Axel Dörner and Robin Hayward
Axel Dörner and Robin Hayward
t the end of the twentieth century a new form of improvised and semi-improvised music began to emerge from such centers as Berlin, London, Tokyo and Vienna. Characterizing this new musical current is not easy, given the inevitable differences within and between its various national manifestations; however, as a first approximation, it seems fair to say that, above and beyond the idiosyncrasies that separated them, the musicians shared to some degree an orientation towards microtonality, radically extended playing techniques, pianissimo dynamics, small gestures, silence, austerity, and unconventional sounds and timbres that blur the distinctions between music and noise and utilize for musical ends a battery of dragging, scraping, hissing, churning and percussive sounds curiously redolent at times of industrial or other mechanical processes. In Berlin in particular, the new music was often referred to, albeit largely by outsiders, as ‘reductionism’.
The development of reductionism seems to be traceable to factors both internal and external to strictly musical concerns. In the case of internal causes, one key element was the increasingly evident exhaustion of the dominant currents of free improvisation. Freely improvised music had appeared during the late 1960s and early 1970s and sought to push improvisation beyond the idiomatic elements that constrained even the freest of free jazz. However, more than 20 years after its birth, the music had become fixed into narrow patterns of playing and interaction, often staying very close to either the rapid and incessant pointillist ‘insect music’ associated with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Music Improvisation Company of the early 1970s or more jazz-based idioms that had also arisen in the 1970s as departures from American free jazz, albeit to a lesser degree, but had barely changed in the ensuing decades.
Reductionism’s reaction to the stasis of much of free improvisation was both radical and reactionary. On the one hand, it revolutionized the musical language of improvisation by eschewing sterile timbres and techniques, habitual musical loquacity, and an obvious action-and-reaction model of improvised discourse in favour of an intense restraint that reinvigorated the dictum that every note should count and embraced fragility, silence and less obvious complementarities between contributions as appropriate modes of response within an ensemble and playing situation. More conservatively, however, many reductionists reintroduced elements of composition into improvised music. This step may have been conditioned by the interest of some reductionst musicians in the hierarchical world of composed experimental music. It ensured that reductionist music was content to adhere to reified past creative choices (in the form of the score or an analogous set of prescriptions to be followed) and thereby step back from the commitment to creation in the moment and radical egalitarianism of the older forms of free improvisation. On this instrumentalist view, music merely consisted of waves passing through air, and it did not matter how the all-important sound was produced. The conception of music as fundamentally a social process, the nature of which in any given case necessarily had political dimensions and implications, was discarded.
Any attempt to identify the non-musical external factors that contributed to the birth of reductionism is necessarily highly speculative. But in seeking to answer the timing of reductionism’s first appearance and the form it took it seems reasonable to hypothesize a role for certain characteristics of the advanced capitalist societies in which the music was born. Amongst the features of the urban capitalism of the 1990s that would appear to be relevant are the ubiquity of loud and undifferentiated soundscapes produced by, amongst other things, high concentrations of cars and muzak and other amplified music; widespread acceleration in social and individual processes; the centrality of spectacle, visceral sensation, frenzy and hedonism to a burgeoning economy of commodified desire; and the habitual inattention and febrile need for external stimulation produced as the subjective corollary of such social phenomenon. Reductionism counterposes against these tendencies a collective musical practice and experience to which an austere but intense stillness and concentration is central, insisting on a willingness and ability to focus on and interpret nuances lying outside a codified system of meaning and expectation such as that provided by western tonality. In this way, it potentially refurbishes the senses and sets in stark critical contrast the mores and sounds of the oblivious rush to libidinal consumption, alienated superfluity, and hyper-stimulated oblivion dominant in the wider society. As Radu Malfatti, an Austrian trombonist whose work as a soloist and group member was seminal to the turn towards reductionism, said in a February 2001 interview with Dan Warburton:
“For me, the true avant-garde (not the fossil being carried around in more or less stinky bags) is the critical analysis or issue-taking with our cultural surroundings. We are surrounded by noises and sensory overstimulation, wherever we go, sit, shit, sleep... Out of sheer need, I'm interested in a world of thoughts, actions, music and so forth, which reflects the cultural situation and is reflective. What's needed today is not faster, higher, stronger, louder - I want to know all about "the lull in the storm”.
