Mona Mur and En Esch
120 Tage: The Fine Art of Beauty and Violence
Germany Release Date: 15 Feb 2009
The upcoming fantasy game Culpa Innata II features a scene that encapsulates the public persona of Mona Mur: the black-clad, gothic-tinged dominatrix, gruff voice dripping with contempt. Reality meets fantasy and violence collides with beauty.
Photo by Biel Moreno
On a crisp winter morning in Berlin, I meet the real Ms. Mur at her apartment-cum-studio in the trendy intersection of Kreuzberg and Neukölln dubbed “Kreuzkölln”. Casually dressed and sans make-up, the key chain on her belt adding a jaunty touch, she proffers a hand shake and a cup of herbal tea. Down to earth and personable, she reminds me of the no-nonsense Italian women of my Bronx youth. As we settle in her kitchen with some verbena tea, she discourses on a range of topics, barely pausing when she knocks over a chair demonstrating her excitement at seeing the Stranglers as a callow youth.
Mur started out in Hamburg, in the north of Germany, like so many others attracted to the energy of punk. Linking up with Alexander Hacke, FM Einheit, and Mark Chung of Einstürzende Neubauten, she released the “Jeszcze Polska” single in 1982 and found success in her homeland, but then succumbed to the whims of the music industry and her own self-destructive tendencies.
Cast out by the industry, she regrouped in Berlin, bought herself a computer, taught herself production, and set up as a sound designer and composer, contributing soundscapes to games such as Velvet Assassin. “I’m interested in alien, foreign, strange sounds and stuff. I always try to find the paths in the snow where there are no footprints,” she explains.
During her pop exile, she channeled her energies into the Korean martial art of tae kwon do, achieving a high rank and becoming a member of the German national team. Although no longer competitive, she continues to practice it because it offers discipline and instills a work ethic she lacked.
She had given up on singing, when film director Fatih Akin contacted her for his 2004 film Gegen die Wand (Head On). She actually shot a scene for the film which was cut, but Akin used three of her songs, bringing her work to a new audience and returning her to the spotlight.
Photo by Jan Riephoff
After a re-issue of some of her earlier work, Mur teamed up with KMFDM’s bald frontman En Esch for the new album 120 Tage: the Fine Art of Beauty and Violence, which, amidst its caterwauling guitars and synth-heavy production, gives full vent to her goth-dominatrix persona. Blood and violence are frequent lyrical references. “I like violent art,” she admits.
Aside from new songs written with Esch, Mur revisits a few of her old ones, such as the title track, and also covers three Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill compositions, including “Die Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen” (Ballad of the Drowned Girl), a song for which she feels a huge amount of affinity. Written after the murders in 1919 of communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the song speaks of a female body floating downstream to its resting place. Mur says, “I think it’s a song about life and death, and we all are doomed to die one day. This is beauty and violence at its best, and this is why I should sing this song.”
The powers-that-be that administer Weill’s work were less keen on her modern reading of the song, and it took a long battle to get the rights, but Mur succeeded and is gleeful at the opportunity to bring it into the present. “Mr. Weill should not be in a museum.”
Photo by Biel Moreno
Her devotion to this material is indicative of its place in German culture, an emblem of Weimar Berlin, the last free culture before fascism. “This is the good German arts tradition that was smashed by the fucking Nazis. We are decapitated from our folk music roots, from everything that is genuinely German. I mean being German—it’s an insult after what the Nazis did to the world, and also to the Germans.”
Brecht, the Jew driven out of Germany by the Nazis, and the Communist driven out of the USA by the McCarthyists, ended his days in East Berlin. Today, Mur lives in the former West Berlin, next to the Landwehrkanal where Rosa Luxemburg’s body was dumped in 1919.
Weimar Berlin continues to fascinate everyone from Ute Lemper to Rufus Wainwright, and Mur sees parallels with the punk scene. “I think it was the same feeling in a way. The feel in the air was similar. If you were in Berlin at the time, you could feel it. It was this volcano dance. We had this wall which was in front of our noses. The Landwehrkanal is right here, where people were shot trying to escape. In some places it replaced the wall. We had this Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) thing trying to emancipate yourself from this English singing. I think it was a good thing. Why sing in a different musical tradition?”
The games industry also has a feeling of freshness and newness for her, although, like the music industry, it is very male-dominated. In fact, she knows of no other female games sound designers in Germany. Today, Mur balances her pop music work with her games composition and sees them as two related aspects of her creativity.
Photo by Ilse Ruppert
Having her two worlds collide, as they do in Culpa Innata II, is gratifying. An adventure game set in the future, the first edition was a hit in Russia, and the sequel features a black-clad Esch and Mur performing a Russian version of “120 Tage” in a half empty “rogue bar”. Although Mur doesn’t speak Russian, she seems quite at home with the language, delivering her lyrics with brusque power. In fact, as a child she used to listen to her mother singing sad Russian songs, which she found entrancing.
Relaxing in her own kitchen, Mur is the picture of contentment, albeit with an edgy, cat-like energy. “I want to play live. And I want to do my computer games. So, at the moment I cannot complain,” she says before I take my leave. She and Esch have live performances to look forward to, including a booking at the prestigious Kurt Weill festival in Dessau next year. Truly, the prodigal daughter has been welcomed back into the fold.
// Notes from the Road
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