The helpful forty-two page booklet gives us,
in brief, the composer’s biography and a very useful list of
compositions. As Käser is probably a new name for you - as
he was for me - then I will give a brief outline of his achievements.
Käser was born in Zurich in 1959 and his earliest
recognized piece dates from 1985, a curious work for eight
guitars and ten recorders. He has trained as guitarist and
studied composition under Hans-Ulrich Lehmann and Roland Moser.
From 1990 he started to work with theatre music, and later
with improvisational groups. Since 1985 he has been professor
of guitar in Zurich. In addition he has also won several prizes
for his works including the high profile Swiss Authors’ Society
SSA for trans-disciplinary composition for the project ‘Sounding
Sculptures’. That should all give us at least an inkling of
what to expect.
I think that the most impressive work on the
disc is the first one listed. Indeed I have been thinking of
it as a real masterpiece. I find myself reminded of Schoenberg’s Pierrot
Lunaire except that Käser has a singer not a speaker. I
thought of Henze’s Voices except that Käser has only
one vocal part. The text is by a single author; he called himself ‘Alexander’ but
his real name was Ernst Herbeck. The words are in the booklet
in German but, very sadly for us monoglot English-speakers,
not translated. Herbeck was, how I can put it, a madman and
was undergoing psychiatric treatment in 1960 when his therapist
put the idea to him that he should try to express his inner
self in poetry. This he did. The only one of these surrealist
effusions that is translated can be found in the notes.
It is the first song Der Morgen. ‘In Autumn strings
the fairy wind/Since in the snow the/ Manes meet/Blackbirds
whistle/In the wind and eat.’ This, at least gives you a flavour
of the other poems which have been vaguely translated for me
by a friend but which he doesn’t want me to put into print.
There is no doubt that it helps enormously
to have a wonderful performance. Rosemary Hardy is exemplary
in this difficult score. Her melodic lines are not always as
angular and awkward as in Schoenberg. In fact they can sometimes
be tonal, or modal - a little like a folk melody. However it
is the contrasting accompanimental background with its polyrhythms,
semi-improvisation and atonality, which she has to compete
with, that creates the challenge. Also there is an emotional
challenge in this music directly from the words. Passages alternate
between the hushed and expectant and the despairing, powerful
and often very dramatic. I was especially taken by Song 9 ‘Sudliche
Winde’ in which the clarinet and flute wind lithe and unpredictable
strands in a haze of delight around a gentle vocal line, which
jumps and plays in sheer pleasure. It’s followed by ‘Die Zigarette’ which
for just 29 seconds has a simulated stutter on Zs and Ss mirrored
by similar vocal buzzing and percussion hisses. After that
comes another contrast: a sort of patter song, ‘Ross und Reiter’,
mirrored by equally frantic instrumental passages. I mention
these three just to show you how, in the space of two minutes
or so there is so much contrast. I love also ‘Stich’ – just
16 seconds duration but all on one note like a startled rabbit
caught in a headlight and unable to move off the pitch. Number
14 of the 25 songs is ‘B’; just a sad little folksong.
I can pass over quite quickly the two short
pieces. ‘Dupuy Tren’ is for three recorders. It gets increasingly
awkward and indeed painful to play as it completes its five
minutes course. The ‘Five Pieces’ for cello and clarinet (doubling
bass clarinet) are just chippings from the composer’s workshop.
They include some element of improvisation.
However the last work should detain us a little
as it is a thirty-five minute chamber piece of some significance.
Called ‘Nebul’ meaning ‘Fog’ It was started in November 2000
at a time of great fog in the composer’s town. The month of
November started to play a strong role in its formation so
that each of its seven movements is entitled November I, November
II, III etc. Is it a descriptive work? Well, no, the composer
categorically maintains. But to quote Käser: “I was more interested
in moving, misty forms, than in an unalterable grey.” How does
he achieve this? He does this by: 1. Voices moving in independent
tempi; 2. Integrating chaotic states with ordered structure;
3. The spatial nature of tone colours and 4. Slow-moving nuanced
shadings of harmony.
Much in this music happens slowly. November
IV was striking. We begin with simple basic material comprising
high-pitched noises from piccolo and percussion. These gradually
move apart in tempi, alla Ligeti, or as the booklet writer
says “The pulses experience a stretto”. He uses microtones
as the music swims around seemingly aimlessly. Gradually melodies
on harmonics emerge over this background. November V (Fish
of the Fog) begins with a clarinet and then flute. It’s all
very effervescent. Bassoon joins in and a violin plays strained
harmonies above. Piccolo adds rhythmic squeaks. This is a fascinating
and original piece; certainly repaying the listening time spent
As for the disc as a whole, if you enjoy contemporary
music with something new and original to say then it is well
worth searching out. The booklet essay is lengthy and mostly
pretentious although with some interesting and thoughtful comments.
The performances are superb and the recording vivid and clear.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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