Not Just A Glitch: The Legacy of Peter “Pita” Rehberg 1968–2021

Peter Rehberg live in Austin 4/2019 — photo by Michael Reust

The last time I saw Peter Rehberg in person, I imagined there would be other occasions on which we’d meet again, and in fact was certain that he’d outlive me. The intensity of his personality was such that it felt like an immutable force of nature rather than a set of characteristics confined to a single living organism. As of the 23rd of this month, Peter suffered a fatal heart attack and I am instead left with the still reverberating echoes of that last encounter.

Peter had come into Austin for the final concert of a solo U.S. tour, this being preceded by some “holding court” sessions out on the town which were split between sharing a nearly bottomless knowledge of independent cultural forms and throwing boisterous, contrarian punches in the direction of unassailable cultural givens (I remember especially his mockery of “hoppy” beers and his heretical dismissal of the beloved local street taco, on the grounds that avocadoes taste like soap). More memorable than any of this, though, was Peter’s musical exhibition itself: even while being plagued with technical issues and rude interruptions like the sound of a competing band along the Red River music strip, the brief set managed to condense all the sonic signatures of the past century’s electronically-driven music into one mesmerizing storm front of rhythm, noise and strange encrypted phrases hovering on the edges of comprehensible melody. From the documentation available (Peter had been “releasing” downloadable albums of each live set on this 2019 tour), this was perhaps the most flagrantly violent show of the whole campaign, utilizing a completely different set of organizing motifs than the other engagements did, and yet it was entirely representative of the aesthetic that Peter had been crafting since the mid-1990s. Though created entirely with computers and modular analog synthesizers, this live assault was a much more accurate representation of human experience — namely, the day-to-day, minute-to-minute oscillation between seduction by life and repulsion towards it — than the vast majority of art claiming more supposedly “authentic” provenance.

This musical style that Peter Rehberg personalized was fraternally co-created with a network of like minds whose shared aesthetic language was formed of communicative disruptions (the now-standard “digital glitches”) and from familiar aesthetic elements dialed up to previously unacceptable levels of tornadic intensity. It was, as I’ve written elsewhere, the ideal soundtrack for modern human civilization’s experience of horror vacuii, and the attendant need to saturate all available physical and virtual space with technological extensions. In this way, the early audio-visual output of Rehberg’s own Mego record label (later Editions Mego) better heralded the crises of the 21st century than most of the art which closed out the 20th: they utilized state-of-the-art software and hardware to achieve novel effects in timbre and atmospheric illusions, but more importantly managed to dramatize the uncannily human sputters, bleeps and needlings of imperfect technology, thereby hinting at some Baudrillard-ian model of human “progress” in which accidents, breakdowns and false starts play as much of a catalytic role as successfully executed plans.

Notably, though, self-analytical commentary from Rehberg and friends was always more thin on the ground than 3rd party assessments like the above (this is not a complaint), making the myriad reactions to the initial offerings on the Mego imprint part and parcel of the artwork. It could even be said that the parallel industry of analytical / critical music journalism was done a great favor by the reluctance of the various network nodes to explain themselves or to add running commentary to their aleatory barrage of abstract sound-shapes and high-contrast hyper-visuals. As the more bewildered portion of their audience found themselves attracted to an alien artifice and yet were completely helpless to explain what this borderline erotic attraction stemmed from, secondary literature (my own paltry contributions included) was often needed to attempt an explanation of the phenomenological whys and wherefores of this material. It was somehow very appropriate that a style built upon dramatizing machine errors and overload would result in a literature that itself became typified by these very same features.

It would be idealistic to say that these innovations have become widely accepted, but to the extent that they have extended beyond a limited coterie of aesthetes and researchers, this is due in no small part to the Mego circle’s conviction in the relevance of their art to the wider world, and to stoically facing the inevitability of confrontation and negative public reactions. Indeed, we regularly forget, in this era of continually ascendant identity politics, the importance of cultivating unique “secondary identities” based upon our own cultural tastes or preferences. I feel that Peter made an enduring contribution in this area as well, pushing eclecticism to such vertiginous heights as to reveal how cultural templates are nearly as pre-set as genetic code. As a previous interview subject of mine noted earlier this year, the boundary lines between the “superficial” and the “deep” are often quite arbitrary and meaningless, and I think it is with this general attitude in mind that Peter mapped out one of the most simultaneously eclectic and consistent curatorial strategies of the 21st century. Consider the fact that, without Peter’s influence and determination, there might very well still be a pointless denkverbot on certain aesthetic combinations — e.g. the compatibility of electronic music technique and chthonic heavy metal drone, or the presentation of non-rhythmic music within the lightshow-aided environment of a dance club — that are now more or less accepted within the same public performance venues and private headspaces. Yes, even the insistence upon playing a club stage with only a computer and portable mixer was once considered an insult to the people in attendance who presumably “deserved” a more concerted effort at theatricality.