Whatever the roots of reductionism may be, its earliest practitioners included the German trumpet-player Axel Dörner and the British tuba-player Robin Hayward, the two musicians who appear on this excellent new CD from the Absinth label. In the mid-1990s Hayward was an active participant in traditional free improvisation music scene in London, but in 1996 he attended a performance by Polwechel, an Austrian group that then included Radu Malfatti and was one of the pioneers of the reductionist aesthetic. Around that time, he also heard Axel Dörner, a trumpeter who had been living in Berlin since 1994 and who had, alongside his more conventional jazz playing in numerous ensembles, developed a radical and influential set of extended techniques that supplied one of the signature sounds of reductionism. The result of these encounters was a crystallization of Hayward’s dissatisfaction with the existing forms of free improvisation and a dramatic shift in his musical orientation. The collaboration between Dörner Hayward was born, initially in the reductionist trio known as rar that they formed with Malfatti in 1997. Shortly afterwards, Hayward moved to Berlin, where he worked not just with but also with the other members of the tightly-knit community of advanced musicians in the city who together created the fertile and inventive world of Berlin reductionism, such as Burkhard Beins, Annette Krebs and Andrea Neumann.
The Abinsth release presents four tracks performed by Dörner and Hayward as a duo in Berlin in 2001. By this date there had been a reaction against the chilly rigours of strict reductionism. As Hayward observed in a recent interview in Musicworks magazine, “by 2000 I was feeling in a cul-de-sac with the much reduced, static music I was producing”. However, these particular recordings retain significant elements of the aesthetic and distinctive soundworld of reductionism, even if they have been loosened to a degree in the pursuit of continuing creative freedom and invention. Both the improvised and composed sides of reductionism (or perhaps post-reductionism) are represented.
Two tracks are derived from a live performance at Zaumschiff Zitrone (or ‘Lemon Starship’), a tiny venue in Prenzlauer Berg that is one of the key locations for live performances of advanced improvised and semi-improvised music in the city. Both Dörner and Hayward work with extended techniques that produce sounds that are far from those conventionally associated with their respective instruments. For example, instead of using the valves of the tuba to alter the pitch of a note in the way the instrument’s designers intended, Hayward twists them, which changes the size of the apertures through which the blown air travels and permits access to a new range of modulated expirations. The variety of hisses, splutterings, blasts, groans and other noises that result from the duo’s refusal to be constrained by standard playing methods are used to good effect on the live improvisations. The music is distinctly segmented, consisting of a series of passages of diverse character. In some passages, Dörner and Hayward play consecutively, with each player’s generally short contribution following the other’s without overlapping it. In other passages, the playing is concurrent, as extended sounds from one player are accompanied by interpolations of different timbre, volume, pitch and attack from the other. Throughout the improvisations, the juxtapositions, responses and transitions to be found within and between the passages adhere to no prior structuring formal conception or prescriptions as to permissible melodic or harmonic combinations, but they are nonetheless varied, adroit and appropriate. Indeed, the active process of discovering the appropriateness of the musical connections forged in the playing without the aid of the habitual perceptual structures created by a lifetime of listening to tonal music is one of the pleasures of the music. Not that this is aridly experimental music. Even in its quiet or silent passages, there is intensity, urgency and engagement. It may not overpower the senses or seek delight in the processes sado-masochistic assault that are implausibly associated with transgression in some quarters; nonetheless, there are rich rewards to be found in these arrhythmic vaporous dances of modulated air that incorporate both the relative immobility of a compelling austerity and more labile passages in which Hayward and Dörner hiss and coil around each other like amorous serpents.
The other two tracks on the disc are studio recordings of compositions. In comparison with the improvisations, they are, as one might expect, more controlled, schematic and coordinated. The first, skylines, is by Hayward, and consists of a short series of deep rumbles and grainier percolations projected into silence. The second, werchlich, was written by Dörner and features a pattern of carefully coordinated passages that combine a deep note from the tuba with a high tone from the trumpet separated by more fugitive maneuvers. There is much to admire in these compositions, but inevitably they lack the freedom to roam and diversify, and the quality of unmediated human interaction, that the improvisations possess. It is also a pity that the documentation accompanying the disc contains no information about the nature and extent of the composed material, leaving the listener to guess just what it was that was being realized in the recorded performances.
The eponymous release by Axel Dörner and Robin Hayward is the first factory-produced full-size CD released by Absinth. In terms of quality, however, thus beautifully-recorded disc, which as usual with Abinsth comes in a hand-printed and stitched cover, is easily a match for the best of the material contained on the sometimes excellent sets of four mini-CDs in which the label has hitherto specialized. Indeed, it was surely amongst the best improvised music releases in 2004, which makes the neglect it has encountered amongst critics since its release at the end of last year all the more puzzling and unhappy.
Reviewed by: Wayne Spencer
Reviewed on: 2005-03-07
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