Dark Mofo 2019: Blixa Bargeld

By Charles Shafaieh
The German musician presides over a suitably unpredictable evening

Blixa Bargeld at Dark Mofo 2019. Photograph by Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford, 2019. Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Blixa Bargeld, a founding member of both the industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, hates saxophones. He especially hates soprano saxophones and sopraninos, and even has dreams in which steam rollers plough over them. But what about the banjo? To the surprise of many familiar with his penchant for the sounds of drills and scrap-metal percussion, he loves it.

Audiences in Hobart for Dark Mofo learnt these facts and others from the always black-clad vocalist and guitarist during a somewhat odd, though still-entertaining, evening that was more Q&A session than concert (albeit a few people called out in dismay for more music or left early). The occasion arose after one of his frequent collaborators, composer Teho Teardo, was unable to appear due to a personal emergency. Instead of cancelling, Bargeld, whom MONA founder David Walsh has invited back to Dark Mofo each year until he dies, decided to bring the unfiltered, playful aspect of his personality to the festival.

He made a polite but firm request that anyone with a question get hold of a microphone first, after which he began a kind of comedic schtick of wildly pivoting back and forth as he looked around for where each speaker was seated, as every voice would emanate from a central speaker at his feet. There was an earnestness to most of the questions, all of which Bargeld neutered through never curt or offensive but often curiously oblique or matter-of-fact statements that probably did not meet the questioners’ expectations.

When asked if he is happy when performing, for example, he ruminated, “Time on stage is not normal time. I don’t know if I am happy applies to the stage on which I am.” He doesn’t adhere to any particular philosophy, we discover; instead, he prefers pragmatism. And his fears? “Sharing my personal fears with any of you would not help anybody,” he declared, though he later mentioned that stage fright has never been one of them.

With these replies, Bargeld demonstrated a preternatural understanding of Dark Mofo’s spirit – its rejection of the obvious and the too-earnest in favour of uncertainty and unpredictability. Soundbite-worthy quips or pseudo-profound revelations are left to TED Talks, whereas whatever illuminations the festival may elicit will likely arrive as a slow burn or germinate only in the unconscious, long after the winter solstice has come and gone.

Between answers, Bargeld treated the crowd to a quintet of songs, assembled with the help of an emergency gathering of backing tracks sent from Berlin, that highlighted the breadth of his collaborations.

The unfortunately absent Teardo was brought to the Odeon Theatre in spirit with “A Quiet Life”, the subtle and entrancing title track from the 2010 Italian film of the same name for which he wrote the score, and “Nerissimo”. The latter’s lyrics about the possible colour a voice might have could be read as a tongue-in-cheek meditation on Bargeld’s own captivating vocals and ouevre more broadly: “My voice doesn’t sing to have a colour / But if I sing without a colour / I would diminish all the light / There’s so much blackness in my repertoire / A lot of shadows in my arsenal”.

Bargeld’s work with Alva Noto, an audio and visual artist perhaps even less classifiable than Bargeld himself, was featured by covers of two decades-old songs. Harry Nilsson’s “One”, best known as a 1968 hit by Three Dog Night, provided a moment of meta-musical levity as its numerical meditation – “One is the loneliest number, much, much worse than two / One is the number divided by two” – was a bit ironic considering the binary foundation of Noto’s electronic music. The American mountain-banjo folk song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” might also have elicited a few laughs, considering Bargeld’s earlier admission of his passion for the string instrument, were it not turned into a kind of pulsating, electronics-fuelled nightmare. Bargeld personified the burrowing, destructive figure of the mole in a way that could be the best embodiment of critic Greil Marcus’s reading of the song as an “almost absolute negation, at the edge of pure nihilism[;] a demand to prove that the world is nothing, a demand to be next to nothing”.

The evening’s finale was another surprise: Monteverdi’s wrenching “Sí dolce è’l tormento”. For his rendition of the 17th-century song, Bargeld welcomed guitarist David Doyon of the Swiss electro-jazz trio KiKu, with whom he performed a no-less memorable concert on the festival’s final day alongside the American rapper and tour de force Black Cracker. I suspect no classical musician has ever played the lilting bass line of this madrigal with such an expression of physical passion on their face as Doyon, with his body contorted around his instrument with an obvious intensity that would not have been out of place at a stadium gig. While lacking the mellifluousness of countertenors like Philippe Jaroussky who have also recorded the piece, Bargeld sang with a tenderness that might make this the closest he’ll get to singing an earnest love song.

Lest anyone fear he has gone soft, Bargeld frequently emitted his trademark bat-like, high-pitched shrieks (but admitted that he doesn’t “want to be remembered as the one in the Bad Seeds who did the scream”), which were often accompanied by his equally characteristic full-body, spasmodic gesticulations. Through this fusion, he appears as an unholy amalgamation of Klaus Kinski and the vampire from the 1922 film Nosferatu. That none of these characteristics can be called affectations is likely part of the reason why Nick Cave, when asked about Bargeld in an interview, said with both admiration and a sense of astonishment, “He’s a creation of some sort … You can’t even imagine that he could have parents; you can’t even imagine what couple of normal people could create that thing.” That it is unclear, on some deep level, whether Bargeld arrived on earth by natural means or otherwise makes it hard to imagine there is a more fitting annual fixture at Dark Mofo.

Charles Shafaieh

Charles Shafaieh is an arts journalist based in New York City. His writing on music, theatre, literature, film, and visual art has appeared in The New Yorker, The Irish Times, The Times Literary Supplement and other international publications.

Blixa Bargeld at Dark Mofo 2019. Photograph by Dark Mofo/Jesse Hunniford, 2019. Image Courtesy Dark Mofo, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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