Label Report: Georg Graewe’s Random Acoustics

Mike Silverton

[April 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:5.]

Before I learned of Georg Graewe’s (never George but sometimes Gräwe’s) Random Acoustics label, I’d long enjoyed his participation in a pair of hatART and trio of Music & Arts CDs. But this is not quite accurate. I’d already received from the label’s American distributor, Cadence / NorthCountry, a Random Acoustics CD, Georg Graewe: Chamber Works 1990-92 [RA 003] without, however, remarking the “Produced by Georg Graewe” notice on the envelope’s backside, thus failing to recognize the pianist-composer under an impresario’s hat. It wasn’t until later that I chanced upon Random Acoustics’ intriguing catalog.

One doesn’t apply intriguing lightly. If one is alert to the art of his time, he cannot but respond to the seamless absorption of a high culture’s avant-garde and jazz into yet another field of activity. Avoiding the term “movement,” I’ll likewise decline from tagging these phenomena Third Stream, as that connects to a “compositional synthesis of cool jazz and classical techniques associated with the 1950’s” and stands thus enclosed in history. (One of the Third Stream’s leading partisans, the American Gunther Schuller, coined the term. The definition I quote comes from a good reference work, the late Nicholas Slonimsky’s Baker’s Dictionary of Music, Schirmer Books. Don’t confuse it with Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians or Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Classical Musicians, again Schirmer Books. The former, in its eighth edition, is the last of Slonimsky’s participation in that remarkable series; the latter, edited by Laura Kuhn, is remarkable for its omissions, Graewe included under either spelling. One could with reason debate “classical,” more about which immediately following.)

The point here is Graewe’s key position in what for safety’s sake shall remain the Unnamable. To the acclimated ear, a distinction — a quality, if you like — stands as a permeable membrane between the music of strict classical avant-gardistes like Luigi Nono and Helmut Lachenmann and the kind of activity Georg Graewe’s work exemplifies. Scanning from classical toward jazz, one becomes aware of a burgeoning informality. While it’s true that one hears Graewe as pianist, composer-improviser and label proprietor operating in that terra infirma between free jazz and classical, yet along this stretch of frontier there clearly exist degrees of separation. Obviously brilliant and intellectually curious, Graewe ingests his home-turf’s modernist, high-art esthetic in ways that re-emerge in his music and musical interests. Which is not, with all this talk of stops along hypothetical lines, to deny the man his poet’s voice. It’s one thing to try to position somebody intelligibly within a fin-de-siècle maelstrom and quite another to suggest that he’s merely this, that or the other thing.

There will always be something more to say about this confusion of lines. (I’ve visions of university libraries bursting with dissertations.) Despite the splendid work of living composers in their prime (the abovementioned Helmut Lachenmann as an example), the closer we come to the 21st century, classical art music’s hard-core avant-garde the more seems on a slide to the margin. Conversely, the less we hear of avant-garde technique in present-day classical art music as a force majeure, the more we detect its influence in what we used to call, quite comfortably, jazz. A law of physics at work out of school? Highly unlikely, but what to call anything now quite eludes my dilettante’s skills. I can do little more than sketch the flimsiest verbal outline in the hope that I provoke interest.

We begin in no particular order (out of respect for randomness) with Georg Graewe: Chamber Works 1990-92 [Random Acoustics RA 003], the disc I’ve already mention as the first RA release to come to my attention. It divides into three groupings. The first, called 15 Duets of 1990 (as a single track of 13:02 duration), features Phil Minton’s voice, Michael Moore’s clarinet, Anne Le Baron’s harp, Graewe’s piano, Hans Schneider’s bass, and Gerry Hemingway’s drums. The Englishman Minton colors whatever ensemble he participates in with one of the more remarkably strange instruments in the known universe. He typifies for me the madness of great art. That said, all here participate as equal and equally uninhibited talents. Graewe puts it this way: The music consists “of all possible duo combinations of the six instrumentalists (15). Each duet is performed eleven times with durations ranging between one to eleven beats … .” So much for one’s feel for improvisational activity. Without troubling to confirm Graewe’s arithmetic, let’s simply observe that ensemble work of a seemingly improvisational character succeeds only to the extent of the contributions its participants make. The recording by West German Radio, Udo Klaes and Sigfried Spittler, engineers, is about as good it gets. A top-flight recording conveys detail as little else can. Music of this kind especially, so rich in timbral and dynamic subtleties, flourishes in the hands of knowing technicians — better perhaps than live.

