Reviews: FRESH

The zeitkratzer ensemble performing two tracks by John Duncan in a collaboration promoted last year by Podewil in Berlin. A project started over a year ago, the result of continuous and tenatious work over several meetings between Duncan and the musicians, in charge of performing two originally electronic compositions with their acoustic instruments.

The 27 minutes of the first piece revisit NAV-FLEX, a composition published last year by Duncan in the double CD with Francisco López, NAV. In zeitkratzer’s hands the piece seems to acquire new life, maintaining the positive qualities in Duncan’s original work: those high, obscure phantom sounds, that slow pulsing bass, those extremely suggestive drones, slow and gradual waves that expand throughout the entire space of the mind and body, measuring full and empty.

Managing to frame an ungraspable track such as NAV-FLEX and perform it as a piece for acoustic instruments was a theoretical challenge, a challenge clearly won, resulting in complex sound full of detail, giving extremely diverse effects at all volume levels. What’s striking is the richness of the tonal range, the continuous hastening of the instruments, the expansions in the sustained notes. This is a cyclic, insistent work that takes form through echoes and rumbles, a silent becoming of chimerical sounds. Sublime in the capturing of a stillness with night-like flavor, through low and enshrouding notes, gradations of a matter that is something ‘other’ from us, sublimated in slow passages of beauty. The reciprocal hastening of the instruments, the diffuse persussive articulation, the rustling and the breathing, the soft touches: without knowing how, we find ourselves surrounded by a dreamlike matter that undermines and deforms every normal perceptive coordinate.

TRINITY is an older work, included in the 1996 compilation A Fault In The Nothing: short, grating and stinging compared to NAV-FLEX. A crescendo of striated chords that explodes in rapid, stabbing movments of sound, just as effective as the first track although in an opposite direction. If the first was all a compact stirring, TRINITY is an explosion in a thousand splinters, marked by brass rhythms and beats of the string instruments, composed by refrained clusters of notes, that die in a single breath of three minutes.

Fresh is an album that shows the potential of a way of composing that’s creative, open and unrestricted by the limits of computer music, enriched by that beauty that is a balance between a complexity of methods and motives, and clarity of results. (8) — Daniela Cascella, Blow Up, September 2002

Zeitkratzer are an excellent group specialyzing in modern-day composers (Phill Niblock to Elliott Sharp, Lou Reed to Jim O’Rourke) in which one finds some of the best musicians today – Uli Krieger and Reinhold Friedl among others. Given my ancient passion for John Duncan’s sound, I was very happy about this work; it’s not easy translating the highly concentrated bursts of energy and the extremely variable dynamics of his creations but the ensemble (conducted by John himself) succeeded and delivered “NAV-FLEX” and “TRINITY” like they were not only reworked, but brand new compositions as well. The former transforms its original character, from an electronic flow to an ebullient, subterranean, organic magma. The latter resembles more the “real” Duncan: crescendos, low-to-high frequencies, changing pitches, quasi-silences. For sure this is an important document of the meeting between two intelligent – if completely different – entities and it couldn’t possibly turn better. — Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes, July 2002

Sonic provocateur John Duncan has said he prefers the use of shortwave radio signals over any musical instrument in his pursuit into the pure physicality of noise. “FRESH,” however, finds Duncan stepping back from that proclamation, as this album documents his collaboration with Zeitkratzer, a German avant-garde ensemble that specializes in the translation of electronic and noise compositions, into scores for classical instrumentation. Under the guidance of Reinhold Friedl, Zeitkratzer’s refreshing attitude is that “the opening to multi-disciplinarity isn’t new any more, but artistic normality.” In addition to this disc with Duncan, they’ve also worked with Merzbow, Zbigniew Karkowski, Phill Niblock, Christina Kubisch, and most recently Lou Reed in reworking his pioneering ’70s noise opus “Metal Machine Music”, if you can believe that! “FRESH” features two Duncan compositions, “NAV-FLEX” and “TRINITY”, as performed by Zeitratzer. Initially released as a collaboration with Francisco Lopez, “NAV-FLEX” — which happens to be one of my favorite Duncan pieces — translates very nicely from original composition for shortwave, datastreams, and voice. Opening with a very loud, discordant blast of horns, strings, piano, percussion and electronics, Zeitkratzer vigilantly maintains Duncan’s course of action by quickly fading the notes to a near silence that nervously persists for several minutes. The rumblings of those interwoven orchestral tones re-appear as a resurgent mirror reflection of that first incarnation of sound on the record and maintain a plateau-level of sustained, droning tones which accurately mimic the sounds that Duncan originally recorded. Zeitkratzer’s version of “TRINITY,” on the other hand, sounds remarkably different than the original Duncan piece, a caustic composition that investigated the electric buzzings of shortwave radio static. It does follow Duncan’s pattern of varying shortwave-like fluctuations, but the tonal colors of the two “Trinities” exhibit a much greater distance between the original and the orchestrated version than with “NAV-FLEX.” It’s interesting to wonder how Duncan/Zeitkratzer scored these pieces (perhaps as a graphical score a la Cornelius Cardew?), but whatever the method, the results are nonetheless amazing. — Jim Haynes, Aquarius Records

