Study Group

Herewith the second companion disc to the recently-noted Decisions CD on Bolt Records, featuring the work of the composer Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. Where the first disc was electronic in nature, and showcased three interpreting musicians, Study In Form (BOLT RECORDS BR 1065) is all piano and all performed by Reinhold Friedl, the German maestro who leads the Zeitkratzer Ensemble and is known for his bold, innovative ideas.

You recall from our last encounter that Haubenstock-Ramati elected to work with graphic scores, inspired to do so after seeing the mobiles of Alexander Calder. The mobile, as a physical object hanging in space, seems to have given him a frame of reference for compositional ideas about duration, positioning of elements, and most importantly a sense of non-linearity, a musical composition that was as open as a mobile, and with as many possible permutations. The graphical score also enabled him to give an active role to the musician, who must interpret the music. For the Decisions suite and other works, the experience of working with electronic music sent R H-R scuttling back to acoustic music, refreshed with new ideas and methods, hence these piano works. The 1968 composition here, ‘Catch 2’, embodies these ideas about music in time and space and represents, for Jan Topolski, “an interesting example of utilizing the idea of a mobile”.

As before, the score for ‘Catch 2’ is all symbols and shapes arranged in lines, once again using the mirror-image symmetry device; the lines of shapes are supposed to correspond to two voices. The other intended effect is to draw forth “new sounds” from the piano, and it’s at this point where the musician has to work hard to interpret the score and start to get very inventive. Step forward Reinhold Friedl, in his element when called on to produce unusual piano sounds, and no stranger to applying his fine intellect to complex modern music. He turns in two versions of the score here, one at 6:01 and another going the whole nine yards at 17:14; the longer piece has the scraped strings, the lower register rumbles, the extended keening notes, forlorn staccato sounds, and it exudes an ethereal eerieness of a sort that you wouldn’t have thought would be possible with that particular instrument. Friedl exhibits focus, determination; drawing a coherent piece of music from these highly foreboding (I assume) charts of abstraction. Quite sombre emotions on this second version too, restrained movements, closed lips and averted eyes; a study in a sterile still life.

The shorter first version offers us more pure “noise” elements, pound for pound; maybe sheets of metal inside the piano are causing that alarming crashing sound, as though someone’s jilted lover is throwing crockery around the small Berlin flat. The glissando effects likewise suggest upsurges of thundering rage and bitter resentments spat out through clenched teeth. The turbulent mood ebbs and flows unexpectedly, making this a much less cohesive piece of music than the sedate longer work. Considering the brittle sounds Friedl creates on his instrument, it might have been interesting to include ‘Catch 1’ in the programme; it’s from the same period and was composed for two harpsichords. When played in a certain way, that instrument can act like a reaping blade cutting down the grass.

The CD ends with 18:14 of Friedl’s take on ‘Studie In Form’, another graphic score composed in 1954. I’m a bit confused by the booklet notes at this point, but the aim here has something to do with “gradually granting equal rights to the new sounds”; the point about ‘Catch 2’ is that electronic sounds, studio equipment, and new methods (like inside piano-playing) were all permitted inside its schema, and what’s more they were all granted equal time with no “priorities” indicated by the composer. I suppose, on ‘Studie In Form’, that Reinhold Friedl is applying all these freedoms to the 1954 work. There certainly seems to be more than one piano, there might be overdubbing of several sounds, and there is much more boldness and lack of inhibition in the playing. Crashing sheets of block chords, frenzied hammering of upper register notes, wild glissando sweeps, all held together in a miasma of pedal-depressed tones. As close to noise as this record will allow; as ever, it amazes me how Friedl creates this kind of unfettered freedom in his music, while retaining such icy control and precision throughout. If he was an abstract expressionist painter, he’d turn up for the day’s work dressed in an immaculate tuxedo and silk hat, and leave the studio without a splash of paint on his clothes. From 23rd March 2020.

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