Sing Their Crystal Stars

Oh Mensch is the duo of Kobe Van Cauwenberghe and Matthias Koole, a duo of experimental guitarists. While they’re both keen on doing it with electric guitars, the album Microtonal Music for 2 Guitars (SEMINAL RECORDS CR#051) is all performed on acoustics. On it, they perform five works by contemporary composers: Arthur Kampela, Larry Polansky, Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Trapani and Turgut Ercetin – every one of which was selected for its “microtonal” possibilites. While I’ve often (probably incorrectly) associated this term with the spectral chord clusters of Ligeti, in this context we should understand microtonal to denote anything that doesn’t conform to the traditional western classical well-tempered tuning. Oh Mensch don’t see “microtonal” as a technique as such, so it’s to their credit that they’re able to map the ideas of these composers to their ways of playing their guitars.

Some of the pieces have their moments; Polansky’s ‘Tritune’ makes effective use of short, repeated notes until the guitars sound like they’re doing embroidery with a knitting machine, while Trapani’s ‘Alcohol and Algebra’ has strange mixed chords and note-bending methods to create queasy effects. The piece by Arthur Kampela sounds more like free improvisation for the most part, a stiffer and more awkward take on the music of Derek Bailey; conversely, Ferneyhough’s ‘No Time (At All)’ is little more than dessicated high-classical formalism, full of abstract dissonance and disconnected events. No denying the technical prowess of Van Cauwenberghe and Koole, and I welcome their efforts to extend the vocabulary of the acoustic guitar, and appreciate the thought behind their explorations of what microtonality may mean for their music. But the album also feels cold, tentative, and lacking in energy; we’re mostly hearing formal exercises and theoretical ideas, rather than exciting music. From 17 January 2018.