Geniale Dilletanten

I was recently watching one of the DVD-Features “slices” from the German music magazine Electronic Beats on youtube, where they featured sound-artist Alva Noto, who founded the acclaimed Raster Noton label. A lot of what he said struck me as very interesting, in particular his allusion to the importance of employing things incorrectly in the process of creating music, and his nod to one of the major influences of this vision, the “Geniale Dilletanten” (the ‘Ingenious amateurs’): one of the most interesting groupings of inter-disciplinary bands in the German experimental music-field of the 80s, whose impact stretches far beyond singular artists such as Alva Noto and whose philosophy of how to make sound and music remains both as aesthetically and politically viable today as it did back then: “There was this term in the 80s which I like, ‘ingenious amateurs’ (‘Geniale Dilettanten’). That with a certain kind of dilettantism and ignorance, you are less scared to touch things and to do stuff. (…) I think it’s very important to use something in the wrong or radical way.”

The term ‘Geniale Dilettanten’ (translated here as ‘ingenious amateurs’ – one could also say ‘Dilettante Geniuses’) stems from a now notorious music event called “Die große Untergangsshow – Festival Genialer Dilletanten” (“The great downfallshow”) that took place on the 4. September 1981 IN Berlin, and where, amongst many others, such influential and notorious bands as Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Tödliche Doris (Video), or Malaria! performed and were first exposed to a larger audience. Playing within various styles, some more post-punk, some more industrial or strictly avant-garde etc., what combined them all was their radical edge, their vast experimentation with noise and form, and their contempt for and resistance against the growing professionalism that was overtaking popular music-production, shackled by conceptions of “progress” manifested in the ever-growing refinement of production techniques and structures that attempt to set themselves up as the ‘norm’; a problem still very much prevalent today. The term “Geniale Dilletanten” was later on appropriated to refer to the bands associated with this festival, and it also became the title of a book edited by Wolfgang Müller, founder of the avant-gard of the lot, Die Tödliche Doris, which discusses and documents this historic event (at least for the field of experimental DIY music). #

I recently purchased this book, and I found Müller’s small essay in it, entitled “Die Wahren Dilletanten” (‘The True Dilettantes’) to be of such potential interest and inspiration, in particular for this blog, that I thought that instead of trying to formulate what he says in my own words, I will simply translate it (as I also did not find any existing translation). Of course I am not actually a translator, not by a long shot, and some of this text is quite convoluted and idiosyncratic. Yet I have tried my best to deliver the text with as much fidelity to the original as possible. Some of it may seem unclear and not all of it refers to instruments or recording techniques and devices, yet I hope that in particular the second half of Müller’s text will strike as much of a chord with you readers as it has done with me, and that from it we can all learn to accept and relish the failures, mistakes and hiccups that we laymen bring to the fore every time we make and perform music.

Die Wahren Dilletanten (The True Dilettantes) – Wolfgang Müller, translated by Aran Kleebaur

In the announcement of the “Great Downfall-Show”, the “festival of the ingenious dillettantes”, the cultured professional will notice the peculiar spelling of the word “dilettante”. In this the professional and confident musician encounters the confirmation of an old pre-judgement, associated with which is the first clue to his seemingly legitimate defense against this form of articulation.

The requirement for the understanding and judging of the self, necessary for the coming into being of critiques, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has assembled under the concept of “Dilettantismus” (amateurism). Thus, to this day, these reflexions are subject to a negative evaluation. In his essay on cultural-amateurs and civilisation professionals, Bazon Brock observes “who would want to see themselves referred to as an amateur, even if Goethe himself perceived himself to be such.” The situation which Goethe formulates consisted of a rejection of the extremes between academic “Stubenhockerei” (couch-potato-ism) and do-it-yourself pathos. Only now, so Brock states, can this objective be once again understood fully: the construction of personality, individuation, is the undeniable requirement for the ability of the individual to be fully integrated within a social union. These life-associations, as it is formulated today, must be taken into account in the false-spelling of the word, if we are to put Blixa Bargeld’s (frontman of Einstürzende Neubauten) new formulation, which certainly does not imply a misunderstanding of the original meaning, into the correct context. The understanding of false- playing and false-writing as a positive value, as a condition in finding new, unknown forms of expression, should be made universally apparent.

With the gradual disappearance of linguistic dialects towards a uniform language, caused by mass media, the true amateur is given a further field to plow. “False” verbal forms of expressions, such as stuttering, the swallowing of words and forgetting of lyrics, are the everyday reality for the amateur and thus also interesting research areas which, through detailed consideration, generate new forms and content.

The “ingenuity”, which describes nothing other than the intensive intensity in dealing with the material, is considered the intention of the amateur, who does not wish to halt at simple mass-art. The musical experiments of past times, that mostly isolated within the artistic framework could not elicit much interest from the masses – (the opposition/contrast between demanding experimental music and mass-music was way more crass than it is today) – come to a symbiosis within DIY-endeavours, offering precisely a new understanding of the term mass-music; a “style” as ingenious un-knowledge, i.e. knowledge.

Amateurism in musical (but also all other possible) fields has nothing to do with a standstill due to non-professionalism – on the contrary – by including all possible and supposedly impossible areas, development can find a universal form of expression that is never actually granted the helpless professional.

Focal or starting points, whether it’s the knitting of sweaters or making music with your family, are to be found in the endeavours of every amateur.

With the ongoing, endless chain of refining and complicating instruments and recording techniques, a process which attempts to show a “progress” where in reality only an emptiness becomes visible, amateurism can trigger a provocative shock by attacking this so-called “progress” – a highly outdated concept – with noise and racket.

Anyone can create noise and racket, you do not need digital-recording techniques or a 36-track studio with thousands of sophisticated elements. The representatives of progress see the danger that faces them, defend themselves from it by emphasizing the negative substance present in words such as noise/racket and chaos, and denouncing these as the only features of this production of sound. Wholesome noise, however, is a concentrate of various contents; being both medication and stimulation, it can inspire liberation.

More shocking for the serious musician – as he sees himself – is the fact that ingenious amateurs can often-times create, after only a short time, the same beautiful sounds that are forever supposed to be something foreign to the layman. There is no need to scorn the existence of refined techniques and their associated opportunities. Now that it is there, it can also be used if it seems necessary. Amateurism suffers no harm; the meaning present in beautiful sounds – be it a persiflage thereof – determines the value of the information.

The danger that this possibility entails is the conviction, that one is now a “proper musician”, a professional. On this misjudgement are also based the misconceptions of listeners not familiar with this subject matter and who end up fitting professional-like charismatic outlines on dilettantes such as Hendrix with his guitar-acrobatics.

Serious musicians, dogged, stubborn and involuntary humorous, cannot produce funny sounds, because in order to find the unknown, one must have fun in playing, joyful playing, which may well be coupled with violent pain. If one understands this concept of amateurism fully, you cannot become a serious musician. Sure that would be death itself.

– Aran Kleebaur