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Concert Report: breuer|engler|schrammel

img  Tobias
It is trivial and cliched to refer to Morton Feldman's „For Philip Guston“ as a „trip“. And yet, it is utterly appropriate as well. When I disembark in Mönchengladbach, my next train is already waiting for me - but how am I to get in? A squished snake of passengers is lying curled up in the aisles, its tail stretched out to the doors, where even more heavily suitcased travelers are merging with its colurful skin of coats, luggage and faces, desperately trying to cram their hurried bodies into this humming metal skeleton. Instead of forcing my way in, I simply stand back, watching the nervous spectacle hectically wipe the platform clean for a further minute, before a sharp whistle blow commands the doors to slam shut with a momentous thud. The engines start buzzing, the wheels start rolling and the carriages pass me by, heaving and breathing like an asthmatic patient. As it gradually disappears in the distance, quietude floods back in and I take a seat, stretching my legs for comfort and listen to the subtle sounds of the sleeping railway station. Only a short while later, a new coach arrives, warm and bright and invitingly empty and I find a seat by the window, taking out a book from my bag and feeling completely at home. This, I realise, is MY train.

The ensemble as a piece of art
The metaphor will come back to me several times during tonight's performance until it manifests itself in a clean and simple realisation: You really have to catch your own ride with „For Philip Guston“. You can read books prior to the concert, you can sit down at home and listen through the entire four CD set the ensemble Breuer/Schrammel/Engler has recently recorded or you can endeavour to study the score, searching for a secret, a system, a truth to reveal itself. But none of this will prepare you for the physical impact of experiencing the piece live, of spending five hours watching three musicians unerringly navigate through the ever-changing constellations of the same four notes.

Coinciding with the train metaphor, I start observing the audience during the event as if in a waiting room on a station: The couple in the first row, crouched deep-down into their seats underneath a blanket of overcoats. The two young girls in the row in front of me, changing from almost lying down and sleeping to confusedly holding their head between their legs and sitting straight-up again. And then there's a slew of solitary figures spread out over the cool and solemn amphitheatrical halfmoon of the cimena-like Klangbrücke, whose physical contours are lost to the darkness that envelopes around us.

On stage, meanwhile, the ensemble is increasingly turning into a piece of art in its own right. Elmar Schrammel is almost statuesque, his body straightened by his suspenseful concentration, weighing each second before hitting the keys again. His movements are brittle, yet deadly precise, like a Siberian Jazz Pianist romantically dreaming of sparkling rivers of Vodka. Julia Breuer's gaze is focussed on the score in front of her in an intruiging mixture of consoling familiarity and neverending fascination, each bar seemingly bringing her new surprises. She remains perfectly still throughout, only occasionally tilting her head gently from one side to the other, as if to evenly distribute the deeply textured tones of her flutes among the audience.

Matthias Engler, finally, is standing amidst his small instrumental castle of Marimba, Vibraphone, Glockenspiel and Tubular Bells. In extreme situations, one needs extreme measures and to him, this has meant conjuring up an intricate and miraculous system for using mallets. Every new sequence sees him rapidly picking up new ones or changing the order of those he is already holding in his hands. None of this is officially Feldman's handwriting, and yet the exactness and severe commitment of his actions awards them seminal importance. On one or two occasions, he is periously close to missing a note and after one of his quiet and yet strikingly quick manoeuvres, he touches the outer edge of the Vibraphone, sparking a subtle streak of harmonics, before getting into the groove again. It is an enigmatic process to watch and it will continue throughout the entire evening.

The interaction of the musicians is one of unspoken trust and intimacy, even though their eyes only seldomly meet and they appear almost insulated in the focussed laserbeam of their parts. The exactness of the trialogue ows a lot to the location: The Klangbrücke is an ideal aural landscape for Feldman's music, which relies on timbre and the decay of sound (rather than its attack and actual presence) as much as it does on the actual themes. In fact, reverb is replacing the spatial qualities of traditional tonality here – without doubt an essential aspect of Feldman's score. Thus, lonely Vibraphone triades melt into gentle undulation and short-lived drones. Long, sustained flute tones seem to float mid-room like delicate clouds, connecting the Piano and the Percussion section like an airbridge. And majestic Piano clusters are proposing clearly defined statements, molithic in their otherwordly clarity.

