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.




Martin Wallace

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 irresistible.

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.




gil gershman

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.





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