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M Vernusky: Music for Film & Electro-Theatre; M Oppedisano: Mechanical Uprising; E Helvacıoğlu & P Boysen: Sub City 2064; T Reber: Backup Aura

img  Tobias Fischer
article image

Composers operating in the realms of Electroacoustics  are having it hard enough as it is. While, on the one hand, their art is frequently decried as being overly „intellectual“, their work at the fringes is further marginalised by a percolation of their ideas into more readily accessible forms of Electronica. On a more positive note, one could perhaps claim that the genre has miraculously managed to retain its status as avantgardistic  outsider-music for the better part of its roughly one hundred years of existence – discounting the odd spectacular success, such as a few of Stockhausen's gigantic works of the 50s and 60s – even if that is of desperately little help to those dedicated individuals trying to make a living from it. At least, however, these composers do not have to busy themselves with the confusion bestowed upon those of their colleagues who use the electric guitar as one of their main instruments. With the perceived paradox between the worlds of „academic“ and Rock music (for which it is still widely regarded as a pars pro toto) still oddly in place, they are caught between the stools of the „popular“ and the „serious“, considered too „intutive“ for the latter and, to put it blandly, too “weird“ for the former. In a time, when technology allows for a representation of almost anything, there doesn't seem to be any kind of platform for their work whatsoever – another blatant case of medial failure. Here, then, to make up for it, is a round-up of five composers whose recent releases deserve your attention.

Mike Vernusky: Orchestral scoring
On „Drawn Inward“, the final piece of his previous full-length, 2006's Blood that sees the light, Austin-based Mike Vernusky took a bold stab at electronic symphonics, fusing a shimmering string ensemble with suggestive synthetics. A definitive highlight of the collection, it seemed to mark a point of departure for his future work and for a style both smart and sensual, still tied to a centuries-old tradition of Western music while tapping into the potentials of the digital age. As follow-up Music for Film and Electro-Theatre now proves, however, Vernusky had his sight set on something even more profound and forward-thinking than that. On display here is a meticulous realisation of a vision, first expressed in an article for the NewMusicBox-website last year, of the composer as an „auteur“ - a storyteller equally adept at devising intriguing new sound worlds and narratives as well as of marrying the results to adjacent (visual) medial disciplines such as film, video art, installations, painting and design. Most striking in this regard are the two collaborations with friend, playwright and theater artist Greg Romero, on which the duo creates vivid multisensorial impressions through the radio-play-like linking of acted scenes, words and acoustic environments.

Eleven-minute-long „Dallas“, based on the biography of Clint Hill, the secret service agent who spectacularly (but belatedly) boarded John F Kennedy's carriage in an attempt of saving him after the president had been assassinated, is a case in point: Through dialogue and rapid sonic transitions, the piece links a scene in a „24-hour greasy spoon diner in Dallas, Texas“, where Hill is sitting at a table, with flashbacks to his hearing about details of the incident by Warren-commission-member, Republican-party-defect and former Senator of Pennsylvania Arlen Specter. The unique capacity of music of speaking directly to the imagination and of expressing that, which can not be put into words, is exploited to the full here: The past doesn't just reside in Hill's memory. It physically creeps up to him like a kirlian materialisation, slowly growing in intensity until the Kennedys, still alive and unharmed, come walking into the cafe, confronting the agent - distinguished and honoured, but forever plagued by regret about being seconds too late to catch the bullet - with his failings.

Even though these stories seem to be guided by a clear plot and structure, conventional logic is side-lined. There is no traditional denouement to „Dallas“, just like there is neither a beginning nor end to the second Romero-co-operation „Under My Coat is the Truth", a scenic piece conveying the impression of being ripped straight from a dark, apocalyptic science fiction flic. The same goes for the majority of the other pieces here, which, by partly sharing identical titles, hint at hidden connections without decoding them. The metallics of a timbrally-approached percussion set, enigmatically processed guitars, Vanessa Diamond's seductive Soprano and Cory Allen's threatening Moog-motives lay down a fascinating and occasionally strangely erotic, yet all the same sharp and visceral sound,  provoking the synapses and putting all senses on edge without untying the knot in a happy-end.

Vernusky, as one finds out through close listening, hasn't given up on the notion of electronic symphonics one bit: His technique of arranging his materials doesn't so much resembles the act of sculpting, as the press release claims, but hints instead at an intriguing parallel with orchestral scoring: At times, he approximates the vertiginous sensation of standing at a precipice at night – beyond it, whispering and beckoning, there is nothing but a mysteriously glowing abyss of sound.

