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Ralf Hildenbeutel: Wunderland

img  Tobias Fischer

Looking back, my fascination for electronic club music is easily explained. In effect, for someone living in Germany as a student in the 1990s, it would have been hard not to get infected with the Techno-virus. And as a resident of Frankfurt in particular, it was almost impossible not associate the genre with the magnetic personality of Sven Väth. In a city drawing artistic blood from this second electronic revolution as greedily as a starving vampire, no one seemed to represent the overwhelming sense of creative discovery, freedom and non-conformance better: When the legendary Omen closed its doors for good with one last party in 1998, Väth  was dancing on the giant speakers placed outside of the venue for the occasion with the same unfettered enthusiasm as the ecstatic crowd. His open-ended sets were the stuff of legends and would be discussed like political manifestos - a friend of mine would tape every single DJ-mix Väth  produced for a local radio station in a bid of staying up to date about new artists and developments, amassing a collection of literally over a hundred cassettes. Väth's  singles, which bridged the divide between tribal anthem „Ritual of Life“ and the utterly hypnotic sonic sculpting of „The Beauty & The Beast“ were the soundtrack to seemingly endless club nights, while albums like „Harlequin“ and „Fusion“, on which these tracks were occasionally stretched to the length of intricately orchestrated quarter-of-an-hour epics, acted as inspiration for our own musical ambitions. Much more than a time of transition, it felt like a veritable reboot of the entire system: When „L'Esperanza“ was released in 1993 on the still seminally  influential Eye Q imprint, it suggested, for much too briefly, that there could be a link between the physical and unreflected euphoria of the dance floor and a deep, meditative musicality that moved and stimulated listeners from the inside.

Despite Väths popular credentials and without wanting to slight his achievements, however, Ralph Hildenbeutel was always the true hero of Frankfurt's aspiring musicians. While those who merely followed Trance during the short period the genre made it to MTV's late-night chill-out formats never got to know about his influence, anyone with a deeper perspective was well aware of who was really pressing the keys and turning the knobs on these classics. What fascinated us was the notion that Hildenbeutel, who lived in the neighbouring town of Offenbach rather than in the bustling metropolis itself and thereby by default qualified as somewhat of an outsider, developed a style of working that was far closer to the traditional act of composing than that of many of his peers. While most producers at the time would still construct their pieces by muting and activating tracks on their mixing consoles, the Frankfurt-school emphasised reflection and careful arranging, considering improvisation as a useful technique, but never as an end in itself. It was only consequential therefore that, in his more personal Earth-Nation-project, Hildenbeutel created a kind of intricate club music which no longer followed the perceived necessities of the genre, seeking forms far away from cliches and dogmas. And when, as on his perhaps most accomplished Väth-production „Harlequin's Meditation“, the beats dropped out for a magical two minutes to reveal a scintillating landscape of rich, cinematic strings, one was left to wonder what lay behind its borders, beyond the realms of explorative electronics and carefully processed effects.

On his previous full-length, „Lucy's Dream“, his first non-soundtrack solo-effort in fifteen years, Hildenbeutel provided a first glimpse at an answer, revelling in brittle, chambermusical ambiances and autumnal allusions. Akin to a diary entry spontaneously written in the moment of emotional affection, it relied more heavily on improvisation and intuition, creating a sound that was both meticulous and instantaneous, equally pure and precise. As he was the first to admit, these pieces were not experimental. And yet, they constituted a highly personal statement nonetheless: While his classical education was easily overrated in his early career and only faintly shone through in his work as a Techno-producer, it here manifested itself through intimate and organic instrumentations and an exquisitely nuanced balance between individual voices. Vice versa, the underlying rhythmic pulsation, as part of which short melodic segments were mechanically „looped“ to create sensually propulsive movements, drew less from composers like Philipp Glass (almost schematically the first to be named when things get „repetitive“) but very concretely from his work with sequencers and synthesizers. Minimal music, it seemed, had returned in the music-made dream of a Trance-producer, freed from its academic connotations and refreshed by being sent through an array of patchchords, effect pedals and samplers before resurfacing as the most intimate small-scale ensemble music imaginable.

