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"Trabant", recording notes & tape reel, 1970

Sonne = Blackbox (Voice and Tape Music by Ursula Bogner)

 

I was pleasantly surprised when Faitiche invited me to investigate the Ursula Bogner archives and assemble a collection of her works for this second volume of recordings. My delight was all the greater when during my research I came upon a cache of materials (tape recordings, notes, graphic scores) which bring to light two previously unheard but overlapping aspects of Bogner's music: her experiments with tape manipulation and her use of the voice as a sound source.

Auditioning these recordings, I heard work that was bold and playful - music in which, to my ears, the raw spirit of exploration is pleasantly tempered by a tendency towards what one might call an emotive register. In particular, I was struck by the sheer variety of Bogner's work and the various ways the voice was utilized. In addition to more conventional modes of melodic and harmonic singing, I heard voices which are stretched, layered and treated in order to become textures or to take on the tonal quality of other instruments. I found most intriguing two pieces (Jubiläum and Shepard Monde) where the apparent confluence of Bogner's tape and voice experimentation are most distinctly audible - with fragments of vocals looped into cyclical structures  forming rhythmical frameworks into which further elements are gradually introduced. 

Among the archive materials I found no definitive evidence to either prove or disprove my suspicion that the voice heard in these pieces is Ursula Bogner's own - the recording notes which accompanied some of the tapes make no mention of any vocalist(s) whatsoever. Nonetheless, despite the sometimes radical transformations to which it is subjected, the main voice heard throughout the 15 year period in which these pieces were made retains a certain timbral consistency which suggested to me that it belongs to the same person. Playing a few excerpts from these recordings for Bogner's son Sebastian confirmed what I had surmised: it is indeed the composer's voice we are hearing. Possible exceptions may be the loops of doo-wop singing in Or Dor Melanor and the fragments of pop harmony vocals and liturgical chant which are cut up in Der Chor Der Oktaven.


Yet voice was not the only material used by Bogner in her tape experiments. Indeed, the sound sources are as varied as their compositional functions. For instance, the repeating electric guitar motif of Trabant is accentuated by sped-up, slowed-down and reversed versions of itself and seems to me to elegantly mirror the two (electronically treated and pure) singing voices that it accompanies. Also remarkable is Illusorische Planeten, where severely processed percussion forms a jagged landscape onto which a choir of voices and electronic tones descend only to become entangled in the thistly environment before managing to lift off again. Elsewhere, we hear among other things, piano trills, splashing water, wind, chimes and orchestral strings or, as in the second half of Nach Europa, a complex soundscape of presumably electronic origin which undergoes a range of metamorphoses via tape manipulation.


Ursula Bogner, year unknown / Observation cupola, constructed by Ursula and Ulrich Bogner. The picture shows Ulrich Bogner and son Sebastian, taken from the journal "Sterne und Weltall", 1977)

Of particular interest to me are the recording notes that accompanied some of the tape reels from which these pieces are taken. These are printed forms intended to facilitate the work of studio engineers and archivists by providing space for technical information pertaining to recording and composition. Intriguingly, Ursula Bogner used these sheets not only for technical notes but also to jot down fragmentary ideas, associations and perhaps the sources of inspiration for the music on the tapes.

Here are a few examples of her recording notes along with a few of my own (entirely subjective) thoughts on their possible meanings:

 

De Planetarum Influxu 

Mesmerization. Attempt to implent a fluidic structure. Does there exist a tonal equivalent of hypnosis?

The reference seems to be to Franz Mesmer's theory of animal magnetism, a magnetic fluid supposedly found in the bodies of living beings. Experiments which attempted to channel this “ethereal medium” in order to cure various diseases led to the theory's discretization but also contributed to the emergence of modern hypnotherapy.

 

Illusorische Planenten 

Counter-Earth, hidden behind the sun. (the word 'superseded' circled and underlined) All is arranged antithetically, conditions for symmetry not possible. Music of the ellipses.

A reference to the counter-Earth?  According to classical Greek astronomy, the planet 'Antichton' was supposed to exist hidden behind the sun and act as a counterbalance to our Earth. And could 'music of the ellipses' be a pun on 'music of the spheres',  the phrase adjusted to more accurately reflect astronomical reality?

 

Uranotypie 

Uranium 92. Platin Transmutation. Uranus Epsilonring. White Swan 92 Uranotypie. uranyl ferricyanide.

Uranium, discovered in 1789 (by a Berlin chemist) was named after the then recently discovered planet Uranus. Bogner seems to be playing here with the number 92, the atomic number of uranium in the periodic table. Uranotypie and uranyl ferricyanide may possibly refer to the use of radioactive uranium in photographic printing processes in the late 19th century. The  meaning of the 'white swan' remains a mystery.

 

Trabant (scroll down for audio file)

Unlike duplicates fly away in unsteady orbits. Satellites of the self.

A subjective interpretation: Might the 'unlike duplicates' be the looped variants of the guitar motif that forms the rhythmic and harmonic basis of this piece? Does the unsteady orbit represent the role of the voice in relation to the music? Does the 'self' and 'satellites' refer to the way Bogner here doubles and applies electronic treatments to her voice?

 

Nach Europa

Telescopic discovery of cyclopic decent. Dim star, slower than the eye. To break through the clouds.

This piece starts from a simple rhythmic motif and gradually builds up momentum by accumulating layers of harmonic texture until finally bursting forth into a swirling, dissonant and murky sound world. Taken together with the text, the music suggests to me a journey to and eventual arrival at some obscure and distant world. Does not the sudden cutting out of the rhythm track halfway through sound uncannily like 'splashdown' in some alien ocean?

In addition to the tapes, recording notes, graphic scores and drawings Ursula Bogner also left behind a filing system of index cards which she used to record thoughts, concepts, text fragments, and word games. At least three of the tracks which appear here are referred to by index cards.

 

Here are two examples:

 

Or, Dor, Dor, Dor, Dor

Or, Dor, Dor

Melanor


(Ursula Bogner, 1972 - scroll down for audio file)

The relation between the three typed words of the index card and the song in which they are intoned - in Ursula Bogner's characteristically solemn yet offhand voice – remains unknown.

 

Sonne = Blackbox


(Ursula Bogner, 1972 - scroll down for audio file)

In this case also it is not known whether the titular index card predates the music or whether the card was used to record the name of an already finished piece. At any rate, the sung text – as yet not found on any of the cards - is as follows:

 

Ist denn die Sonne eine Blackbox? (Is then the Sun a black box?)

Ob man die Nacht abschaffen kann? (Could the night be abolished?)

Auf dem Uranus, Herschels Planet?(On Uranus, Herschel's planet?)

Mit Schäfermonden rings umrannt' ?(Encircled by shepherd moons?)

Solarwinde (Solar winds)

 

I hope that this collection will be of equal interest to newcomers as well as to those already familiar with Ursula Bogner's work as it both broadens and sharpens the image we have of her and the intriguing artist persona she has left for us to ponder.

 

Andrew Pekler



Filing system of index cards, 1966-1976. Keywords (Tabs): Life, Gods, Sound, Paradigm, Orgone, Outer Space, Microphonics, Sun, The cosmo-human gesture.


Titles

1. Sonne = Blackbox (1972)
4. Trabant (1970)
5. Or Dor Melanor (1981)
7. Strahlungen (1974)
11. Shepard Monde (1971)
12. Signalfluss (1980)
13. Homöostat (1985)