Michel Roth – Im Bau; Decoder Ensemble – Big Data

by 5:4

Two discs from the Wergo label have lately been getting me thinking a lot about the relationship between content and meaning. Im Bau is the title of an electroacoustic monodrama by Swiss composer Michel Roth that takes its starting point from a short story by Franz Kafka (Der Bau). Quite apart from the piece itself, there’s an immediate challenge with regards to meaning stemming from the way the recording of the piece is presented. Rather than supplying a translation of the complete German libretto, Wergo has opted instead to provide a short synopsis of what’s going on in each of the work’s 15 “sound spaces” (Roth’s term). On the one hand, that’s simply not good enough, yet it nonetheless contributes something to the general tone of impenetrability permeating the piece.

The story, and Roth’s dramatisation of it, is concerned with the fearful ramblings of a creature that has constructed an elaborate underground burrow to protect itself from the outside world. Yet it’s not at all clear whether this perceived external threat is in any way real, or merely the product of an increasingly paranoid mind. The psychological state of the creature is intensified by a tinnitus-like perception that it experiences which, again, may be entirely internal in origin rather than being evidence of some kind of proximate presence. The work takes on an additional poignancy listened to at the current time, during the locked-down state of much of the world. From that perspective, it’s not difficult to imagine Kafka’s protagonist as someone hiding indoors away from society and all contact with the pandemic – and then going slowly mad.

Im Bau lasts around an hour, and over the course of its fifteen episodes this psychological downward spiral is all too apparent. The creature starts out with confident statements (“I have set up the building and it seems to be a success” … “In the innermost part of my building I live in peace”) though this is immediately undermined by references to “the enemy”, the nature of which is never defined and clearly not understood; indeed, the creature goes so far as to talk about “enemies inside the earth, I have never seen them before, but I think firmly on them”. Roth’s music brings together a vocalist with a small ensemble and live electronics, and the relationship is such that the players both articulate an extension of the singer’s mental state as well as manifesting the real or imaginary signs of life that are causing them so much anguish. As one might expect, the musical language is often fraught and oppressive, yet one of the most telling aspects of Im Bau is the use of silence. These ‘gaps’ act both to reinforce the possibility that, in fact, there really is nothing else out there to be worried about, as well as to emphasise how the silence itself seems to become threatening, leading to a complex simultaneous rest and unrest: “From time to time I startle and listen, listen to the silence that remains unchanged here, reigns day and night, smiles calmly, and sink with loosened limbs in still deeper sleep.” Beyond this, there’s also an increasing sense that the act of singing and speaking is above all vocalising as a way of “dealing” with the perceived threat, and that allowing the silence to take hold would be the most terrifying thing of all.

Considering the work originates in Kafka, it’s hardly surprising that the nature of reality and the meaning and interpretation of what’s happening in Im Bau is far from clear. That only heightens its tense, compressed atmosphere, making the instances of instrumental counterpoint sound like neural threads in the brain gradually unravelling, and the unpredictable joint eruptions from voice and ensemble stark symptoms of the encroaching death of reason. It’s a decidedly strange and disquieting piece yet rather mesmerising in the way it explores the mentality and concomitant emotions of fear. By the end – which doesn’t so much conclude as abruptly stop – we’re absolutely no clearer as to what’s real and what isn’t; i suspect the answer is to be found in the balance of mental resilience and fragility in each listener.

The performance of Im Bau has been specially tailored for home listening, presented in a ‘radiophonic’ version that i can testify is deeply immersive. Performed by mezzo-soprano Anne-May Krüger with Ensemble Aequator, it’s available on CD and download. If you’d like to get a better sense of what the libretto is actually all about, a PDF of the German text can be found here, and i’ve put together a quick and (very) dirty translation of it that can be downloaded here.

Big Data is a disc of five works each of which is concerned with aspects pertaining to the practically infinite quantity of information available to us in the digital age. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed in the midst of such superabundance, and that’s a sensibility that typifies several of these pieces. In the case of Matthias Kranebitter‘s Stack Overflow, it’s as if computerised storage had gone wrong, in the process fucking up beyond all recognition the preludes of Chopin. The subtitle of the piece, ‘Exploiting 24 Preludes’, is actually the only meaningful evidence that Chopin’s material plays any role in the piece at all, which instead comes across as a melée of contorted ideas, united only by their shared chaotic manner and a tendency for them to manifest as a weird form of ‘glitch jazz’. More engaging is Brigitta Muntendorf‘s Play Me Back and Forth, in which reverberant taps, light drum fills and electronic blips form an underlay for an earnest though ostensibly alien voice (redolent of Gazelle Twin). As it progresses, there’s the impression that what we’re hearing are the exploded component parts of a song that have been radically rearranged into this new compositional form. As light and whimsical as its title suggests, it’s all the more fascinating for the fact that, for all its playfulness, it feels strangely static, like a computer in a frozen state that’s churning out disordered fragments of information.

Even more turbulent is Stefan PrinsHände ohne Orte [hands without places], in which a small ensemble and an accompanying soundtrack is transformed into what appear to be endlessly evolving complex textural forms. Nowhere more is the disconnect – or, if you like, the scope for interpretation – between sound and meaning more apparent than here. Yet equally, nowhere does it feel less problematic. The ongoing, intuitive act of forming and reforming – in the process seeming to break its own boundaries and spill out into a kind of ‘open’, blank ambiance – is not merely tangible but tactile, each of its sounds apparently so real and close it’s as if we could just reach out and touch them. That being said, while Prins’ language has a powerful immediacy it’s also elusive, begging the question of to what extent its transformations are planned or made up on the spot. Not that it matters: Hände ohne Orte ends up creating a continuous pushing and pulling where we’re confused yet entranced at the same time.

While each of these pieces are stimulating in large part due to the intricate complexity of their machinations, Ole Hübner‘s Lied mit Chor: „Nachtigall mit Melodei“ [song with choir: “nightingale with melody”] stands apart in the way it marries this with palpable beauty. Strewn with fragments of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the work quickly establishes a behaviour moving back and forth between intensive contrapuntal episodes and suspended periods that appear, by contrast, to be floating, tonal chords hanging in space in moments of blissful repose. The tension between these opposite impulses, especially the way each of them tends to ‘bleed’ into the other, blurring their respective characteristics, is deeply engrossing, encountering the most wondrous, seemingly serendipitous, combinations of elements along the way. It’s possible to interpret the quite wild oscillation of behaviours as an attempt to make them align or at least find a way for them to coexist – or a demonstration of the impossibility of the whole exercise. Either way, its veering between chaotic mayhem and attempts to unite everyone in an exquisite burst of lyricism – and the resulting fallout – are as marvellous as they are disorienting; a late eruption of pseudo-death metal (!) sets the seal on one of the most stunning aesthetic mash-ups you’re ever likely to hear.

Performed by German group Decoder Ensemble and featuring first recordings of all these works, Big Data is available on CD and download.

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