Marco Oppedisano: Wilfully unaccommodating & hauntingly intense

While the guitar is just a tool among many on Music for Film and Electro-Theatre, it is at the very heart of the oeuvre of Marco Oppedisano. Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, he has made the search for the intersections between heavy Rock, atmospheric soundscapes and an intricate, intellectually challenging take on contemporary composition his goal. While it has become somewhat fashionable of lately to segue one's influences as an artist into a seamless new entity, Oppedisano openly bares the starkly contrasting nature of his inspirations for the world to see: Brutal and bewilderingly complex riffs, revealing a strong affinity for Metal, collide with jazzy episodes; classically-inflected passages are brutally mutilated by acerbic electronics; and a host of in-your-face guitar-licks integrate into densely layered sonic architectures filled to the brim with quotes and references – creative sculptures displaying the composer's belief in the „freedom to choose anything“. At the same time, the focus and personal voice of his work are second to none, testimony to the absolute will to defy comparison and categorisation.

Mechanical Uprising is Oppedisano's third full-length as a solo artist and it continues his declared mission of „using dynamics, color and texture with sound and in combination with standard pitch-related material“, as he put it in an interview with us in 2007. What this means, simply speaking, is that these terms have become interchangeable and that the music finds itself in a constant flux between the poles of „noise“ and „composition“. Opening tracks „Kickstart“ and „Solitary Pathways“ are daring experiments at documenting this philosophy, ripping along a Moebius-strip encompassing anything from cosmic Ambient to ecstatic Rock, while the title track condenses the same associations into a dark, fearful continuum. In a seeming contradiction, the intuitive tension arch of these works, meanwhile, is counterpointed by two suites making use of notably more classical forms: „Seven Pieces“, a collection of miniatures of just over a minute's length, each depicting a different „musical character“, in which Oppedisano's technical virtuosity and natural talent at internalising a variety of genres shows through. And „Clockwatcher“, consisting of three movements connected by the stylised Leitmotif of a ticking clock, whose perpetually transforming rhythmical pulses directly inspire the thematic and harmonic material and warp the audience's sense of time.

It is easy to see why many would find this fantastical concoction almost entirely without precedent confusing. Oppedisano could effortlessly turn into an underground cult phenomenon by leaning more demonstratively towards one of the many different scenes he is alluding to, but his approach suggests an incredible yearning for integrity and an unquenchable curiosity for where following down his ideas will lead him. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that this man once played as a guest on an album by Noah Creshevsky, another unique outsider, whose theory of „hyper-realism“ may well have informed a few of Oppedisano's own concepts: By placing outwardly familiar elements into combinations unattainable in physical reality, Mechanical Uprising creates a zone which feels both reassuringly safe and discomfitingly alien. Cliches are exaggerated  rather than outright discarded, leading to themes and melodic inventions no human being would be capable of reproducing in a live environment.

The super-human, the robotic, the surreal and, yes, the „mechanical“ are aesthetic guidelines to Marco Oppedisano's galaxy and for those unafraid of seeing the world through a distorted mirror, they make for some of the most wilfully unaccommodating and hauntingly intense music out there at the moment.

Erdem Helvacıoğlu & Per Boysen: Cross-over in a Cubist sense
In the same NewMusicBox article, in which he developed his thoughts about the artist as an auteur, Mike Vernusky also singled out pioneering truly new ideas as one of the most important tasks ahead of future generations of composers. Sub City 2064 must be exactly the kind of work he was thinking of. Recorded without any kind of preconceived notions about genres and scene-affiliations, the album is marked by a radical tabula-rasa-concept, as part of which the Orient-Occident-ensemble of globetrotters Per Boysen and Erdem Helvacıoğlu put even some of the most fundamental dogmas about orchestration and arrangement up for debate. In its stylistic eclecticism, informed by hard-hitting Metal („Reef Edge Race“), lush Electronica („Harvesting Alga“), avantgardistic World Music („Physalia Physalis“) and sonic experimentalism with a smack of Krautrock („Metal Sky“), it may at first sight appear to constitute a typical post-modern goodie bag, in which a loss of musical roots expresses itself in an unreflected anything-goes-approach. The truth, however, couldn't be farther from it.

To Boysen and Helvacıoğlu, the multistylistic dimension of their music is not an exotic adornment but the immediate result of a socio-political reality, of biographies enriched, not threatened, by the encounter with different philosophies of life, other aesthetics of art and even conflicting concepts of faith. Both, too have worked hard at allowing nothing but their personal and deepest interests alone to guide their careers: Helvacıoğlu through a series of outwardly confounding changes of direction, which have seen him go from a field-recording-laden debut and a much-applauded follow-up (Altered Realities), somewhere between live-soundscaping and atmospheric improvisation, to Wounded Breath's austere and dramatic electro-acoustics (Sub City's opener „Radiaton Patrol“, with its subtle layers of disembodied harmonies and cinematically extended micronoises, sounds as though it might have been directly inspired by the sessions to that full-length). Boysen, meanwhile, has become an icon of as many bizarrely named pseudo-categories as inventive journalists could come up with. His prerogative of „liking music, but not genres“ has fueled his ongoing search for „unplayed music“ - which is uncompromising in its strive for fresh emotions, but doesn't shy away from audience appreciation either.

