Alwa Glebe "Songs aren’t mathematical formulas"

Interview, Amboss-Mag Online Magazine (2006)

It’s almost midnight, and I’m racking my brain to come up with a suitable introduction. Result: I’m unable to contrive one fitting the title of the interview. Everything expressed by the music, intended by the artist, having influenced her and constituting her, becomes self-evident by her exhaustive answers. Attention is the only thing required here. Who is in the habit of scanning interviews will needs be disappointed. For further, previous or subsequent information please visit or read the reviews.

Hope you will enjoy reading this interview, and once more, my sincere thanks to Alwa for her exhaustive answers to my questions and her affectionate handling of my e-mails (andreas).

Your internet cover page quotes Jim Kerr of the Simple Minds. What does this statement mean to you?
You mean, "The voice of an angel, a dark angel"? I think it’s a beautiful picture to come up with, especially by a person being a singer himself, which is why it is of a more subtle meaning to me. Jim Kerr was one of the musicians to advance his opinion on my voice at a quite an early stage. His assessment might amaze a lot of people, especially as he and his band are representing a completely different line of music. To me it was not that surprising, as we have been knowing each other for quite some time, our musical paths crossing ever since 1979 and not only since our joint tour in 1982, like many people think. In contrast to the Simple Minds, first and foremost representing the "glory side" of life and paying homage to it, I’m a representative of its "dark side”, which, however, does not mean that I’m paying homage to it, as there is definitely too much lamentation and wistfulness in it. Rather, in my way I try to brighten it up, at best to make it easier to understand and to access. I won’t succumb to the temptation to compare the two ways of brightening things up, as both are legitimate.

In 1982, you were touring with Index Sign. Why haven’t we heard of Index Sign ever since?
That’s easy to explain. We dissolved at the end of 1982, despite our spring tour with the Simple Minds. After Punk, New Wave and New German Wave (NDW) we didn’t expect an independent „gothic scene“ to develop that would be willing to take on our music. In 1982, everything seemed to be on the decline, the musical lines mentioned above worn out, the scene completely jaded. Only in the mid eighties, when I was abroad for some time, first in San Francisco, afterwards in Glasgow, new and highly promising musical developments did re-emerge and were to be observed everywhere, not only in the German music scene,.

As for today: You have just re-released your debut CD. In your eyes, which are the differences between “Will-o’-the-wisp“ and the first CD?
Any new album is definitely a further development of the previous one, and that’s the way I see “Will-o’-the-wisp”. While the prevailing mood of both is comparable, it’s perhaps on the “debut” a bit more grave and much more text oriented, while more filigree on “Will-o’-the-wisp“, i.e. refined in every respect. The first album took a really long period of creation and was recorded in Nuremberg, largely isolated from the world, in an attic room, the claustrophobic mood of which may have influenced the album. It’s based on lyrics that had taken me years to compose and to modulate, so that the musical expression quite narrowly followed the words. “Will-o’-the-wisp“ is designed much more openly, although it did take almost as much time, but it’s combining things more homogenously. However, both are devised according to the idea of an equal contribution by text and music. This is especially well reflected in the title song “Will-o’-the-wisp“. Today, I am no longer able to say what was there first, the lyrics, the music, the vocal line, it’s all of piece! All my songs have the love of aesthetics and form and, in this respect, of the optimal vocal line in common. For me, the vocal line constitutes the backbone of a song and has to have a basic structure of its own, in order to virtually bear the song. As a rule, my ideas are emerging highly intuitively and quickly, while elaborating them requires a long and intensive process. I have to admit I’m predisposed to be a little of a perfectionist. To strike the right balance and being able to filter critically is a very important criterion, in which less is more, which is also true for the music of Alwa Glebe.

