Heroes of the Revolution

Curious item from German composer Nicholas Bussmann, who has occasionally crossed the desk as part of the Telebossa duet, and also appeared fleetingly on a Yan Jun cassette with field recordings from China.

Today’s LP (TAXIPALAIS / SUB JAM RECORDS T- – P 002) is divided cleanly into two halves – the A side is occupied by The News Trilogy, vocal works performed by a couple of ad-hoc choirs. One of them is the Shanghai New Blues Choir, where all the members appear to be Chinese; the Cottbusser Chor has a more European bias. In these polyphonic works, the singers might not be doing much more than singing and speaking headlines and texts from newspapers, but the aesthetic effect is quite impressive; it’s like hearing a post-modern take on the madrigals of Gesualdo, with voices producing a convoluted labyrinth of information with their overlapping phrases. Bussmann himself is credited with the idea and with “graphic score”, suggesting these verbal-rich pieces have been carefully planned and measured down to the last syllable. But I could be wrong; if newspapers do indeed play a part, it might be that each performance is different depending on what news cuttings are available at the time, in which case we could be looking at a John Cage-styled approach with a certain amount of flexibility in the parameters (I’m thinking of his radio pieces). The pieces here were recorded in 2015 and 2017 at live events, the second one for a radio show in Berlin as part of documenta14. I’m reminded of the works of Alessandro Bosetti, who also favours dense, textual works, although the Italian polymath is somewhat more concerned with content and meaning; Bussmann’s newspaper works indicate he’s more interested in vocal sounds, contrasts, mixing up singing with declamatory speech, that sort of thing. Very compelling and rich material, and it seems as if the performers were having a ball, really engaging with the task. (Update: I see now that the composition uses an algorithmic method not unlike a computer flowchart.)

The B side of the LP is Revolution Songs in an AI Environment. Quite a different barrel of fish here…the piano music is apparently played by a “robot”, given the friendly name of “Der Automat” by its creator Winfried Ritsch. These seven “revolution songs” are instrumentals identified only by a date – starting in 1871, we proceed in chronological order to 1980. I don’t recognise a single melody, though I suppose it’s possible the ‘1917’ piece might relate to the October revolution in Russia. In any case, I sense the tunes are being detourned in some way, as if the AI program in the robot were developing a mind of its own as it attempts to render these slices of musical history. I’m lost, I’ll admit. Perhaps the composer is trying to make some point about how computer technology is proving deleterious to our understanding of history, or some deeper political statement about the gradual erosion of ideals and the fading of revolutionary zeal. It leaves me a bit cold, and bewildered. From 21 February 2022.

Also from Bussmann, there’s this LP where he teams up with Martin Brandlmayr and they bill themselves as Kapital Band 1. There may not be any real connection with the above except that it also uses a machine in some capacity – and it’s called International Solidarität (NI VU NI CONNU LP020), a phrase which could be invoking a line from a workers’ anthem or an exhortation of the value of communistic practices on the shop floor, all of which in my mind could just about link up with the sentiments of Revolution Songs. Kapital Band 1 first surfaced in 2003 on the Mosz label in Austria; I never heard it, but it may have been a mix of improvisation with machinery, a trope which they certainly revisit today.

Ritsch’s Der Automat makes its return and plays all the piano music, controlled in the paws of Bussmann, while Brandlmayr is bubbling up a storm on his drum kit. I’m enjoying it a lot more than the Revolution Songs above, perhaps because it doesn’t involve any use of AI (a term which is a red rag to me lately). There’s also more fire and density to the performances. I think a lot of credit is due to Martin Brandlmayr who not only keeps the momento going with his sticks (and I don’t mean he simply keeps tempo), but is evidently thinking on his feet as he attempts to improvise alongside a robot. This isn’t to say that the Der Automat keeps on outsmarting him, but for some reason I do have a mental image of Nicholas Bussmann grinning wickedly as he moves his levers (or whatever means he uses to manipulate that mechanical monster). The album’s also got, across two sides of non-stop fun, certain moments where the whole game just winds down, and both players are either silent, or near-silent, in their perplexity; it makes for a surprising listen. I’m mildly tickled by a certain playfulness and sense of fun at work here, but then I read a tortured sentence like “investigating parallel existences and mimetic affirmations of machine structures and human patterns” from the press note, and dreary real life comes back to destroy my hopes. From 21 February 2022.