Shuffling cards
During the performance, it increasingly becomes clear that Feldman has created a work of stunning absoluteness which paradoxically defies definition. For the past two weeks, I have been listening to the studio recording of „Guston“ again and again and a conclusive theory had undeniably manifested itself in my mind: That the reason why this outwardly monstrous and inherently affectionate stream of creativity worked, was that it was ardently going nowhere. Mostly comprising of a string of immobile scenes based on repetition, the different passages of the composition resembled a line of sonic poker cards to me, laid out on a boundless white table. One after another, Feldman deals his cards and as an external observer, it is impossible to tell whether he has meticulously prearranged their order or whether he is shuffling them incessantly.

It doesn't matter, either, because as the next move is impredictable, it isn't about finding out which cards are to come next - we have a vague presumption of that already – but (as every gambler will readily testify) about observing them magically form meaningful combinations. It was beginning to dawn on me that this music had no beginning and no end and this sensation erased the notion of it consituting ANY kind of thematic development - if you started listening to „Phlip Guston“ one minute after it had started, would you still consider it a sequence of „variations“ on C-A-G-E?

Tonight, however, I find this theory in tatters. There is a clear direction behind the ensemble's phrases, an obvious shape to their gradual rapprochements and painful detachments. Now, the piece is circling around the relationship between the instruments, their colours and even the performers themselves. Just when you thought union had been achieved at last, the merciless pulse of time pulls them back again into a state of estrangement and the beautifully horrific journey continues. Time is not just the surface of „Philip Guston“, it marks he continuity of certain values and laws, of the interminable presence of an insoluable underlying conflict. As long as the instrumentalists keep playing, they uphold these parameters in all of their agreable and detestable nature and maybe that is why, as they tell me later, it is both an intense joy and nauseating reluctance they are experiencing when bringing them to life.

Sympathetic Misconceptions
Almost at the end, a 30-or more minute long passage establishes a glacial grace, sensual flute lines and a tender Glockenspiel melody washing against the endless repetitions of Schrammel's tentative Piano chords. It could go on forever and it almost does, before a short, truncated coda ruptures the finally found peace again, making the last tones linger in a simultaneous state of wondrous amazement and frightening uncertainty and leaving even those among the audience who know the piece in doubt whether we have really reached the end: Even after the flow of time has been severed, the inner turbulences have not been resolved – and yet, things are not the way they were at the beginning.

You need to go through these developments together with the artists, experience the adrenalin rush of the first hour, the inner calm of the second, the slow slipping away of your powers of concentration in the middle section and the astral attention establishing itself in the finale, to understand that Feldman has once again been misunderstood. The organisors, whose boldness in programming the piece must be applauded, have picked up on his statement that he „no longer cared whether people left the room during the performance or stayed“ and invited everyone to freely leave and enter the concert hall. That is a misconception, as sympathetic (and necessary at times) as it may be.

Of course, Feldman wanted everyone to remain seated for the entire duration of this piece. What he meant was that while writing, he no longer wished to feel any responsability for making sure everyone would. Longevity is not the concept of the music, it is the ultimate consequence of burning the bridges of expectations radically behind himself to create something that really forces one to actively listen again. Even the interpretation of Julia Breuer, Elmar Schrammel and Matthias Engler contains this radical aspect like an omnipotent seed. And yet, the empathetic nature of their version has turned the question of listenabilty into a hypothetical one: If you join their trip, you're always on the right train.

By Tobias Fischer

The 4CD box of „For Philip Guston“ by Breuer/Engler/Schrammel is available from Wergo.

Homepage: Julia Breuer
Homepage: Matthias Engler / Ensemble Adapter
Homepage: Elmar Schrammel / Ensemble Adapter
Homepage: GZM Klangbrücke
Homepage: Wergo Records

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