Let’s talk about your album "Will-o’-the-wisp" next. What was your main reason to choose this title?
I liked the word play. In contrast to the widespread belief, will-o’-the-wisps aren’t superstition, but very real light apparitions in the night sky, occurring unpredictably and for short intervals, which alone makes them a fascinating phenomenon. I enjoy the way these apparitions have raised questions over centuries as to their way of origin but also as to their meaning. So much can be derived from this. What has been a mystery to us for a long time is nowadays an explainable phenomenon. And yet it has lost none of its fascination. What was true yesterday might be a lie tomorrow, and who knows whether this truth will not already have lived out itself before it will be able to rob us of another illusion. Hence, we can never be sure, which is why searching is of no less attraction than finding. Raising questions is an elementary thing to me and of great importance in my songs. I’m interested in the basic questions posed by life, and the things evolving apparently naturally out of them. Apart from that, I’m a curious person, which is vital for me in order to avoid one-dimensional paths. Coming back to your question, I find will-o’-the-wisps just beautiful, regardless of how they are explained today or will be in future.

Chanteuse and German lyrics, this is supposed to be a contradiction, at least in recent years. Where do you see yourself in the new gush of German speaking “artists”?
Presumably I’ve become a kind of will-o’-the-wisp, a „musical“ phenomenon appearing at regular intervals while being not truly within reach. This may be due to the fact that I don’t like too much ado about my person. I rather tend to concentrate on my work, hoping that all things are said by it. I don’t know whether „chanteuse“ and German lyrics are contradictory, there have always been singers able to reconcile them. My music is not really rooted in chansons, although my songs might echo some of their elements, but definitely in rock music, which personally I understand very widely, starting with the Doors, Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and David Bowie, naturally. Fortunately, I became acquainted with all these artists through my elder brother at a very early stage, actually being still a child then, and learnt to appreciate them. Later, I was enthusiastic about the German electronic roots, especially „Kraftwerk“ and „Neu“, whose productions I considered really groundbreaking. Glamrock has definitely been of strong influence, and I have always admired Roxy Music and still consider Bryan Ferry to be an excellent singer, even today. With Iggy Pop I always appreciated his highly constructive co-operation with Bowie and Eno. Considering this, Punk and New Wave were natural consequences resulting from these preferences, which in my eyes were most grandly and intelligently represented by Television, Talking Heads, and Magazine. However, as far as singing is concerned, there were no tangible ideals, no voices I could have orientated myself on. For a typical rock singer, I’m too much in love with soft sounds and classical singing. At heart, I rather tend to interpret songs than sing rock music. Actually it wouldn’t feel strange to me to interpret a song by Schubert, though not in its conventional sense but with none the less ambition and expression!
I have not yet wondered about as to where I stand in the gush of German speaking artist. I rather and very humbly consider myself a highly individual supplement, a nuance to all the other things offered by the music market.

A name every now and then coming up in reviews is "Nico". This is a comparison each female singer can live with, I think. However, what is the personal difference between you and "Nico"?
Much and little! In my eyes, there is nothing more personal than the human voice, which makes any comparison lapse. In addition, a voice is of extreme seismographic quality, being able to make things swing by its high emotionality in cases in which words fail or are insufficient. It never lies. Like Nico and Alwa Glebe. They do sing differently, which can be interpreted as their greatest common characteristic, but also as their difference.

There have been lots of critiques and comparisons – which has been the most absurd one so far?
Surprisingly, there has been much agreement, and many a comparison was much less absurd than to be assumed, like the one with Grace Jones. The affinity does suggest itself, considering the pronounced strictness of form, and the coolness characteristic of Grace Jones and Nico. However, I was quite amused by a piece of criticism from Franconia, where I have been living for some years now: "House music for zombies and other strange individuals lost in reverie!" was the upshot of "Will-o’-the-wisp". Knowing the down-to-earth Franks you won’t be surprised. Apparently there is still a strong reservation concerning the darker type of music.

