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Marcus Schmickler - Palace of Marvels (Queered Pitch)

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Artist: Marcus Schmickler

Album: Palace of Marvels (Queered Pitch)

Label: Editions Mego

Review date: Feb. 9, 2011

Remember this from first-year calculus?

In both manner and content, what the above expressed always baffled me, describing a case where the function f could be multiplied by a seemingly infinite x, yet still have a limit L. In other words, it describes something that is always approaching, never arriving but that you can nevertheless define. Listening to Marcus Schmickler’s latest album of computer music, Palace of Marvels (Queered Pitch), I recalled this bit of math lore tucked away in my memory because its 12 pieces, in their manner and their content, evoke the same mix of bafflement, wonder and, yes, pure brain-bending frustration that this fundamental of calculus did.

Much of the album is based around the acoustic phenomenon known as the Shepard tone, a situation where superimposed tones give the sensation of continually rising or falling but never seeming to actually get any lower or higher. But rather than just demonstrate the phenomenon, Schmickler goes one further and uses it construct what comes off as a kind of wry, computer-age take on Switched-On Bach. He uses arpeggios, rapid tempos, grid-like rhythmic structures, and tart, clipped tones that sound like an abstraction of an abstraction of a harpsichord, setting them to run for what feels like an infinity before introducing some new, subversive element to the mix. Or, like on the title piece, he lulls with long, gliding tones that show the Shepard tone in an almost too obvious way, then overturns the order with a tactile passage of pulsing, drip-like tones. It’s as if Schmickler has flung back an invisible curtain and given audible form to nature’s elegant, absurd and awe-inspiring patterns.

Schmickler is most definitely seriously engaged with exploring acoustic phenomena, and all the ominous French theory cited in the label write-up probably isn’t a total smokescreen. But there’s an element of self-irony — or at least gleeful, nerdy fun — in piece names like “Risset Brain Hammer,” “Hypercubist Pareto Dist,” and “Mystery Bouffe” that takes what could come off as an arid, formalist experiment and turns it on its head.

But beware, as Schmickler hasn’t really dumbed it down in any way, either. This is music with a sharp conceptual edge and, at times, a visceral shock. Its gleaming, impenetrable surfaces, labyrinthine constructions and opacity suck up all the air in the room as well as your headspace — just like calculus.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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