Another superb record from the mighty Polwechsel, the European quartet of Michael Moser (cello), Werner Dafeldecker (double bass) and the two percussionists Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlymayr. For Unseen (ezz-thetics 1016), they’re joined by the organist Klaus Lang, there are three compositions on offer (by Lang, Moser and Dafeldecker) and the record was made at the Abbey of Saint Lambrecht in Austria using the church organ. We’ve also got the erudite and informed sleeve notes by Joanna Bailie, the English composer and sound designer. Plus the whole thing is released on everyone’s favourite jazz and art music company, Hat Hut Records Ltd.
We don’t seem to have heard a Polwechsel record since 2016, and the challenging but lovely Untitled (No 7) in its abstract turquoise cover, where we could but marvel at the rich sound world these four severe aesthetes generate using such a (relatively) narrow range of instrumentation. At one level it’s great to hear that sound “filled out” on this occasion by the organ playing of Lang, although it’s still quite minimal-ish music. Actually today’s release may have more in common with Antiphon Stein, that near-monumental record on Edition RZ also released in 2016 and credited to Michael Moser. That one was also made in a church and also featured the organ playing of Klaus Lang, and like today’s record is explicitly intended to showcase the architecture of the building itself, use the church as one of the musicians. Bailie makes the exact same observation about Unseen; indeed she regards both the building, and the organ, as the “two other guests” on the record, and invites us to observe how the “resonant space of the church itself” is directly incorporated in the music. Bailie’s detailed notes indicate she’s very sensitive to the blends of acoustic frequencies going on here; the principal effect of this blending is that it’s often very hard to identify particular instruments in the mix, and the success is measured when we hear a teeming mass of unusual sounds, all produced by acoustic methods. She regards it as “illusory”, that phenomenon that can occur in certain music and sound art when we hear things that aren’t really there.
As to the three compositions – Polwechsel are often called improvisers, yet the tension between improvisation and composition isn’t even an issue for this release – we have ‘Easter Wings’ by Klaus Lang, mostly a serene floaty drone, very minimal, relaxing, and somehow quite “airy”, admitting a lot of light and space (qualities which we might not find with the rest of the record). Organ, strings, and cymbals all working in a harmonious fashion to deliver a steady state of transcendent beauty for 25:16. The Moser composition by contrast has its restless moments – represented by the cello and organ dominating at the start and beavering away at a strange, awkward riff. With its strong dynamics and weird gaps, this short phrase with variations might almost appeal to fans of This Heat; it comes close to delivering that same angsty post-punk vibe. The title ‘No sai cora-m fui endormitz’ translates as “I don’t know when I’m asleep”, and indeed the whole tune is a suitable audio accompaniment to a sleepless night or a nightmarish bout of indigestion. The organ also embodies some fine Messiaen-like mixed chords and clashes here.
Lastly there’s ‘Redeem’ by Werner Dafeldecker, another “epic” odyssey at 25:09. Perhaps the most subtle and understated of the three works, and notable for its strong but gradual changes in mood, tone, and dynamics. It may start out dark and uncertain (thick clouds of opaque notes and clustered chords) but ends up extremely limpid, the tone becoming more colourless and washed-out near the end, until it vanishes in the ether. The percussionists get their chance to shine here, for exciting moments when they rattle their bones and later when they produce that characteristic “metallic” ring from bowed cymbals, a sound you can almost taste. This isn’t as dramatic as the metal sheets suspended in the air on that Antiphon Stein record, but it’s part of the carefully-considered panoply of ingredients in this recipe. The Abbey of Saint Lambrecht is an 11th century Benedictine Monastery, an institution with a fascinating history. It was dissolved in the 18th century, but unlike what happened with England’s monasteries, this didn’t result in destruction of the building and the interior seems to be largely intact. It’s still the home of an active brotherhood today.
It made me wonder if Mosel’s decision to work in churches isn’t exclusively about the acoustic properties, and whether it might be too fanciful to look for a religious story of some sort in these three tunes (a holy trinity). If the Moser piece can be read as a comment on mankind’s fate to suffer, it’s bracketed on either side by two more hopeful messages about resurrection (‘Easter Wings’) and redemption. However, that’s just my interpretation. Bailie’s more rigorous analysis is less preoccupied with interpreting anything, and focuses mostly on describing the nuances and changes in the musical and sonic forms on this record, itself a very rich and rewarding enterprise. From 22 June 2020.