A uniquely dense and hallucinatory pop culture collage.
Since then, Phantom Kino Ballett has evolved a bit. While in residence at the Goethe-Institut's Villa Kamogawa in Kyoto earlier this year, Willikens and Szczesny developed aspects of the audio mix and filmed additional footage. That has resulted in this LP, a collage of cultural oddities, field recordings and musical gestures that draws material from the show.
While the music here has been updated from the performance I saw last year, the most memorable passages remain intact. Take after take of David Bowie and Amanda Lear challenging each other over their assumed identities left the question "Who are you?" ringing in my head for a long time, and it's an integral part of this recorded version, too. This strange dialogue dominates the beginning of the A-side, and shards of it crop up later on.
As these threads of dialogue weave in and out of the mix, the music becomes disorienting and hallucinatory. This effect seems central to Phantom Kino Ballett's premise. But the music sometimes draws your focus to key moments. As the late transgender actor Holly Woodlawn boldly describes her attitude towards death, an ominous synth lead adds gravity to what's being said. A Jon Hassell-esque trumpet adds an exotic fog to the sound of Mario Montez in conversation about the nature of beauty. "Whenever I look into the mirror I just scream with joy, I am so beautiful!" he declares. The phrase is looped for emphasis.
Gender identity and sexuality are common threads in Phantom Kino Ballett's samples, from Bowie and Lear's teasing exchanges to Woodlawn and Montez's playful yet candid turns. The message, though, isn't explicit—the fragments of meaning don't follow a logical arc, but rather cross each other in seemingly opportune ways. "First, are you our sort of a person? Do you wear a glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, a brace or a hook, rubber breasts or a rubber crotch, stitches to show something's missing?" asks Sylvia Plath, reading her poem The Applicant. It was an attack on the notion of women as commodities for men to acquire through marriage, but in the context of Phantom Kino Ballett the meaning is transformed.
If the altered subtext of Plath's poem is reasonably clear, other sections are set adrift in surrealism. "Is something wrong?" a woman asks over a lopsided, tape-fuzzed melody and the sound of a broom sweeping. It's difficult to place, not least when followed up by a foul-mouthed prank-call scene from John Waters' '90s black comedy Serial Mom. For every snatched moment of profundity, there's a dose of silliness or profanity. Willikens and Szczesny's Phantom Kino Ballett can be confusing at times, but, much like the show it's based on, it's consistently captivating, too.