Schimpfluch record label, which had a plastic fork glued to the cover. And then there’s Lieder Zur Analytischen Selbstverkrüppelung, a record by Eb.er’s project, Institut für Psycho-Hygiene; it came in a bizarre cover coated in black paint and a tampon. He also mentions Honeymoon Production’s infamous Manipulation Muzak, which was a solid wad of vinyl that came with instructions for the owner to create their own record by heating it up and flattening it. Lastly, he points to the power electronics opus All In Good Faith by Con-Dom, which came wrapped in a shroud inside a hollowed-out hymn book.
Ettl also cites the influence of writers like William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard (specifically Crash), and Kathy Acker, as well as the performance art of the Survival Research Laboratories, which he describes as “an American group of weird people making weird performances with machines made of scrap metal, fighting and destroying themselves. Fire, explosions, noise.”
“Maybe you don´t remember the times before internet came up,” he explains. “It was a challenge to find ‘censored’ material, films, books, VHS-tapes, and we thought we were rebellious by showing that material in public. Maybe it was — because people like you are doing research 30 years later.”
He estimates that only eight or nine copies of Hör Zu were produced. “Four for us and one or two sold,” he says, laughing.
Ettl intended this record to threaten the listener with the possibility of turntable destruction. Yet those brave enough to play it might not have faced the intended result. “I remember that I actually played the disk. Unfortunately the effect is not what it is supposed to be: the arm of the record player runs very quickly to the center, playing only for three seconds or so. It´s more the fear that is spread — shall I play it or not? What is the outcome? Is it worth it? What weird stuff is that?”
“I had to be fast with the buttons to make the conversation seem natural, but then I’d realize there would be a guy, you know, going at it on the other end.”
When I was in high school, one of my favourite albums was Kathy McGinty, which quickly became a hit among my friends. A cult phenomenon that first spread via the Aquarius Records shop and mail order, it had an irresistible concept. The ever-excitable Kathy McGinty prowled for love-hungry men in chat rooms, luring them with sexy talk and asking them to call her on the phone. When they did, they met “Kathy,” who was nothing more than a Yamaha sampler that rotated through a handful of phrases, sexy and not. The sampler was manned by Derek Erdman, and featured the vocal talents of his friend, Julia Rickert. Kathy’s treasury of expressions ranged from the mundane (“This is Kathy,” “So, what’s up?”) to the outrageous (“Your dick tastes like bacon,” “Taco Bell tastes so good,” “I think I might be having a miscarriage”), with not much in between. The men would eventually figure out the gambit, but not before a few minutes of awkward back-and-forth.
I speak with Derek Erdman by email to learn more about this legendary disc.
“Julia and I were roommates, living in a neighborhood that was a utopia at the time,” he tells me. “It was slightly desolate on the outskirts of downtown Chicago, and a lot of our friends were living nearby, so it was a fertile time for doing things. I can’t really think of a reason that Kathy happened other than boredom. I was into the internet then — 2002 or so — so I spent a lot of time on it. Julia didn’t care so much about it, she watched a lot of Passions and Family Feud. I clearly remember her being very critical that the first two rounds of Feud didn’t matter at all; if they won only the third round, that family would take it all.”
Erdman’s first forays into the exploitation of male desperation were low-tech. “I used to place local ads for people to show up to have sex, but I’d give them the address to the house across the street,” he remembers. “I’d tell them to honk their car horn and yell for Tammy because the doorbell was broken. I’d ask them to bring eggs or a gallon of milk as a nice gesture. Dudes would show up in groups with milk yelling for Tammy, and see others doing the same. Truly awful stuff.”
At the time, he was spending a lot of time in chat rooms, “pretending to be somebody that I wasn’t, probably acting like a jerk.” Since he also was a lifelong enthusiast of prank calls, it was only a matter of time before he merged the two interests. At first, this involved pretending to be a woman and instructing men to call the house to leave sexy messages on an answering machine – promising to call them back if they were “sexy enough.” (Some of these voicemails ended up on the CD).
Erdman says that, when these calls started coming through to their answering machine, they were impossible for Rickert to ignore. “It was her idea to interact with them in a way that we wouldn’t actually have to, and Kathy was born. I had a Yahama SU-10 sampler (still do!), and we programmed the sayings into it, spliced some wires to a phone, and away we went.”
Some of those samples are classics, including lines like “You sound like a child molester!” and “I think you might be racist.” Erdman says they were the result of inspired improvisation. “Julia and I came up with them on the fly, going for whatever would be the most jarring while callers were all worked up. It’s funny, ‘You sound like a child molester’ elicited a vague response, but when you’d call somebody racist, they didn’t like that at all. ‘I think you might be racist’ is such a funny thing to say, like the sex talk gave Kathy some clues to their racism.”
Finding men was hardly a challenge. “I’m sure we went for whatever chat rooms seemed the most explicit, ‘creeps for teens’ or whatever. There was no nuance to it whatsoever. We’d get right in a room and say something like, ‘Who wants to phone bang?’ and we’d get five takers right away. I have no idea what we called ourselves. Probably teen_for_creeps or something similar.”
Erdman says he was at a place in his life where he wasn’t worried about giving away his phone number or being traced. “What were people going to do, come to our apartment and admit to being a sex joke?” he pontificates. “This was right around the time when I first got a cell phone, so the landline was treated as a castoff. I hardly ever answered it seriously. The prefix was 666, I still remember the whole number.”
