by Michael Freerix
Since the start of his professional career at the end of the '70's, Holger Hiller has been one of the most prolific and underrated avant garde pop artists/composers in Germany. Although his records were released worldwide by the noted British label Mute Records, his music and his personal history remains obscure to this day.
Always a modernist, Hiller started to play guitar at the age of 9. His first music lessons were with a violinist, a pupil of Paul Hindemith. She taught him "conceptual-improvisation"- this knowledge or "feel" would be something he would always rely on in his musical career.
After leaving school, Hiller went to art-college in Hamburg where Conrad Schnitzler was one of his teachers. Schnitzler claimed that he learned a lot from Hiller, because his "pupil" was already an accomplished musician. "It was a lot of fun to experiment with him!" During his studies at the art-college, Hiller met Walter Thielsch and Thomas Fehlmann, who became companions in his later musical career. Hiller recorded some songs with Thielsch, which were released as a single in 1979. The record did not have a title, but it was later called "Ding-Dong-Gefühl." The very primitive, lo-fi recording of five "songs" were the road marks in his path in the music world. A simple guitar stutters melodic fragments over a primitive drum-pattern, while Hiller sings absurd, dada-istic lyrics over it: "Penis fällt ab/Puppe fällt um/Ein Ding-Dong Gefühl." Today, the song is considered a German no-wave classic. But at the time of this release, Hiller had already joined a band. Thomas Fehlmann, Timo Blunck and Ralf Hertwig joined forces to make unconformistic pop-music, calling themselves "Palais Schaumburg."
They landed a contract with a German-based major label, Phonogram Records. They knew they had something very special to offer, so the band contacted David Cunningham to produce their first album. Cunningham was known for his notorious arty attitude towards music. Despite this sensibility, he had had chart-success with deconstructed cover-versions of '60ís hits with his band The Flying Lizards ("Money", "Summertime Blues"). The label thought Cunningham was the right person to produce songs that would make the charts. By this time, the Neue Deutsche Welle (NDW, a.k.a. 'New German Wave') had stormed the pop charts and created quite a stir in the German music business with acts like Nena, Hubert Kah or Andreas Dorau. The label thought Palais Schaumburg would fit into this trend and make a quick buck. But listening to their first record now makes it quite clear that their sound was too much out of tune with everything: drums and bass play a rhythmic structure over which a layer of noises, fragmented guitar licks and singing are mixed. The tracks sound like crippled pop-songs, or collages turned to pop-songs. You can even find a reference to the "childrenís opera," "Wir bauen eine neue Stadt" by Paul Hindemith on this record. With the help of Cunningham, the band did the opposite of what was expected of them: he had helped them to record their songs in their most complex form.
Although the record had very little success in Germany, it had quite an impact on the local music scene. Dissatisfied with their lack of commercial success, the band opted for a change in direction. Hiller did not want to go commercial and left Palais Schaumburg after a tour in 1982. Working on solo material, Hiller became quite famous for "living on 20 Deutschmarks a week," as he told an interviewer. Usually, he did everything by himself, working with tapes and loops, but sometimes he co-operated with others.
One of his partners-in-crime at this time was Andreas Dorau. Dorau had a tremendous success in 1981 with the release of his second single, "Fred vom Jupiter." He was only 17 at the time of its release and also lacked musical training, so he asked Hiller for help. Hiller gave him guitar-lessons and taught him music theory. Dorausí success faded, but in 1983 he got an offer to play music on a public TV-station. He was paid for this gig and out of nowhere, he decided to invest this money and all the TV-studio-time into something totally new. He asked Hiller for help. In a rush, the two of them wrote a libretto for a "short-opera", creating a vision of a world on its own. It is a bizarre love-story about a trouser and a carpet falling in love with the same girl. Her dad does not approve, and so both have to sing a lot to convince him which of them is the right husband for his daughter. All this is staged in a kitchen, with housewives and artists friends singing the parts of "the trouser" and "the carpet." On the first day of shooting, the camera women on duty in the studio went on strike. They did not want to film this absurd and "insane" spectacle. Finally, Dorau and Hiller convinced them that all of this was a parody of opera and what opera means in todayís world.
