berlin strings
Absinth Records 002

Bvhaast 0104

Dispatches from the front lines of EuroImprov, these unusual CDs provide fresh evidence of the inventiveness enlivening the thought processes of many musicians on the other side of the Atlantic.

Subject at hand is strings, and the sessions are unusual in more ways than one. Second volume in a series that also showcased German reed players, BERLIN STRINGS is made up of four three-inch CDs, each showcasing one Berlin-based stringslinger: three guitarists and Andrea Neumann on inside piano and mixing deck.

Two of the other plectrumists — Michael Renkel on guitar, zither and preparations and Serge Baghdassarians on guitar and mixing desk — take advantage of 21st century electronics, as does the player on SIMULACRUM. On his fourth solo release, Amsterdam’s Jozef van Wissem adds electronics and field recordings to solo playing on an instrument that was already commonplace in European music by the middle of the 15th century: the lute. However van Wissem does play a special 10 course — that is 20-string — lute built for him by a Toronto craftsman. Plus the compositions altered by electric impulses here are palindromes or musical verses that sound the same played backwards and forwards. Back to BERLIN, odd person out here is Olaf Rupp, who applies a flamenco style attack to nine short pieces for acoustic guitar.

Neumann, who usually plays in a duo with Annette Krebs on electro-acoustic guitar or in Continental coop groups such as Phosphor or No Spaghetti Edition, produces the most in-your-face textures with her specially constructed inside piano. During the first three, uniquely titled tracks the sheer weight of industrial discord being produced is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s one-time plaint that he wished he could be as mechanical as a robot.

With most of the tones static sine waves, intense patterns and scratches and factory whistle squeals, you figure she’s figured out how to create guitar pedal effects and distortions in her many-stringed instrument. Although there are also periods when it sounds as if she’s mashing an electric drill against parts of the instruments that were initially hand crafted.

On “end of a motor noticed by 5 picks ups” the longest and most descriptively titled track, she proves her inventiveness by making a soundtrack out of the action described. Beginning with the amplified clunk of what could be cymbals rolling between the key frame and the bottom board, the piece soon develops hollow, cylindrical tones and the intermittent buzzes of a malfunctioning motor. Undeterred, she creates a noise that resembles hooks scraping sheet metal that is then transformed into shuddering impulses that move from one sound source to another until the track lapses into silence.

Another convert to robotic drones and pulses that reach assembly line proportions is Baghdassarians, a German of Armenian descent. Someone who turned his study of classical guitar into sonic art work and participation with liked-minded performers at different improv or New music festivals, his pulsations here move between aviary squeals and an approximation of sheet metal severing. Among the droning static and sluiced osculation are spasmodic periods of silence. Probably courtesy of his mixing deck, “versuch eine welle zu lessen” ends when what could be the noise a turntable makes when its tracking is stuck. The sound is transformed into Bronx cheers and shrill video game explosions.

Antithetically, Rupp’s nine [!] acoustic guitar solos are intense example of slurred fingering that simulate a sort of pseudo flamenco. Likely having shoved a mike deep into his guitar’s sound hole, the amplification picks up every string snap, individual finger pick and note vibration. A former improvising pop musician, who has worked with Necks drummer Tony Buck and British woodwind master Lol Coxhill, Rupp has recently focused on solo acoustic guitar performances. Here he’s constantly strumming and picking, so that it appears as if he’s trying to cram as many notes into a bar line that, despite his best efforts, refuses to expand. Sliding up the neck for new tones, his pummeled notes then go flamenco one better, exposing not only entire smudged line fills, but also the quivering vibrations from the movements.

Despite utilizing preparations and the extra strings of a zither as well as his guitar, Renkel’s one track is unexpectedly quiet, with tumbrel scratches from high up on the strings and behind the bridge appearing as well as ringing tone that are softly answered by seconding lines. Another reductionist and member of Phosphor with Neumann, he combines a classical guitar background with an interest in computer technology and live electronics. Additionally, Renkel is part of a reeds and strings duo with clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski, who was featured on BERLIN REEDS.

In a pacific mood here, the fretman often appears to be applying fingertip pressure to his strings, creating strums, what sound like small animal movements and irregular, swaying Hawaiian slack key patterns. Before ending with what sounds like him pressing a tiny rotating fan against his strings, Renkel’s repeated timbres and reverberations fade away for a time, as if he’s lost interest, with the audible results coming as much from shifting the instrument as playing it.

Moving north and west to the Netherlands, one person who definitely does play on the eight tracks that make up his CD is van Wissem. Someone who in the past has collaborated with outside guitarists like American Gary Lucas and Japan’s Tetuzi Akiyama, he’s completely on his own here. However, a condensator mike inserted within the instruments allows him to cut, paste, sample and add so-called internal wolf tones to his acoustic improvisations.

Setting aside his tweaking of the palindromes, which unite the 15th and 21st centuries, two of the more memorable tracks are “U.S. Drone Strikes Again” and “Smoke and Mirrors”. On both, especially the former, the sampled electronic impulses allow him to output a variety of sounds underscored by jagged electronic thunderclaps. On top of that though, these actions makes the lone picker resemble all the members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Using mitosis-like actions to combine, then split apart different licks, he plays the lead with a Lester Flatt-type run only to cut into it with lines that could be Monroe’s focused mandolin licks and Earl Scruggs’ syncopated banjo-picking rolls. Processed wolf tone make the second tune even spookier.

Although he does add sounds recorded in a Brooklyn, N.Y. subway station to “John F. Kennedy”, his strength there and throughout is the doubled guitar-like drone created with the twinned lute strings. Often, you wouldn’t even know that processing is involved, so unerringly do the parts fit together. Palindromes help too, of course.

“Regression” for instance sounds straight and traditional enough as if it was recorded by minstrel Alan O’Dale, standing beside Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. In actuality it’s an edited, cut and pasted version of “Precession”, the first track, inspired by a Renaissance lute form.

Looking forwards and backwards simultaneously, the five string players represented on these five — or is it one plus four half? — CDs, illuminate the advanced thinking about and playing with strings that’s invigorating European improv.

— Ken Waxman


Track Listing: berlin: CD1: 1.˜~ 2.* 3.`` 4. end of a motor noticed by 5 picks ups CD2: 1. trans aronex CD3: 1. Metal Peace, Suite in neun Teilen Parts 1-9 CD4: 1. versuch eine welle zu lessen

Personnel: berlin: CD1: Andrea Neumann (inside piano and mixing desk); CD2: Michael Renkel (guitar, zither and preparations); CD3: Olaf Rupp (guitar); CD4: Serge Baghdassarians (guitar and mixing desk)

Track Listing: Simulacrum: 1. Precession 2. Reconnaissance 3. U.S. Drone Strikes Again 4. Smoke and Mirrors 5. John F. Kennedy 6. Marja’ I Taqled 7. Mimicry and camouflage 8. Regression

Personnel: Simulacrum: Jozef van Wissem (lute, electronics, field recordings)