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Kenneth Kirschner: "Filaments & Voids"; Radu Malfatti: "Wechseljahre einer Hyäne"

img  Tobias

It is by no means a coincidence that the relative importance of silence as a musical element has greatly increased over the past fifty years. Libraries' worth of books have been written about the inferiority complex of contemporary composers caused by the seemingly superior toolbox of the visual artist – most recently in David Stubb's „Fear of Music - Why People Get Rothko But Don't Get Stockhausen“. Through the absence of sound, rather than anaemic permutations of de-harmonised series, musicians were finally able to attain the same degree of elegant minimalism that painters could express in all but blank canvases and endless planes of white. Effectively, the use of silence connected the work with its environment, just like a Rothko would interact with the room it was hung in. While it may not exactly have been particularly helpful in bringing their art to wider audiences, the extension of the palette brought about by this paradigm shift has reverberated on an international scale and prompted the rise of scores of micro-genres and -labels all dealing with this polarity in one way or another: When a trio of composers from the influential Wandelweiser-collective visited Japan in Winter of 2007, they were handed several CDs by local colleagues. Antoine Beuger especially received an entire pile of them, with some denoted as „more Wandelweiser“ and others as „less Wandelweiser“. As Beugner noted, on one of the “more Wandelweiser” discs, „there appeared to be no sound at all“.

It can not be denied that a kind of fetishisation has started to manifest itself. Just like violent fusillades of noise and abrasive walls of distortion can turn into aesthetic propositions, there is something distinctly beautiful about a work comprising of nothing but short episodes of sound (or islands, to use another popular metaphor) within a continuum of quietude. If these episodes, in turn, increasingly consist of decontextualised and purified field recordings or microscopic clicks, crackles, purrs and blips, then this represents just as much a questioning of conventional ideals about composing as the proposition of a new order. Even the act of listening itself takes on a different logic, turning from following a motive develop in relation to its harmonic environment into observing a series of discreet, yet purposefully juxtaposed acoustic events.

Kenneth Kirschner, too, has occasionally been lumped in with this reductionist movement and both Marc Weidenbaum's liner notes to “Filaments & Voids”(tellingly titled „Blasts of Silence“) as well as critical reception of the work seem to support this tendency. It is easy to see where they are getting their ideas from: On „October 19, 2006“, light-drones and dark, ominous swellings appear on the horizon, remain in the air for a few seconds and then fade away. Each particular tone is awarded two or three repetitions, before giving way to a new color, thus creating small timbral „groups“. Extended stretches of silence separate individual notes within each of these groups as well as between different segments, thereby creating a highly linear structure despite the piece's otherwise pleasurably unpredictable narrative. „September 11, 1996“, meanwhile, constitutes a mirror-cabinet-like cycle of slowly progressing dream-chords, the spaces between them feeling like small pauses in between in- and exhaling.

The grand statement of „Filaments & Voids“, however, is „March 16, 2006“, a massive 72-minute composition taking up the entire second disc of this 2CD-set. All throughout the work, snippets of a grainy Piano-recording are strewn across an empty canvas, bitterly haunted by painful memories of a lost friend. At first, these passages seem utterly unconnected. But then, Kirschner starts pushing the beginning of a sample for- and backwards. Suddenly, some passages are overlapping, suggesting that the track’s first half hour could actually be made up of constantly changing extracts from a barely half a minute short segment. With each new loop, the focus and meaning of the notes change, their emotional weight varying through the shifting context and the angle at which Kirschner observes them. At around halftime, however, these variations yielding to electronic transformations. Sections start getting longer and contours are beginning to blur, even more so as the effects gradually straighten out the edges of the original recording. What remains is a floating texture of hissing overtones, containing nothing but vague references to their former state.

It may sound downright paradoxical, but the importance of silence can easily be overstated here. „Filaments & Voids“ is, in a way, an extension of a concept introduced on Kirschner's Leerraum-release "november 18, 2004 et al." On both records, silence holds many different meanings and serves as the most important structural element. Its main function is to serve as a sort of sonic cleaning agent, cleansing the ears before a new sound arrives and allowing it to keep resonating within the listener once it has died down. Contrary to some of the „more Wandelweiser“-discs mentioned in the first paragraph, though, there is no fetishisation going on at all. Kirschner isn't asking his audience “to listen to the void”, but rather making it easier for them to fully appreciate every single detail of the sounds he is presenting. He is well aware that, once initiated, this process of sensitive listening will continue on its own. Which is why the album’s first disc, after the 27-minute opening-calibration, gradually grows more dense in texture and the third piece, „June 10, 2008“, is even a continuous drone – by this point, silence is no longer necessary.

And besides, in comparison to the oeuvre of Radu Malfatti, Kirschner's output seems almost disturbingly loud and action-packed. Malfatti's body of work is of a glorious uniqueness. When German Composer Jörg Wiedmann, for example, was unsure how to begin writing his first String Quartet, overwhelmed with the format's tradition, he turned the process of beginning into his point of departure: The first few minutes of his piece are imbued with the musicians desperately trying to produce an audible sound. In the music of Malfatti, however, there is not even a beginning or an end any more. On „Wechseljahre einer Hyäne“, gloomy and grimly glowing Saxophone-chords inhabit a 30-minute-long space. Each one is announced by the collective breath of the ensemble Intersax and differs from the others in the relative lengths of its attack, sustain and decay. Some are quickly aborted, while others linger in the air for an extensive period, fizzling out into singular, increasingly quiet lines. Each one also contains a different emotional connotation, ranging from sensual to cool, from disturbing to consoling and from inviting to repelling. But essentially, each one is an independent unit and with just a few exceptions, they do not mix with each other, forming no harmonic chains or tension archs.

One would expect the next move to become extremely important in such a sparsely populated environment. In a way, however, the exact opposite is true: As each breath of sound manifests itself as a self-sustained event, there is no longer a need for a next move at all. „Wechseljahre einer Hyäne“doesn't progress from a point of departure towards a destination, but it oscillates laterally, safely resting within its personal pocket of time. Silence isn't a demonstrative philosophical principle. Perhaps it would even be correct to say that, from a compositional point of view, silence doesn't “occur” at all here. Rather, one merely perceives its presence because we need a word to describe the absence of sound.

Intriguingly, too, the more one immerses oneself into this only outwardly „serious“, „difficult“ and “provoking“, album, the more it reveals itself as a deeply calming experience. By employing gaps and voids in their works, Kirschner and Malfatti may not always be intending to make grand revolutionary statements. They may just as well simply be liberating themselves from the unhealthy obsession of producing sound all the time.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Article about the Wandelweiser Collective on the Erstwords Blog
Homepage: Kenneth Kirschner
Homepage: 12k Records
Homepage: Radu Malfatti
Homepage: Intersax
Homepage: Et le Feu Comme Netlabel

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