Never Forget Peter Rehberg (As If You Could)

By Ben Kudler

A few months have passed since Peter Rehberg’s unfortunate and unexpected death. News of the tragic event inspired an immediate desire to eulogize the man who has loomed so large in my music making and decision making consciousness since late adolescence. The delay in writing was caused by a desire to process, but also because of a hectic late summer, primary involving a course that is part of my program of study for a masters degree in Computer Science entitled “Mathematical Techniques for Computer Science”. I am not good at math and the course was difficult. I spent countless hours trying to find matrix determinants, affine rotations, and the conditional entropy of probability sets. Frustrated with myself, the course, the decisions I had made and whatever part of my brain was responsible for being good at math, I laid down in my dewey summer bed questioning why I made the decision to pursue a masters in something I wasn’t good at in the first place —cue the chord progression from track three on Get Out by Pita. I didn’t actually hear that song or even think of that song, but I thought about the fact that I was doing math problems instead of writing something about Mr. Peter Rehberg was due primarily to Rehberg’s influence.

Get Out was suggested to me on some message board —probably— I listened to it, loved it, found about eMego and passionately went through the catalog, from Farmers Manual to Merzbow, Florian Hecker to Massimo (okay, technically on Mego and not eMego (that record is good as hell)), and eventually realized I was going to have to download and learn to use SuperCollider, the primary software used by these artists, to be just a little more in touch with this music I loved. The software is code based, so you have to know about writing code in the traditional way as well as sonic synthesis to use it. SuperCollider lead to too many things to detail here, but eventually, I got enough into keyboard clacking on Macs that I found myself watching a Zoom lecture on maximum likelihood estimates and reduced row echelon form of matrices. I have Rehberg to thank for all of this. The impact of music is usually discussed in terms of psychological or faux-spiritual terms, but Peter Rehberg’s music impacted not only who I chose to hang around with, records I listened to, how I thought about music, myself and the world, but also the career path I took and what intellectual pursuits I chose to follow. A corpus of music has to be widely powerful for someone who was constantly told they were bad at math in school and should, by no means, pursue a technical career to find themselves discussing algorithms with someone given the title “CTO”. Rehberg’s music and the music he devoted his life to was indeed that powerful, that inspiring, and above all that progressive, that fearless, that uncompromising.

There’s the real history of everything Rehberg did and there’s a history pieced together from stories I was told, liner notes, descriptions from and numerous interviews I listened to over the years (the RBMA fireside chat stands out). There are other outlets that detail a factual history (the NYTimes obit stands out). My narrative has Rehberg starting to DJ “chill out” or “ambient” rooms at raves in central Europe in the late 80s and early 90s, honing his skills as a producer and DJ and introducing people with smiley faces on their T-shirts to Stockhausen, Nurse With Wound, Wire side projects, and most likely a lot of stuff I won’t know about for another five years. Eventually Pita started making music with General Magic, creating austere, sharp and confusing beat based music influenced by techno, but also wildly creative and masterful in its’ sonic layers. The crew forms a record label they call it Mego —Chris Cooper from Fat Worm of Error once told me that it stands for “My Eyes Glaze Over” —maybe Cooper didn’t tell me that— which I still believe to this day— and print music that isn’t techno or harsh noise, and is wildly divorced from academia but wholly electronic (or at least has heavy electronic processing). The label becomes too much, shuts down for a minute, and Rehberg re-starts it up on his own putting out similar music and keeping the old releases in print. Eventually, Rehberg and eMego invent a shockingly irreverent and difficult sub-genre in which computers are often involved (but not always) electronics are almost always involved (but not always) and the music is often harsh or noise-y (but not always), and usually outside of the rock or pop realms, (but, again, not always). The not-always-ness and the unending influences that eMego drew upon to create something radically new without the pedantic performative genre mashing that so many of the label’s artists’ contemporaries smashed to death (“look I made Techno Heavy Metal Jazz With Hip Hop Beats! The condescending to reader and laudatory to producer review writes itself”) was a constant draw, for me, to the label. I could guess at what records the people on the label were into, but I could never be sure if I were correct, and best of all it didn’t matter. There are parts on Pita’s third official full length, Get Out from 1999, that crackle through the speakers but with a radically high fidelity sound not drawing on “discarded media” or the the aesthetics of junk. There are also parts of that album that shift very quickly from the pleasantly menacing to the aggressively pounding. There are wacky bits of Roc Jimenez’s Evol project that sounds like discarded sound effects that proceed long after the thing they are supposed to be a sound effect for has ended. Fennesz’s records move from blissful Silicon Valley meditations to moments of digital skull broken-printer clack. Hecker sharply moves from things that evoke silly mouth sounds to crushing louder than loud relentless tone series attack. Listen to Radian’s only record on Mego and catch yourself nodding your head to inviting but bizarre rhythms and then whine when the intensity of the snare matches some electronic pulse and smacks your ear drum into place. The release mentioned are but a few in vast catalog —Farmer’s Manual goes through a lot ideas, moods, and guarantees some head scratching. The eMego aesthetic leaned towards aggression, sonic exaction, synthetic construction virtuosity, and, of course, a commitment to austerity often linked in culture to the land of computers.

