The Devil’s Lexicon

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Urs Peter Schneider
Kompositionen 1960-2012
SWITZERLAND CUBUS RECORDS CR 370 3 x CD (2014)

Both unknown to me and often near unfathomable are the contents of this three disc set compiling over 50 years of the work of Swiss composer Urs Peter Schneider’s work: a milestone release commemorating his 75th birthday. Having studied widely under the likes of Stockhausen and Walter Lang into the ‘60s, and founded the Ensemble Neue Horizonte Bern in 1968, he has composed works in a corresponding array of styles, though mainly of chamber music and pieces ‘that fathom out the limits between language and music’ and those – in the case of the 20-minute ‘Muspilli’ – that stack everything in the same space as the kitchen sink. To describe his music as ‘enigmatic’ is not just to perform the dilettante’s disservice, for enigma is one of the wilfully defining features of this multi-stylistic canon, the twenty-two pieces here abounding with seemingly (though probably not) aleotoric structures, language investigations, tonal clusters and potent silences that glue it all together. These elements lurch most heavily in the dark, early stages: alternating between demonic organ recitals and a whole gamut of vocal experiments from murmuring zombies and dalek choirs through to more clearly enunciated monologues. While language comprises one of the chief preoccupations, many of the vocal sections are rendered in German and may lock listeners out. There are however the gnomic descriptions such as ‘oversized rustic lung’ for ‘Noch’, which playfully invite – but do not command – listener inquiry.

The diversity of the collection presents one hurdle that the compiler seems to have overcome successfully, not because of the collision potential between tracks, but because Schneider composes pieces of strongly interdependent components, such that separation may divest them of their meaning; certainly – one assumes – in the case of pieces such as ‘Kreuze’ (for ensemble), which sees ‘the events of Good Friday reduced to a few signs’ via ‘all musical parameters structured in the form of a cross’. Lacking the composer’s abstruse spirituality and humour, I’m not best qualified to evaluate the implications of this restructuring, but one can at least perceive an underlying order in the organisation of these pieces, namely in the consistency of the above alternation between styles, which affords listeners a reassuring sense of order and diversity as they navigate and negotiate their way through more than three eventful hours, culminating not in any spectacle of grandeur, but a continuing air of mystery that demands nothing less than a curious mind for tackling it. Overall though, I could scarcely imagine a more appropriate introduction to this notable composer’s work.

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Andrew Lewis
Au-delà
CANADA emprintes DIGITALes IMED 13125 CD (2013)

Another explorer of the voice’s possibilities, Andrew Lewis has the narrators of his opening piece ‘Lexicon’ remind us repeatedly of what ‘words are like (…)’, among these, ‘leaves’, ‘lives’ and ‘lights’, meanwhile likening the page to a ‘map’. Drawn from a the poem of a 12-year-old, ‘Lexicon’s words are dissected, scattered between a fragmentation of speakers, distorted and seasoned with electronic effects; the resulting, disjointed linguistics becoming a meditation on dyslexia, whose cohesion lies just beyond ordinary reach, subordinated to a grander sense of order. It’s an agreeably disorienting portal into a collection of pieces that put an unsettling slant on familiar terrain.

This collection – like much of the empreintes DIGITALes label’s output – comprises a composer’s showcase, the pieces originating from 1990 to 2012, and serving as a scrapbook of Lewis’ extracurricular interests, from linguistics to landscapes, of which he very capably demonstrates the musical qualities. That said, while thematically varied, the collection is defined by a more evident ‘signature’ than other releases: a predilection for sounds processed within the range of recognition, and a measured dynamic range. However, if the cost is our potential for surprise, our capacity for wonder remains intact: Lewis imbues these pieces with great depth, detail and a sustained accumulation of power over their extended running times.

‘Dark Glass’ transposes the ‘unsuspected harmonies of broken glass’ into a sound sculpture of a far-reaching radiance: not an unusual device in this particular genre admittedly, and one that acts as a cohesive device for the full course of the album. Interspersed within its expansive harmonics and pitch-shifted tinkling are plunging moments of pure drama. Similar effects arise from ‘Ascent’ as it factors in the tumbling rocks of mountainous Bangor – the region in which Lewis lives and works – transposed at times into pinball effects, punctuated by the climber’s odd pause for breath. The glassy radiance continues to serve as a cohesive device, bonding the natural elements of ‘Time and Fire’, the sea of time-drowned voices in ‘Cân’ and the creepy panoply of distorted children’s voices in the closer ‘Scherzo’. Each of these pieces possesses the ability to transport the listener to somewhere beyond the concrete and the everyday while apparently originating from within it.