The second of three parts to Chamber Works 1990-92 is entitled Flavors A (edited version), Phil Wachsmann, violin; Melvyn Poore, tuba; and Graewe, piano, and recorded by Poore in 1991in concert performance, the event, Germany’s Donaueschinger Musiktage new-music festival. In Minton’s absence, the music (in five tracks) plays out rather more formally — classically, if you like. Graewe: “The piece is structured by given macro-rhythms for each part, [directed] from the piano. Within these rhythms the players [improvise] their own vocabulary.” Part three, Variations Q (in three tracks) features Horst Grabosch, trumpet; Michael Moore, bass clarinet; Ernst Reijseger, cello; Graewe, piano. The work arises from “the GrubenKlangOrchester’s Jubilee Tour [of 1992] … and is based on a series of chords which were generated from a 12-tone row.” Ah yes, the notorious tone row, capable of emptying halls faster than shouts of “Bomb!” We now see where Graewe’s head has been, and bless the stubborn fellow, it shows! (See Georg Gräwe & GrubenKlangOrchester / Songs and Variations [hatART CD 6028].) The beautifully detailed recording is the work of Angsar Ballhorn, who, with Dick Lucas, also recorded the next disc discussed. (To judge from the frequency with which I see his name on CDs, the talented Ballhorn is an appropriately busy man.)

Flex 27 [Random Acoustics RA 007] consists of Graewe’s long-standing trio with the Netherlander cellist, Ernst Reijseger, and American percussionist, Gerry Hemingway. The notes, such as they are, begin and end with a brief, enigmatic anecdote. A clue to the music’s ad libitum nature resides in its declaration of authorship: “All compositions by Graewe / Reijseger / Hemingway,” i.e., on-the-spot improvisational. If I have that wrong, no harm, for this is how it sounds, as an observation I offer in praise. Excepting the rare blusey-jazz turn, the interactions among these three master players are militantly abstract, amelodic, oblivious of conventions and, for long stretches, tonality. I treasure Flex 27 for its having established residence outside musical argument’s givens and clichés. Applause tells us that this especially good recording is of a live event, or more accurately live events, Köln twice, Amsterdam once. Reijseger and Hemingway are in their own right superstars in a world in which the paparazzi take no interest. At moments like this, one thinks of Stendahl’s aphorism, To the happy few.

One’s happiness sustains by way of Perceptions / Axon [Random Acoustics RA 008] — Phil Minton, voice; Marcio Mattos, cello (Brazil); Martin Blume, drums (Germany) — if only because inhibitions lie yet farther afield. Minton, in a keystone position within the ensemble, rises to heights of creative lunacy. The only thing I have on disc to compare (and I can think of no greater praise) is Eberhard Blum’s solo vocal performance of John Cage’s Sixty-Two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham [hatART CD 2-6095, two discs]. However, the comparison slights Minton’s co-conspirators, neither of whom deserve the snub. This will long remain one of my favorite discs. I’ve played it at least a dozen times prior to these remarks, which I’m determined to keep brief, as trying to describe this kind of thing amounts, as Elvis Costello observed, to dancing about architecture.

