Albrecht Maurer/Norbert Rodenkirchen

Hidden Fresco
Booklet notes for Nemu 004

When most contemporary improvisers refer to early music, depending on their orientation, they probably mean the bop breakthroughs of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s or perhaps the historical foundation created by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong in the 1920s.

But Albrecht Maurer and Norbert Rodenkirchen are atypical. Their take on archaic early music dates from more than half a millennium before that. But this unique concept involves working out modern sounds and styles using medieval instruments.

Although one is an acclaimed medievalist and the other an accomplished improviser, this isn’t as much a stretch as it seems. While Köln-born Rodenkirchen is best known for his membership in the Sequentia ensemble, he also spent time in pioneering German Free Jazz vibraharpist Gunter Hampel’s Coming Age Orchestra. And, while the bulk of Aachen-born Mauer time is spent improvising with modernists such as American bassist Kent Carter, German drummer Klaus Kugel and Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, the virtuoso fiddler also plays early music with prominent medieval ensembles like Dialogos.

This is why Hidden Fresco is unique. While its 12 tracks utilize the most modern instrumental techniques, both men have chosen to perform these original compositions and improvisations while sticking with medieval instruments – traverse flute and harp for Rodenkirchen and gothic fiddle in Maurer’s case.

A further clue to their strategy lies in carefully examining three items: the CD’s title, Hidden Fresco; the artistic transformative qualities implicit in titles such as “Craquelé”, “Sfumato”, “Erosion” and Tempera; and the quote from Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting that adorns the cover. Essentially, Leonardo posited that an artist viewing stained walls or common rock formations can “see” how to transform this material into diverse forms. Sonically rather than visually the German improvisers do the musical equivalent of that here. Utilizing particular instrumentation and timbres, they expose unexpected aural tinctures and colors.

Take the fiddler’s “Aura”, for instance, which features pealing col legno tones from the strings that coalesce into fiery stops from Maurer and resonating guttural breaths from Rodenkirchen. Eventually the sensation radiates key thumping percussion and descending sul tasto string lines. Alternately, the fully improvised “Erosion” – an appropriately da Vinci-styled title – suggests rock’s transformation with a harmonic convergence that results from ground bass-like pitches from Maurer encircling wraithlike, pinched flute tones. Transformation is complete when spiccato fiddle lines harden and Rodenkirchen’s tone darkens.

Elsewhere string technique variously suggests spiky old-time mandolin picking or rasgueado guitar fills. Not only do flute sounds include formalist legato and wheezy staccato breaths, but harp strokes can sometimes be compared to guzheng textures.

Leonardo cited the transformative power of music when in the Treatise, he compared his visual discovery with the sound of bells “in whose tolling your imagination hears and conjure up names and words”. With Pola, Maurer and Rodenkirchen express similar phenomena in their own characteristic fashion.

Ken Waxman Toronto 01/06