I don’t think Peter ever claimed to be a cultural kingmaker or trendsetter, but I believe he did realize that the fear of “stoking controversy” was not a criterion for reducing one’s own exploratory drive. Without the enthusiasm of people like Peter for brokering marriages between the “deep” avant-garde and the “superficial” world of street-level concerns, it would be ,uch less conceivable that a phenomenon like Whitehouse, once all but banned for discussion by the “serious” music / art press, could be in consideration for the Digital Musics Prize at the Austrian Ars Electronica Festival. Nor would an author like Dennis Cooper probably have a seat at the table, as either a collaborator or aesthetic influencer. It is also to Rehberg’s credit that a coup like that was not utilized merely to vindicate transgressive forms of creativity, but rather to accelerate a more ambitious project already hinted at here, i.e. the acknowledgement that a continuum existed from institutional to independent (occasionally “outsider”) forms. The implication was that, of course, it was the results rather than the pedigree of the creators which ultimately mattered.

Peter Rehberg in Vienna

As with “curatorial strategies,” so with personal presentation and bearing: presumably individuals who appear in photos with literary heavyweights like Alain Robbe-Grillet should adopt suitably intellectual table manners, but this was never the case with Peter or many of his fellow travelers. The style he pioneered was proudly tagged as “punk computer music,” “computer music for hooligans” and other such would-be pejorative terms, and this was due in no small part to the creators’ indifference towards projecting an introspective lifestyle or neutering their sense of fun merely because their status as advanced technicians demanded this. It was not for no reason that the cover image for Peter’s album Get Down — a hopping mad, anthropomorphized battery cell swiped from the display of a Japanese electronics supermarket — became a kind of iconic, self-effacing representation of both Rehberg and an entire scene. Elsewhere, Peter’s adoption of the “lad” uniform of Fred Perry polo and Adidas Sambas common to boozy proles all across the U.K. (to the point where it was caustically satirized in the character of Viz comics’ “Sid the Sexist”) was a fairly clear outward rejection of ivory tower behavioral codes.

Regrettably, the possibility of lifestyle choices influencing Peter’s premature passing also needs to be touched upon. If my last meeting with Peter was any indication of a larger pattern of things, the man loved drinking to extremes. I probably don’t need to reiterate here the well-known scientific data on excessive drinking and its contributions to cardiomyopathy. However, this is not the time or place for me to claim any sort of moral high ground, nor even a thorough knowledge of the factors that have caused so many in the “sound arts” community to diminish their prospects for a long life expectancy with massive intakes of alcohol (Zbigniew Karkowski and Mika Vainio being just two other names that immediately come to mind). For the moment the best I can do is to speculate upon the mental toll taken by having to constantly justify one’s creative output to a world still not totally sympathetic to experimental mergers of the type mentioned above, and understand how that might contribute to a persistent need to self-anesthetize. If this does figure in to the staggering recent losses of this creative community, though, it is all the more tragic, as I feel that they were gradually beginning to win these battles for acceptance, or, at the very least, to provide potent reminders that widespread acceptance is never a final objective proof of any cultural product’s inherent goodness. Peter had talked proudly of earning a seat on some sort of Viennese council or board with a say in influencing cultural affairs well beyond the scope of his parent genre, and I had good reason to believe that this rapprochement between the arts establishment and peripheral agitators would continue.

Now, yet again, all we have left are the recordings. We can at least take some comfort in the fact that they are some of the most vital recordings imaginable.

Sound artist, psychopathologist, author of “To Hear The World With New Eyes,” “MicroBionic, ”“Unofficial Release” and “Sonic Phantoms” (with Barbara Ellison).