skug #53 | Text: Tobias Bolt | Sat 14. Jun. 2003
Eine wunderbare Liaison geht der österreichisch/englische elektro-akustische
Improvisations-Vierer Polwechsel mit Laptop-Wizard Christian Fennesz auf
»Wrapped Islands« ein. Konsequenterweise wird das dann auch
»Polwechsel Fennesz« genannt. Nicht »Polwechsel plus
Fennesz« oder gar »Polwechsel vs. Fennesz«. Integration
ohne Assimilation, eine gelungene mutualistische Symbiose. Aufgenommen
in nur drei Tagen in den Amann Studios eröffnet sich dem konzentrierten
Hörer ein Soundkosmos von geradezu berauschender Intensität.
Fennesz integriert sein hochfrequentes Laptop-Knarzen und Knistern sowie
die akustische Gitarre geschickt in die ruhigen, frei schwebenden Kompositionen
aus endlosen Feedback-Nebelschwaden, subsonischem, statischem Summen,
zartem Saxophon-Hauchen, Rauschen, Knacksen und Dröhnen – ein
unglaublich dichter und ökonomischer Sound. Acht klar und präzise
umrissene Stücke lang werden geschickt Spannungsbögen aufgebaut,
Improvisation auf höchstem Niveau betrieben, strahlt diese Platte
eine meditative Gelassenheit und Größe aus, so dass man ohne
weiteres sagen kann: Ein Guru von einem Album.
The predominantly Viennese quartet
The predominantly Viennese quartet Polwechsel have exhaustively explored
the grey areas between composition and improvisation, electronic and acoustic,
jazz and classical for much of the past decade. Austrian Christian Fennesz,
while initially a guitarist, is primarily known for his abrasive yet melodic
laptop explorations on labels such as Mego and Touch. Wrapped Islands
documents the much-anticipated first meeting of these two driving forces
of contemporary music.
Bassist Werner Dafeldecker and cellist Michael Moser co-founded Polwechsel
in 1993, joined by guitarist Burkhard Stangl and trombonist Radu Malfatti.
The microscopic textures they explored were quite unusual at the time,
and proved to be very influential on later waves of 'lower-case' and 'microsound'
musicians. They released their self-titled debut disc on Georg GrŠwe's
influential Random Acoustics label in 1995 (later reissued on hat ART).
Radu Malfatti left the band in 1997 to concentrate exclusively on his
own musical ideas, and was replaced by saxophonist John Butcher, who has
been a crucial part of the band ever since, on Polwechsel 2 (hat ART),
Polwechsel 3 (Durian), and Wrapped Islands.
Christian Fennesz is possibly the most prominent of the current onslaught
of laptop musicians. He burst onto the scene in 1995, with Instrument,
a record of deconstructed guitar compositions, and has since explored
various combinations of guitar and laptop, melody and distortion, improvisation
and postproduction on projects such as Hotel ParaI.lel, Plays, and Endless
Summer (all on Mego). He's also an integral member of the all-star electronic
orchestra MIMEO and the laptop trio Fennoberg.
In January of 2002, the five musicians gathered in Christof Amann's Viennese
studios for three days of recordings, from which Wrapped Islands was assembled.
While the first three Polwechsel releases solely contain compositions,
Wrapped Islands is fully improvised. The warmth and depth of the music
induces an illusory simplicity, with different details and passages emerging
to the surface with each listen.
Mark Richardson, July 23rd, 2003
The actual definition of the word "experiment" suggests focus
and planning. In science, one controls variables and conducts an experiment
in order to test a hypothesis. Most experimental music doesn't really
fit the bill. Experimental music is usually not an attempt to discover
whether a specific idea holds true under a given set of conditions; what
we call "experiment" in music might better be described as "tinkering."
Tinkering is a meandering stream of connected thoughts and movements
that might lead to invention: "Okay now, what happens if I put this
here, yes, I see, then I tighten this screw and…wait, that doesn't
work, I need to put the screw underneath this fold, okay, that ought to
do it. Now I make a cut here..." Tinkering is what Thomas Edison
was doing when he first sat at his workbench and wrapped tin around a
cylinder to see if he might make cuts into the metal analogous to sounds
in the air.