The original soundtrack of this performance was released as Guten Morgen, Hose on a small independent label Ata tak two years later. It sounds like a mixture of Arnold Schonberg and dada-pop-music.
Hiller also had released his own first record on Ata tak. It was the right place for his kind of music. After he got tired of working in a band, he worked more on his concept to combine different fragments into something new. On his early recordings and in his work with Palais Schaumburg, there is a lot of fragmentation, but in the background, bass and drums still play the beat and keep it together. On his own, Hiller was searching on a way to combine fragments without the construction of a beat. Conrad Schnitzler had taught him to be as open minded as possible, to always focus on material from different perspectives. So Hiller struggled with these tiny bits, re-recorded them, and deconstructed everything that sounded too normal. He created his music like a hip-hop artist, but it didnít sound like hip hop at all. A little piece here, a tiny part there, and in the end, he still had a "song." Hiller kind of remixed his own material until it became alien to him. The name of this record was Ein Bündel Fäulnis in der Grube. It contained the single "Johnny," which is one of his most memorable songs ever and received a substantial amount of airplay. It also turned out to be his last attempt to write a 'song' that could really be described as that. In Great Britain, the album was released by Cherry Red Records, and it gained Hiller a fan who would support him over the next twenty years: Daniel Miller.
Miller had a then-small label called Mute. The label was at first only established to release his own recordings, but soon bands had sent him demos, and he was so impressed by some of this material that he released them. The company grew and soon Miller became a producer and label boss who did not have the time to make music himself. One of these bands he had "discovered" was Depeche Mode. By 1983, they already had hits and kept the label running. Meanwhile, Miller befriended Hiller and became his supporter.
By this time, Hiller had discovered the "sampler" as a tool to create his songs. He hoped that using a sampler would simplify his complicated work process, creating loops on tapes and re-recording tiny bits of music over and over again. But in the early 80s, a sampler cost 25,000 Deutschmarks, so Hiller borrowed one for 400 Deutschmarks a day. Naturally, the production costs for these experiments where quite high. And the first version of the sampler could only sample six seconds of music. So it still took a lot of time to work on a song which was only three minutes long.
After releasing his second album Oben im Eck on Mute Records, it seemed only natural for Hiller to move to London. Here, Miller would provide him with work. He recorded demos for Mute artists as well as directing and editing music videos. Sometimes, his unconventional working methods would offend fellow musicians. Occasionally, he would buy found-footage material from all kinds of sources and just edit these together for a song that would be released as a single. This was natural for him because by this time, he worked completely with material which he had sampled from records. He explained the process in a 1996 interview with a German publication: "I took whole passages from avantgarde-records or pop-records with a very heavy production and sampled them. It was a fascinating experience to just use the sampler to take advantage of sounds and productions that used a lot of money to produce."
Other musicians praised Oben im Eck. For example, songwriting scribe Momus, described it as "one of my favourite songs ever... It's a mysterious, surreal, plodding, detached art song, a sort of Paul Celan poem set to sampled harps, with a sinuous, wandering melody line and the disembodied warbling of Billy McKenzie behind Hiller's light, octaved vocals. The result is utterly lovely, but really stands outside any sort of pop or rock tradition. Perhaps it could be one of Bjork's gentler, more experimental moments. It certainly sounds "nordic" in some way, and ancient, and intriguingly strange."
In retrospect, and knowing how music developed afterwards, Hiller says: "Speaking for myself Oben im Eck is a pop-album, only that the material it was made from was avantgarde-material. But the beats where simply the hook-lines."
Hiller took his idea of sound-construction much further: together with Karl Bonnie and Akiko Hada, he created a 'music piece on video'. The three of them filmed themselves while they where making noises with all kinds of things, and then edited this all together as a song, therefore combining music and images into something totally new. In fact, the idea had been around for quite some time, and if you look at the works of avantgarde filmmaker Bruce Conner, youíll find a lot of similarities, but with a different approach. "Ohi Ho Bang Bang" was edited on analogue-video in 1988, long before computers made similar experiments quite simple to achieve.
