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Steinbrüchel: A/B/C/D

img  Tobias Fischer

While most people tend to regard change as an unwelcome force in their daily lives, it is still widely considered as indispensable in the realms of creativity. In music, the better part of the former century was spent discussing the question of how much the balance between repetition and (thematic) transformation should be allowed to tilt towards the former. Technological innovations have only served to escalate these conflicts: While Schoenberg and Webern eschewed any kind of mechanical repetition, sequencers and samplers allowed for musical statement to be cloned quite literally, with each cycle constituting an exact copy of its predecessor. As acceptance of these techniques and the music resulting from their application (such as techno) grew, traditional notions of the act of composing were called into question. If there was no transformation, after all, where was the artistry? As it turned out, collecting the right materials, organising them into stimulating relationships with each other and initiating processes of interaction, which could prove engaging despite – or even, perhaps, because of them – remaining stable for an extended period of time, was a task requiring as much intuition, instinct and talent as coming up with a melody and then running it through a string of harmonic changes. And by seemingly ignoring conventional assumptions about change, new ones emerged. Some of them focused on the inner qualities of the material (as in American drone-builder Richard Lainhart's one-sound-theory), others on the human sensory apparatus (some of William Basinski's long-form pieces come to mind), yet others through astutely asymmetrical loops, in which different tracks were pitted against each other in such a way, that their contact surfaces hardly ever yielded the same results. To some, continually researching these implications and accepting their insoluble nature, has represented a life-long ambition.

German-born, Zurich-based Ralph Steinbrüchel is one of them. For him, the fascinating relativity implied by change has always presented a seminal inspiration. Almost his entire discography, in some way or the other, is based on the thought of  things depending not just on their inherent faculties but on the observer's perspective and external influences as well. Or at least album titles suggest as much: While momentan_def., Perspectives and Stage dealt explicitly with the topic of development, works like Circa and Opaque hinted at the fact that, ultimately, our bodily instruments for measuring these qualities were inadequate. In realising these deficiencies, Steinbrüchel factored the listener back in to the equation. On two of his more recent works, both released on labels run by Italian micro-sound explorer David Sani aka Shinkei, the contrast was brought into sharp relief. While Sustain, a twenty two minute drone piece, seemingly entered a state of stasis, with merely the soft undulation of harmonics indicating any kind of movement, this year's paradoxically titled Non Renew renewed itself every minute, its six sixty-second miniatures constituting perfectly self-sustained sonic worlds avoiding repetition at all cost. There were no loops here, yet they were always implied as a kind of solution to the ephemeral brevity of these fragile structures, with the audience being invited to put the music on repeat to keep its flame burning.

A/B/C/D, another pronouncedly concise release ahead of an upcoming new full-length on Room40 – pressed as a twelve inch intended to be played at 45rpm, it contains just four tracks of almost exactly five and a half minutes each – continues this train of thought, while presenting its case in the most sultry, sweet and sensual form imaginable. As so often with Steinbrüchel, acoustic instruments with bell-like timbres, most likely including glockenspiel, xylophone, a gong and prayer bowls, are used to create short melodic statements rarely exceeding three or four notes. These, in turn, are then juxtaposed with outwardly unrelated, similarly short themes to create chains of related motives, who, although objectively consisting of entirely disparate parts, seem to magically respond and react to each other. Although there is quite clearly quite a bit of effect processing going on, with a fine layer of gentle hiss, crisp crackles or even an featherweight rhythmical pattern accompanying them, the resulting textures feel astoundingly organic and warm, taking on an endearing rather than an alienating feel. By arranging these elements into loops, Steinbrüchel is creating the dreamiest minimalism imaginable, a tender and romantic kind of beat-less techno.

Left spinning in the background, nothing much seems to be happening here, the music pulsating peacefully, like foam floating in a bath tub. The closer one looks, however, the more there seems to be continuous evolution everywhere: Structures are gradually growing more dense, then, suddenly, disintegrating again. Melodies are interlocking into coherent statements, then drifting apart and turning asynchronous. Deep swells appear, then wither away. And no matter how often one listens to the record, there doesn't seem to be a way of definitely deciding upon what constitutes the foreground and what is merely part of a fluent and unified sonic texture. This is, because the two are effectively one and the same here. It is an at first confounding realisation, leading to a kind of sweet dizziness and stupor. All the same, it is also a deeply comforting one, eliminating the need for upfront, concentrating listening. Just lying there with both eyes closed, allowing your thoughts to wander and taking in the music almost casually, as though it were part of the room's ambient sound, is perfectly enough.This, meanwhile, presents a paradox: If there is no center against which to measure it, there can be no such thing as change. And yet, things are undeniably shifting and morphing all the time. The conclusion is anything but complex: Steinbrüchel is pursuing a strategy of delicate transitions, of all but imperceptible variations, which, in due course, are taking a track to a new and unpredictable destination. It is a process spread out across all elements of a piece here, which consequently feel almost liquid rather than taking on a definitive form. In a way, one could say they are never really there at all.

In terms of the polarity between change and repetition, therefore, A/B/C/D is taking on something of a mediating position, because none of the two are actually present in their purest form here. Perhaps Steinbrüchel, after years of subjecting himself to the same philosophical and artistic questions, has arrived at an age-old wisdom: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steinbrüchel
Homepage: Bine Music

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