Tinkering is the perfect word to describe this collaboration between
Christian Fennesz and Vienna-based improv group Polwechsel. Polwechsel's
MO is to create texture and reveal the inner-workings of sound itself.
Accordingly, there is virtually no melody on Wrapped Islands and instruments
throughout are not used in the traditional manner. Instead we get a series
of drones, scrapes, brushes, taps, rustles. There is the sound of John
Butcher's saxophone, but usually he blows a single note for 30 seconds
and then repeats, transforming his Western instrument into a Fourth World
didgeridoo. The guitars, including some of Fennesz' trademark processed
strums, drift through a seemingly unrelated series of notes chosen for
their geometry, with the occasional jazzy upstroke to keep a foot in the
world of conventional music. A cello might be sawed or plucked or tapped
or just banged around a bit to hear what happens.
The members of Polwechsel play established instruments but two of the
members (and Fennesz) are also credited with "computer," and
other with "electronics," so you know anything goes as far as
sound. Still, the feel of Wrapped Islands is very live and in-the-moment.
It's an album of quiet, subtle, low-key improv, music that rumbles and
creaks like a building settling into place after a tremor, with just a
hint of tense soundtrack music providing atmosphere in the background.
There is space in most of these tracks, a thousand holes of silence poked
into the chattering web of sound, but my favorites have more density.
Wrapped Islands is at its best when the drones gather some momentum. On
"Framing 3" (the tracks are titled Framing 1 through Framing
8), a bony spine of drone, something like the gurgle of an outboard boat
engine, snakes through the track giving the typically random sounds
something to bounce off of. When Butcher's tenor enters for a three-note
phrase, the most typically jazz-sounding bit on the entire album, the
contrast in the tension is palpable. "Framing 5" is also thick
and heavy, with gurgling keyboards and deep bass plucks suggesting some
kind of threat.
A distant, vague sense that something is wrong prevais on Wrapped Islands,
and the tone varies little from track to track. There are moments when
something lighter pops out, as on "Framing 4" begins with one
of the few concessions to beauty, with a graceful low-end flutter, sterile
but mechanically lovely, but these vanish rather quickly into the dark,
serious atmosphere of the group improvisation. This devotion to a small
handful of moods suggests that Polwechsel and Fennesz had something specific
in mind when they sat down together to tinker, but my sense is that they
never quite found what they were looking for. Wrapped Islands seems a
bit like scribbled notes in pursuit of a potentially great invention.
I've listened to Wrapped Islands nearly everyday for a month trying to
put some kind of clever spin on it, trying to find something along the
lines of an artistic or theoretical precedent for it, but I can't. I can't
find the right words to illustrate this album.
The appeal of Polwechsel is obvious. John Butcher, Werner Dafeldecker,
Michael Moser, and Burkhard Stangl are all musicians who have established
themselves as incredibly strong solo performers, putting them in a group
with the addition of consistently strong Christian Fennesz seems utterly
Every day I review new improvised albums by the modern titans of free
jazz, all the while having Wrapped Islands in the back of my head. Here
is an album full of enigma, thought, surprise, and texture and juxtaposed
next to the daily grind of 50 minute albums brimming with meaningless
squawking, I can only think that comparison is downright impossible. This
is something different.
Yes. There is a fifty-year history of improvised electro-acoustic music.
A lot of it is fantastic. I can honestly say that I've never heard an
album like this, however, even including the past Polwechsel releases.
The album is consistent over its 53 minutes, paced deliberately and giving
the impression of being heavily thought out. Maybe it's not true. I know
they recorded this album over the course of several days, I know the music
is largely improvised, but there is such an indelible tint to the music,
something mahogany and sauna-like.
For all of that electronic music that aims to be austere and cold, here
is an album that is smoldering in scratchy humidity. Its blistering, wet
hisses mixed with the delirious overlap of acoustic guitar, reed, and
string harmonics seem strange considering the album was recorded in January,
nearly a year ago.
