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V/A - Berlin Strings

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Artist: V/A

Album: Berlin Strings

Label: Absinth

Review date: Feb. 11, 2004

Since the end of the 1990s, Berlin has been the base for a number of musicians whose work has served to expand the scope of improvised music. Drawing on both their own innovations and practices derived from the leading edges of earlier waves of improvised and composed experimental music, figures such as Burkhard Beins, Alessandro Bosetti, Axel Dörner, Annette Krebs and Kai Fagaschinski have helped add new sounds, new textures and new dynamics to the palette of musicians seeking to produce music that is not predetermined by written scores or prescriptive mental templates. The resulting music has been the subject of a number of CDs, but inevitably the documentary record relating to the most interesting Berlin players remains somewhat patchy. The aim of Absinth Records is to help the gaps.

Berlin Strings is the second release by Absinth. In presentation, it follows the pattern set by its predecessor, the superb Berlin Reeds. Each set is a collection of four 3” mini-CDs (one per performer) housed in a large fold-out cardboard that has been printed, stitched around the edges with a sewing machine, and hand-painted by Absinth’s proprietor, Marcus Liebig. The results are unique, beautiful and eloquent testimony to the care, dedication and ethos of Herr Liebig. All the music on Berlin Strings was recorded specifically for it in August 2003.

The first disc of Berlin Strings is devoted to Andrea Neumann, who plays the disembowelled innards of a piano through a mixing desk. The first track (designated by the symbols “~~”) is a mosaic of harsh crackles, hisses and throbs of various pitches and intensities. At 3:59 it seems very brief and ends rather abruptly and weakly in a sequence of repetitive oscillations featuring glitches and a sweeping sound. This is followed by “*”, a ferocious but structured track featuring a driving percussive backbeat, electronic pulses and high-pitched screeches. I have no doubt some will regard this venture into avant-garde techno as exhilarating; however, its rhythmic regularity seems highly conservative. Popular music’s imperialist backbeat (to borrow a phrase from Eddie Prévost) has invariably served to contain and recuperate radical challenges to musical conventions. It is a surprise to find it utilised and legitimated by a pioneer such as Andrea Neumann. The third track (“``”) consists of a sequence of astringent electronic sounds of varying frequencies. Various glitches, shrieks and splutters are to be heard, but before they can be deployed to much effect, the track, comes to an end at 3:28. Finally, the fourth track is precisely mirrors its title: “end of a motor noticed by five pick ups”. Woven together from metallic vibrations and pulsations of varying frequencies and timbres, it effectively shifts between its sound sources and draws the listener into its claustrophobic mechanical world. Overall, however, I think that the recordings on this disc are more like truncated extracts from the sonic notebooks of a musical experimenter than mature applications of ideas and procedures to musical ends. This is not to say that they are without interest or merit, but I suspect that we can expect more successful and fully realised expeditions into this terrain from Neumann in the future.

The second disc is occupied by a single track, called Tranz atones, by Michael Rankel. Over its course, Renkel utilizes scraping bricks, an electronic tone and a zither in cooperation with his acoustic guitar. Using this, he produces a captivating series of isolated notes, short phrases and glissandos, percussive circular patterns, and silences. There is little in the way of conventional melodic or harmonic structure. Rather, the piece invents its own oblique path as it proceeds. Sounds emerge from and return to silence. Each sequence aptly connects with the one before and after, yet without limiting itself to an overarching schematic structure. The journey is one well worth taking. For myself, I found this subtle, engrossing and excellent disc to be the best of the four.

The third disc contains works by acoustic guitarist Olaf Rupp. In a single suite called Metal Peace (9 Parts) Rupp unleashes unrelenting, ricocheting cascades of rapid notes, sometimes flecked with echoes of flamenco – imaginary folk music by some curiously agitated people. Rupp demonstrates considerable virtuosity and stamina, but I found the work too airless and unremitting for my taste. It also seems more beholden to the old traditions of European free improvisation than the other work on Berlin Strings.

The music on the fourth and final disc is that of Serge Baghdassarians. He performs a single piece (entitled “versuch, eine welle zu lessen”) on electric guitar and mixing desk. Simplifying somewhat, the piece can perhaps be usefully divided into three components. In the first, a single pulsation slowly increases in pitch and frequency, then lowers again. The second is an interlude of silence punctuated by what appears to be background street sounds. In the third, a process analogous to the first is repeated. The sounds employed are enriched by some distortion, and their development is subject to some variation from a simple low-to-high-to-low cycle, all of which keeps the music from pursing a completely sterile and mechanistic path. Nonetheless, the music does seem to be subjugated to a simple and quite rigid a priori design. This is a pity. Although the sounds Baghdassarians uses are limited in range, they sound nothing like a standard guitar, suggesting that he possesses an imagination that can see beyond the conventional. I only wish that he had given more scope to his powers of invention and creation in the development and execution of this work. I feel he has sold himself short.

To conclude, Berlin Strings provides snap shots of the work of four young Berlin musicians, amounting in total to approximately eighty minutes of music. I found the results to range from the disappointing to the superlative. However, Abinsth’s project of documenting the best of the flourishing Berlin underground is a commendable one, and I would encourage readers to make their minds up for themselves. Musical judgements are always made in relation to particular perceptions and aesthetic criteria. When it comes to experimental music such as this, there is doubtless even more variance than usual in people’s assessments of musical value.

By Wayne Spencer

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