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CD Feature/ Erik Satie & Mike Svoboda: "Phonométrie"

img  Tobias
You will often hear people talk about minimalism in music, but does anyone ever consider maximalism an option? Mike Svoboda certainly does. Even though the line-up for his fourth CD on German label Wergo suggests a small-scale approach, the implications and insinuations of his concept imply a plethora of possible meanings, offering several noteworthy insights.

Essentially, “Phonometrie” is the CD-version of the stage program “Der Phonometograph Erik Satie” and brings together a colourful trio of performers: Steffan Husson’s accordeon has graced releases on some of the finest labels of the new music scene and been featured on recordings of Berio’s “Sequenzas” or Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s “Tierkreis - Zodiac”. Svoboda’s own reputation, meanwhile, is equally impressive in the realms of the trombone, while a younger generation of contemporary artists is represented here by vocalist Anne-May Krüger, who furthermore plays the barrel organ, toy piano and melodica.

As to the motivations of their collaboration, there are too many to name. Svoboda elucidates several of them in the concise liner notes: To demonstrate the vital role of attaining a personal rapport with your instrument. To portray the trombone as an instrument of both great simplicity and inspiration. To depict Erik Satie as a composer with an outwardly humurous but intensely serious creativity and a scientific approach. To attain suprising timbres and forms within an unusual context. And, finally, to show how all of these different aims and objectives mutually influence and reinforce each other.

To arrive at a readable review of “Phonometrie”, this is simply too much ground to cover. On the other hand, completeness in itself is not an interesting goal anyway. What matters is that Svoboda has managed to create a work which, even from only a couple of spins, suggests that all of these topics are not merely shortly touched upon but indeed covered in a deep and stimulating way. Already the track list is of colossal dimensions, spanning four booklet pages and a total of 55 pieces, almost exactly divvied up in half between Satie and Svoboda. Clocking in at 72 minutes, it is clear that some of the compositions are well under a minute in length, but not a single one can sensibly be characterised as a “sketch” or an “impromptu” – attentive and repeated listening is required.

As to finding an idiosyncratic approach to his instrument, Svoboda has certainly delivered an impressive statement here. He produces smoothed-out, heaveny floating resonances, storturous drones, upbeat rhythms, fluent melodies, pensive tones and imposing sheets of sound, positioning the Trombone as an almost percussive- and lead-instrument at the same time. As a performer, too, he is capable of integrating himself into the fold, shining as a soloist or leaving the limelight to others – “Phonometrie” is yet another proof of Hussong’s charismatic and charming character and especially of the many talents of Anne-May Krüger, whose voice oscilates between beguiling purrs and slightly obscene fantasies in lines like “Your finery is secret, Oh sassy little sweet. My lively fair smokes the cigarette.”

Their close, mostly conjunctive yet occasionally pleasantly confrontational interaction creates exactly the kind of synaesthetic friction Svoboda desired at the outset. Microtonal dissonances, humming harmonics and the constant charging between instrumental solo- and ensemble passages create a sonic picture rich in detail and variation. Add to that the many different stylistic associations evoked both by Svoboda’s pieces and by Satie’s (“Avant-dernieres Pensees No. 3 Meditation” sounds like a hymnical Kindergarten version of Philipp Glass) and this trio often sounds like a full orchestra.

Researching the scientific aspect of Satie’s oeuvre, meanwhile, must have been a tightrope act. “The objective of writing my own compositions and combining them with Saties pieces, was not to portray Erik Satie as an eccentric, oddball pre-Dadaist or as the esteemed freak of the Parisian community of composers but rather to reveal and amplify his approach of limitation and focus on certain musical parameters”, Svoboday writes, but of course some of the aspects aspects he wants to leave out are an integral part of Satie’s approach – as can be discerned from reading the complete personal biography of the composer in “What I am”.

Also, Svoboda’s “Twenty French Songs” are not (at least not recognisably) direct answers to Satie’s “Sports et divertissements”, rather being characterised through diverging instrumentation and approaches. It helps listening to “Phonometries” as a continous piece, instead of a collection of short tracks. On a greater scale, it becomes clear that Svoboda gradually isolates certain aspects of Satie’s pieces, making them transparent, contrasting them with themselves to sharpen the listener’s attention. As the album progresses, these elements are presented more and more unadorned by other factors, until they turn into pure ideas and the border between the two composer’s pieces crumbles, inseperably linked and impossible to keep apart without looking into the booklet.

Maybe this scientific concept would not even have been necessary. The sheer breadth of the spectrum here, which sees Satie excell both in a chanson-style and in avantgardistic experiments, tells us enough about the simultaneous conscious limitations and methodicity of his work. And yet, it leads to the exuberant bouqet of this album, which defeats the eternal paradox: Squeezing a maximum effect out of minimal means.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mike Svoboda
Homepage: Stefan Hussong
Homepage: Wergo Records

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