Drones and lulls are emblematic of electro-acoustic improvisation, maybe
because they're the place where the looping repetition of computers and
slight inaccuracies of acoustic instruments blur most stunningly. It is
important to stress that somehow, Wrapped Islands, which builds subtle,
sonorous hums, escapes any staleness that might be associated with the
word. Polwechsel has made a rapidly moving album that gives the illusion
that it stays still.
There are so many layers to peel away, from sounds that mimic each other
to the ever-present sense of melody gone awry, Wrapped Islands still holds
its sense of awe, even now, over a month since I first heard it. The album
is one of the most exciting, provoking releases of the year, and one of
the fewthat managed to get there with subtlety.
What distinguishes Wrapped Islands from Polwechsel's earlier CDs is not
just the presence of their guest Christian Fennesz. Composition has always
been important to the group, but here all of the music is freely improvised.
This combination of factors makes a considerable difference to how the
music actually sounds. Wrapped Islands is less austere and much less cerebral
than their previous releases. The music, recorded over a three-day period,
is warm and inviting, and events unfold at a leisurely pace. Think of
it as a late season postscript to Fennesz's Endless Summer.
Wrapped Islands seems to allude to Christo, the artist who surrounded
eleven islands in Biscayne Bay with wide collars of buoyant pink plastic,
and whose notoriety stems from his wrapping of historic buildings such
as the Reichstag. Christo's play on the themes of demarcation, commodification,
mystery and simplification can also be applied to music, and with interesting
results. For example, the largely unruffled surfaces of much of Wrapped
Islands may be masking complex phenomena which only repeated plays -
something inimical to free improvisation - will reveal.
But I'm making Wrapped Islands sound like a more formidable proposition
than it actually is. "Framing 2" has a relaxed, jazzy feel,
driven by Werner Dafeldecker's double bass, Michael Moser's cello, and
Fennesz and Burkhard Stangl's acoustic and lightly amplified guitars.
If one concentrates on these instruments - rather than the glassy electronics
and John Butcher's feedback tenor saxophone, which subtly complicate the
aural image - this track is abstractly reminiscent of Tim Buckley albums
such as Lorca and Blue Afternoon. The influence of Christian Fennesz is
most obvious at moments such as these. Essentially, his music is melodically
direct but otherwise ambiguous, qualities which can be heard throughout
Wrapped Islands but especially on "Framing 6" and "Framing
8". All things considered, this is the most satisfying album I've
heard this year.
Leave it to Erstwhile's visionary Jon Abbey to facilitate an encounter
between Polwechsel and Christian Fennesz. Polwechsel being the austere
contemporary composition quartet led by Werner Dafeldecker, and Fennesz
a universally embraced envoy for a mistier stripe of laptop humanism,
all these two forces appear to have in common would be a home base in
Vienna. Where Fennesz would have you wallow with him in surf's-up nostalgia,
Polwechsel prefers the fusty, dusty domain of academic papers and aesthetic
treatises. Wrapped Islands not only finds common ground for this oddly
matched pairing, but finds it in a South Pacific setting conceptually
linked to Christo's outrageous art feat of the early '80s.
In all fairness, Fennesz has proven himself an uncommonly versatile player,
slipping comfortably between his celebrated solo projects, the lighthearted
Fenno'berg, heady sound/art interfaces, and dates with the daunting Music
in Movement Electronic Orchestra (MIMEO). Polwechsel, however, bends its
rigid agenda in several notable ways. Firstly, the music assembled as
Wrapped Islands was improvised, not composed, during a three-day recording
session at Christoph Amann's Vienna studio. And while the instrumental
voices of Dafeldecker's double bass, John Butcher's various saxophones,
Michael Moser's cello, and Burkhard Stangl's electric and acoustic guitars
draw from a familiar palette, augmented as usual with electro-acoustic
accents (all but Butcher shape and supplement their sounds with a computer
or electronic devices), Fennesz's presence is immediately apparent. Though
he avoids the blatant sunniness of Endless Summer, perhaps in deference
to Dafeldecker's dictum of ego less performance, Fennesz maintains a tone
warm and insinuating enough to thaw Polwechsel's icy formality. Friederike
Paetzold's fantastic art design revels in the difference, incorporating
wrapped islands, "Solaris" still frames, modular furniture and
mitosis imagery, and a trippy spectrum of psychedelic pastels that breaks
completely with the stark aesthetic of Polwechsel past.