It is always deceiving to enquire about musical ideals. Hence only one question: Which were your literary sources of interpretation and which (writing) persons did you learn to love and hate during your studies of German language and literature?
During your academic studies you become acquainted with all sides for sure, which is quite important in order to appraise them. I was lucky insofar as I had been able to devote myself intensively to the fraternity of authors I have always loved. There was no place for hate, life is much too short to quarrel with things that are only destructive and fail to offer any inspiration... I like to filter things and don’t mind it, which is very important. There are only a few I’m able to read constantly, that are almost inexhaustible to me, like Friedrich Nietzsche and Franz Kafka, who somehow have been mentally accompanying me through life. I love philosophers who write poetry and philosophising poets; to name them all would presumably go beyond the scope of this interview, but as far as lyrics are concerned, I definitely count the works of Gottfried Benn, Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer among them.
I’m also interested in current polemic pamphlets, like the ones by Mr Sloterdijk, for example; I prefer thought-provoking impulses that are no strangers to controversy. And I love exceptional biographies. Rüdiger Safranski has written some highly recommendable ones on Nietzsche and Heidegger. However, literature is only a limited source of inspiration to me, as my interest in arts is very broad. Most of my lyrics deal with thoughts and questions raised by life and art itself, which I cannot be relieved of, not even by the most excellent fraternity of authors. A wonderful movie might touch me as deep as getting acquainted with new people, cities, or landscapes.

If you set store on it, the feature pages of the FAZ or the culture pages of the Spiegel might report on you. Instead, your name appears in “gothic” music gazettes. Are there any reasons why you’re looking for an audience there?
Surprisingly enough, we hadn’t even to look for an audience, things wondrously evolved of their own volition. I am really grateful to the gothic scene for its openness and willingness to take Alwa Glebe on unreservedly. Till then I had been completely unknown to the world. Up to now I have given no thought to whether the culture magazines mentioned above might be interested in Alwa Glebe. I am pleased with any kind of appraisal, regardless of the type of magazine. In this regard the journal’s size is of less importance than the quality of its criticism. 

For normal consumers your music is presumably too lugubrious, your lyrics too trying for „normally“ socialised ears. First, do you agree with this proposition? Second, how important is it for you to detect the word „demanding” in a critique?
You have a point there. Due to the richness of harmonic structures and melodies it shouldn’t be that way, but if the music gets across so bitter-sweetly, it also elicits more disagreeable feelings. Maybe it’s this irritating dispassionateness of my singing by which I disperse any hope almost as a matter of course. I’m unable to judge whether my lyrics are too trying. I’m writing in a highly condensed form, reduced to the essentials, which might be insufficient for some people, as the ultimate explanation is missing. However, proselytising is an anathema to me. First and foremost I wish to convey thoughts, images, and feelings. The positive feedback does prove that it is not that difficult to access. You just need a bit of interest and willingness to get into the music unreservedly. If you’re seeking superficial entertainment, you will of course be disappointed by Alwa Glebe.
It is important to set high demands on your work, hence „demanding“ is a lovely compliment, simply a quality feature. If somebody says things are too demanding – hard to believe, but there really seem to be such people – it only means that they desire things to be easier and more comfortable, so that they won’t be encumbered by any demands. That is not the musical line represented by Alwa Glebe. Incidentally, “demanding” has not to be contradictory to beautiful, well hearable, or entertaining. I do hope my music bears testimony to this.

You’re playing with the German language, which sounds very hard to many people. You succeed in staging it in a fragile way while at the same time gracefully paying homage to the word play. How important do you consider the audience’s freedom of interpretation in this symbiosis?
I concede the same kind of freedom I avail myself of in writing a song the way I consider it right to the audience in hearing and interpreting this song. Songs aren’t mathematical formulas, they don’t need to be underscored to arrive at a result that cannot be discussed. My songs are interpretations of the world and may be understood as such, but do not have to. It speaks in favour of art if it permits freedom, which does not mean that it has to be imprecise, not taking a stand. Works of arts are always statements, but it is anybody’s right not to share them, to misunderstand them or simply to have a different opinion on them. To err is human and fortunately does not change art itself.

