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Helmut Schäfer - Thought Provoking III

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Artist: Helmut Schäfer

Album: Thought Provoking III

Label: 23five, Inc.

Review date: May. 3, 2012

To understand Thought Provoking III, listen closely to its weakest track. About as exciting as its title, “Averaging Down 20xx” is a seven-minute remix by Zbigniew Karkowski of the disc’s 25-minute titular piece. If Karkowski was a longtime collaborator with Helmut Schäfer, an Austrian electro-acoustic composer who passed away in 2007, it doesn’t show here.

This remix neither elucidates (or even confuses) the album’s main work. It’s no more than a hyperactive, hard-edged digital compression of the slow, spacious and overtone-rich performance by Schäfer, percussionist Will Guthrie and violinist Elisabeth Gmeiner. Where Thought Provoking has resonance and luminosity, “Averaging Down 20xx” has dead weight and opacity. As a remix, it does no more than shuffle the performance’s sonic identity and flatten its dynamics.

But failure makes us wiser, reveals details. We glimpse that collaboration, and a certain abdication of authorship, seemed essential to Schäfer’s working method. His work took on grand themes (“reflections on society structures, the blindness of modern and informed masses and everyday functionalism in between civilization" says the press release), so anonymity, or a removal of identity, is necessary at points.

More immediately, the failed remix helps as a contrast. It brings into relief what makes this 2006 performance (reconstructed by Guthrie from rehearsal tapes) so mesmerizing. There’s that resonance. There’s slow, hypnotic repetition. There’s a dynamic that toys with quiet and loud without ever piercing one too directly. And above all, there’s restraint.

Guthrie contributes a mix of sublime and gritty textures, alternating between a gong bath of low-frequency oscillations, cymbal scrape and obtuse live-concrete gestures. Gmeiner moves from harsh, hushed pulls and col legno phrases to louder, more ferocious bowing. Schäfer’s presence, perversely, is the most difficult to perceive. He contributes electronics and plays organ pipes he refashioned into a strange, ominous reed device, but is content to play at the edges and add color and texture.

No-one, however, plays too much or too little. Everything is balanced. Thought Provoking III feels expansive, full of room for lots of ideas to live in, a space opened up by three people collectively. It feels, in short, like a ritual, like a series of gestures that carry far more meaning than their individual existence. The remix, by contrast, feels like what it is: a guy moving sound files around on his computer and applying a few filters and strict edits. Its scale is small, while the performance is vast.

And the fact that this album embraces both is why it’s interesting. This mix of failure and insight, of boredom and excitement, starts to feel a lot like the arc of a life, like something that is filled with everything but perfection.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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