No Polwechsel record has ever sounded so humid, so lush. In the opening
"Framing 1," the pervasive electro-acoustic haze melts Stangl's
six-string icicles, and the mingled low-register sounds swell as they
drink in the moisture. The call-and-response between Butcher's brass and
the other musicians shape-shifts to hint at myriad fowl and fauna flitting
heard-but-unseen through dense foliage. The complementary guitar textures
of Fennesz's digitally smeared strums and Stangl's crystalline plucks
sustain this vivid rainforest impressionism throughout much of the album,
though all five musicians are inventive enough in their choices of devices
and unpredictable gestures that each "Framing" emerges as distinct
experience. On "Framing 4," for example, the guitars recede
as Dafeldecker and Moser stage a slinky pas de deux against a vespertine
backdrop of chirps and clicks. Roscid, roiling atmospherics return with
"Framing 5," now setting a series of exquisite Stangl semi-solos
in bedewed contrast to the quiet bustle. Moser takes a memorable turn
in "Framing 7," sawing more sensuously than Polwechsel ever
allowed. The closing "Framing 8" is so lovely and fleeting,
it could actually be mistaken for a John Fahey guitar-and-tape piece.
Butcher, Dafeldecker, Moser, and Stangl are exceptional players and,
liberated by the casual, improvised context of Wrapped Islands, they've
rarely if ever sounded finer. The talented, benevolent Fennesz once again
proves himself an ideal partner. No one else could have truly bonded with
these intimidating musicians, broken through their defenses, and brought
out the bonhomie often obscured in Polwechsel's sparse and brittle scores.
Joe Panzner 2003-09-01
consider Wrapped Islands to be the product of an unlikely-but-fruitful
pairing of two of Vienna’s more superficially disparate parties
– the arch-academics of Polwechsel and Beach-Boys-glitch champion
Christian Fennesz. For the past decade, Polwechsel has been responsible
for some of the most uncompromising chamber works to be found, microscopic
fields of electronics-tinged scratch and scrape rooted in the ego-defying
tradition of late-20th century composition. By contrast, Fennesz has spent
a career crafting an idiosyncratic brand of digital art merging his devotion
to lush 1960s pop with the sputter and hum of the Touch and Mego aesthetic.
Fennesz’s improvised extracurricular work, however, that reveals
him to be a sensitive and flexible sparring partner as well as an adept
composer. His grainy melodicism is an integral component of the massive
MIMEO ensemble, the playful pileups of the Fenn O’Berg trio, and
his occasional appearances with Polwechsel’s own Werner Dafeldecker.
Even with this personal connection, there’s still a formidable stylistic
gap to be bridged, and the success of Wrapped Islands hinges on the rapid
adaptability of its creators.
Wrapped Islands finds Polwechsel on their first all-improvised outing,
and their freedom from composition rigor leaves them uncommonly receptive
to the sun-warmed atmospheres of Fennesz. The soundfield –bubbling
streams of modulated strings, growling bass rumbles, fluttering saxophone
multiphonics – is largely Polwechsel’s, but the tone found
here owes more to the pixilated beaches of Endless Summer than the lunar
landscapes of Polwechsel’s earlier releases. While Wrapped Islands
may jettison the overt melody of Fennesz’s last solo effort in favor
of more abstract fare, it retains that album’s contrast between
the apparent placidity of the surface structures and the more unsettling
currents that run beneath. Warms surges of suspended string tones wrap
around barbed guitar harmonics and fidgety electronics, calling to mind
the playfully tense interlocking of the hermetic and organic seen in Christo’s
environmental art, to which the album’s title presumably makes reference.
