Annette Krebs Berlin Electronics (Absinth)

There isn’t a lot of information out there about Annette Krebs nor is she over-documented in recordings. But in the last couple of years her music has catapulted from being rather mixed to being rather outstanding. With the scant evidence that we have available to us it is interesting to attempt to understand this development.  The only interview I have been able to find of Annette is from Suzuki-san of Improvised Music from Japan in 2001 (IMJ has also done an interview in 2006 but it is alas only in Japanese).  This is from before the period in which I think that she has become much more interesting but I do think that it it provides the basis for why this is the case.

Krebs learned guitar quite young (age 11) and continued to study it academically up to the point she moved to Berlin in 1992.  She studied both Jazz and Classical guitar (focusing on Baroque) and supplemented this playing in pubs (more folk like stuff it sounds like) and also trying her own hand at more abstract forms of expression.

“I lived in Frankfurt, and I started studying classical guitar at that time. At the same time I was making abstract paintings, and I tried to play the abstract paintings, but only a bit. Perhaps it didn’t sound very good, like with melodies only, and abstract lines–it was not yet noises. It was always pitches.”(1)

When she moved to Berlin she was able to see contemporary music performances and was exposed to Berlin’s vibrant improvised music community. She began playing in pubs here to “…get out of the classical–you know, it’s very serious, and I wanted to put this music in another place–this was nice. And then, to forget the scales–it’s in the hands, you have so many scales–at one time I preferred to hold the guitar like a cello, and to take strings off and have only a few strings.” From this she moved on to playing the guitar with preparations and playing it flat on the table. When speaking of table top guitar it is impossible not to mention Keith Rowe, and AMM did play in Germany during this period. In fact Krebs went on to adopt a lot of the material of Rowe: radio, brillo pads and the like. It is hard to imagine that there wasn’t some influence there, though this interview really does make her seem pretty disconnected. However it was five years after she had moved to Berlin before she moved to prepared table top guitar and being involved in the music scene there was sure to have involved absorbing influences.

Another interesting connection to Rowe is that both of paint and both of them have thought of their music in the terms of abstract art “I tried to play the abstract paintings,” she says and later in the interview:

“And at that time I wanted to find a kind of music very much like a statue–like something which stands here, like an object. Not like being a musician who is moving and making music, but making objects with two amplifiers. That means not being a musician, in fact, only being someone who makes objects. “(1)

While abstract painting and sculpture being touchstones for her music, she never seemed to find a way to really adapt that into her music making, she continues from the above quote: “But then I discovered that perhaps the music is music and I cannot make objects, really, with music–something that’s not there–so I took the guitar here on my knees again. I can do more with movements; it’s easier. ” This I think really gives us all the information that we really need on the development of Kreb’s music making; essentially as of this interview (2001) she had not really found her voice.  She had a lot of interesting ideas and had absorbed a lot of techniques but had not worked out how to translate them into her own music. 

Her early collaborations with Taku Sugimoto and Andrea Neumann are hit and miss, with good moments in them but usually driven by her collaborators with her sounds often coming as intrusive interjections. A solo disc, Guitar Solo, released in 2002 on the Fringes label was like a catalog of these techniques. Without a collaborator to step on this disc is easily the most successful of her early work.  Its interjections of radio, prepared guitar and other sounds had a near random feel to it as if it was all slightly out of her control – she knew she was turning on the radio but not what it was going to do or how it was going to fit in. Perhaps there was an attempt to utilize some of Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy but instead of achieving his program of removing the composer from the music it seems to almost do the opposite: bring the performer to the forefront.

After a release in 2003 (a not very successful duo with Alessandro Bosetti) there were several years of near inactivity from Krebs. In 2006 though she reemerged with a track on the IMJ Magazine EXTRA 2006 comp and far more importantly in a self-released CD-R: Various Projects 2003-2005.   This CD-R documents what was going on in these “lost years” and contains the seeds of her next several years of musical making activity. The first of these projects to be developed was a duo with Robin Heyward, sgraffito, which was one of my favorite albums from last year.  The next release would be from early this year, an excerpt from a solo performance released as part of Absinth’s Berlin Electronics comp.

Absinth has so far released four collections of four three-inch cd-rs each focusing on Berlin musicians playing a particular category of instrument: Berlin Reeds, Berlin Drums and Berlin Strings.  Each collection allows a each artist to have an entire disc to themselves, albeit only 20 minutes, without the issues of flow and disconnection that often surround comps. However I have found the series to be uniformly better in concept then in execution, almost none of the music released on these sets have been of much interest.  Berlin Electronics follows this trend, with the exception of the Annette Krebs track which is remarkable.

I saw Annette Krebs perform at the Vancouver New Music Guitars! Guitars! festival last October and that set was remarkably similar to what this recording has to offer. This disc is an excerpt from a live concert in Berlin in 2007 the same year as the Vancouver set.  It seems to me that she has whittled her tools down to a current set that she is exploring and thus these two sets from the same year have a similar feel to them.  Her sounds are mostly the same as they have been in the past: still using brillo pads, still using radio still working with feedback and electronics. However she has also added a laptop to mix and uses it to add in pre-set samples, and a soft-synth.  One use of this that she applies on this disc that I witnessed live is the playing and manipulation of spoken word samples. “… the samples being of spoken word pieces in French and maybe German that should would manipulate in various ways – speed up, slow down and so on.”. Reading again my review of that concert it really could be a review of this disc with some events changed in their order. Like that set this has loud washes of noise, the simple synth work, the aforementioned vocal samples and the occasional radio grab. It also has that semi-random, somewhat arbitrary feel of the live set and that I felt was somewhat of a detriment in her earlier work.  But here I think that it works to the benefit of the album, in a way it sounds like someone wandering the radio dial. It’s use of space is very effective, with a more Cagean feel to them then the more forced examples we hear a lot these days. Her control of the sounds used seems to be at such a higher degree then in years past.

It has been fascinating to watch Krebs grow from a musician with solid foundations and sloppy execution evolve into a much more focused and genuinely exciting performer.  The reports of her recent concerts in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe sounds like she is continuing to keep it interesting and fresh even as she works with this more limited set of tools.  I for one certainly am anticipating future releases from her.

1) 2001 Interview with Yoshiyuki Suzuki at Japan Improv.
2) Home Page
3) Japan Improv Annete Krebs Page
4) Absinths Berlin Electronics Page