Hans Unstern is one of the icons of the music business. In an interview, he explains how he explores the multiplicities in his own on his new album.
Hans Unstern, an artist between charade and reality Photo: promo
On his debut album "Kratz dich raus" (2010), it still seemed clear who Hans Unstern was and what he wanted: a former street musician whose skepticism about existence and language had driven him into the arms of the Berlin indie scene, where he honed the sound of the new decade with similarly ambitious projects like the band Ja, Panik. At the latest in 2012 to the strikingly titled "The Great Hans Unstern Swindle" follow-up and a simultaneously published book of poetry (Merve Verlag), when he appeared in persona of the performance artist Tucke Royale, it was clear: Between lustful charade and complex reality of what a subject can be, an artist definition must be postponed.
After an eight-year break, Unstern is now releasing his third album, "Diven." It stages him as a sound being walking between all chairs. It blithely formulates an ego that can tilt vocally into nightingale and that is musically far removed from the songwriter ego with a self-built, electrically modified harp. "Unbreak my voice" sings Hans Unstern in the song "Nichtstestotrotz" – smoothing out the voice break as a goal. A "Bonbon aus Plastik" brings Helge Schneider’s phallic "Bonbon aus Wurst" into the queer realms of cyborg theory. "Diven" is an experimental pop album whose melodies and sounds shine. The following is a telephone conversation with the artist, who pretends to be Hans Unstern. site: Good afternoon, Mr. Unstern, glad it worked out with this conversation.
Hans Unstern: Yes, very nice. I’m glad too. And I want to say right away that the authorship of my work is by no means as clearly mine as is often assumed. With this album, I’m just finally ready to play the singer-songwriter doll myself. That also applies to interviews. This authorship: There are elective relatives whose works have described me, there are ghostwriters, self-triggers, also conventional quotes. So don’t be surprised if different voices scurry through here.
So Hans Unstern is not just you, but he is a collective, a form that others slip into as well? Nevertheless, in the end you are the one who presents the music. How does it feel to go from diversity to something material, at the latest on stage?
The title "Divas" already describes it well. The plural, the multitude. A puzzle of small set pieces that have formed one. This idea that the self is one big imitation, the puzzle pieces that make up one, that become an image that we then call ‘self’. That can be deconstructed so beautifully, that self. A puzzle that is composed of things that I feel comfortable with.
That’s an optimistic interpretation. Isn’t that also insanely exhausting?
It’s a life’s work. It’s like a lifelong puzzle without an edge. We like to puzzle the edge first, because then we can orient ourselves and frame it. But this edge also fixes a lot. It prevents me from becoming and growing. I see the self as a puzzle where the pieces can be renewed, reconfigured, taken out and repainted, or the shape changed until it feels right. There is much to learn, but also much to un-learn. An un-learning of what may have shaped one*n in a time where I may not have understood yet: Whose convictions are these right now, why are they given to me along the way? There is so much to unlearn from such a time, which for me is still the longest time of my life. And I have learned to love this unlearning. It’s a beautiful task in life.
What do you like to tell about the album you made?
The songs had long been finished and were waiting for this moment of release. The fact that "Diven" has been seven and a half years in the making is mainly due to the V-Harp: a five-piece harp in the shape of a V, which I built together with the sound artist Simon Bauer. It is partly plucked by hand and is made of hardwood, partly it is mechanically remote-controlled and is made of steel. It is the center of the album and the concerts that will hopefully take place in June. We recorded every note of this album with the instrument. The multi-layered sound comes about thanks to over 40 automated lifting magnets that can knock on strings and harp frames.
Can you explain this vividly with an example?
In the production of "Diven," we used forms of aleatorics, principles of composition based on chance. For example, the arrangement for the song "Keine Zeit" came about during an improvisation with the acoustic harp to a smacking, meditative beat. This is composed of many rhythmic figures that are strung together in the sequencer by a random generator. To shape the sound of the beat, Simon Bauer amplified the mechanical noises of the relays that send the impulses to trigger the lifting solenoids to the metal harp. Instead of perceiving and hiding this clicking as a noise, we considered it as a starting point for the arrangement of the song. As the V-Harp became a machine through this automation, we wanted to give it as much autonomy as possible. It is not only a command-receiving sound generator, but equally gives us back commands with working instructions. So we "operate" this machine in two ways. Once set in motion, we become assembly line workers, caught in the machine’s running production line.
How old it is, where it comes from – we don’t know. His previous work: the two great albums "Kratz dich raus" (2010) and "The Great Hans Unstern Swindle" (2012). He lives in Berlin.
That’s the opposite of the guitar you put in your suitcase and go on tour with. Did the bulky appeal to you?
No, rather not. We always tried to get an elegance into the material as well, an appealing form. And to compress the instrument as well as possible. The harp thing started on the second album, already on "Great Hans Unstern Swindle" I really wanted to play the harp. Simon and I started making our first experimental harps back then. That’s how it started, that I felt more comfortable in the spotlight. How exhausting it was to hide all the time! With guitar in hand, that was my reaction for a long time, looking for a place to hide. Now, with harp and high heels, I feel super comfortable in the spotlight.
The harp is perceived as an instrument with strong gender connotations, seemingly necessarily always played by an elf-like woman, but at the same time it is also an instrument that is just not disembodied cuddly, but requires a lot of physical effort.
The album launch will take place on June 13 at Berlin’s HAU without a live audience. It will be streamed.
The feeling of playing the harp is like an embrace. A holding and being held.
One line in particular on the album stands out, "Unbreak my voice."
With voice breaking, it’s not as clear-cut as is commonly done. The fact that an audible voice break happens to certain people in their teens is only part of the voice break variety. For example, there are also self-inflicted voice breaks, regardless of age. And maybe with "Divas" I tried to undo my voice break for my singing voice. In this work on the singing voice, a vibration of searching, of questioning, of fragility arises for me in this way, which interests me.