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Contriva and the Prussian soul

Michael Pilz raves about Contriva, a band that has retained some of the muffiness of East Berlin

The standard journalistic depiction of Berlin rests on four pillars in the sandy steppe: the hostile locals, the total lack of culture, a community that's as poor as it is decrepit and socialist tristesse. It's not just newspaper columns – entire books are filled with tales of the bankrupt city.

The whiny tone of the early 90s, however, has given way to tried and tested pride. The media (not a Berliner native among them) reassures the locals: worry not, if you can make it here in the wild East, you can make it anywhere. And then the family worries a bit and is proud of its lost sons and daughters, as the sons and daughters are of themselves. And this is why on the weekend, so-called Prenzlberg (Prenzlauerberg: a hip district in the former East Berlin - ed) is peopled with bashful new Berliners and their relieved relatives from the south German provinces. The visitors thought it would be worse. Without nice, chatty passers-by, with less culture and consumption and more cement. It's certainly a long way from ideal Freiburg.

As for the dilemmas of those who live here, and those who lived here when the area still belonged unmistakably to Berlin and Prussia: they complain of a change in the mood and for the worse. They try to comfort themselves with defiant actions like the postcards that were being distributed over Christmas in trendy bars that said: "East Berlin wishes you a good trip home!" And then the train schedule for points south-west. Those ruffled a few feathers.

Admittedly, the immigrants from those parts go for the same East Berlin cliches. At root, the only difference is the perspective of the projection. But what does all this have to do with music?

Contriva (Photo credit: Maxi Strauch)
Contriva (photo: Maxi Strauch)

Principally with the way that the recent Berlin pop is trying to resurrect the status quo of the late 1980s, when there was a lot going on between the ruined old buildings. We know the rude electronic row of the group Rechenzentrum. Barbara Morgenstern loves to use a young pioneer of the VEB Vermona-Orgel. Veterans of the Neue Deutsche Welle formed a duo called 2raumwohnung. And in the 1990s, the real attractions were the living room concerts of poets and punks in Prenzlauerberg and the claustrophobic clubs and cellars, full of Bohemians, in the shadows of the wall in Kreuzberg.

It was in these living rooms "am Prenzlberg" – and now we're getting to the point – that Masha Qrella surfaced ten years ago. A reserved 20-year old at the time, who played various instruments. Her band was called Cinnamon but because the name was taken, it became Contriva. In 1996 the quartet produced its debut singles on vinyl. Eloquent pieces like "Kuschel XTC" and "Introduce Me To Someone Really Cool" followed. On the occasion of their first album "Tell Me When" in 2000, Peter E. Müller wrote in the Berliner Morgenpost: "This kind of music would not have been possible in (West-) Berlin before the wall fell. This kind of music can only happen in a city without walls, with leakage, with surroundings, with breadth."

A more apt commentary on Contriva has not been made since. Although it should be added that such music would not have been possible in East Berlin before the wall fell either. Despite the desolate expanses of Cottbus, Potsdam and Neubrandenburg, there was an even stronger sense of constriction back then. Masha Qrella and Contriva managed in retrospect to translate the quiet, inner feeling of anarchy and banality into music and thus to conserve it. It may not have been intentional, but it's also not to be denied.

It almost went unnoticed that Qrella recently brought out her second second solo album and fourth album with Contriva. On it, "Separate Chambers" takes off with a friendly guitar, the fingers audibly scour the strings, dusty beats set in and a lead guitar plays something that sounds more like dance band than Catholic exaggerated rock music. Interference twangs, reverence as well, in Masha Qrella's singular, shy vocals and melodic bass.

That's closer to Manchester bands from 20 years ago than Berlin in 1988. Because those who escaped Berlin's insularity did so better with avowed protestants like New Order than with local bands called Herbst in Peking. Twice in their history, Berliners have let themselves be carried away with hysteria and passion: in the "craziness!" of the fall of the wall between 10 pm and 2 am. And in the summer of 1990, when everything seemed possible for young people with no material means but full of cultural nonsense. After, the sociotope returned to its normal state, solidly rooted in reason.

It's this cool, brusque fatalism, this melancholic, shoulder-shrugging laid-backness that turns on newcomers to Berlin like a dilapidated SED (the communist party of the former East Germany) guest-house on the edge of a pine forest. There's an uproar when this kind of ugliness disappears. No old cadre from Pankow district was as appalled by the demolition of the Palast der Republik as the freshly baked Prenzlbergers from southern Germany.

Masha Qrella (photo credit Maxi Strauch)
Masha Qrella (photo: Maxi Strauch)

Masha Qrella carries with her the musty smell of this lost cosmos. Her grandfather Alfred Kurella, the son of the Silesian skull-measurer and race theorist Hans Kurella (more), was one of the most interesting characters among the German communists in Soviet exile. As a young bureaucrat of the Cominterns, and then as a secretary to Georgi Dimitroff (more), as a journalist and an artist. In the GDR, Kurella held low offices like the chair of the Literature Institute in Leipzig and the SED Commission on Culture.

His house, called the "Villa Qrella" today, is still standing in Pankow, painted a striking mint green. In it live an astrophysicist and a neurologist and their children. What used to be a bomb shelter is now the studio of Kurella's granddaughter and her boyfriend. This is where Marsha Qrella's bands Contriva, Mina and NMFarner create their sounds. While most local musicians will go to any length to draw attention to themselves, Qrella – on the stage and on her album covers - hides behind a curtain of hair. She'd like to do that in interviews as well.

"Not to be explained," she says often. And she's "not a born performer." And then she lets her pieces go to float through the world, leaving those whose profession it is to explain things, to write about films, landscapes, second-hand clothing or wool blankets.

If Berlin-Brandenburg had such thing as a Country style, its own cross-state music, it would surely sound like Contriva. Analogue Folk, which casts an eye back at Club and Rock music while heading in the direction of quiet and standstill. Prussian Soul, spartan, aloof, sketchy. People who make music like this are harking back to forgotten ways of living: frugality, distance, silence. Today Berlin wants impatient, presumptuous and loud. From those who used to do it quieter and from those who like to preserve this folklore, who would like to live in this lost cultural landscape. Unity through dialectic.

Prenzlberg should be thankful to Masha Qrella.


Contriva: Seperate Chambers; Masha Qrella: Unsolved Remained (Morr/Indigo)

The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on January 17, 2007.

Michael Pilz is a music critic for Die Welt.

Translation: nb

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