Various Artists — Monika Werkstatt (Monika Enterprises)
In lockstep with our retreat into personal screens on digital devices, electronic music creation has become increasingly portable and solitary, suited to a corner in a tight urban apartment or riding public transport with a laptop and headphones. Digitalization means artists can compose collaboratively without ever meeting up, like a chess match played over the mail. Against these prevailing trends, the music on Monika Werkstatt was spawned during an actual geographic retreat organized by Gudren Gut, out in the countryside north of Berlin, with eight other members of her Monika record label.
Gut is one of those low-key but ubiquitous musicians who’s been pushing from the periphery for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was a Berlin noise provocateur in Einsturzende Neubauten, then led the all-female and oddly upbeat goths Malaria and worked in the greater Bad Seeds circle along with Anita Lane. In this century, she’s pursued electronic work along the lines of Mouse on Mars, exploring forms that are heavily processed and minimalist but not quite as anonymous as techno. I Put a Record On, her album from ten years ago, is a small masterpiece of personal rumination and experimentalism colliding with digital pop.
As the hostess of the Werkstatt, her history guides the spirit of this collection. A rural retreat like this would seem like opportunity for an extended jam session, but of course the electronic approach doesn’t really work that way. Personalities aren’t subsumed when production takes precedence over playing. These tracks were forged collaborative, but in most cases, individuals stamp the final track with their name and their personae. Artists like Sonae and Danielle de Picciotto work in what becomes the prevailing style of the collective, a cloudy, reflective elektronische Musik that’s been at home in Germany for 20 years. Percussion is drawn from clicks and looped noise, melody arrives in tides of tone.
But it’s not all distant textures and sub-bass in counterpoint. Some of the personalities are just too extroverted for that. Pilocka Krach’s “Sternhagen” is a fragile instrumental that flows well with others. On the other hand, she gives us “Who’s Afraid of Justin Bieber,” which doesn’t just ogle the boy a bit, but it does so over the synth stabs that recall “Billy Jean.” Islaja follows this up with a reading of a fragment from Sappho in Ancient Greek. This kind of horsing around, mixing pop and avant is surely helped along by the fact that this was a female-only retreat. The camaraderie even adds a bit of a hop to Lucrecia Dalt’s track, the most ominous here, and otherwise apiece with her insular darkwave. One can sense multiple voices in the most singular productions, nudges from peers towards a common ground.
The tracks on the final side of this double LP set gives the Werkstatt top billing, and a consensus emerges. Insistent beats become the foreground, peaking with “555minimal” where a tidy four-on-the-floor carries us past emergency alerts and blasts. Vocals drift in occasionally as spoken contemplation. It wraps up in appropriate optimism, with a collage of soothing noises titled “Beginning,” implying more ahead, but also making this collection a self-contained world. Manifesto deployed, minds met, and superior music is the outcome. Sometimes idealistic endeavors work out as planned.