For example, I didn’t expect the critiques on my first two albums to be so unanimous and appreciative, that everything was understood without the need of further explanation, I guess that’s something to say for my music. There is no better feeling than a successful communication, especially on an international level! There were English critiques which completely grasped everything generated by the music, the voice and the images, which really deeply touched me. Not all things do emerge in total consciousness, especially not during the creative process, which is much more intuitive than most people think. There are experiences you find access to only afterwards, like pieces of art whose meaning gets revealed by the process of external interpretation only, by displaying them. That’s as good as can be, after all it is no work aimed at a dead space, but addressing human beings, desiring a feedback, regardless in which form. It’s less a question of whether the respective art will be loved or hated, the only important thing is that it joins people while the levels on which this takes place might be extremely differing. In this regard I mean not only the intellectual level, as there is a richness of feelings and moods which can be more than connective.
I don’t feel the German language to be hard, rather it’s highly poetic and already in this sense very musical. Of course it’s far from easy to stage in a fragile way, as precisely easy things often prove to be the most difficult ones, but it’s a challenge I enjoy to meet. I’ve always failed to completely understand this fear of the German language and its singableness. Maybe it’s a kind of fear of emotionality that gets circumnavigated by raucous bawling instead. Nowadays singing is on the increase again, especially in the younger generation. As long as this won’t degenerate into a kind of hit song sentimentality, it’s a trend I quite welcome.

You are creating wonderful, surrealistic sound paintings featuring your voice as a wordy knife, while it might also be an additional instrument. How would you describe your singing within the context of your music?
Singing cannot be disconnected from the music, I should say. Basically, I apply my voice very pictorially, trying to grasp with it the musical moods and textual intentions. This allows for multilayered facets - like with a paint-brush - among them a very individual, strongly expressed dramaturgy. Surrealistic sound paintings, as you call them, is a highly suitable image, I think, just as comparing the texts with a knife. It is right that at times I tend to be very direct and dissecting, however, I do not write lovely pastoral lyrics. Kafka once compared a book with an axe, intended to split the frozen sea within us. I write texts that cut wounds, dissect and lay them open, that may hurt at times, while wrapping them in a mood of naturalness, as if there was only this world and no other, the world in pain. I have to admit that pain is an absolutely central element of my lyrics and not accidentally the supporting element of my voice.

Lyrics are of major importance, so how do your German language and literature studies influence your writing? How do German language and literature studies merge with philosophy?
I’m unable so separate the two. In academic studies, there is often not enough freedom to allow for individual, creative writing. Science and art are a completely different kettle of fish, so first I had to clear my head before becoming creative again. Hence I wouldn’t overestimate the influence of my academic studies, especially as I had already been not only musically but also textually creative for some years prior to my studies. Neither do studies of philosophy enable you to become inevitably a philosopher nor do German language and literature studies to become a poet. On the contrary, a large portion of desire for freedom is required in order not to get lost in the academic bustle and eventually not to get lost yourself.

There is always one phrase by a philosopher intellectuals love to quote. Which phrase would you like to be quoted by, and which phrase do you love to quote yourself?
There are people who always have such wisdom at the ready. Personally, I find this rather suspicious, it’s not my way of thinking. I guess this might be due to the fact that I consider it rather dangerous to quote things out of their proper context. Of course there are wonderful citations I wouldn’t be able to formulate any more beautifully. Since you’re asking me directly, there is one quotation by Nietzsche, which might programmatically represent my music:

”The noblest kind of beauty is that which does not carry us away suddenly, whose attacks are not violent or intoxicating (this kind easily awakens disgust), but rather the kind of beauty which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams; finally, after it has for a long time lain modestly in our heart, it takes complete possession of us, filling our eyes with tears, our hearts with longing. - What do we long for when we see beauty? To be bautiful. We think much happniness must be connected with it. - But that is an error."

My music is enough of a quotation.