The eMego crew, and of course Pita, made music on computers before everyone had one in their pocket, before everyone had one in their home, and even before everyone had a picture of one in their mind… maybe everyone knew what a computer looked like in the mid 90s but most had no idea what making music on one looked like. Katy Perry’s producer was not doing walk throughs of their Pro Tools session when the The Magic Sound of Fenn O’Berg came out.

It is to be expected for an artist or group of artists to receive responses on the spectrum from dismissal to hatred when they do something that most people won’t be able to understand for another 20 years. Radiohead plays with laptops on stage and people who once mocked me for flipping open my MacBook at the beginning of a set now lecture me about how they set up their Ableton Live sessions for live play. Rehberg and his cohort toured the world when a common response to a set of radical loud previously unheard sounds eloquently organized into a great set of music was “how do I know this person isn’t just checking their e-mail.” eMego, ever unfazed by criticism, released countless computer records that explored the full range of these new machines, from processing to the algorithmic sound generation to the outer reaches of microsoud timbre. There are some missteps and records that just sound like “eMego music” but there are also incredible classics and moments of inspiring enguiniety of a group of people making music with nascent sound technology. After years of criticism and pigeonholing for releasing beep-boop glitch laptop records, and after other people figured out that computers presented vast opportunities for music making, eMego released Does It Look Like I’m Here by an American band called Emeralds. The record features a lot of, what can be described as “pretty” melodies played on analog synthesizers. Released around the same time was, Returnal and Russian Mind, by a similarly invested in melodies and analog gear American called Oneohtrix Point Never. The European label famous for using the newest technology to make noise was releasing music by bands who were using old technology to make expressive major key compositions that leaned towards the realm of song.

When the rest of the world catches up to something an artist does the artist starts to cash in. Every rock band that wanted to seem slightly weird for the purpose of scratching some desire for intellect in their fans started bringing computers on stage. eMego decidedly didn’t take this time to cash in. Rehberg gave John Elliott of Emeralds his own side label to release the most fried music of Americans who still thought computers sucked and wanted to twiddle around with analog synths. The label and Rehberg’s uncompromising bizarre vision paid off, of course. Does It Look Like I’m Here is an unquestionable classic that defined and era and still sounds fresh eleven years later (find another release to say the same thing about, go ahead, listen to LCD Soundsystem and tell me it has anything to do with a single breath you or anyone you know has taken in the last year). OPN did the soundtrack for a movie starring a guy that eleven year old girls have nervous breakdowns over when they see him and another for a movie staring Happy Madison himself. The side label of Elliott’s, Spectrum Spools, was weird and confusing and great so they gave one to the avant-heavy-metal-king Stephen O’Malley and then released acoustic guitar records from 90s noise-rock weird-0 Bill Orcutt. The label never compromised, never did what was expected, and instead just released incredible music, never a slave to its’ own aesthetic. In many ways eMego was the only label that mattered to me. I liked nearly every record I heard on Mego and eMego, I loved many of them and there are a select few I’ve listened to regularly for over ten years —some of those were made by Mr.Rehberg. There are records on eMego that I forget are on eMego, and when I listen to them I stop, look at the sleeve and think, “really? this too.” In the middle of scouring through interviews Rehberg gave at residencies, festivals, or to promote a new release to find technical information to use in my music, I found little spells of wisdom. The tomes Rehberg let out could be quilted together to form a life philosophy and an approach towards big decision making that always kept music, and especially new and exciting music, at the center. Rehberg talked about the simplicity of computers and not having to use gigantic complicated systems or expensive rare gear to make music, professing that ingenuity, creativity, and a firm control over what one was doing were all that was needed. The explanation has remained a guiding beacon on my music creation. Rehberg discussed his choice to live in Austria and how to be an artist one doesn’t have to live in a big cultural center. Making music isn’t about large institutions around to give the artist credit, it’s about the work and the community. When I decided to move from Baltimore, Maryland to New York City I was racked with guilt. How could I move to a big cultural center, when Rehberg felt that was for career obsessed dilettantes who favored money and recognition over music. A person I had never met was, for some reason, being consulted on what city I should live in.

