Thursday, September 18, 2008

Noisy stone spirits

Back in the vinyl days, one of the most abstract artists I collected was Ralf Wehowsky (a.k.a. RLW), who was at the time part of the group P16.D4. Their low-fi sounds were part of the reaction in the 1980s to the overly slick pop music, similar to punk but without the rock elements. What I found especially interesting was their continuous recycling of sonic material for various kinds of transformation, which went way beyond what any other pop groups were doing and most closely approached Stockhausen's transformative works like Kurzwellen, Prozession, and Spiral. (Wehowsky goes into some detail about these transformative methods in a 2005 interview in Paris Transatlantic.) P16.D4 released a double LP Nichts Niemand Nirgends Nie!, where side 4 reworked sides 1 through 3, and which provided the source material for three additional CDs by Wehowsky and various collaborators. He later hooked up with Bernhard Günter, founder of the label Trente Oiseaux that reintroduced extremely quiet music to the avant garde, and another landmark in my personal history into the sonic unknown. Although P16.D4 was anything but quiet, Wehowsky and Günter released a couple of collaborations before going their separate ways in the mid-1990s.

So enamored was I of Wehowsky's projects that I fervently collected his albums through the 1990s, and wrote his biography and most of his album reviews at the All Music Guide. The culmination of my fascination was the five-CD set Tulpas, where 47 different musicians or groups provided interpretations or glosses on his work. I followed him a bit longer, but he released a couple of albums that I didn't like very much, and with the exception of Yang Tul, a vinyl-only collaboration with Andrew Chalk and Eric Lanzillotta, none of his work has made it into my iTunes library, and until writing this post, I haven't listened to any of his work in years (a gap which has now been rectified).

Return of the Stone Spirits, a recent collaboration with Anla Courtis, crossed my desk this summer, and it has been a real pleasure reacquainting myself with Wehowsky. I still wonder about his musical identity — many of his albums are collaborations that bear so little resemblance to each other that I wonder if they incline more to the collaborator than to Wehowsky. I was previously unfamiliar with Courtis, who is most well known as the guitarist of the experimental Argentine group Reynols. But this album is loaded with what sounds like guitar feedback, even though only two tracks have guitar credits, and is in general a much more noisy, continuous assault than anything else I've heard from Wehowsky. (Is Reynols like this? The little that I've heard from them has been drones, not like heavy rock guitar at all.) Even more amazing is that this album is primarily a set of live improvisations, with "no sound-transformations ex post facto," although one track consists of two improvisations in layers. Contrast this with Wehowsky's other recent collaborations, which have often been through the mail, often without even meeting his collaborators face to face.

I should say a few words about the track titles, which are somewhat unusual. Although the album title is in English, the six tracks alternate between titles in German and Spanish. Even more curious, two of the German titles are chapter headings in a book by the nineteenth century German mystic Jakob Lorber: Wege Zur Besserung Der Naturgeister (Ways To Improve The Natural Spirit) and Die Stärkung Des Gemüts Und Der Inneren Sehe In Der Bergwelt (The strengthening of mind and inner marriage in the mountains). The references are worth pondering, but inscrutable and inconclusive. The Spanish language titles aren't any shorter (e.g., Un Pequeño Hombre Gris Con Cara Cuadrada Y Ojos Luminosos (A Small Gray Man With Square Face And Luminous Eyes)), and any mystical references therein escape me.

As for the music, the overwhelming first impression of the album is that it roars. The first four tracks are all loud, with great buzzing sounds of overheated amplifiers, wide frequency spectrums, all variations on the great thundering drone. Whether the pair play guitars, coils, or ethnic violins, the results are a great squall of sound, moving around on the inside but without much reference to musical elements like melody, pitch or rhythm. The two Lorber-titled tracks (two and four) are relentless, constant, but the other two build from amplifier hum to great climaxes. The third track, which is the layered one, sounds like air raid sirens before it's through. The fifth track is a much quieter affair, all small sounds, scratching and scraping, percussive and mostly non-pitched. Wehowsky is credited with a kalimba, but it's not played in any manner that would be recognized back in Africa.

On the last track (...Mit Ihren Weidenringen Die Steingeister Zu Fangen, IYI*), which is also by far the longest, Courtis plays sampler and Wehowsky plays CD scratch, the only tracks where these instruments are used. Given Wehowsky's history of transformation, it sounds like they are using their previous improvisations as sound sources. Even when it gets loud, as it does about half way through, it doesn't have the same overdriven feeling as the first four tracks, but feels more a step removed. And I think I hear the small sounds from track five behind a low frequency burble at the beginning. Pure speculation on my part, but this music calls for reflection and deeper listening, as well as a continued investigation of Wehowsky's current work.

Return of the Stone Spirits is available directly from Beta-Lactam Ring, as well as many of the usual sources.

*= In case You're Interested. Sorry, I've been reading a lot of DFW lately.

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