Contemporary music. Quite the subject. Although there still isn’t a universal consensus on what it actually is – or rather, on which music is contemporary and which isn’t – it’s more or less clear that we’re talking about music born at the start of the 20th century, next to Schönberg’s twelve-tone system, with the precedents of Stravinski and Impressionism, with the impulse of the Historical Avant-gardists and the ambition to break with the legacy of Romanticism; all of which would give birth to electro-acoustics, musique concrète, electronica, minimalism, free improv, neotonalism and so many other discourses which, paradoxically, many champions of contemporary music do not acknowledge as such and which can be found, in bigger or smaller measures and one way or the other, in the DNA of virtually everything we listen to today, from hip hop to noise, from post-rock to dubstep.
Speaking of paradoxes, “today” is precisely the key word to understand the permanent crisis – of audience, creativity, resources – the music that considers itself contemporary seems to have been suffering from since more than four decades ago. A crisis much like the economical one: the fault of those who run it. For years, the Academy – like that, with a capital A, because we’re talking about the estate – has shown a miraculous ability to be immune to everything that’s happening outside of its sacred doors and even, many times, to isolate itself from the possibly disruptive elements that could have filtered through. Like this, contemporary music is, in 2010, anything but contemporary: stuck in dogmas and preterite ways, profoundly reactionary, full of prejudice and artificially sustained – would there be contemporary music had it not been for public funding? – in its absurd complacence. In short, far from the present.
The redefining of contemporary music, if it really wants to be so, needs to be done through a profound revision of its formal and conceptual premise, which should result in a significant expansion of its aesthetic field without rejecting its past or entering territories too hostile for lack of adventurous eagerness. And for that transition to the here and now to be effective, the intervention of agents such as Zeitkratzer will be necessary.Zeitkratzer are an orchestral formation based in Berlin and founded in 1997 by pianist Reinhold Freidl, whose repertoire reflects exactly that broadness of view that is so necessary. Divided in two main lines of action, “Old School” and “Electronics”, Zeitkratzer can play programs integrated by works of composers who are traditionally associated directly or tangentially with contemporary music – Arnold Schönberg, Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis, John Cage, James Tenney – with the same rigour and competence as pieces composed in collaboration with electronic musicians who have, let’s say, non-academic roots – Terre Thaemlitz, Carsten Nicolai (Alva Noto), Christian Fennesz, Vladislav Delay, Markus Popp (Oval), Rechenzentrum, John Duncan – or professional noise makers – Merzbow, Zbigniew Karkowski, Lee Ranaldo, Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”. The best students will say that this is nothing new: look no further than the trials of the London Sinfonietta at the Warp catalogue, the meetings organised by Sónar at the Barcelona Auditori between Richie Hawtin or Pan Sonic and the Symphonic Orchestra of Barcelona or the monstrosities of Jeff Mills with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Montpellier. And right they are. However, neither of these experiences has even come close to the level of hybridisation between one and the other sonic front as the German ensemble has. A level directly connected to the deep understanding of Freidl and his knowledge of both worlds’ basic influences. In other words, Zeitkratzer don’t conform with the mere translation of electronica to the orchestral timbre – i.e. substituting a sound, for example a synthesiser, with another, for example a violin – they submit it to a complex process of “contemporisation” with results that are nothing less than spectacular.A good example of this can be found on “Whitehouse (Electronics)” (Zeitkratzer Productions), released at the same time as – and let this serve as a paradigmatic example of everything described above – “Alvin Lucier (Old School)” (Zeitkratzer Productions). In both cases, the approach of Zeitkratzer to the works of two artists as distinctive as William Bennett – because Whitehouse is William Bennett, no matter how valuable Pete Best’s contributions are – and Alvin Lucier, enfant terrible of industrial music, the first composer with great prestige in circles of high culture, the latter is as serious and, I insist, rigorous, as the other.
