kkehard Ehlers is a rarity in the gear-headed world of post-techno electronic music: an unabashed Romantic. In a field known for its tireless software fetish and nuts-and-bolts aesthetic, the bleeding heart worn on Ehlers’ sleeve offers a warm, humanistic contrast to the more clinical fashions of Powerbook-wielding peers. Embedded within his conceptual rhetoric – the reconciliation of digital art and emotional complexity, the emergence of content over mechanical “tinkering” – and elaborate compositional devices is the heartfelt aim to, in Ehlers’ own words, “produce the saddest music in the world.” His first album, Betrieb , summoned the air of tragic beauty through literal means by refracting the sighing strings of early Schoenberg and Ives with the lens of digital processing. His most recent work, the Plays series, forsakes the literalism of sampling in favor of complex “referencing” – the creation of an detailed, abstract sonic portrait designed to resonate with the emotional essence of its subject.
The five EPs compiled on Plays pay homage to a number of Ehlers' artistic inspirations: composer and political activist Cornelius Cardew, author Hubert Fiche, filmmaker John Cassavetes, free jazz icon Albert Ayler, and Delta blues legend Robert Johnson. Each artist was involved in lifelong crises of resistance against the strictures of artistic convention, social repression, and an abundance of personal demons, and each died prematurely in tragic – and often violent – manners. Born of this duality between rebellious vitality and inescapable mortality, Ehlers’ elegiac microcosms respond with equal doses of blurred hope and melancholy. Like their troubled subjects, each tribute is an intricate and multifaceted emotional landscape marked by peaks of triumph and deeper recesses of sadness and haunted isolation. Every crackle and drone in Ehlers’ richly programmatic constructions takes on an eerily evocative aura, as if struggling to summon the spirits of heroes lost from a distressed digital ether.
In the case of the Plays Cornelius Cardew, Plays John Cassavetes, and Plays Robert Johnson , Ehlers forges elegant and faintly explicit associations between his intricate laptop constructions and their namesakes. On Plays Cornelius Cardew -- the only Plays tracks to feature artist-sourced material – Ehlers’ saturates the soundfield with glowing organ drones and phantom choirs time-stretched into hazy clouds of ethereal resonance. Dissociated rattles provide an uneasy undercurrent beneath the unruffled surface – a sonic mirror for Cardew’s lifelong conflict between his populist and avant-garde leanings, both personally and politically. The first of Plays John Cassavetes tracks finds Ehlers folding keening soundtrack strings into a lingering mist filled with malleable loops of granular hiss and soft-stuttering murmur. The second track, produced along with Ehlers’ stylistic peer and associate Stephen Mathieu, projects ringing drones behind a cyclical string loop of appropriately wide-screen grandeur. Plays Robert Johnson , with its fractured morass of loose-string rattle and pitch-shifted slide scraping, conjures the most explicit images of all the Plays EPs. A vaguely mournful stretch of hyper-processed guitar ramblings gives way to a uncharacteristically playful microhouse coda in which Johnson’s hedonistic spirit dances atop the preceding death rattle. It’s a surprise ending, for certain, but an oddly appropriate conclusion to the Plays collection; like the music before, it’s evocative without being literal, an unconventional distillation of complex personal and musical phenomenon.
Plays Hubert Fichte and Plays Albert Ayler, however, offer decidedly more abstract impressions of their stated subjects. The impossibility of directly sourcing the writer Fichte – a self-proclaimed “homosexual half-Jew” whose post-WWII writings exposed Germans to homosexuality as a literary theme – leaves Ehlers’ to rely on atmosphere alone. Beginning with a twitching thread of high tones and ending with a muted guitar ambling in crackly silt, Plays Hubert Fichte draws only tangential connections between its digital murmurings and their namesake. Fortunately, the EP’s busy bubbling and dub-synth washes compensate for what these tracks lack in referential strength. Similarly, Plays Albert Ayler deliberately forsakes the obligatory saxophone squealing in favor of drawn-out cello lamentations, a sedate take on the fiery string wailing of Ayler’s prime recordings. Though Ehlers’ splintery recombination of these mournful bowings echoes Ayler’s impassioned soloing, the mood of the Ayler tracks is far more likely to conjure images of the legend’s body floating in the East River than his ecstatic onstage presence. Arguably the most surprising and successful of the cataloged EPs, the melancholy Plays Albert Ayler best realizes Ehlers’ gift for revealing his subject’s humanity in an intriguingly roundabout fashion and uncovering curious new human perspectives along the way.
In the end, Plays hinges on the effectiveness of these referencing techniques. Taken without their programmatic backdrop, Ehlers’ collection of electronic miniatures stands as well-executed glitchworks laced with the sort of conspicuous moodiness that rarely surfaces in the laptop pack. When considered with their titular reference points, the Plays EPs become more than the sum of their MAX/MSP code. Each EP unfolds with the sort of reverence and perceptiveness that directly corresponds to Ehlers’ ambition and affection, and his music appropriately tugs equally at the ears and heart. While Ehlers’ previous efforts muddied his admiration with rigid methodologies, Plays flourishes in its willingness to let Ehlers to indulge in his individual brand of digitally-filtered sentimentality. What’s left is a series of heartfelt tributes, crafted with the technical precision and personal insight of a master portrait painter – fit tributes to the complexities of Ehlers’ well-beloved heroes.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01