Zeitkratzer: contemporary classical with a difference | Bleader

Zeitkratzer: contemporary classical with a difference

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As I mentioned in my preview for Saturday's Lampo show by saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, he's a regular collaborator with Berlin new-music ensemble Zeitkratzer, for which he adapted Lou Reed's feedback masterpiece Metal Machine Music for mostly acoustic instruments. He's one of several guests who frequently augment the ten core members of the group--others include trumpeter Franz Hautzinger, reedist Frank Gratkowski, tubaist Melvyn Poore, and cellist Anton Schlothauer. Formed in 1999 by pianist Reinhold Friedl, Zeitkratzer has earned its reputation by focusing on canonical 20th-century composers with whom few chamber ensembles dare tangle, including Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, James Tenney, and Luigi Nono, but the group also deals with material by living musicians from outside the academic milieu.

On Noise (Tourette) Zeitkratzer play daring adaptations of works by radical noiseniks Merzbow and Zbigniew Karkowski as well as the uncategorizable Dror Feiler, and on Fresh (Allquestions/X-Tract) they tackle a couple of pieces by staunch experimentalist John Duncan (who performs at Lampo on February 21). More recently Zeitkratzer delved into electronic music, with a self-released three-CD set called Electronics where each disc features the work of a different artist: Carsten Nicolai, Terre Thaemlitz, and Keiji Haino. (The title's a bit of a misnomer, since only the first two focus on digital electronics--in this context Haino prefers gargantuan guitar feedback.) The results are mixed, but the group is consistently resourceful and innovative in its attempts to realize these varied pieces.

Nicolai makes super-austere digital music typically limited to ominous hums, beeps, bleeps, and beats. On one piece from his disc, "Synchron Bitwave," he joins Zeitkratzer as a performer, and his presence inextricably connects the music to his sound, even as Friedl hammers away at a two-note piano figure for most of the track's 16 minutes. For "5 Min" the ensemble members put their instruments aside in favor of sine tone generators, oscillators, and electric plugs, and the lengthy "C1" is built from droning long tones sparingly punctuated by muffled drum beats by Maurice de Martin, subdued piano chords by Friedl, and bass clarinet pops by Gratkowski.

The Thaemlitz disc is the least successful of the three. On the opening piece Zeitkratzer sounds almost like the as Kronos Quartet in high kitsch mode, with Thaemlitz adding vocals that do piss-poor job at channeling the spirit of a Southern Baptist preacher. On most of the other pieces the group never seems to take flight, as the more conventional tendencies of the pieces aren’t well-suited to Zeitkratzer.

Keiji Haino isn't much of a composer. It's all about the performance for this guy, and he's highly active on each track, contributing guitar, voice, electronics, and drums. The works are collaborations as well--rather than bring in finished compositions, Haino developed some loose structures in rehearsal with the ensemble and Friedl nailed down more precise arrangements. Unsurprisingly, though, the final result is pure Haino; the first two pieces, "Aria I" and "Aria II," unfold with simmering restraint, but you can sense Haino's falsetto dancing on the knife's edge, getting ready to explode. The supernova finally occurs on "Sinfonia," with the impact coming from one of his shamanistic guitar freak-outs--initially it's surrounded by dark orchestral rustling and intensifying slabs of texture, but in the end everything is all but blotted out by Haino's guitar and vocal shrieking.

Today's playlist:

Toshimaru Nakamura/English, One Day (Erstwhile)
Hugh Masekela, Home Is Where the Music Is (Blue Thumb/Verve)
Mitty Collier, Shades of Mitty Collier: The Chess Singles 1961-1968 (Kent)
Joan of Arc, Boo! Human (Polyvinyl)
Grachan Moncur III, Evolution (Blue Note)

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