Abstraction as a term for staking out a category has its uses — I’d be lost without it — yet it’s far from adequately descriptive. Flutist Robert Dick and violinist Mari Kimura participate as a duo and once each as soloists in ten tracks of music remarkable on several counts: for the brilliance of either player’s “extended technique,” for the ingenuity of their collaborations and solo turns, but most of all, for the unanticipated pleasures of a charming outcome. For all its technical derring-do, this is gentle, loving music. But don’t infer sentimentality. Abstraction sees to the absence of that. Contemplative rather in an idiom so seemingly unpremeditated as to dwell on thin ice, but always successfully. Nobody drowns or even gets damp. In addition to flute, Robert Dick plays piccolo, a pair of bass flutes and an alto flute. What I assume is a session photo shows Mari Kimura with a conventional violin in hand, an electric violin on a chair nearby. If the latter appears in Irrefragable Dreams [RA 018], I cannot say where. Excellent recordings from Basel, Switzerland, Wolfgang Heininger, engineer (1994), and Brooklyn, NY, Michael Brorby, engineer (1995). I’ve a CD on my shelves, issued in ’91, of Dick solos with Neil Rolnick brushing in an electronic environment entitled Venturi Shadows [OO Discs 7] I recommend to those smitten by Irrefragable Dreams, which I suggest they try first.

The Flume Factor [RA 020] features the Frank Gratkowski Trio (Gratkowski, alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Dieter Manderscheidt, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums). The compositions are all Gratkowski’s, excepting Interlude, a trio collaboration. As you might have guessed from the instrumentation, we’re closer to jazz, albeit of a free, improvisational character. Let me modify that by observing that the program explores a range of styles. California Roll (for Michael Moore) comes as close to conventional as we’re likely to get in these delightfully strange environs. Wherever one stands in terms of acceptance, the listener is beguiled by Gratkowski’s musicianship: a remarkably secure, liquid intonation, phrases turned with, at once, lapidary precision and extraordinary grace, a flawless sense of pace. Contrasts count for a lot here. Flume, opens to stark angularities and soon subsides to a tender flow. Here Gratkowki plays clarinet with similar mastery. The disc’s longest work, Feld 1 (John Coltrane in memoriam), takes Gratkowski’s sax out to free jazz’s squealing-pig-in-barbed-wire territory, where Hemingway and Manderscheid also find ample room to romp. In terms of idiom, The Flume Factor for me has an American feel to it, pace the excellent Dieter Manderscheidt. Splendid recordings by several engineers in Germany and Austria.

The Flume Factor’s drummer heads up the Gerry Hemingway Quintet in Slamadam [RA 012], with Michael Moore, alto and baritone saxophones, clarinet; Wolter Wierbos, trombone; Ernst Reijseger, cello; Mark Dresser, bass; Hemingway, drums, steel drums. Were it not so tacky a handle, Hemingway might well have named his quintet the Gerry Hemingway All-Stars. What an impressive line-up! Hemingway, who as instrumentalist remains where the drummer usually dwells in jazz ensembles, dominates events rather and most impressively as their composer. Not that he’s a wallflower. In the great tradition of jazz, however free or vanguard in outlook, solos are still very much in evidence. Free, yes, again as an excursion through styles and degrees of decorum, along with decorum’s mischievous disintegration, but improvisational, most assuredly not. Of all the things I’ve so far mentioned, The Flume Factor sounds — that’s sounds, not necessarily is — the most premeditated. Reijseger’s solo in Threnody / Taffia 2, the fourth of five numbers, is wonderfully introspective. But I cite this somber piece — threnody means dirge — as a tutorial in where intelligent jazz goes for refreshment. We begin in pure art music and segue with no apparent discomfort to Latin rhythms and bright ensemble and solo turns, as perhaps the Taffia side of events. My New Shorter Oxford describes the word in the upper case as a network of influential Welshmen and women. Doubt there’s a connection, but one never knows. Three venues for these fine recordings: two in Amsterdam, one in Bussum, the fruit of three tours, the earliest in ’93. (Writing about this reminded me to listen again to two superb Hemingway CDs, Down to the Wire, for quartet, same folks absent Reijseger [hat Jazz Series 6121], and The Marmalade King, for the quintet [hat Jazz Series 6164]).

For U.S. information about Random Acoustics, see, Cadence / NorthCountry’s URL, or email Random Acoustics’ own webpage I’m unable to raise. You can email Graewe directly at