By this time, Hiller was about to move to Tokyo, because he had fallen in love with Izumi 'Mimií Kobayashi, who was a very successful composer and musician in Japan. They had a son, Kentaro, and Hiller "composed" a Hörspiel (radio play) for German Public Radio called Little Present. While living in Tokyo, he recorded sounds everywhere and then put them on a small DAT recorder and cut them together as a sound-composition. This Hörspiel was also released on CD, and occasionally Hiller was able to work on sound-pieces for radio in the '90's.
Nevertheless, his output was quite sparse in the '90's. In 1992, he released the album As Is, which was followed by a re-mixed version of the same album called Demixed, in 1993.
"The aesthetic is complete timbral change every 10-20 seconds, the more jarring and violent the juxtaposition the better", writes one anonymous Hiller fan on the message-board Rumori. "And these aren't fragmentary samples; they'll include 4 whole bars of something, a familiar techno record, tribal recording, vintage musique concrete, relatively untransformed -- but over the course of the 3 minute song, and moving through a dozen other sounds as well. A neat example of artistically justified use of extended and recognizable samples, because the overall result is clearly a new work.... Now that I've finally got it here and can hear the 60 second Prince/Family song, James Brown yelps, Kraftwerk's 'Numbers', among other major label properties, it's easy to guess why no one's ever heard of this record -- in the early nineties, underground dj's were innocently and unselfconsciously working with untransformed fragments, and perhaps Mute assumed such a project would fly under the radar much as other similar works had done in the past. But by the time the project came together, the climate had changed enough to have made it clear to Mute that this was an completely unreleaseable record. Impossible to remix or edit down to anything longer than thirty seconds. License the samples? By 1992, a 5 second James Brown sample was costing Public Enemy $20,000. Kraftwerk, Prince, etc... all this for a minor project by a relatively obscure, low-sales artist. Too expensive to release."
And so, the commercial success he never had finally caught up with Hiller. He found himself trapped between money-work and art. He spoke about this time again in the '96 interview mentioned above: "When I came to London my work was considered as art. I liked that, because it gave me a lot of freedom to work with. But the audiences grew smaller and smaller. I was stuck in a corner I couldnít really live from music. So I started to do more and more commercial things, like ads and pop-videos, all kind of things. I found myself in a strange situation. I had always worked on getting away from pop-cliches, but was forced to do totally commercial things to earn a living. On top of that, the things I did for money and my own stuff didnít have any audience at all. And I really wanted to have an audience by then. It really wasnít fun anymore to make music and art without having an audience. As an attitude the avantgarde in this postmodern world limits itself into a small, well-defined space. This is itís self-declared freedom. But that doesnít mean that what you do is more substantial. Besides which these elements can now be found in the advertising world."
With the rise of computers, Hiller's work-ethos grew in stature as he got more and more behind with his own work. Although working with modern technique, he wasnít part of the scene that made commercial profit out of it. A self-titled album of new material that was scheduled for release in 1996 appeared finally in 2000. By this time it sounded quite dated because it paid homage to the music-scene of 1996. That same year, he produced a record by three Cuban women, who called themselves Azúcar Letal and played a mix of Son-Pop and Salsa Electronic. "Produced" means in this case that he re-constructed the finished recordings by processing them on his computer. The album reflects the "cut between nostalgia and high tech", as a press-release states.
In 2003, Hiller moved to Berlin where he now lives as an English teacher. He is not involved in any musical activities, nor does he want to talk about his past. He is not involved with his friends from the past. The last report was that he was trying to convince a local Berlin publisher to release a book about cooking.
On the homepage of his ex-label Ata tak, the question is posed as to whether "Holger Hiller has become Germanyís Syd Barrett?" Well, not as a person, but maybe as a musician, this is true.
Also see the Holger Hiller website
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