„Wunderland“ is the entirely logical continuation of this process. Speaking with the metaphorics of Christopher Nolan's hallucinatory Sci-Fi-Thriller „Inception“, it does not describe the moment that former title-hero Lucy awakes from her slumber, but the instant she decides to dive one dream deeper - into a level even closer to the bewildering mechanics of pure and undiluted subconsciousness. Time, as displayed on conventional clocks, means nothing here: The largest part of the album consists of tracks just barely exceeding the two-minute-mark, the longest clocking in at a meagerly five and a half. And yet, these seemingly brief frames turn into somnanbulant states between waking and sleeping, coalescing into a torrential flow of events where the end of one can no longer be separated from the the beginning of the next.

Part of this impression is created by the pervasive presence of unresolved ostinatos – spiralling motives, played in the left hand on a grand piano or on charmingly naive toy instruments and a kalimba – which keep rotating in one's mind long after the track has ended, continuing into later parts of the record and even into the silence succeeding it. More importantly, however, Hildenbeutel is creating a skilfully planned succession of tension and release, of more animated passages and moments of near-stasis, of richly orchestrated pieces and cello etudes, in which the music appears to be holding its breath like a little boy dipping his head under water to see how long he can keep it there before having to dive up again for air.

The somewhat fatuously titled „We See Sea“ is a good case in point: A nostalgic wall clock is ticking comfortingly in the background, fragile atmospherics are fleetingly suggesting a harmonic space rather than factually enacting it and a bittersweet violin embarks on a heartwrenching solo. As it soars from a mid-range register to more airy heights, a long and disjoint motif of seven descending notes, spelling out a c# minor chord, at first stretched out into loose components then gradually drawn together into a fluent gesture, establishes itself against the backdrop of glistening metallics. Before being able to flourish, however, the opportunity has already passed, music given way to quietude. And yet, on subsequent composition „The Feast“, the mood changes abruptly again, monumental percussion adding a massive drive, floating on an equally sentimental and euphoric melody and keeping up a breathless momentum thanks to an incisive stop-and-go arrangement.

Hildenbeutel's personal assessment that is simply „more fun“ to listen to the album from beginning to end without interruption rather than cherrypicking a couple of individual tracks, must surely be rated as an understatement. „Wunderland“ truly lives up to its title in terms of delineating a coherent and magical mirror world to the one we're living in, where dark shadows are hiding behind seemingly familiar faces and sad, drooping motives can take on strangely consoling qualities. Its sound is, at least on some of its most memorable occurrences, consciously un-organic and „wondrous“: On „The Spirits that I called“, a playful Theremin, a merry-go-round-like drum machine and a surreally over-emphasised bass lay down a sonorous, intense fairy-tale-narrative, while „From Elsewhere“ is almost exclusively composed of heartfelt string quartet palpatations, whose constantly varying progressions, hovering weightlessly in the air like a body in an occult seance, are played against rhythmically broken piano chords, creating a cloudy, almost disembodied sound. Its themes are later, almost at the very end of the journey, picked up again on the weightless nostalgia of „Memento“, where the quartet finds itself drifting alone in space, its emanations ebbing away into an endless expanse of infinite whiteness.

No doubt the album will be categorised as being part of the neoclassical movement and, to the casual ear, there are indeed plenty of obvious parallels to be discerned here with the works of popular protagonists of the genre. It is the consciously fantastical mood that the album presents, however, which suggests that these are, if not entirely coincidental, merely the product of partially drawing from the same influences - „Wunderland“ is certainly not your typical work of sepia-tinged melancholia intended for late-night sessions of music and red wine, but rather the soundtrack to secretely blowing soap bubbles and playing with stuffed animals. Mostly devoting his time to working with popular pop acts and as an in-demand composer of film music, Hildenbeutel has conceptualised his latest work as a chance to defy the logic of the „business“ and to offer an alternative to the myriads of well-produced but ultimately meaningless works. And anyone who can still shed a tear over a fairytale will find the charms of his wonderland irresistible.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Ralph Hildenbeutel
Homepage: Rebecca & Nathan Records

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