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.