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It Was Never About the Music

As if there wasn’t a choice, that supporting others is just inherently how you make music. Losing that hurts so much more.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve only ever been a casual follower of Peter Rehberg’s work. Not for any reason beyond the fact that there’s too much music in the world to hear in a lifetime, though. On his own, as Pita, and with the numerous collaborations he was a part of, Rehberg’s work always struck me as incredibly adventurous, pushing approaches to sound into new stratospheres while simultaneously discovering untouched caverns that no one had even realized were there to explore. Additionally, every single time I heard a new release Editions Mego, it was a new adventure. Sonically and visually, each release was a world of its own but always impeccable in its own right. But I didn’t know Rehberg personally, never met him or had any communication with him, and would only dig into his music or label when I stumbled on a recommendation from someone else.

Which is why I was so caught off guard when the news of his death hit me as hard as it did.

Stumbling across the news on Twitter is a horrible way to learn about someone’s passing. The mindless scrolling is supposed to produce a numbing sensation, a feeling of being in dialogue with the world without anyone actually talking to you or you talking back while the serotonin spikes from new notifications bring you back like a lab rat to a cocaine switch. Accidentally stepping in the devastating news of someone’s death, especially someone who is at most two degrees of separation from you, ruins that moment.

In processing the unexpected weight I felt, I immediately returned to the one time I saw Rehberg live: No Fun Fest, 2007, his duo with Marcus Schmickler called R/S. I had only been listening to noise for a few years at this point, having first discovered and finally “gotten” noise at a show in 2003. I was just getting past the “this new thing is exciting and I love everything I hear” phase and starting to figure out what I actually liked about the genre. The endlessly boring drone sets that populated that fest weren’t cutting it for me anymore, but I still felt enthralled by the performances that cut through. The harsh precision of Pedestrian Deposit, the wildly conceptual turn of Mattin, the terrifying absurdity of Sons of God, and the galactic explorations of Emeralds (who were at their peak at that time) still act as guideposts for me. And the R/S set was right alongside them.

Sonically, the R/S set was classic Rehberg. A dual laptop performance that used the tool to the fullest capacity. Sounds that you couldn’t hear anywhere else, a shifting sense of dynamic and composition that seemed un-human, that sort of thing. At a moment when I wanted everything to be “harsh” and “brutal,” scoffing at anyone who dared use an expensive piece of equipment over a contact mic and a Digitech Death Metal pedal, I actually thought these dudes with laptops blew most of the other harsher acts on the line up out of the water (anyone want to talk about that meek and embarrassingly bad Grey Wolves set?).

But what doesn’t show up on the recording was just as important. Rather than rely on the macho theatrics of harsh noise (or even the stoic anti-aesthetic of a dude sitting behind a laptop), the duo removed the visual entirely by performing in the sound booth. The house lights stayed on, slightly dimmed and barely creeping on to an empty stage. The set began as a bewildered audience, myself included, spun in circles trying to figure out where to look. Some allowed their muscle memory to take over and turned towards the stage, others craned their necks in the opposite direction to see what Rehberg and Schmickler were doing. But mostly, people looked around at each other, trying to figure out how they were supposed to act as an audience.

The clarity of this memory made me realize how important this set was to me as an artist, a formative performance at a time when I desperately wanted to figure out how to sound like myself and realizing that I was looking for the wrong thing: what I really needed to do was figure out how to perform like myself. Maybe that’s why the news of his death felt so heavy.

But there’s also particular kind of sadness that comes with losing a musician amid a pandemic, one that forces people away from music venues and, at its best, into the isolation of recording studios or practice spaces. For both musicians and music fans, a major light at the end of the tunnel that provides hope is being able to hear and play live music again. Everything we do in the meantime is making sure we are ready for that show when it arrives. The death of a musician at this moment, when shows are just starting to come back and it feels like some sort of end might actually be in reach (even if that feeling is only a mirage), just breaks your heart a little bit more than it would have a year ago.

I would have loved to have seen Rehberg perform one more time. I’m not sure if he could have pulled it off, but I could use a jolt of inspiration like the one I felt 14 years ago to get my solo work off the ground again. Like many other artistically inclined people, I have had an incredibly hard time finding the energy or inspiration to work on music during the past year and a half. I finished a few projects that I had already started, but only because the house was mostly built and I just needed to grind out the rest of the work until I got to the finish line. But starting something new felt nearly impossible. I have songs written, concepts fleshed out, and plans made for how to make multiple albums at this point. But sitting down and actually making this music exist feels nearly impossible and entirely pointless.

Yet this inability to make things and a lack of desire to fix it has been uneven for me. I’ve been writing a lot of words during this time, both in terms of the academic stuff I’m technically getting paid to do and personal writings like this column. That hasn’t felt hard at all. And as soon as I was vaccinated I jumped back into collaborating with other folks, rekindling musical partnerships that were on hold and forming new bands without any sense of hesitation. But even with the stress of COVID greatly lessened because of the vaccine (not entirely conquered mind you- this Selta shit is scary so wear your dang masks), I still haven’t felt like making music on my own.

Being at my first show in a year and a half was eye opening in terms of understanding this struggle. On a beautiful, sunny afternoon, I got to sit outside and watch so many of my friends, some who I had not seen for years at this point, make music in front of other people for the first time in forever. A lot of them were rusty, getting reacquainted with the gear they haven’t had to work with seriously in a while, but they all still sounded incredible. A certain glow emanated off of everyone there and I could feel it in myself as well. And getting to play a set with a bunch of my friends, a collective that only existed as a group chat in our Instagram DMs for months, felt even more incredible.

The experience provided an incredible sense of clarity. I have known this for a while, but it hit me again like it was a brand-new idea: it’s never been about the music. It’s actually about the people we share it with. Obviously, the music is important. There are performances and albums that have been life changing for me and we wouldn’t be a community without it. But that community is why I keep coming back. Going to shows, playing with and for other people, it serves as the bedrock of the best friendships I’ve ever had. And recording albums in my basement by myself seems pointless without it.

This is why I think Rehberg’s death felt so heavy. It isn’t just losing all of the wonderful music this monumental artist would have made. It’s about losing an artist who made supporting others a crucial part of his creative practice. The aesthetic diversity of Editions Mego was more than just a bold creative choice, it was a way to cast a wide net while lifting up as many as possible in this strange corner of the world. And the fact that Rehberg just handed the keys over to people through sub-labels like Spectrum Spools and Ideologic Organ speaks volumes, clearly illustrating that the infrastructure he built through the label was always about amplifying other voices and not his own.

We not only lost an incredible artist in Rehberg, we lost an artist who did it right. Who made giving to the community and building the community an entangled part of being in that community, of being an artist. As if there wasn’t a choice, that supporting others is just inherently how you make music. Losing that hurts so much more.

Reflecting on the gesture of performing in the sound booth at No Fun with this in mind, I understand why this memory has had a surprising amount of staying power for me. I have no idea if Rehberg and Schmickler were thinking about this when they abandoned the stage, but this simple and quietly absurd gesture reaffirms Rehberg’s dedication to the music community he called home. Rather than looking to the artist to figure out how to be a part of that moment, the audience at No Fun had no choice but to look to each other, to read each other’s faces and actions to understand what we were doing and how to do it together. Through this gesture, R/S handed the keys over to us and told us to drive the car for a while. They were fine picking the tunes from the back seat.

I didn’t know Peter Rehberg, never even got the change to introduce myself. But I was still the recipient of his generosity in that performance. The music was incredible, but that act of kindness and trust made the performance so much more. I hope I have a chance to thank him for that, and everything else, on the other side.

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