On your debut album, you chose only one-word titles for your songs, a tradition which you seemed to continue in “Irrlichter” (Will-o’-the-wisp). What made you deviate from this strategy?
Titles are not that important to me as it might seem, and I didn’t want to repeat the concept of the first album. Many of my lyrics provisionally lack any title or have only a working title, which sometimes explains their fragmentary character. Personally, I could even do completely without any titles, but who knows, in that case my texts might be wrongly judged as unintelligible or enciphered, like the ones by Celan and Kafka, which would be rather deplorable, especially as beyond the words I’m offering music leading onto a different mental level.

Let’s talk about your lyrics. The total construct seldom appears to be of a piece, rather, there seem to be choppy fragments of a highly expressive emotional world. Do you place the power of the word above the power of the sense of a sentence?
That’s a very interesting question, which is not easy to answer. There are fragmentary lyrics as well as lyrics emerging as a piece. I’ve already mentioned the theme song „Will-o’-the-wisp“ in this regard, which is well-rounded. Consequently that means that I neither overrate the one nor the other. To me, lyrics do not make less sense if they’re fragmentary, it’s more a matter of formal interpretation. Absurdity does make sense, even though it appears nonsensical. Words can be very powerful, but they never stand alone but in a context of meaning, regardless whether it’s fragmentary, absurd, or might even appear nonsensical. Whether things are perceived as meaningful or meaningless is definitely a very personal matter, and generalisations do not appeal to me. Questions of meaning are both meaningful and meaningless to me; it doesn’t change the fact that they are repeated again and again. In this respect George Tabori is rather to be envied, who at his old age takes the liberty not to answer questions of meaning any more. If my music works, the question of meaning is superfluous. During all those years, in which my music had not yet been publicly accessible and hence couldn’t work, I never pondered the question of meaning. In effect, the power of feelings is much more important to me, the word, whether standing alone or in a context, is deceptive. Fortunately, my songs are much less complicated than the explanations given here, at least that’s what I should like to hope.

Do your lyrics emerge apart from a musical concept, and are there special moods, in which you particularly intensively submerge in the world of your lyrics?
It depends. For the debut album, I mostly resorted to lyrics that had been created without the music but were still suitable, though. That’s not always an adequate approach nor one to be pursued at all costs. Otherwise, I write most of the lyrics in parallel to the music, already having an idea, a vocal line or mood in mind helping me to find the right words. In principle, it’s a kind of constant interplay, sometimes favouring the melody, sometimes the word coming into the fore, and at best combining all things into a harmonic whole. I also like contradictions, for example singing difficult words easily, or highlighting a melancholic textual statement by soft background melody. I often try to “layer” moods by introducing the vocal line without lyrics at times, comparable to a musical instrument, which gives the overall sound a deeper structure. In general, I’m a pronouncedly moody person, hence it’s easy for me to sympathise with all kind of moods or even to produce them. I’m only capable of writing in a melancholic mood, although I don’t know why, it has always been that way, already during my childhood. It’s an atmosphere making me feel at rest, emanating muse, in which I can let my mind wander. For me, melancholy has none of its classifying depressive and only paralysing meaning. It gives me pause, inspiring me to creative work, pleasing me a lot.
My lyrics are often written on the road, during travelling, in cafés, hotel rooms, at places in large cities where I’m left to my own devices and anonymity is guaranteed, or in picturesque, almost sleepy towns where time seems to stand still. I don’t have to travel far to this end, I’m fascinated by eastern Germany, by cities like the solitary and picturesque Greiz or Görlitz, a city out of a picture book. I rather tend not to sit too much at my desk, at least not in the creative phase, but only after having returned, when finalising the material. Yes, and then I’m virtually sealing myself off, that’s the other side of the coin.

