Musical Hoaxes

Taking a look at some historic releases that turned out to be fakes, but still produced outstanding music: Jurgen Muller, Ursula Bogner, and the East German ‘Kosmischer Laufer project.’

by Marshall Bowden

In the endlessly fascinating work of Jorge Luis Borges, the idea of a text being definitive is largely seen as impossible. Instead, every printed word or printed copy of a text has its own errors, misprints, and other mistakes, not to mention the differences created by various printers and editors during the life of a text and, of course, outright forgeries. Borges and other metafictional writers like Umberto Eco frequently refer to obscure academic texts that don’t exist, ascribing to them magical properties and histories filled with doubtful coincidences.

The world of recorded music is also filled with a similar kind of mystery, doubtful provenance, and outright musical hoaxes. We question whether Mozart indeed composed his final Requiem, or whether certain figures existed at all. The purposeful myth-making behind blues, American folk music, and jazz were profound parts of the success of these musical forms and they paved the way for the PR and dramatic tales of the rock and roll era. They also passed along a healthy dose of the con and of the exploitation of those who created music only to have it stolen, a commodified, and commercialized.

Sometimes a musical hoax starts organically and then spreads through rumor and innuendo, taking something very ho-hum and creating a curiosity about it that ensures it will be widely heard and disseminated. The first Klaatu album, widely rumored to be the work of The Beatles upon its release in 1977, would almost certainly have languished in obscurity without the story. This is more or less proven by the fact that after it was announced that the band were, in fact, a group of Canadian studio musicians, their subsequent four albums failed to sell or crack the charts in either Canada or the U.S. 

But no one officially claimed that Klaatu were The Beatles–not the band, their management, nor Capitol, the band’s label. They did remain silent for a time, allowing the rumors to fuel sales of the group’s debut album, but no hoax was perpetrated. But the 2000s have seen a number of outright hoaxes, of music purported to be by a certain artist, or recorded under certain circumstances, that later turned out not to be true. At least, they appear not to be true. But, does that affect the music itself? Does the fact that it is a fake make it less valuable as music? And where does a performance stop and reality begin?  

In 2011 a recording appeared entitled Science of the Sea, credited to Jurgen Muller. Muller was studying oceanic science and became transfixed by the sounds of the sea, according to his biography. An amateur composer, Muller bought some electronic instruments and equipment, setting up a makeshift studio on his houseboat in order to capture the inspiration he was getting from the sea.

He composed a number of pieces with the intention of selling them as soundtrack music for documentaries about the ocean, but never succeeded at generating any interest. Instead, he had 100 copies of a vinyl album pressed, giving most of them away to friends and colleagues. The 2011 release was purportedly a reissue of this long lost artifact.

It’s now generally accepted that Seattle based composer Norman Chambers is the guy behind Science of the Sea, but that has not kept the recording from receiving glowing reviews by those who follow and discuss electronic music. The Muller biography places him at a German university in 1979, the period when ‘Krautrock’ (a term applied to a variety of largely instrumental electronic music created by German performers) became imbued with a quality known as ‘kosmische’ (or ‘cosmic’) reflected in the work of Cluster, Kraftwerk, and others, although Science of the Sea has more in common with early new age and ambient music. Among early champions of the record were those entranced by the early recordings identified as ‘new age,’ and while Science of the Sea dips into that sonic pool, it comes across as too layered and sophisticated to have been recorded contemporaneously.

Then there is the case of Ursula Bogner, a completely unknown woman who purportedly created electronic music from 1969-1988, all the while holding down a day job with a large German pharmaceutical company. What begs belief is that Bogner apparently created this music over a thirty year period while remaining completely unknown. Through a chance encounter, Bogner’s son met German musician Jan Jelinek on an airplane and the subject of his mother’s work with synthesizers and electronic music came up. Jelinek compiled the album Recordings: 1968-1988 as well as the albums Winkel Pong and Sonne = Black Box.

