Friday 8 May 2009

Zeitkratzer’s High-Five

Typically, we refer to a “national treasure” when talking about someone or something particularly important in a country’s specific field of art, literature or science. In that sense, Zeitkratzer are an “international treasure”. Reinhold Friedl’s small squadron has no fear of tackling challenges: superb technique, fresher-than-average approaches to the materials, hard-to-believe open-mindedness; this is exactly what the world needs to keep the flame of modern music’s lamp flickering. This quintet of CDs, released over the course of the last months and analyzed in strict order of personal enjoyment, lower to higher, is as a good starting point as any to dip your toe in the polyhedral abilities of the group.

REINHOLD FRIEDL – Schönberg Pierrot Lunaire Cheap Imitation

The title says it all: this is a sort of parody of Arnold Schönberg renowned piece recorded in 2005 at Wien’s Konzerthaus, with a male soprano (Markus Weiser) and Franz Hautzinger’s conduction. A limit in this case is the listener’s non-knowledge of the German idiom, which forced yours truly to consider the voice as another instrument, without an actual comprehension of what’s being told. To these ears it comes off as a theatrical materialization of the composer’s wet dreams, full of sardonic accents and swift dynamic changes, masterfully rendered if too short (15 minutes) to be considered a veritable must. But the instrumental voluptuousness – splendidly captured by the high recording quality - is something to seriously contemplate. Schönberg himself would have been proud.


Live recordings from 2005 and 2006 in Berlin and Krems respectively. Let me immediately clarify that I do NOT belong in the numerous groups of Haino adorers scattered everywhere, having always been in opposition to anything or anyone getting hyped for consecutive months, if not years, on erstwhile adventurous new music magazines. That said, the Japanese’s howling voice works very well with Zeitkratzer, who tend to seam a persuasive electroacoustic tissue around the man in black while still allowing him to dictate the overall mood, thus creating a series of haunting impressions that got me a little edgy in the initial “Aria I” only to elevate the whole towards the realms of devastating devotion in “Aria II” and, especially, “Sinfonia”: 24-plus minutes in which even the most pokerfaced listener can’t help being ruthlessly caught up by the turmoil. The music is at times extraordinary: no frippery, no lustrous ornaments, just semi-paralyzing, war-worn scenarios where ghosts and cadavers launch sour invectives against the gods who abandoned them. My “no” to Haino-related zealotry is confirmed but respect, yes – he deserves it.

ZEITKRATZER – Volksmusik

Genuinely dramatic and thoroughly involving, this CD was recorded in Krems in 2007. A lot of the merit for the music’s folk-tinged impulsiveness – mostly deriving from East European meters and melodic materials retransformed by the ensemble’s virtuosity – goes to percussionist Maurice De Martin, who lived for many years in Romania and Bulgaria to study those countries’ music and is also the vocal protagonist of several of the tracks. Slanted waltzes, drunk contrapuntal conundrums interspersed with illogical polyphonic yodeling, enthusiastically over-the-top sections in which the group seems to ignore the meaning of the verb “to stop”, until the overstated rapidity brings everything to a level of vibrancy rarely heard in performances dealing with popular traditional matters. Here more than everywhere else Zeitkratzer exhibit an abnormal combination of esoteric recklessness and conscious dilapidation which supplements their playing with a degree of shamanistic exhilaration. The audience’s reaction is equally enthusiastic, deservedly so.


This writer is an out-and-out brute as far as Terre Thaemlitz is concerned, not owning a single disc by him/her (time to update the archive). But the few things heard occasionally met my total approval while making waves in the psychophysical coordination, enough to let me fearlessly declare that the transgendered artist is a heck of an intelligent composer. One of these episodes is here delivered with trained accuracy and imperial pace by Friedl’s men: I’m hinting to “Superbonus”, an almost intimidating enforcement of basic rhythm and ever-morphing acoustic shapes, whose cyclical incidence becomes second nature as the piece flows. Thaemlitz’s political stance is also well represented by “Down Home Kami-Sakunobe” and “Hobo Train”, both the lyrics and the sounds a stunning slap in the face of time-honoured etiquette. In essence, this is a great record: as stated by the press blurb, “the most pop-oriented music Zeitkratzer has ever released”. Only, I didn’t find a trace of pop in there. Just purely excellent, unlabelled music played with zeal and – especially - esteem for its creator.


The most minimal side of Zeitkratzer, explicated through three restrained yet momentous tracks exploring the proportions between scarcity of instruments and authoritative outcome – or, if you will, static impact as opposed to the vacuum of unnecessary movement. Nicolai appears in the initial “Synchron Bitwave”, adding a touch of electronic grime that causes the soundscape to become somewhat unclean. “C1” is an unintentional (?) homage to Phill Niblock, 27 minutes of almost total stillness on a single tonal centre, the only difference a degree of bottomless pulse heard at the beginning of the final section, until Friedl’s elusive piano chords conclude the whole unaccompanied. “5 min” is a concurrence of clarinet and sinewaves that puts the cranium in a beehive of low-frequency hums. Painstaking execution of a brand of music that might estrange at first, but results instead as humanly hurting as a recollection of childhood entrancement. Splendid stuff: start from this if just one has to be selected – yet I’m afraid that you’ll need at least three.

Finally, a mention must be made of all the wonderful instrumentalists who turn concepts into notes, often spectacularly. They are Burkhard Schlothauer, Anton Lukoszevieze, Ulrich Philipp, Marcus Weiser, Maurice De Martin, Hayden Chisholm, Franz Hautzinger, Ralf Meinz, Frank Gratkowski, Melvyn Poore, and of course Herr Friedl.