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Andreas Obieglo: Lieder

img  Tobias Fischer

For centuries, folk music has been used and abused for a plethora of different aims and campaigns, mostly at the behest of national pride. So it should seem a striking case of irony that precisely in Germany, a country which has long demonstratively strutted a sense of superiority with regards to its cultural legacy, it has, for the past four or five decades, contrarily constituted a case of national shame. While one could walk into any Irish bar and be moved to tears by the classics sung there, while albums of Celtic music sold millions and a band like Runrig was able to sustain an extensive career by blending rock with the traditions of their Scottish heritage, most German folk tunes were the stuff you'd be forced to sing during your grade school years and then quickly forget. In a country dominated by a tight web of cities, the pastoral allusions and backdated naiveté of this music excluded them from contemporary relevance, the bridge between the ages burnt by a loss of intergenerational communication and a reality which simply no longer seemed to carry any palpable connections with the past.

Little wonder, therefore, that Andreas Obieglo's attempt at rebuilding it was initiated during a party thrown on the farm of his father. Born in a tiny rural town in Lower Bavaria, to Oboeglo, after all, some of these pieces were not just „tales from yore“, but actual, tangible stories from his own life. Their simplicity echoed the beauty of the landscape opening up in front of him and their beauty mirrored childhood days spent enjoying the simple things: The picture on the back of Lieder shows the artist standing next to a wooden barn and in the middle of hip-high grass, gazing out over gently rolling hills on a warm, cloudless summer's day. It is a different kind of Germany the image is depicting, a space similar to the one described by Herman Hesse in his early, pre-hippie novel Knulp, which follows its homonymous title character on a journey through the country and, in a metaphorically obliterated way, fate. There is a close rapport between man and nature here, a mysterious relationship between the ages, a strong local identity as well as a strange mixture of emotional distance and real, heartfelt hospitality. These, too, are the topics many of the most celebrated German folk songs deal with and their relevance has decidedly carried over into the 21st century, despite the otherwise starkly different Zeitgeist. Without any kind of missionary impulse Obieglo would, at the aforementioned farm-parties, perform some of these pieces in front of an audience atuned to these themes and arrive at two important conclusions: That the songs were still wide-enough known for them to create a sense of familiarity. And that, if presented without the kind of decorative kitsch that had been responsible for their demise, these tracks could touch something deeper than mere nostalgia.

For this to work, it seemed vital to let the music do the talking. It is interesting how strikingly different Obieglo's take on the idea is to that of his fellow-pianist Edgar Knecht on the latter's Good Morning Lilofee (Ozella, 2010), an earlier stab at the folk tradition. While Knecht interpreted the material in the context of a pure jazz idiom, thereby pointing at their compositional strengths while transforming their nature, Lieder is a significantly more pure affair. Almost entirely instrumental, it focuses on the timbres of keyboards and piano, rhodes and guitars, a few subtle percussive elements as well as, on the emotional centerpiece of the work, „Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär“, whispery vocals by his wife and creative partner Caro. Obieglo has added a chord here, changed another there, extended arrangements on one occasion only to size them down to their essentials later on - one of the most famous tunes contained here, „Kein Schöner Land“, merely serving as a one and half minute short conceptual introduction. Slow, simmering grooves add a sensual pulse to a selection of pieces, their organic r n b sensitivity complementing, rather than conflicting with the folk melodies layered on top. Mostly, however, it is just Obieglo and his upright, which he plays as if caught in a daydream, still standing on that summery grass field.

While everything here essentially leans on hand-played performances, it is a highly crafted form of naturalness. As Obieglo has pointed out, almost every single sound on Lieder has been either heavily edited in Ableton live or created from scratch – which also goes for a lot of the effects. Space is an especially important aspect here, lending a supernatural, ethereal quality to some of the notes, which seem almost disembodied, adding both a neoclassical and ambient touch to much of the action. Many of the pieces segue seamlessly, creating suites of tracks in which musical ideas are re-visited and re-interpreted at different stages – as, for example, on „Am Gehren“, which picks up the main motive of „Die Gedanken sind frei“, introduced two tracks earlier, in its closing bars. Everything seems related here, but much of that impression is nothing but an intriguing illusion: „Am Gehren“, in reality, is not a folk song, but one of four Obieglo originals, which  subtly complement the program. This feat, remarkably unmentioned in the liner notes, points to an important aspect of the album, namely its attempt of finding ongoing lines between the folk tradition and contemporary developments and of demonstrating how both feed from each other.

This, it seems, represents the core message of the album. It would have been easy for Obieglo to turn Lieder into a fashionable trend product, turning these songs upside down or going for novelty effects. And yet, many songs here are taking the exactly opposite direction, working with restraint, opting for  simple rather than complex solutions and mostly breaking off exactly at the point when the music seems headed for a big explosion. Perhaps the most striking moment of the entire work consequently occurs at the very end and almost as a sidethought, when the closing bars of „Der Mond ist aufgegangen“ are strung out into a blissful loop, peacefully and spiritually fading away over the hills into the distance like a quietly majestic Bach chorale. The delicacy of the performance doesn't just cement the prerogative of the music over the performer, but also takes the listener into the same dreamworld Hesse once painted through his poetry. It is certainly no coincidence that there are no field recordings of happily tweeting birds, brightly babbling brooks or busily buzzing bees to be found here: Lieder delineates a world which lives in the inside rather than the material manifestations of physical reality and that is exactly why, only seemingly paradoxically, it rings so relevant today, when so much of the content of its lyrics seems to have become obsolete.

In the end, therefore, the seeming understatement of the album is precisely its most convincing proposition. Lieder is not an attempt at kindling interest in the Folk-tradition, it is the real deal: The point about these songs is to simply keep singing and playing them - and that is precisely what Andreas Obieglo has done here.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Andreas Obieglo

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