i’ve been spending time lately with new releases from two composers towards whose work i’ve hitherto felt almost universally positive. There’s something a little nerve-racking about this, inducing anxiety – and, to an extent, incredulity – that the unfamiliar new will be able to live up to the marvellous old. That’s especially true in the case of Jakob Ullmann, for while i’ve been fascinated and engrossed in all of the discs of his music steadily put out by the ever-dependable Edition RZ label – in addition to occasional (but too few) performances of his work – i’ve nonetheless always found myself wondering what’s left to explore in Ullmann’s edge-of-audibility soundworld.
The latest disc of his music, Fremde Zeit Addendum 5, reveals that there’s actually quite a lot – though its nature is rather surprising. The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. As with the other solo works released by Edition RZ, the piano is situated in a vast space, becoming a microscopic presence within a seemingly infinite macroscopic universe. This bears strong similarities to the way the bassoon is perceived in Müntzers stern (one of my best albums of last year), though there’s much less sense here of the solo instrument causing the environment to resonate.
Instead – and even as i write this i’m wondering whether i’ve had this experience before in Ullmann’s work but i really don’t think i have – there’s the impression of non-music, that the octave bands of ostensible air noise (actually created with horsehair on the piano strings) within which small instances of something unidentifiable recede as quickly as they emerge, could be some kind of natural phenomenon: soft wind filtered through pipes; a far-off industrial process; a speculative rendering of astronomical data. Because of this, it lacks something of the fragility that typifies many of Ullmann’s compositions; there’s something unassailable about it – it is what it is, everywhere – and it’s hard not to register that as not merely enigmatic but downright uncanny. The role of the piano, performed in this recording by Lukas Rickli and three assistants, is not so much to be played as touched, teased and tickled, introducing sprinklings of infinitesimal glitter from its top-end innards and soft but ominous buzzings like tiny crackles of electricity that defy their gentleness and sound extremely dissonant against the hovering octaves of air.
Yet all this is mere introduction. As the work continues, the piano is used more assertively to introduce brief glimpses of something almost recognisable. One or two isolated notes are followed, several minutes later, by a little phrase – which sounds extraordinarily loud in this apparently passive environment – in turn followed by further phrases that suggest the makings of a conventional melodic or harmonic progression. From one perspective, drenched in reverb and surrounded by noise, these halting motes of possible music take on a hauntological aspect, the noise an obfuscating hiss, the reverb making each one an echo of a dimly-recalled thought from long ago. Yet from a less melancholic perspective the way the surrounding ambiance loses all sense of passivity, perceived now as a presence rather than an absence, suggests something more uplifting: a deployment of negative sonic space that effortlessly overwhelms the piano such that these miniature morsels are all it can enunciate. Reactions of wonder in response to the numinous.
Considering what being caught up in Jakob Ullmann’s immersive soundworlds is like, it’s easy to relate to this. Solo V is a powerful, spellbinding experience, one that – as in all Ullmann’s works – reveals a great deal more in terms of both detail and interpretation on each successive listening. When it ends, you realise it’s not the quietness of the music that defines it, nor even the enormity of it, but rather the way something so seemingly implacable and indifferent and omnipresent can become so tangible and personal and intimate.
Having managed against the odds to resurrect, Frankenstein-like, dead Transylvanian organs in his previous two Quellgeister releases, Stefan Fraunberger‘s latest album Quellgeister #3 Bussd seeks to do the same with a new instrumental cadaver found in the Romanian village of Bussd. Where Ullmann’s music inhabits a place of infinity, Fraunberger’s could hardly be more finite. There’s always the clear sense of a music on the brink of, and in the wake of, ruin, a dogged act of creation taking place in absolute certainty of its imminent, permanent, demise. This is encapsulated in opening track ‘Invention’, where strong sustained chords sound like a grotesquely-extended final breath. Though they shift between periods of harmonic clarity and juddering obscurement, these chords are less about harmony than the simple act of keeping going for as long as humanly possible.
Yet what sets Quellgeister #3 apart from the previous two instalments is the way in which Fraunberger manages to enable the organ to transcend not merely its delapidation but its very nature as a musical instrument. Various mechanical elements come into play in such a way that they suggest not so much music as the product of some kind of non-human agency, either a bizarre natural phenomenon (as in the Ullmann) or a machine-driven process. Oscillating clatter and cycling patterns of wind are the context for several pieces on the album, preceding any actual notes from the organ and often permeating them thereafter. The most stunning example of this, and the most catastrophically-afflicted, is ‘Bagatelle des Teufels Mastsau’, where Fraunberger renders the instrument into a weird carnival pipe organ, circling round and round before a stunned moment sends it spinning off into a new cycle of clunking rotations that become fascinatingly elusive as they slow down. While ‘Toccata und Fuge’ doesn’t remotely live up to the promise of its name, it contains some of the most beautiful music on the album. A load of overlapping high pitches, sounding like a host of individual computerised voices, gradually coalesce into unity, in the latter half articulating a slower, more considered collection of shimmering phrases that dissolve into vagueness. Final track ‘Adagio Hirtengesang’ is the most alien of them all. Sagging upward into existence like a reversed shrug of resignation, its sequence of little surging clusters is as close as Quellgeister #3 gets to sounding like an automaton, its inherent beauty making the experience all the more preternatural.
The most outstanding tracks merge these quasi-natural or machine-like perceptions into more overtly human acts of music expression. ‘Elegie’ progresses beyond waves of crashing noise to articulate a slow lament, made yet more melancholic due to the inconsistency of its notes, some projecting so loudly they could practically drill into your skull, while others are so weak and peppered with extraneous sounds and overtones that they vividly highlight how knackered the instrument is. That aspect i mentioned of a music simply trying to keep going for as long as possible here makes the melody mesmeric, never daring to pause once started, progressing with stoic, even defiant, grace, until the waves of noise return to swallow it up. More potent and inscrutable is ‘Praeludium’ which, while initially seeming to focus on the the mechanics of its music – air being pushed through pipes; notes in close proximity fluttering against each other due to invisible friction – slowly accumulates emergent pitches to the point that it transforms into a dazzling, radiant drone that, at its zenith, becomes abruptly transfixed. Like an AI suddenly stumbling upon self-awareness, ‘Praeludium’ typifies the wondrous liminality of Stefan Fraunberger’s Quellgeister project, endlessly tilting between almost absurd determination (echoes of W.H. Auden’s “Stagger onwards rejoicing“) and inevitable collapse. Taken as a whole, Quellgeister #3 Bussd may just be the most ambitious and emotionally complex album of them all.
Released earlier this month on Morphine Records, Quellgeister #3 Bussd is available on vinyl and download.