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Culture

German Band Rammstein Grows Up

"Mein Herz Brennt," performed by the Dresden Symphony Orchestra and based on texts written by controversial industrial rock band Rammstein, celebrates its world premiere on Thursday.

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Eastern German band Rammstein made their name with a distinctive brand of industrial metal.

Not averse to pretension and bombastic aesthetics, German industrial band Rammstein lend themselves to cultural cross-fertilization. The band itself has nothing to do with the project Mein Herz Brennt (My heart burns), but their lyrics captured the imagination of Sven Helbig. The founder of the Dresden Symphony Orchestra came up with the idea of basing a classical song cycle on their texts when he noticed how much Rammstein's recurring themes of sorrow, loneliness and yearning were anchored in the 19th century German Romantic tradition.

"The first thing I noticed about Rammstein were the texts," says Helbig. "Then later I was attracted to the energy of the music, and the power of the material. The challenge was to transform this material into a classical song cycle without toadying to Rammstein fans or jumping on a bandwagon."

He solved the problem by commissioning Dresden-based composer Torsten Rasch to create a contemporary, orchestral song-cycle to be performed by the 110 musicians of the Dresden Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Carewe. Vocals are supplied by René Pape, an opera star at the New York Metropolitan Opera and USA Vocalist of the Year 2002, who joins forces with gravelly-voiced German actress Katharina Thalbach, familiar to international audiences from Volker Schlöndorff's film The Tin Drum. Thalbach's spoken word rendition of Rammstein's lyrics perfectly sets off Pape's classically-trained baritone.

Falling on deaf ears

Till Lindemann von Rammstein in Flammen

Rammstein singer Till Lindemann performing in 1998

Best known for their electrifying, highly theatrical stage shows, Rammstein has been polarizing audiences since forming in 1993. Most members of the six-strong outfit hail from communist East Germany's underground punk scene, graduating from seminal '80s bands such as "Feeling B" and "Die Firma."

Over the years, their trademark blend of theatre and music has been heavily criticized for drawing on Nazi imagery -- a charge which the band denies, issuing statements saying that "we are against racism, bigotry or any other type of discrimination."

Their protests usually fall on deaf ears. When Rammstein signed to London Records in the late 1990s, label-mates trip-hopper Goldie and Asian Dub Foundation were outraged. Still, the band thrives on controversy and insists that if audiences want to interpret their jackhammer rhythms, pyrotechnic stage shows and growling vocals of frontman Till Lindemann as fascist machismo, it's their problem.

International acclaim

All publicity is good publicity, and today, Rammstein is one of Germany's best-known bands worldwide, having won the 1999 Echo award for "Best Act Abroad" and effortlessly pulling off what barely a handful of German bands have ever done, namely, breaking the U.S. market.

After the band sold some 6 million records in the United States alone, even Hollywood came knocking. In 1997, two of the band's tracks were featured on the soundtrack to David Lynch's movie Lost Highway. Lynch's fondness for haunting, violent imagery might explain his interest in Rammstein, a band with similar artistic preferences. Recently, the German-speaking music scene returned the favor, when Lynch was also given an operatic treatment. Austrian Olga Neuwirth and Elfriede Jelinek's reworking of Lost Highway premiered in November at the "Steirischer Herbst" Festival of New Arts in Graz.

Picking up where Strauss leaves off

And now Rammstein has gone classic, thanks to Sven Helbig.

The Dresden Symphony Orchestra, established seven years ago, has made a name for itself with groundbreaking cross-over projects. Helbig has built up a repertoire of contemporary classical music based exclusively on popular culture, including Frank Zappa's Yellow Shark and John Williams' Star Wars Symphonic Suite. It's one way of making classical music accessible to a younger audience. "We're always looking for interesting ways of transforming popular art forms into classical music and appealing to young people," Helbig says.

In late October, Universal released a limited edition of the Mein Herz Brennt to critical acclaim. Frank Schneider, artistic director of the Berlin Concert Hall, says Rasch "picks up many elements of the great German 'Lieder' tradition," such as Mahler and Strauss.

Whether die-hard Rammstein fans will enjoy the performance quite as much remains to be seen.

Mein Herz Brennt will be performed at the Kulturpalast Dresden on Nov. 20 and at the Berlin Arena on Nov. 21.

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