On “Whitehouse”, the German ensemble has worked closely together with Bennett in order to design a magnificent collection, not of adaptations but reinventions of Whitehouse’s compositions. Tracks taken from albums such as “Bird Seed” (2003) – “Munkisi Munkondi”–, “Cruise” (2001) – “Nzambi La Lufua”, “Scapegoat”–, and “Racket” (2007) – “Fairground Muscle Twitcher”, “Bia Mintau”, “The Avalanche”– which Freidl, in his position as arranger, transforms into brutal orchestral razzias, pairing his virulent original impulse with mentions of Xenakis and strategies similar to those used by Iancu Dumitrescu and other composers associated with the so-called spectralism, like Horatio Radulescu.
Without use of modern technology other than the exceptional amplification efforts of Ralf Meinz, Zeitkratzer – in this case clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, harp, percussion, violin, chello and bass – have manufactured, in one go, one of the great noise albums of the season and, at the same time, one of the most advanced and visionary works of contemporary music of the moment. Quite an achievement.
The fact that the future of contemporary music can be in the hands of a German orchestra is not all that surprising. But the fact that Whitehouse have something to do with it...
2. Mp5 David J. Fonseca: “Al Borde Del Silencio” (Audiotalaia)
David J. Fonseca from Seville is not exactly a newbie in experimental music. Soundtracks for theatre, dance and documentaries, music for installations and some references for netlabels as solvent as alg-a have served him as spaces of experimentation to mature that what is now crystallised in “Al Borde Del Silencio”: noise without testosterone, field recordings and reductionist strategies in eleven magnificent tracks where delicacy and tension are, for once, not opposing concepts. Available for free download here. Suum Cuique: “Midden” (Young Americans)
It’s possible to cultivate analogue drones without being a hippie. Eliane Radigue did it thirty years ago, and today Eleh and Suum Cuique are doing it. We have already spoken a lot about the first, now it’s time to highlight the latter. Because there is a lot to be said about “Midden”. Gloomy and abyssal, the way Suum Cuique – another one who prefers anonymity – treats the synthesiser remits to discomforting images: sharp drones, muddy in a lo-fi that in this case turns out to be an integral part of the discourse and which amplifies the dramaturgic effects of a record made to be uncomfortable. Philip Jeck: “An Ark For The Listener” (Touch)
Using turntables and wasted vinyls as instruments isn’t anything new. Combining this practise with electronic instrumentation, even less so. So Philip Jeck ’s modus operandi isn’t exactly groundbreaking. However, there is something in his compositions, in his epic longing, his romanticism, which sets the Briton apart. On his sixth release on Touch, Jeck makes the listener forget all about the stuff used, prioritising the discourse over the medium. And that is something completely new.
Nadja: “White Nights / Drone Fields” (Beta-Lactam Ring)
Excess is an intrinsic part of Nadja’s nature. Everything in the production of Aidan Baker and, lately, Leah Buckareff is excessive. From the duration of the tracks – rarely under the fifteen minutes – to the use of distortion; from the publishing activity – already about fifty releases – to the expansion of the composition’s timing. “White Nights / Drone Fields” is, for now, the most over the top expression of this taste for the exuberant: two CDs and two DVDs, in total almost six hours of ambient breezes and metallic hurricanes. Grand. It couldn’t be any other way.
CoH: “Z-Rated” (Rotorelief)
Twelve years of activity and still we don’t know the true musical face of Ivan Pavlov. Is it the one he wears when recording for Raster-Noton? The one that claims to practice post-pop in Mego? The collaborator of Cosey Fanni Tutti and Peter Christopherson? The one playing chess with Richard Chartier? The contents of “Z-Rated” doesn’t help solving the mystery. To the contrary, rather. This anti-anthology of unapproved tracks, live recordings and home experiments adds a new face to the ones we already know of the Russian: the one of the expermentalist with a sense of humour. As fun as it is enigmatic.