In 2001 sound artist John Duncan and Zeitkratzer shared a residency at the Podewil in Berlin. The nine-piece new music ensemble is renown for its all-acoustic performances of electronic works (previous composers they worked with include Merzbow, Zbigniew Karkowski, and Lou Reed). Fresh presents two works by Duncan, both previously released in their digital form but given here a stunningly different reading. Duncan doesn’t usually score his music — he assembles it. So the step was huge from taking the highly textural pieces “Nav-Flex” and “Trinity” and scoring them for conventional instruments. Luckily this is not your conventional ensemble. The sounds these musicians squeeze out of their instruments bridge the gap between real and virtual, acoustic and electronic. At first, “Nav-Flex” was a sample-based collaboration with Francisco López released on the 2-CD set NAV. It starts with a loud drone that quickly quiets down and remains that way for half an hour. The many layers of this drone ripple and slowly move around each other, bringing to mind the orchestral music of Klaus Lang. “Trinity” began its life on the Ash International compilation A Fault in the Nothing. More eventful but still very meditative, it relies on the string players (violinist Burkhard Schlothauer, cellist Michael Moser, bassist Alexander Frangenheim, not to forget inside-pianist Reinhold Friedl). The previous piece put the brass section up front, especially trumpeter Franz Hautzinger and tuba player Melvyn Poore, both bubbling away breath-based drones. FRESH is short (40 minutes) but intense and rewards active listening. It provides a very differrent perspective on Duncan’s music and art. — François Couture, All Music Guide

Confrontational artist John Duncan and the German ensemble zeitkratzer were recently joint artists in residence at Berlin’s Podewil, and their encounter is preserved for posterity in this release. Duncan has long had an appetite for collaboration with strong musical personalities and he finds an imaginative sounding board in Reinhold Friedl’s New Music group, who have specialised in feeding extreme sonic material through a fundamentally acoustic framework. Earlier this year, they performed Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music; they’ve also tackled sonic maximalist Merzbow and electronic minimalist Bernhard Günter, as well as composers like Helmut Lachemann and Luigi Nono.

FRESH brings together two Duncan pieces, “NAV-FLEX” and “TRINITY”. The first was originally a 2001 collaboration with Francisco López, and the second comes from a 1996 Ash International compilation. Duncan’s usual base materials are treated ‘electronic’ sounds taken from non-musical sources — shortwave signals, or the emissions of a linear particle accelerator, for example. Zeitkratzer is a ten piece featuring conventional strings, percussion and brass, plus one member credited with electronics. THe music works its surprises by filtering acoustically produced drones and objectified sounds through an electronic aesthetic. The results have an oddly removed effect. Zeitkratzer and Duncan appear to share an interest in the sheer plasticity of acoustic sound, and the pursuit of this interest takes them into some remarkable spaces. “NAV-FLEX”, originally for shortwave signals, is dominated by wavering strings and breathy saxophone coalescing into an unstable drone. Making a point of its circularity, its principal looping sound is set against the shifting textural material collecting at its periphery. Its forward movement, such as it is, derives from the mobility of its marginal elements.

“TRINITY” is even better: full of suppressed menace, it mixes episodes of surging, pitchblending drone with harsh noise that then modulates into distressed accordion tones. Three minutes from the end the tension is diffused, as the piece dissolves into insubstantial gusts of breath. Under Duncan’s conducting, the ever resourceful zeitkratzer have pulled off two more provocative feats of sonic transposition.– Will Montgomery, The Wire

Auf dieser CD treffen der amerikanische Klongkünstler John Duncan und das Berliner Ensemble Zeitkratzer aufeinander. Eingefädelt wurde diese superbe Zusammenarbeit von Elke Moltrecht, der Kuratonn des Berliner Clubs Podewil. Die mit der Musik gut harmonierenden Fotos wurden wieder einmal von Giuliana Stefani beigesteuert. Noch der Aufführung von Lou Reeds “Metal Machine Music” sind die Einspielungen der beiden Duncan-Kompositionen “Nav-Flex” (“NAV”; AQ) und “Trinity” (“A Fault In The Nothing”; Ash) ein weiterer Schritt in Richtung Brechung tradierter Hörgewohnheiten. Das zehnkäpfuge Zeitkratzer-Ensemble nimmt sich mit Saxofon (Ulrich Krieger), Trompete (Franz Hautzinger), Piano (Reinhold Friedl), CeIlo (Michael Moser) und einigen anderen klassischen Instrumenten um Transferierungen von Sound(s) an, die sich unter ihrer Regie praktisch elektronisch aufladen. Hier flie§en die beinahe schon orchestralen Klänge auf minimalisiertester Basis in ein permanentes Miosma aus Ruhe und Unruhe, aus Vorwärts und Zurück, aus Laut und Leise. Anders als bei den elektronischen Versionen der beiden Stücke treten nur sehr vereinzelt die dramaturgisch gesetzten harten Schnitte auf, die die beiden 28 und 13 Minuten langen Stücke zu einem konstanten Gerinnen zwischen Implosion und Explosion auf der raumzeittichen Wohrnehmungsachse werden lassen. Massiver Krach drähnt aus den Boxen, es walzen sich audiohalluzinogene Sequenzen gegen die Ohren. Daraus wird ein gesamt schwingender Körper Das Gefühl, als ob man eine vibrierende Geigensaite wäre. Sämtliche innere und äussere Koordinaten der physischen/plastischen/psychischen Wahrnehmung sind über Bord gekippt. “Fresh” ist eine Reise in die atomare Struktur des Sounds, wo das Ohr zum Mikroskop mutiert und die (länge kaleidoskopartig ihre originäre Natur zwischen Elektronisch und Organisch gegeneinander ausspielen. Presse die Taste: “Endless Repeat”.

Heinrich Deisl, SKUG

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