New releases: Stefan Fraunberger, Michael Moser, Morton Feldman, John Wall

by 5:4

Easily the most sonically remarkable new release to have passed through the jukebox in the last month or so is Quellgeister #2 ‘Wurmloch’ by the Austrian sound artist Stefan Fraunberger. This ongoing series of works (#1 came out two years ago, #3 is in progress) focuses on what Fraunberger summarises as “semi-ruined organs discovered in deserted Saxon churches in Transylvania”. Precisely what he does with these dilapidated organs isn’t entirely clear, but the result is that of a Frankenstein-like in extremis battle to resurrect the instrument and enable it, for one final time, to speak. Aural narratives really don’t come more stunningly heroic than this. Having wheezed into life, the organ’s reanimated corpse unleashes barrages of chords that constantly sound unnaturally forced, only sustaining as long as its innards are being ‘squeezed’ (try singing a note for far too long and you’ll get the idea). Weird tangential pitches and upper harmonics regularly bleach these chords, even occasionally suggesting there’s a melody trying to escape from beyond the grave; elsewhere the struggle (for both man and machine) becomes so intense that vast dissonant slabs of compressed noise erupt. On the one hand, it’s shambolic and desperate, but there’s an uncanny beauty both to Fraunberger’s seemingly absurd actions and to the, frankly, amazing results. There are extremes of flailing grotesquery—how could there not be?—but when the organ falls into softer utterances, its music becomes almost unbearably moving, particularly when fragile triads strain to maintain coherence and even, in the second piece, a kind of cadential plausibility. Fraunberger doesn’t so much play the instrument as fibrillate it, and ultimately it’s only a matter of time before death reclaims it. Yet this brief, wild act of transient resuscitation enables it to unleash a tragic, post-mortem testimony to its existence, causing the village of Wurmloch to resonate one last time, truly as never before. It’s available on vinyl and digital from Fraunberger’s Bandcamp site.

Another Austrian, Michael Moser, excites sound within a church space in a fundamentally different way in his Antiphon Stein, available only on vinyl from edition RZ. Moser places into the Krems Minoritenkirche a variety of flat objects made of metal and glass, some lying flat in the choir, others suspended between the columns of the nave. Bringing to mind Volker Hennes’ Emperor Ambassador, Moser uses sound pressure transducers that cause these objects to vibrate, which in turn causes the space to resonate in response. These are used in a complex, organic dialogue with electronics, percussion and organ. Antiphon Stein is particularly interesting from a structural perspective, continually pulling the listener in for small-scale episodes of intricate ephemera, only then to push one away into the vast, seemingly endless scope of echoes and resonance (in this respect, it’s somewhat redolent of Jakob Ullmann). Time doesn’t so much speed up and slow down in this context as become rendered moot, irrelevant even, Moser establishing a soundworld that resists becoming ‘steady state’ yet the movement of which is essentially glacial. But it’s the timbral palette that makes Antiphon Stein the wonder that it is, filling the Minoritenkirche with long resonances, shimmers and thudderings, deep pedal drones and sliding pitches causing exquisite shifts in beat patterns, glinting bells and chimes, punctuated throughout by distant sounds of metal clanging and rubbing, lending the piece an industrial hue (not unlike David Lynch’s darker music). Everything seems to float, nothing ever settles. Hypnotising magic.

Another work where nothing settles is Morton Feldman‘s Bass Clarinet and Percussion, which has recently been released as the first of a digital-only series from Neu Records. It’s a piece i’ve written about before, and in this performance by CrossingLines the curious constant switching between an apparent blankness and de-/su-/com-pressed lyricism is kept in an electrifying state of liminality. Nothing sounds random, therefore, suddenly each and every note from the clarinet is rendered significant, becomes linked both to its possibly disjunct neighbours and integrated into the melliflous sympathetic strikes from the percussion. Feldman always tends to sound beguiling, but rarely so ravishing as here.

i’ve written about John Wall‘s music on several occasions, focusing on it in the lengthy Dialogue we recorded together last year. On that occasion Wall often referred to, and played examples from, a large library of small-scale compositions that he expressed some frustration at wanting to get out into the world. It’s exciting to report that that time has finally come, and Wall has released three digital EPs, 2005–14, SC and Muta Variations, comprising around an hour-and-a-half of material. And what material! Taken together, they vividly illustrate Wall’s complex and ostensibly paradoxical painstakingly-constructed sense of improvisatory freedom. Put another way, each tiny gesture is simultaneously arbitrary yet stamped with authority. As in all of Wall’s work, there’s a tendency to occupy extremes of register with generally restrained dynamics, establishing another Wall paradox, raw electronics delicately rendered into the most intimate filigree. This makes subsequent moments of surge and rupture (and they are many) all the more powerful, but never catastrophic: a sense of inner balance and control is never, ever lost (some might find this limits the music’s dramatic potential, but to my mind it works, a bit like watching a play without a set). It’s largely nonsensical to speak of details, as they’re forever in a quicksilver state of flux, which over time makes one think of Webern. Spending time with these EPs, two minutes gradually starts to feel like a very long period of time, and the fact that these miniature pieces are continuing to do something entirely new even in their last few seconds eventually seems entirely appropriate. Wall’s very particular aesthetic—random yet meticulous—reinvents pitch and pulse from scratch, as well as redefining what constitutes structure and syntax, from the microscopic scale of each tiny, transient gesture expanding to the level of a phrase, a sequence, a track, an EP. Like a raw data stream from an alien world, Wall’s electronics do what seems unimaginable in contemporary electronic music, tapping into something genuinely new. If you’re going to pick just one, go with Muta Variations, but my recommendation is to set aside 90 minutes to engage with all three, and find your perceptions and preconceptions of what sound is and can be irrevocably transformed.

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