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Tupolev: Tower of Sparks

img  Tobias Fischer

There simply can be no such thing as purity in music. Just as with language, it is a living organism, constantly developing, dodging determinacy, brimming with paradoxes, reveling in outright contradictions and impurities. And yet, even in these polystylistic and pleasantly undogmatic times, in which one would expect the notion of everything being intricately intertwined and connected finally to have taken hold, Austrian quartet Tupolev are still finding it hard to simply be accepted for what they are. To some, the band clearly constitute a case of post-post-rock, of the format fizzling out and sublimating into something more refined, distinguished, complex and, to put it in the words of the romantics, sublime. To others, they present an example for a new tendency in contemporary composition of extending beyond its „serious“ borders into the realms of the „popular“, the „accessible“ - in short, into „entertainment“. They've been labeled classical, improv and pop, but by general consensus, the closest they've ever come to any standard genre has been jazz – although the ensemble has habitually been ignored, ridiculed or misunderstood by the latter's scene, with a recent reviewer venting his anger for „relegating the potential in John Coltrane's flare to mere pretention“. Into their sixth year as a band, Tupolev are still causing confusion – which either means they're onto something big or doing something wrong.

On Tower of Sparks, the band have come closer than ever to answering that question with the fomer. You can say what you want about these barely thirty minutes of music – that they're pretentious, over-intellectual, incomprehensible, irreproducable or any other adjective implying that the album is the exact opposite of easy listening – but not that their vision weren't clear. Tupolev know exactly what they're doing and, on the evidence of these eight pieces, they're doing it with a stringency, consistency and precision that is second to none: Rather than striving for eclecticism, they're working towards utmost concentration. Instead of indulging in expansion and maximalism, their aesthetic is one of compaction and reduction. In terms of improvisation versus composition, the balance shifts overwhelmingly towards the latter, as tracks are minutely planned and virtually shooting the listener through their innards at rocket-speed.

Chambermusic is an apt point of reference, but less so as a fixed genre-denomination than a timbral framework and a mode of interaction, of each instrument operating both within a tightly knit framework and as a unique personality with a will of its own. It is also suitable in terms of the music relying almost entirely on acoustic instruments, with most of the sections on the album feauturing Peter Holy on piano, Alexandr Vatagin on bass and cello and David Schweighart on drums. Within this cosmos, Lukas Scholler's electronics, mainly comprising microtonal clicks, grainy drones and microscopically detailed field recordings, feel like both like an intrusion and an entirely natural component, equally as mere tonal paint as well as a completely equitable musical partner. The absence of amplification, fuzz and distortion, as well as the close engagement between these four distinct voices is still, as demonstrated in a recent review for German printmag Jazzthetik, responsible for them being described as „slow“, „subtle“, „tender“ and „calm“, although, in factual terms, the exact opposite rings true.

If there's one defining feature of the album, after all, it must surely be how the band are ripping, dashing and zig-zagging through it, their music never fully materialising and resembling the kind of garrish ghost images left on the retina after being exposed to a sudden flash of light. Themes make a majestic appearance for a few seconds, only to be replaced by their negation. Rhythmic patterns rise from seemingly irregular shuffles, then quickly disintegrate again. Lyrical melodies of great harmony, grace and beauty are suggested, but rarely fully spelled out. The arrangements are neither cyclical nor linear and rather seem to be the subject of intense internal debate every single second: „Where to go next?“ is the key question here and the answer to it is more often than not provided on the basis of the kind of mysterious pseudo-terms which have been haunting music criticism and its mythology for decades: the „flow“, the „moment“ and, last but not least, „inspiration“. And yet, at the moment of recording, these points have already been negotiated, the course has been set. And so, Towers of Sparks is a twin-headed entity, whose structure is autonomous, whose rationales are precisely defined and whose logic nontheless feels impulsive. In the moment of listening, one effectively surrenders one's previous conceptions about form and development and submits it entirely to the band – it is a leap of faith, which by default must lead either to irritation (see that Coltrane-remark) or catharsis.

The main compositional device binding these strains together here is, very simply, to create the maximum of contrast withing the smallest possible space and the narrowest time-frame. Moments of sensuous, yearning harmony are juxtaposed with fulminante cluster-chords and sequences of freewheeling tonality. Sentive and fragile motives juxtaposed with brash and rugged explosivity. Sections of lightningspeed thematic transformations and key changes guided into minute-long passages of floating electronic pastures. The same applies to the associational firework of styles, genres and comparisons emblazened by the fantastical density of the material. To the already sizable catalogue of comparisons, one could futher still add prog-rock for the dazzling piano arpeggios, serialism for the occasional tendency of these arpeggios of suggesting minutely devised tonal rows, metal for the smeared-out, syrupy clusters akin to potent powerchords in the lower frequencies, sound art for the minute attention awarded to the inner characteristics of each single tone and even neo-classical for some of the sections in which Vatagin's cello takes on a sweet and sensual tone,  melancholically draped over a couple of pensively placed piano notes. Which only goes to show that the many genres Tupolev have been associated with are by no means absurd, but merely beside the point. In this maelstrom of influences, each reference or even quote is just that: a small, momentary inspiration on a canvas otherwise marked by a constant coming and going of patterns, rhythms, shapes and forms. One moment it is there, the next it is forgotten, replaced by a new idea, a new sensation, an entirely different direction.

 „You should listen to more Webern“, Derek Bailey was once heard as saying, which may have confused some jazz-fans, but only goes to show the interpenetration of all things in music. By acknowleding this philosophy, Tupolev are not trying to be difficult, they're just embracing the impure: Just as it may seem arbitray to some, the absence of dogmas and determinacy can be part of the fun, too, after all.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tupolev
Homepage: Valeot Records

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