Far from being ponderous or pretentious, Bogner’s work seems light and, as noted by Jelinek and other listeners, it possesses a playful, almost pop music quality: “Covering a fairly short period of her creative career, (the tracks on Recordings: 1968-1988) also convey a peculiar coherence in both form and content. A coherence that reflects her accessible, rhythmic and sometimes even poppy side.”

There are photos of Bogner and photographs of her notes, none of which proves her existence. The Scottish electronic musician Momus has suggested that Bogner is, in fact, Jan Jelinek dressed in women’s clothing. It’s all like a Tanith Lee story, somehow fitting together, along with the most important artifact, the music, in defining a reality that may or may not exist. “Every lie creates a parallel world: the world in which it is true,” writes Momus, and the world in which Ursula Bogner was supposed to have lived certainly existed.

In a time when we have become increasingly aware of a number of women who were instrumental in the development of electronic music but were written out of its history–Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Laurie Spiegel, Alice Shields, and others–the discovery of Bogner and her music makes perfect sense, and it begs the question of whether its authenticity matters. Perhaps its chief importance is as a signpost, a finger pointing at the moon of these outsider artists whose importance to modern electronic music is undeniable. Once we see the moon, though, the finger becomes less necessary. But Jelinek has never admitted that Bogner is a musical hoax, so perhaps it is true that she is part of the moon itself.

Which brings me to my favorite electronic musical hoax of recent years, the music released as ‘Kosmischer Laufer’ (Cosmic Runner). Subtitled The Secret Cosmic Music of the East German Olympic Program, 1972-83, it is supposedly the work of Martin Zeichnete, a sound engineer for DEFA, the state run film studio. According to the story, told by Zeichnete himself in a print interview, he had the idea of using the ‘motorik’ music being created by Neu! and Kraftwerk (which he was able to hear by way of West German radio broadcasts) as training music for runners and other Olympic athletes. He was put into a special program and would spend a few hours every year recording these tracks in a small studio, watched over by a government handler.

The story was widely accepted on the release of the first volume of recordings, but as subsequent volumes (there are a total of four) were released there seemed to be some cracks in the story. For example, the quality of the Kosmischer Laufer recordings and the sounds contained therein, initially a point of wonderment in early reviews, became suspicious. By the time these tracks were being released in 2013 & 2014, people were familiar with the stories of Kraftwerk’s state of the art Kling Klang studios and the equipment the group was able to purchase to use. The possibility that someone, no matter how skilled, could have created music that sounded every bit as good in what the record’s press kit described as “a cold Berlin studio with the few electronic instruments the state could supply” begs credulity. We are told in the interview how Zeichnete filled out requisition paperwork for a Moog synthesizer which never came.  Could it be that he was able to produce music that sounds like a dead ringer for elements of the music created by Klaus Dinger, Florian Schneider, and groups like Cluster with substandard, Soviet made synthesizers?

Another thing that cast doubt on the story of the secret Olympic program is the length of time that the tapes supposedly sat somewhere without being discovered or destroyed. We’re talking nearly thirty years from the date of the last recordings until 2011. The story that Zeichnete smuggled some tapes out of the studio begs the question–why wait until now? More recordings were supposedly in the possession of an engineer who had helped Zeichnete with the recordings, but again the question becomes, why so long? If one believed the tapes to be of musical or historical importance, one would hardly sit on them for so long. On the other hand, if one didn’t think they were of any significance, one would likely have pitched them in the rubbish or sold them at a garage sale. 

It doesn’t matter when listening, because the music is really good, and its exactly what someone would like to hear in listening to music of this type from the period when it was supposed to have been recorded. But this musical hoax would have had a significant impact on the history of German electronic music (‘Krautrock’) of the period and required a reassessment of the music that was actually being created in East Germany in the seventies and eighties. And there was a significant music scene that included electronic music that was influenced by what could be heard of what was happening in the West and yet sounded very little like it. 

One thought on “Musical Hoaxes

  1. Klatuu? Klaatu.

    I just don’t understand why people thought they were The Beatles when they sound almost nothing like them.

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