I asked Erdman to paint a picture of what it was like handling those calls. “[It was] usually late at night, usually just the two of us huddled around a beige 1980s Bell Systems phone on a red dining room table. I was usually the one to control the sampler, because it was a hassle to cycle through four banks of samples. There are 12 buttons on that sampler, so you’d use them up pretty fast. Especially with time buying responses. We figured out pretty early that we’d need something like, ‘Sorry, I’m on speaker phone so I can touch myself’ or ‘Hold on a second.’ I needed that just to catch up sometimes. I had to be fast with the buttons to make the conversation seem natural, but then I’d realize there would be a guy, you know, going at it on the other end.”
On one occasion, one of those men “finished” before giving up on the call, something that apparently left Erdman with a bit of a stomach ache.
One of Erdman’s favourite calls is “Very Large Hands.” On that track, the caller is immediately suspicious about Kathy’s phone, then cracks up and asks if the audio clips are being transmitted via computer or a keyboard. He then can’t stop laughing as Kathy commands him to “suck the shit out of my ass” and “drink my cum, fuckface!” Another Erdman fave is “I Have Somebody Else in the House,” in which a whispering caller stays on the line for over six minutes, persisting through Kathy’s cycle of absurdities (“I wanna jam my thumb in your dick hole,” “I can’t feel your dick, it must be teeny”), even when she starts speaking in reverse and a man’s voice blurts out “Kathy Robot version 2.1.”
These calls have left an indelible impression on Erdman. “I can still hear their voices echoing in my head,” he says. “They’re kind of like boyfriends of mine, in a way!”
The physical Kathy McGinty release started off life as a homemade CD-R. Erdman says that this disc was first championed by the San Franscico shop Aquarius Records, whom he commends for their honest business ethic and commitment to promoting Kathy. As that CD-R was selling like hotcakes, he learned that Kathy had been bootlegged and was being peddled at stores in Los Angeles. Michael Sheppard, who also put out the infamous Celebrities at their Worst on the Mad Deadly Worldwide Communist Gangster Computer God label, was responsible. “What a stupid thing to bootleg,” Erdman says. “But, also, he probably thought it was just an impossibly obscure thing that nobody would find out about. Also, the first versions we made were so homemade looking, why not just make your own? I guess that sort of makes sense.
“I think we had a phone conversation with Michael and he agreed to stop selling them and also send us money, but he never did. I really liked those other CDs that he did, I can see the connection to what he was selling with those and what McGinty was, so really, it makes sense. That Van Morrison CD is a revelation to listen to. ‘Want a Danish’ especially!”
Erdman also mentions setting a modem to call Sheppard’s 1-800 number on repeat “for a week straight,” but it’s hard to know if he’s being serious.
We discovered, in conducting this interview and browsing through Discogs, that someone also did a cassette bootleg at one point. Erdman also mentioned that an indie record compilation used one of the calls between songs without permission. And a band called Bell sampled it without permission on an album that came out on Soul Jazz Records. “We asked them to give us some money and went to Haiti with it,” he tells me, possibly joking. “Ethically questionable on our part, because we didn’t have permission from the callers.”
Erdman eventually pressed Kathy in an edition of 2000 professional CDs. He put it out on his own label, Hamburger Records, which was named after his “lofty house” at the time, which he dubbed Gallery Hamburger.
There were actually two releases on Hamburger Records; in addition to Kathy, there was a disc called 75 Voicemail Messages, by Simone Waters. “Simone Waters (not her real name) was a girl I dated briefly, I really liked her and she was waaaaay out of my league,” he says. “She used to call me way too much and leave messages, and they all sounded EXACTLY the same. So that CD is that. Probably so dumb that it shouldn’t exist. Very disappointing for fans of McGinty.” (He says now that he thinks this was a mean thing to do.)
Yet Kathy and Simone were hardly Erdman’s only forays into telephony. “I was a MAJOR prank caller as a kid — and, uh, adult,” he says. “Calling strangers screaming, anything non-sequitur, etc. I’m a huge fan of Longmont Potion Castle, Tube Bar, & the Screamer.” There are some other prank calls up on his website. He also ran a 24/7 psychic hotline for ten years:
“Derek Erdman’s FREE PSYCHIC HOTLINE, call 24/7 (206) 324 6276 for a pre-recorded message or a live psychic. Pre-recorded message changes weekly and includes upcoming celebrity news, impending disasters, lucky lottery numbers & other information. Talk to a live psychic about any subject that you desire. ABSOLUTELY FREE.”
Erdman learned, through Aquarius Records, that both Dan the Automator and Matt Groening had bought copies of Kathy and liked them – something he is rightly proud of.
Today, Kathy is a fond memory, although not one that he returns to often. “I don’t think about it much, but it is a funny thing we made a long time ago. It seems kind of early internet to me. Kathy is definitely more of a character, not a reflection of us, and she said some stuff that there’s no way we’d say now. I guess that comes with age, self censorship or empathy for other people in the world. It’s unfortunate in a way that I wouldn’t make something like these days, but I guess that’s a part of growing up. And Taco Bell does taste ‘sooooo good.’”
He does offer a teaser for passionate Kathy McGinty fans, however. He still has the old tapes in a box in the basement, and he estimates that there are about 30 minutes of calls that weren’t included on the original CD. He figures that the best calls are all included on the CD, thanks to Rickert’s curatorial discretion. But he’s happy to send the rest of the tapes to anyone who wants to digitize them…
Thanks to Derek Erdman for the interview. Visit Derek’s website, where you can learn about his paintings and various other exploits.