The Edge of Time
Anna Friederike POTENGOWSKI (b. 1975)
Wisdom 1 [1:37]
Seebergers Lied [2:30]
Wisdom 2 [1:26]
Wisdom 3 [2:33]
Georg Wieland WAGNER (b. 1967)
Wadawishung Pade [4:40]
Swan Song [5:10]
Destination and Anchor [4:17]
John CAGE (1912 - 1992)
Rupert TILL (b. 1967)
Anna Friederike Potengowski (bone flutes)
Georg Wieland Wagner (percussion)
rec. 2016, University of Huddersfield Recording Studios. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34185 [64:32]
Delphian is to be congratulated for its promotion of, and collaboration with, the European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP) in partnership with the University of Huddersfield. Other CDs in the series so far have featured early music from the Scottish Highlands, Scandinavia and with Celtic horns. The Edge of Time is the most far-reaching yet. One is tempted to say, the most far-reaching possible; certainly the most speculative. For here is a series of imaginary constructions and new compositions suggesting what music from towards the end of the last Ice Age, 40,000 years ago, might have sounded like. Definitely ‘might’.
Starting from concrete archaeological evidence found in Germany and France, which includes fragments of perforated birds’ bones and mammoth ivory, Anna Friederike Potengowski and Georg Wieland Wagner here perform a dozen or so pieces on instruments reconstructed from those originals, and also use objets trouvés such as sand, grass, stone slabs, as well as their own voices, and modern instruments like the marimba and vibraphone.
This milieu lends itself naturally to the inclusion of Cage’s Ryoanji [tr.4] and Reverie [tr.15] by Rupert Till - the former because it celebrates the arrangement of (thirteen) stones in the Japanese garden of that name, which Cage visited in 1962; the latter for the reason that it typifies the musicologist’s work in what is coming to be called ‘sound archaeology’. Similarly, the rather vague attributions of composition (there are two short ‘Improvisations’, [tr.s 5,13] necessarily convey to us the anonymity of the entire world of music-making from so far back in time.
Indeed, The Edge of Time, the fourth of a projected five CDs (in 2018, Till will release on Delphian a collection of music from the Graeco-Roman world, again under the auspices of the EMAP), is necessarily more about impressions, estimates, projections, potential reconstructions, assemblages, extrapolations and speculation based on the assumptions of a small group of admittedly well-informed musicians and musicologists than it is about composition or performance per se. The music-making is polished, however; and not offered in a ‘workshop’-like format or similar.
Indeed, the CD is still a success - because the essence of this music is surely its remoteness. Yet the performers manage to convey distance without imprecision. And to convince us that - as musicians in this century - their concerns, skills and even purposes should inform those of unknown ancestors very far back in time… the instruments on which these specific reconstructions are based do represent the oldest known of their kind anywhere.
The pieces here allow us to be convinced (perhaps ‘entranced’ better describes a positive reaction) in part because their unhurried breathy and almost tentative percussiveness remind us of music with which we are more familiar from other parts of the world - particularly South East Asia, and perhaps Native American. Time seems to wait while simple yet intense motifs and combinations of wind and striking work themselves out.
The team took four possible attributes of how such instruments as those discovered might have sounded, as their starting points: their ancestor-players’ close relationship with nature - both as a context and as the source for instruments’ materials. Secondly, likely or possible influences on those early players… so the rhythms of Africa and, closer to where the first finds were made along the Danube, Hungarian shepherd melodies. It’s exciting - and reassuring - that better-known music (at least relatively so) may well have inherited some aspects of what is being performed here. Thirdly, the occasions for music-making (rite, retention of folk memories, reactions to events) were taken into account. And lastly, a sense was adhered to of the commonality between the very ancient and what we may find easier to relate to now; hence the Cage and Till. Music at that point is ‘always’ music.
The sounds are neither wandering, dubious nor foggy approximations of anything otherwise unknown and unknowable. The relationship between long, slow and at times mournful lines on the wind instruments and the percussion is not a random one, nor a pointless or indulgent amalgamation, which could clearly be the projection of a ‘new age’ mind.
Yes, most of these pieces are slow and thoughtful. One wonders what the role of dance might have been - although Wisdom 2 [tr.9] is faster than most of the other pieces here. What one doesn’t immediately question, though, is how skilled (or otherwise) prehistoric players may have been, how they learnt or what they aspired to. This is because the playing is closely inspired by the instruments, not any preconception of individual creativity or praxis. These are surely safe assumptions to work from. And somewhat inward-looking, referencing what must have been to hand and reflected the needs of survival and incipient self-awareness.
In the end, it’s likely to be up to each individual listener to decide how far they are convinced by this admittedly well-informed team of musicians’ and musicologists’ agile and sensible response to artefacts which so clearly and poignantly connect us all. And how much conviction (or scepticism) matters. We can never know if what we here even slightly resembles anything realistic.
The acoustic (of the recording studios at the University of Huddersfield) is close; yet has appropriate reverberation. Although ‘roomy’, it lacks spurious ‘atmospheric’ effects such as wind and waves, even though these would certainly have been the backdrop of any such music-making in the wilds 40,000 years ago. The booklet could have been a little longer: this is a fascinating area and the three sides of text (with photos of the instruments and (welcome) bios of Potengowski and Wagner) merely hint at much that many listeners will surely want to know more about. Thankfully, Potengowski’s short notes do explain how the music performed here was arrived at, how and why the various actual playing techniques were chosen and how the work of others in the field influenced both the musicology adhered to and the modern performance practices.
Isturitz flute, made from the ulna of a griffon vulture, reconstruction
Hohle Fels 1 flute, made from the radius of a griffon vulture, reconstruction
Geissenklösterle 1 flute, made from the radius of a whooper swan, reconstruction
Geissenklösterle 3 flute, made from mammoth ivory, reconstruction