Last Hope

Another set of high-concept releases from Michał Libera in his Populista series for the Bôłt Records label. Once again the over-arching idea has been expressed as a triptych of three related records.

The so-called “Winter Triangle” comprises three albums, each with a different take on the Winterreise song cycle of Franz Schubert. I’ve had to do a little research into this famed early 19th century piece for piano and voice, as I’m completely ignorant of Schubert. I find it’s a series of songs based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, and a romantic contemplation on the theme of unrequited love or lost love. The poems tell little stories, full of symbols; Müller had all the idealistic passion of a young man, while Schubert was close to death from syphilis when he wrote it, and generally fed up with life, accounting to some degree for its melancholic caste. The work has become embedded in our culture, widely perceived as a grand statement of sorrow and unhappiness, with wintry imagery everywhere standing for the desolation of the heart. Small wonder why it’s endured and proven popular; to some performers, it’s become more than just a piece of music, but something akin to a fact of life, so profound is its effect on both musician and audience.

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Even I can tell it’s quite a leap of faith from these mannered and expressionistic lieder to the first of our Libera trilogy. Richard Youngs performs Parallel Winter (BR POP15) on guitar and zither, punctuating a continual circular guitar theme with his broken lines of poetry, sung in a very limited range in a plain and unfussy voice. Youngs caused quite a stir in 1990 with his Advent and Lake albums (the latter recorded with Simon Wickham-Smith) released on the No Fans label; one of them was singled out by Alan Licht as a significant piece of Minimalism to rank with the best of La Monte Young or Philip Glass. Whether or not one agrees with that provocative claim, one can see a certain minimalist influence on Parallel Winter; it’s as though Youngs has taken two bars of a Donovan song, and extended them through repetition and small variations, into a single 33-minute piece. Youngs recorded it in December 2014 at a live show at the Komuna // Warszawa theatre, and made an announcement to the audience about the number of lines in his song corresponding to the exact number of days of Winter remaining. The significance of this eludes me, but it has something to do with “enduring” the most painful of the seasons in the same way we sit through this painfully boring tune. On some days, I might characterise this as a form of “broken” folk music, not unlike the “broken” rock music played by Jandek (whom Youngs has accompanied with his bass playing). If there are stories and people buried in his ice-cold lyrics, they don’t exactly leap out of the frame to greet the listener. A dull ache descends on the soul, which we might mistake for a trance induced by the mesmerising simplicity of these rhythms, or it may simply be boredom.

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The second item may be more recognisable to cultured music-lovers who know Winterreise better than I do. At any rate, all 24 song titles are here, and there are 24 index points on the CD. However the singer Barbara Kinga Majewska and the pianist Emilia Sitarz are presenting, in collaboration with Michał Libera, a very radical reinterpretation of the work; described with no false modesty by Libera as “a far reaching interpretation…bold and consequent”, which has something to do with finding “new tensions and new interrelations existing in Schubert’s cycle”. Be prepared for post-modernism by the pound…we don’t even get a song until track four, and before that it’s another exhibition of fragmented consciousness, not far from Youngs and his broken folk song. Near-silence opens the CD…there are small pointillist piano notes dotting the void, not unlike a piano work by John Cage…we even hear the creak of the pedals and the piano lid. It’s as though the work is deliberately drawing our attention to the mechanics of a classical salon performance. When the songs do finally get underway, there’s no denying the force of the performance or the technical ability of the two women here. But I wonder if their version of ‘Den Lindenbaum’, originally a poem about a comforting tree reminding the lover of happier days, is meant to be rather sarcastic in tone; Majewska belts it out in a rather snide manner, like a dutiful boy scout making fun of a patriotic song. Other songs exhibit a great fluency with many styles (all of them quite mannered); the breathless rush of ‘Ruckblick’ is verging on Punk Rock screech, and the decadent defeated tone in ‘Die Post’ is a superlative piece of character-acting in song. Then there’s ‘Wasserflut’, which I don’t think is even part of the original cycle; a fascinating piece of near free-form piano chording almost like deep-frozen Cecil Taylor, with a forlorn vocal that lies on top like a scrap of newspaper drifting in the wind. As can be deduced, this version of Winterreise is clearly taking a lot of liberties: incomplete texts, songs missing, the wrong order, inclusion of external materials, and a deconstructionist approach to both piano and song. Yet I am prepared to believe it somehow gets closer to the truth of Schubert’s intentions than any given conventional recording. This record thus continues the notion of rule-breaking, as established and manifested in numbers 10 to 12 in the Populista series.

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If both of the above records seem “over-cluttered” to you, then you’ll enjoy the record by Joanna Halszka Sokołowska; over one hour of her solo singing, with no guitar, zither, or piano to distract you. Eventually it will dawn on the listener that she’s repeating a single phrase over and over in an endless loop, not unlike the John Cage infinite repetitions of Satie in Vexations. This singer last came our way in August 2015 with the utterly perplexing record MSZA which she made for this label, again under the auspices of Libera, which may or may not have been a reinterpretation of the music of Robert Ashley. If nothing else, I do admire the purity of her performance of Winterreise; a live recording with no edits, no rehearsals, and no studio processing. She sustains the mood of utter melancholy with a concentration that must require a will of iron, and not a single note is missed. At times, the poise and assurance with which she delivers each ice-cold line of text is so perfect she seems to be channelling the spirit of the doomed lover on which the whole song cycle is based. There’s a “thoroughly camouflaged conceptual content” guiding her every move, Libera assures us, and according to him whatever it was that caused Schubert to take an interest in folk song form, well, Sokołowska comes directly from the same source.

I suppose you need to hear all three of these to get the full effect of the conceptual triptych which Libera is proposing, much the same as the other three-parters in this series. Less semantically rich than we’ve come to expect from the Populista records, but still just as thematically sound and conceptually very taut and precise in their execution. From 12 February 2016.

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