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CD Feature/ Janek Schaefer: "Alone at Last" & "Extended Play"

img  Tobias
Most people will think of Janek Schaefer as the “guy with the gramophones”. Even Wikipedia open their article on him with the assessment that he is “known for his innovative turntablism” and hardly an interview goes by without somebody mentioning Schaefer’s three-armed record player, which allows him to simultaneously draw different sounds from a single disc. Annecdotes of Vinyl saving his concerts when his laptop break down add to this popular medial image.

On the other hand, aesthetics are less an issue for Schaefer. Rather, he is interested in the immediacy and tactile qualities of the format, allowing for direct manipulations. His background in architecture plays an even more important role. Space is sound to him and after finishing his studies he subsequently went on to research this relationship in various projects, always holding on to his personal creed that “we experience space through our ears”. His music, meanwhile, is an attempt at proving that the reverse is also true.

With regards to these two discs on two different labels, it makes sense to keep this aspect of his oeuvre in mind as a unifying link – simply, because they are so utterly individual that it is hard to believe they were composed by the same person. On the one hand, there’s the diversity of “Alone at last”, which collects commissions from between 1997 and 2007. It contains some of the earliest material Schaefer ever realised, as well as some of his most recent tracks, a studio album in its own right as well as a comprehensive portrait of his musical personality.

“Extended Play”, meanwhile, is the audio document of an installation premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival last year. Drenched in intensely enigmatic, darkly-orange light and residing on three islands of sheet paper, nine retro turntables play vinyl records containing solo parts for Cello, Violin and Piano as well as a segment for “Acoustic Ensemble”, where the individual voices merge into a long, floating piece of airy atmospherics. At times, the gramophones briefly pause to allow for the audience to move from one island to the next, changing the parameters of the composition and adding an organically oneiric feeling to the music.

The tranquil and timeless mood of the installation contrasts sharply with the playful mood swings of “Alone at last”. Incoporating elements of musique concrete (minutely arranged field recordings and concrete noises), sound art (granular synthesis and fields of crackle), drones (both of the dark and light-filled kind), collage (counterpointing seemingly unrelated materials) and even dark ambient and flamenco, there is not a single uninspired moment to be found on the disc.

Schaefer creates a universe, in which every single element contains the potential for radical change. Acoustic Guitars dissolve and turn into stretched-out sheets of resonance before concretising into held chords on an organ again. Calm and composed purity takes turns with complex and chaotic quasi-orchestral convulsions, magnified microsounds are inflated into intimate macronoises. Everything is possible here and this complete freedom works to the album’s advantage, as it swallows the listener whole in a vortex of associations. At the end, even the silence between tracks seems to be a part of the composition.

It is a feeling mirrored by “Extended Play”, even though the music could hardly be more different. Transformation is essential to a piece reflecting on the relative happiness of the children growing up in 21st century Europe compared to those born in times of war and conflict. In the beginning, the timbres of the instruments are essential to the music, with especially the “Vinyl Cello” and “Vinyl Violin” duos mainly highlighting single, stretched-out tones with a palpable degree of inner tension.

In the “Acoustic Ensemble” segment, however, the three voices come together in a piece of epic proportions and sonic majesty. Working with deep layers of Piano-reverb, droning Cello-palpatations and bittersweet Violin brushes, this is a 24-minute long, slowed down dream of meditative exhaling. Melodies never come full circle, but their sense of yearning and incompletion is not a dark one, but rather a moment of complete detachment from all worldy demands. If hope could become music, this is what it would sound like.

In which way is the idea that sound can be space important to these two albums? In the case of “Extended Play”, the notion is certainly more obvious: Three small-scale recordings combine into a work of borderless outlines by subtle use of reverb, a nonlinear choreography of musical events and slow, almost casual gestures. On “Alone at Last”, the techniques are more transparent, but this does not prevent them from being just as effective. Here, discreet transitions from one set of contasting spatial characteristics create the illusion of moving through different rooms within a fairy tale castle of dreams.

Sound is space, because the ear is genetically programmed to interpret audio-information in relation to visual stimuli. What biologically no doubt constitutes a survival mechanism, though, turns into a powerful basis for artistic associations in the hands of Janek Schaefer. Even though Vinyl still plays a vital part on “Extended Play” (and in some short but seminal passages of “Alone at Last”), it does so more as a beautiful backdrop of breath for the perfomers to play with – and less as a main musical property. Schaefer has long put his three-armed turntable aside, tired of the circus-like ambiance surrounding it whenever he takes it with him. It’s about time critics and audiences of his work did the same.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Janek Schaefer
Homepage: Sirr Ecords
Homepage: Line Records

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