Oskar May by Naa Teki Onukpa

Between the Words and Sounds of Oskar May

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Oskar May by Naa Teki Onukpa
Oskar May by Naa Teki Onukpa

His way of blurring the established lines between poetry and pop makes Oskar May hard to grab. PW-Magazine interviewed the Vienna-based artist.

Oskar May’s affinity for pathos and his never-ending urgency to escape the various grids of expectation and predictability may have contributed to his invitations on poetry stages in Ghent and Berlin, as well as to an opening gig for a pop concert by Molly Nilsson.
May is comfortable with not caring about categorization. In between is where he thrives.  An environment perfectly provided by Gully Havoc, the label that recently released Oskar May’s first EP. Titled “The Lane“, it is an emotional sprawl over distorted techno waste-grounds, playful black metal ambitions and grand vocal spaces.

Gully Havoc was founded by the Berlin based poet-musician tandem of Ricardo Domeneck and Black Cracker in the beginning of 2016. With the goal of bridging the musical arts and the literary arts, Gully Havoc drifts through the stratification of these definitions. It was also Ricardo Domeneck who put Oskar May on stage for the first time after stumbling upon his Soundcloud around the end of 2014. The performance turned out to be an aggregate of May´s earlier attempts of poetics and a more pop-leaning approach to performance.
“Actually, I started with sound poetry. Writing poetry was the origin of a creative explosion. Eventually I realised that while the content of my writings was important, it ultimately finds its expression through phonetics, [which is] effectively the opposite of a visual poem, for example by Ernst Jandl – that is to say, leaving out text completely. Spoken language as the essence. It somehow just happened that this became more important to me; that the reading aloud was actually more important than what was written.” Soon Oskar May grasped that vowels and consonants were imposing limits upon his artistic expression. Hence he started to enrich his phonetic compositions with samples and drum beats.

But to his music there’s more than the means of poetry. It is an amalgamation of Oskar May’s personal history, emotions, memories and receptive habits.
Growing up in a small Upper-Austrian village, there wasn’t too much for him to do. He knew that his interests didn’t necessarily align with his environment, and this eventually entailed a lack of reference for his own not yet articulated ways. It was hours of solitude and introspection, which May describes as the most formative aspect about growing up in the countryside. When his sister got a live album by Cradle of Filth as a gift, this situation gaped open. When the CD fell into the hands of 11 year-old Oskar and a friend of his they were astounded: “What the hell is this? This is completely insane. I don’t get it. This is cool. We’re gonna listen to this music.” The sounds of Cradle of Filth were dominating his following years, constantly blasting through his huge headphones he’d only put down if absolutely necessary. He grew into the habit of listening to a single album for a year straight, progressively moving from death metal to black metal. However, he was never interested in collecting music. “Still to this day, I don’t have a real understanding of genres and what’s circulating at the moment. I have my constants and I listen to them so intensively until I just listen to something else. […] I don’t have interest in accumulating as much as possible of what exists. I have this curiosity elsewhere. Within music it doesn’t seem to exist in me in the same way. It’s only about reception, about dry and bare listening.” That might be mistaken for stubbornness or ignorance, but actually seems to in line with his claims to never get carried away by dogmatisms. When I asked him about the meaning of the EP’s title, he responded that it’s about “how you love to walk on a gravel path with grass around it, barefoot, because you love the pain”. He ends the sentence with a laugh and it becomes clear he was intentionally leading me astray.

“Don’t get me wrong. I believe that there is a distinct meaning to the lyrics. I wrote them and everything they’re supposed to say is embedded in them. I’m drawing on Rimbaud here, who when asked about the meaning of his writing used to answer ‘I just wrote it down in this poem, it’s there. What am I supposed to say, I’ve written it all down.’ […]
The EP evolved from the title track. It was a moment of absentmindedness when I just sat down at my piano with my sampler running and the lyrics just came to me. I use [lyrics] a little bit like astrology, like a prophecy. I have this text that I’ve written, and I don’t know why and what to make of it. Of course I put thought into it. I have an idea and I want to grasp it. It’s not like a holy spirit is writing through my hands. But in the end the result is so alienated from the initial idea that I could only call half the work my own. I can read it like my own horoscope. I don’t mean to lessen the meaningfulness of my lyrics. It’s just that I don’t see myself as the absolute author. […] Since the song can mean something different for me in a different setting, the meaning has to be completely different for somebody who leads a different life.”

The title of the EP seems to be some kind of primer that holds the semantic potential of the lyrics of the other songs. The Lane, in its literal meaning and the song itself, serves as guidance to its own conditions and relations, whereas the other songs are meant as applications of those structures. The lyrics, and the way May explains this concept, similarly create a loose structure, a meta-narrative that provide you with just enough to keep the idea and its images spinning through imagination and interpretation.

Lingering over cigarettes and wine in May’s apartment, he tells me how he imagined that someone was breaking in the other night, what left him thinking about what would happen if his laptop got stolen. He said he’d be relieved. A conclusion he arrived at by his development over the past years, which was to overcome his initial conditions of making music, namely using Ableton. As some of his attempts to learn a classical instrument had failed due to the rigidness of various notation systems, the digital audio workstation provided the means for making music on a more complex level. He started constructing beats that imitated the utterance of words and sentences – a situation that made him effectively dependent on his laptop. “I want to get away from starting a live show where I open my laptop, start Ableton and load the set where I know when the drum beat is coming in and when I have to sing. […] That`s the new approach: Having a song in my head, a piano in front of me and, for now, a drum beat on the DAW that I can bring in if needed. Just playing a song, as if I’d pick up a guitar and be a singer-songwriter.”
Buying a hardware synthesizer was the first step of escaping those old patterns. Although he swiftly clarifies that his decision isn’t meant as a comment about a lack of authenticity inherent in digital music technology. It rather seems to foster the requirements of an ever-shifting environment that demands flexibility – all the more as it provides the possibility to follow his immediate impulse. For him, this can only be achieved through reduction. May could imagine just using his voice and a live drummer with a double bass. This approach is partly indebted to his notion of pathos that was nourished on listening to Black Metal. And this is already apparent in the slow crescendo of “Dawn”, whose lonely frequencies emitted by the synthesizer progressively reach their conclusion in a heavy tremolo feedback, resembling the cathartic value of black metal. It’s club music for people who suffer from irreversible serotonin loss. His idea of minimalism shows itself in the opener “Hollow Existence” which starts with a simple scale reaching a plateau, a held-down C-note on a piano synth. A muffled kick is increasingly pushing the pace and, in the end, takes over the song as May modulates it with an LFO and increases its resonance. This minimal work in sound design reaches maximum effect with Oskar May’s airy and sustained vocals embedded in frequencies, reminiscing the work of Scott Walker. The EP is a testament of self-confident and self-contained pathos that’s not dependent on the self-carrying braggadocio displayed by Wanda or Bilderbuch (for the sake of a national comparison). It’s a dark negative. “ ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that.”

Text by Nils Schröder