Their first full-length musical encounter is cross-over in a cubist sense, blending not just different genres, but artistic perspectives. The „new“ arises from discontinuities and ruptures here, from literally rebuilding genres from scratch. On closer „Future Wide Open“, the duo work almost exclusively with elements from Dub – a well-chilled groove, a deep, uterine bass and relaxed backbeat-guitars sent through an echo chamber - but the piece fits in with neither. Rather, it seems to occupy a space in the realms of pure ideas, suggesting what it might sound like if it hadn't been decades of Jamaican creativity, but Boysen and Helvacıoğlu who invented Reggae, Rocksteady and Dancehall. Glenn Gould used to claim that he never listened to any recordings of a particular piece before having arrived at his own interpretations. In their own way, these two creative minds have done the same, first forgetting everything they learned and then putting together the pieces again as though operating in a timeless dream. Burning bridges, it turns out, can be a creative process – if the ashes are as fruitful as on Sub City 2064.

Tobias Reber: Proving one's humanity
While the guitar is a fundamental part of all the abovementioned albums,  Tobias Reber, a member of pleasantly unclassifiable German act Centrozoon, has effectively bid the instrument farewell. In fact, his solo oeuvre, a first taste of which can now be gleamed on Backup Aura, relies exclusively and demonstratively on laptop operations. Algorithmical procedures, especially, have caught his fancy. On the one hand, they allow for a supernatural degree of precision. On the other, they provide him with a plethora of unpredictable, almost accidental sonic occurrences transcending the traditionally permissive. Reber is fascinated with music as a transmitter for psycho-physiological effects: From his perspective, sounds literally collide with the human organism in a smattering of both benign and confrontational ways – pulverising emotional blockades, setting free hormonal responses or triggering outright instinctual reactions. The task of the composer lies in addressing and controlling these sensations to achieve an unprecedented sensory stimulation, of kindling thoughts and feelings which might otherwise have been left locked away from experience.

It is therefore only consequential that Backup Aura comes without the 50-page booklet expounding upon and elucidating its principles, philosophies and preconditions, which has become all but a standard in his line of work. If the music should retain an aura of the unknown, the inexplicable and the impenetrable, then that is firmly part of his intentions. Music is a force of nature outside our immediate grasp to Reber, a representation of a truth which can only be described in metaphorical terms. It is always both a mirror of our surrounding environment and the mechanics of our inner world, a hybrid between the presently existing and the visionary potential of our mind.

A particularly telling moment in this regard occurs in the very last moments of the album, in the final stages of closing track „We Wonder“. After reveling in a field of insectoid portamentos, metallic scratching and a sweetly floating drone, the music gives way to woodblock-like ticks and clicks over the sound of a gentle rainshower. Gradually, these events become more scarce and infrequent, until they finally dissolve into the fine curtain of raindrops and birdsong and it is becoming impossible to tell whether the noises one is hearing are the last remains of the digital interaction or merely the subtle impact of falling water on flower petals.

Two pieces dealing with rhythm counterpoint the dense visual brushwood planted by „We Wonder“ or the equally immersive meditation „Geisterer“. Fascinated by the idea of continuously shifting their accents while retaining an ongoing sense of groove, „Blech“ and „Glocker“ are the most obvious expressions of Rebers desire to observe the patterns of cause and effect initiated by sometimes highly discrete changes in his parameters. „These pieces usually form over a longer period of time where I will listen to the software patch just playing endlessly, also as background music“, he delineates his methods, „Sometimes you discover logics within these rule-based things that you won’t spot unless you have a couple of hours experience of listening to the system playing itself out.“ But he never just satisfies himself with cherrypicking magical moments from the computational chaos. Shaping his materials into a form which does them justice is the real challenge here and the amount of detail one is able to draw from these otherwise remarkably open arrangements points at how close he has come in achieving that ideal.

Reber may have replaced the guitar for the laptop, but composing is still an inherently human activity to him. Perhaps, one might even say, it constitutes a conscious act of proving one's own humanity to himself in a time where everything is being done to make technological representations seem as valuable as the organic original.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mike Vernusky
Homepage: Quiet Design Recordings
Homepage: Marco Oppedisano
Homepage: OKS Recordings of America
Homepage: Erdem Helvacıoğlu
Homepage: Per Boysen
Homepage: Tobias Reber
Homepage: Hyperfunction Records