Longing, despair, sadness. Do such feelings offer shelter to the human being, warming the individual by their intimacy?
At least they are feelings prevailing in all my songs. I’m unable to say with reasonable certainty whether they are able to offer shelter warming by intimacy. Shelter would mean a safe place, a refuge. However, it’s safe to say that nothing is safe, and since these feelings are not truly positive ones, it’s not easy for me to imagine that they might able to offer warmth, a concept conveying a certain sense of well-being. Longing is a highly contradictory feeling, as it might represent a stimulant, i.e. be stimulating and inspiring, but also destructive, draining, and in a sense demoralising. Nobody will equate despair with euphoria, as it is a feeling associated with powerlessness, while sadness is a feeling which afflicts you but will fortunately pass. The latter is only a phase in which you have to come to terms with negative things, a loss, for the most part. Despair, however, feels like an terminus. Such feelings are a constitutive part of human existence like the air you breathe, regardless of how they are interpreted and perceived in detail. If there is such a thing as a place of shelter where such feelings can be associated with warmth due to their familiarity, it’s perhaps music. A lovely idea I do not wish to comment further on.

In combination with the cool background music, your texts hide a discreet phobia, while offering freedom, though. Is the depressive person doomed, will the manic one be healed?
Surely, a line like “narrow lanes are growing towards us“ out of the song „Beginning“ conveys a highly expressive image of a phobia-triggering situation. I rather enjoy working with such images in order to visualise the multilayered emotional worlds and make them sound, which is also true for phobias. For this song, the rather creaky sound of my ancient accordion seemed highly suitable as background music. It incredibly intensified the feeling of narrowness and being crowded. The question as to whether the depressive person is doomed or the manic one will be healed goes beyond my music, which simply intends to disclose. May I return the question? Why should the depressive one be doomed and the manic one require healing? As long as nobody will be seriously damaged, I do not see any need for action, whereas the best decision can only be made after sufficient consideration of each individual case.

Is there a song by Alwa Glebe, which could be considered symbolic of her music, her intuition?
Due to its complexity, "Will-o’-the-wisp" is highly representative. It unites contradictions like easiness and heaviness. Questions are raised without the need to be answered, furthermore the song conveys an atmosphere of a continuous, markedly „restless placidity“, as I would prefer to call it. "Will-o’-the-wisp" takes you into another world, moving like a rope dancer between hope and despair. "Maybe it is like this, who will ever know" is what I’m singing, releasing the audience into freedom.

Can you indulge in your music in any mood?
Yes, why shouldn’t I. I’m also listening to it times and again, depending on my mood.

By now you have been active in the music scene for more than 24 years, with some interruptions. What did change for the better, what for the worse during that time?
I think the internet is a positive development, offering a variety of new possibilities especially to the independent scene. This scene very self-confidently shed its status of amateurship it had long been associated with, which I find quite astounding. By now, higher quality can be found in this scene than in the established music market. What I consider extremely negative is the decreasing value of appreciation of artistic work in general. This dubious climate has been mainly created by the soulless philosophy prevailing in the large scale industry on marketing and distribution issues, the question of musical quality being no longer of any concern. Things that sell are good, things that don’t are bad. It’s as simple as that today, which means that commerce ranks first before art, quantity before quality. Free downloads, trampling the artists’ copy rights under foot, are the perfect expression of such a time in which many people want more and more for less and less. That’s really deplorable but shouldn’t deter from continuing to make music; there have always been counter movements arising especially in difficult times, a thing I have been relying on for years.

Next year, you have planned some live gigs for the first time. Are there already plans as to where they will take place and in which scope?
There are various plannings, however, the gigs are to be held within a scope that’s difficult to find. The slog of the early live gigs in the 80ties has made me sensitive to the fact that I’m hardly willing to accept surroundings in which I feel out of place. I’m striving for intimacy and closeness as well as optimal sound conditions in order to make the subtle framework of the music work to its best advantage. Last year I was very fortunate to see Antony and the Johnsons live on stage, which I enjoyed full of admiration, as the implementation of the music was perfect. My financial resources do not permit a background orchestra, nevertheless, I can promise already now that it’s going to be a thrilling event which will go far beyond the usual scope of concerts!

Amboss Mag (Andreas), Interview, December 2006