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Zeitkratzer: Old School: John Cage & James Tenney

img  Tobias Fischer

In his monumental page-turner „Music in the early twentieth century“ (in fact only the fourth volume of his epic „History of Western Music“), controversial music historian Richard Taruskin defines the modernist creed thus: „Modernism is not just a condition but a commitment. It asserts the superiority of the present over the past (and, by implication, of the future over the present), with all that that implies in terms of optimism and faith in progress.“ So it should seem like a complete reversal of accustomed logic for an ensemble like zeitkratzer - who have seemingly embodied this optimism and faith more strikingly than anyone else out there and with an incomparable in-your-face determination - to title their new ongoing series of records „Old School“ and to dedicate it to the „classics“ of contemporary composition. By choosing to concentrate on well-known names and canonical pieces, the Berlin-based band after all appear to be focusing on the established, the proven, the tried and the tested, rather than keeping their eyes to the unattainable light glimmering promisingly at the end of the tunnel.

Anyone who's followed zeitkratzer's path over the first decade of their existence will easily see through this skewed rationale. Already the demonstrative cover imagery of juicy Oranges and deliciously sweet Kiwis presents a smart visual contrast with the supposed out-of-dateness of these compositions, implying the continuing „freshness“ of the material at hand. And just like merchants trying to ship their fruit to the market as quickly as possible, Reinhold Friedl and his team have opted for recent live recordings capturing the sizzling spontaneity of their stage appearances: While the Cage-disc comprises performances from the 2006 Haddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, their take on Tenney only dates back to a gig at the Philharmonie Luxembourg from October 3rd last year. Quite clearly, then, this cycle is about how the past can never simply be considered inferior by default, just like the relationship between the future and the present is far more complex and intricate than any set of dogmatic definitions could ever encompass. Rather, it is about showing how, at times, only continual engagement with a piece of art instead of a hectic search for novelty will reveal its true potential and deeper meaning.

The first two installments of the project (which will be followed, later this year, by a second duo of CDs containing pieces by Feldman and Lucier respectively) are putting music where their mouth is. The collection of three medium-length pieces by James Tenney, especially, manages to make his music sound even more up-to-date than it may already have seemed at the time of its inception.  „Koan“ from 1971, a dynamic low-frequency arch for percussion instrument based on an ultra-minimal score (which merely instructs playing a crescendo and a decrescendo for „a long time“) as well as both „Critical Band“ and „Harmonium #2“ are, at face value, extremely pure and powerful drone pieces, easily accessible and yet immensely intriguing to a whole new generation of listeners. Likewise, Cage's number-compositions („Four6“ from 1992 and „Five“ from 1988), which specify a fixed number of performers to play assigned tones within a string of time brackets, open up the same kind of immersive, freely floating spaces as various installational works and sound art compositions on Electronica-oriented labels like Line.

These parallels are opening up a plethora of rewarding new perspectives. zeitkratzer are demonstrating with unerring precision how technically skilled musicianship and carefully reflected chance operations are capable of adding exciting nuances, finesse and detail to the occasionally static production process of the laptop composer. As an example, Cage's half-hour long contributions „Four6“ and „Hymnkus“ are equally marked by a sense of calm and constant renewal, by a peaceful breath and a spirited search for unprecedented forms alike. Tenney's 19-minute „Harmonium #2“, meanwhile, represents a strong argument in favour of adding  structural layers to drone pieces: Signifying for the piece in harmonic terms what the pulse did for rhythm on Terry Riley's „In C, Friedl's Piano acts as a subtle guide here, while the remaining members of the ensemble are colouring in these tonal roots with harmonics anticipating his next move. The result is a game of gradual growth in which zeitkratzer are systematically expanding the sonic space around them – an act which is reversed in the second half of the piece, resulting in a peaceful farewell sequence.

These minutely planned operations are opening up dual readings of the works: On the one hand, they work perfectly fine as pure sound pieces, through which the listener navigates by intuition. On the other, they engage their audience by means of stimulating and traceable processes. This is exactly what has kept them valuable in terms of constant re-evaluation over the years: „The more precise and sensitive the musicians play, the more they themselves disappear in the group sound“, Burkard Schlothauer writes in his exquisite liner notes and one can hear this team spirit in every note, frequency or abstract noise they are submitting to the collective continuum.

It is the complete negation of cheap gestures, too, which postulates a far more open-minded definition of progress: To detach oneself from the shackles of banal preservation and blind innovation alike and to enter into a truly meaningful dialogue with music. The way zeitkratzer are putting this theory into action, going old school is probably the most modern thing imaginable.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Zeitkratzer / Zeitkratzer Records

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