Beginning with a trickle of electronics and swelling to a rich stream
of bass buzz and feedback hum, “Framing 1” immediately sets
the terms for the compromise between Polwechsel’s icy prickle and
Fennesz’s warmer currents. Surrounded by Fennesz’s sparkling
laptop gurgles, guitarist Burkhard Stangl trades in his typically distant
clusters for jazzier meanderings and offers up a series of bent flutters
before slipping beneath the swelling tide from Werner Dafeldecker’s
bass and Michael Moser’s cello. An omnipresent drone is passed from
player to player, establishing a tranquil surface across which round-edged
tones leisurely bob and sharper intrusions send quickly stilled ripples
of distress. “Framing 3” recasts the opener on a stormier
sea, with Dafeldecker establishing a menacing undertow of electronically
thickened arco bass echoed by Fennesz’s eerily resonant electronics
and punctuated by John Butcher’s wavering saxophone. On later tracks,
like the elegant “Framing 6,” Fennesz balances his laptop
interjections with fragile acoustic guitar plucking, and he and Stangl’s
chimes circle like evening fireflies above a cooling pool of glassy bowing
and soft pizzicato. Fennesz’s playing remains delicate and sensitive
throughout, and he folds naturally into the well-established group sound
of the Polwechsel crew – even as they continually assimilate his
warmly abrasive textures and unhurried pacing.
Other tracks feature Fennesz in a slightly more active vein, and his refracted
guitar samples and granular gurgles offer further buoyancy to the lush
group sound. “Framing 2” centers on a duet between Stangl’s
electric guitar and Fennesz’s approximation of its digitally dissolving
mirror image, while Dafeldecker and Butcher create shifting backdrops
of fractal walking bass and amplified tenor saxophone feedback. On “Framing
7,” the laptopper’s trademark pitchshifted guitar glimmers
draw Dafeldecker and Moser into an exchange of uncharacteristically rich
bowed drones and fragile harmonics. “Framing 8,” the album’s
impeccable postscript, edges closest to the pop-tinged atmospheres of
Fennesz’s recent solo efforts. Lazy slide guitars spin out crystalline
melodies above a net of splintery electronics that ripples sympathetically
with each passing note – it’s difficult not to imagine Fahey
channeling his spectral blues on the imagined islands of Endless Summer
Improvised music rarely yields results as immediately inviting as the
tropical soundscapes found on Wrapped Islands . Yet despite its accessibility,
Wrapped Islands never trades its depth of sonic detail or dulls its sharper
edges for the sake of superficial beauty. What emerges is a musical world
anchored in both Polwechsel’s brittle fragmentation and Fennesz’s
sentimental flickers – one needs not look further than Friederike
Paetzold’s color-saturated collage of aerial island photographs
and mitosis stills for the appropriate visual corollary. Together, Polwechsel
and Fennesz have co-created a brilliant alien beachscape whose warm sands
hide slivers of broken glass, an intriguing inner world that demands equal
parts admiration and attention from those who visit.
BAD ALCHEMY 41.
Die 1993 vom Bassisten Werner Dafeldecker und dem Cellisten Michael Moser
zusammen mit dem Gitarristen Burkhard Stangl gegründete Formation
POLWECHSEL ist mit ihrem mikrophonen Kurzschluss aus ebernsKlangaskese,
Cage's"Ryoanji" -Meditation und Incus-Sprödigkeit das Mutterschiff
der diskreten Dritten Wiener Schule (-> Durian, EFZEG, SSSD). 1997
hat Radu Malfatti den vierten Platz in diesem Quartett geräumt für
den Saxophonisten John Butcher, und für Wrapped Islands (Erstwhile
023), der inzwischen vierten CD, erweiterte nun Christian Fennesz das
bereits computerisierte Klangbild der Formation mit Elektronik und akustischer
Gitarre, soweit man bei einem Mehr an Zurückhaltung von Erweiterung
sprechen kann. In einer Feierstunde des Pianissimo und der Reduktion singen
die vier Verächter jeglicher Redundanz ein Lob der Nuancen und der
Flüchtigkeit, der akustischen Entschlackung. Die leisen, konsonanten
Töne driften beim geringsten Lufthauch davon, frei von Erdenschwere,
zweck- und dienstfrei wandeln sie sich osmotisch der Luft und dem Raum
an, den sie um ein, zwei Grad erwärmen und leicht parfümieren