Rehberg ran a label as part of a day job, he talked in interviews about that being okay with him. I could work a day job. Final lines being typed in SuperCollider always lead to wanting to know how to build something else, something better, something that one needed more knowledge to build. Somewhere in the process it dawned on me that I could write code for a living, and then bring my code knowledge home and make weird sounds with it. The plan fit in with the myopic worldview I constructed with the confused passages I took from Rehberg’s interviews and liner notes. I got lucky. I chose the right musician to follow, the musician whose music I found so inspiring and difficult and fun and crazy and irreverent and different from everyone else’s. I tried to just keep following the music wherever I heard it and it ended me up somewhere that made sense for me. My choices and plans, ultimately, didn’t need to make sense for Peter Rehberg, or for anyone else, just me.

The power of music to heal or bring people together or create a good situation to do drugs and dance in are all important and awe inspiring powers. Music has the ability, however, to do much more than that, it has the ability, almost always reserved for sex, love, money and influence, to make people choose life paths, select dreams and then follow them, pick the things they ascribe value to and then value them. In real, consequential, rubber-hitting-road-terms, music has the ability to make people move to metro areas, get out of their houses and decide on a place to go, to pick people’s jobs, people’s weekend plans, decide on the clothes a person wears. Most moments, and what a person sees in those moments, of a certain type of person’s day, can be tracked back to something music told them to do. Even the greediest of financiers or venture capitalists can’t say that about money.

The record label, the outlook on music, on life, on software, all of it won me over, but what won me over more than anything was Pita’s music. Pita deserves to go down in history for being more than a label head. someone who released multiple records that received Pitchfork “Best New Music”, records that got no reviews at all, but are cherished prizes to back patch denim jacket noisers; someone who had the foresight to see that the visual aesthetic of a label is as important as anything else and worked with the incomparable designer Tina Frank to create album art; someone who released records by free improvisers, pop writers, electronic hooligans, academic music luminaries from a tape music center founded in the 1950s, DJs, techno producers, and anyone who had a singular vision of what they wanted to do and a “fuck everyone else” attitude; no, he should not go down solely for this accomplishment that no one else, ever, has achieved. Rehberg’s music needs to be remembered, because it is incredible, singular, uncompromising, chock full of personality and a prospective of “I am who I am, I don’t care what your idea of cool is.” There are no black sunglasses and stylized press pictures. The Twitter bio does not read “Sound Artist, explorer of sonic ontologies and composer”. What it says is, “makes and performs electronic music”, that’s it, if you want to know anything else, listen to the records, because it is all there. There are radically harsh crushing releases, especially the R/S (Rehberg/Schmickler) records, and bits of the build up and smash aesthetic are employed on most of Pita’s solos records, also present, though, is an incredible ear for harmony, sequencing, sampling, and setting up engaging and head jostling rhythms. The slow changes and mixing of some of Pita’s chord choices distract from the fact that they are so heavily crushed and enflamed that they resemble the chug-chug burn of a heavy metal band as much as the slick groove of a Detroit DJ. The production and assemblage and design of the sounds on the record make simple electronic drones sounds like endless, startling, pools of musical possibilities, because the sound before them was so full of harmonic content. A moment passes full of lush noise, like a sound the listener always wanted to hear but just can’t be found in nature or from an acoustic instrument. There are very few others in the history of music who come up with such sounds, who can tune such sounds, let alone make sugar-y catchy melodies out of them.

Rehberg released music on EAI labels, modern composition labels, techno labels, noise labels, art galleries, played every festival imaginable, collaborated with members of AMM, Sun 0))), and Sonic Youth, and with artists like Tujiko Noriko and Aphex Twin. I don’t think anyone will ever do that again, though I truly hope I am wrong about that. There is not a soul, even amidst this community of cynical axe grinders, who have anything bad to say about him as a person or the music he made. I truly wish Peter was still around and I could’ve met him and I could’ve heard more additions to his Get series of records. Luckily, there is a lot of his music around and, even more luckily, almost of all it is utterly incredible and sounds like something new every time I listen to it.