Of all music, it was difficult to foresee that free improvisation, traditionally the music of abundance––indeed even of excess––could become the main setting for reductive strategies. After all, historical ensembles such as Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and AMM, both products of the sixties’ (counter) culture, had already demonstrated the aesthetic fruitfulness of reductive approaches to real-time music, decades earlier. But they remained secondary voices in the concerto of improvisational emancipation, drowned out by high-powered, vociferous free jazz. In the nineties, however, two things came together in improvised music: a rediscovery of those ignored voices; and an intense, renewed reception of contemporary composed music’s soundworld—in particular, the reductive approaches of Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi, but also the rich noise-world of Helmut Lachenmann’s scores.
Founded in 1993 in Vienna, Polwechsel was one of the first ‘improvisation in a new reductionist spirit’ ensembles, and was certainly one of the most closely-followed. Especially since, over the years, the quartet not only successfully managed to create a bracket for new improvised and composed music, but also to integrate newer forms of electronic music, particularly those which had been developed in the Vienna club scene by musicians such as Christian Fennesz or Christof Kurzmann (with whom the Polwechsel protagonists quickly entered into creative collaboration).
It shouldn't be forgotten that one of the participants in the first Polwechsel «pressing» was possibly the most radical reductionist of contemporary music: Radu Malfatti (his spot was later occupied by London saxophonist John Butcher).
Polwechsel is an ensemble that is usually characterized as an improv band—a classification that probably reflects the socio-musical background of most of its members, more than the music. Just about anyone would find the Polwechsel CDs’ composer credits perplexing: only two pieces on the CDs to date are identified as collective efforts, the remainder are attributed to individual Polwechsel musicians. And when one delves into the music itself, its austerity and precision makes its genesis in free improvised music seem unlikely—while at the same time, it is evident that the Pol-wechsel-Komponisten [trsl. ‘Pole-switching-composers’] integrate the idiosyncratic playing of their experienced improvising colleagues into their compositional methodology. This methodology simultaneously reveals a reductive aesthetic, and made Polwechsel one of the most influential inter-national ensembles of the end of the last century: that such inveterate improvisers knew how to circumvent the abundance of their vocabularies so sparingly and precisely, and how to insert their personal sounds in a disciplined way, without self-indulgence, into a group context, was truly a revelation for many listeners and fellow-musicians.
Despite this consideration, despite the fact that Polwechsel performs with stopwatches and scores quite conspicuously, the reporters at new music festivals where Polwechsel has given guest performances continually lapsed into the mechanism of viewing the quartet as bizarre debris from the improvisation world, and made corresponding (clueless) comments about the music. The presence of a saxophone or a "prepared table-top guitar" (à la Fred Frith) were apparently enough to signify, beyond a doubt, that this could not possibly be a "serious" new music ensemble.
Peter Niklas Wilson
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POLWECHSEL – Kein Gleichstrom mit der Masse
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