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Dominique SCHAFER (b. 1967)
Vers une présence réelle … for ensemble (2014) [14:55]
Cendre, for bass flute and eight channel live electronics (stereo mix) (2008/2015) [8:39]
Anima, for clarinet and piano quartet (2012) [10:42]
Fluchtpunkte, for sextet (2002) [9:58]
Ringwood , for clarinet and live electronics (2018) [7:57]
INFR-A-KTION, for lupophone, contraforte and six instruments (2018) [13:49]
Bettina Berger (bass flute), Leandro Gianini (electronics), Richard Haynes (clarinet), Dominique Schafer (electronics), Martin Bliggenstorfer (lupophone), Elise Jacoberger (contraforte)
ensemble proton bern/ Matthias Kuhn
rec 2018, SRF Radiostudio, Zurich, Switzerland
KAIROS 0015036KAI [66:05]

As far as I can establish this is the first portrait CD devoted to the music of Swiss composer, Dominique Schafer. By now in his early fifties, it may seem a little late to be marking one’s debut recording, but Schafer has certainly built a strong reputation on the concert circuit, where his music has been performed by groups of the calibre of the Arditti String Quartet, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Alarm Will Sound, to name but three. His compatriots from the ensemble proton bern have been regular collaborators in recent years and their contributions are at the centre of this new Kairos issue. In terms of the forces required for these works, I suppose they could be divided into three pairs. We have two pieces for a largish ensemble and a couple for a quintet or sextet. The disc also includes two compositions for electronically manipulated solo instruments.

The most recent piece involves two new instruments which are seemingly modifications of existing ones; the contraforte is described in Thomas Meyer’s note as “an acoustically superior contrabassoon” whereas the lupophone is apparently a “newly developed bass oboe”. INFR-A-KTION, which is a kind of double concerto for these weird hybrid instruments actually ends this recital and is in fact one of Schafer’s most recent works. It is interesting to consider it first, as the note implies it distils Schafer’s most pressing musical obsession, the nature of the ‘tone’ into a more concise, clarified expression than the other extended ensemble piece on the disc, the nonet Vers une présence réelle…. from four years earlier, and the comparison of the two reveals advances in Schafer’s stylistic development.Both these works are of similar duration (approximately 15 minutes apiece).

In fact the distinctive tones of the two adapted instruments dominate INFR-A-KTION, and although there are busy episodes among the instruments of the accompanying sextet the work at once sounds uncluttered and purposeful –one even picks an early melodic idea in the lupophone – fragments of which re-emerge later as the work proceeds. After a restless opening, the material that follows seems more reflective but no less dynamic. The central section embraces spectralism and multiphonics (the latter seems to be a pre-occupation of Schafer’s). The sound world of INFRA-K-TION is inclusive and varied – there are nods to both Xenakis and free jazz. But to my ears much of its attractiveness lies in the clarity of its formal design, a feature that is not always so evident in the earlier nonet Vers une présence réelle … (Towards a real presence…..) This somewhat enigmatic title relates to the idea that the actual sound of the piece per se constitutes the program of the work. More precisely speaking, it’s actually scored for three separate trio configurations; a standard piano trio, the flute, viola and harp ensemble familiar from Debussy’s sonata, and a more diffuse grouping of oboe, clarinet(s) and trumpet. The tension of the piece seems to derive from the contradiction between the alternating independence and interdependence of these groupings, and while Schafer certainly delivers episodes of real delicacy and colour it seems a good deal more cluttered and arbitrary to my ears than the more recent work. Again multiphonics play a major role in the projection of this soundscape, while another overlap with INFR-A-KTION is the regular contribution of piano, harp or both as instruments which ‘comment’ on the action throughout the piece, like a kind of modern continuo. Both of these works, the ’bookends’ of this album are extremely intricate and demanding to play, but they clearly hold few terrors for the infinitely virtuosic ensemble proton bern. Both works offer a smorgasbord of arresting sonorities, although I am not wholly convinced that Schafer is as yet a completely distinctive voice in what is something of a crowded market-place, notwithstanding the presence of the ‘new’ instruments in INFR-A-KTION.

The two pieces for smaller ensembles are also works which allude to specific tensions or contradictions. Fluchtpunkte (Vanishing Points) for sextet was evidently a breakthrough piece for Schafer and is the earliest work (2002) on this disc. Scored for what Schafer describes as the classic ‘Pierrot’ ensemble plus percussion, it explores conflicts between liquid and solid states, and between escape and stasis. A single ever-mutating melodic line is detectable flowing through the work despite attempts by topographically fixed sonic features to obstruct its flow. It survives until the conclusion of the work when it dissipates and is swept away in a coalescing estuary of sound, to extend the metaphor. This fluvial ‘thread’ starts in the strings and is eventually made manifest in the exposed lines of flute, clarinet and violin as they attempt to force their way through ever more percussive obstructions. There appears to be more air for the instruments to breathe in this early piece though Schafer’s style even at this stage tended toward the agitated and angular. His writing for solo winds seems more confidently expressive in contrast with the gestural writing for percussion and often the strings. The jerky piano again seems to be ‘commentator-in-chief’. Fluchtpunkte projects a different, perhaps less elegant style than Schafer’s more recent works, but I still found the work attractive and convincing. There’s some accomplished music for tuned percussion and some agreeably histrionic music for flute in its final bars

Anima for clarinet plus piano quartet attempts to explore the dichotomy between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ aspects in music –it relates to Carl Jung’s conception of the archetypal feminine inner personality of the male. The work seems to hinge on the trade-off between the dissonant, angular, wantonly formless and abrasive material of its opening and more tentative music of greater fragility which plays an increasingly important role as Anima proceeds –though to be fair it is difficult for the listener coming anew to Schafer’s music to interpret these distinctions – nor does Schafer admit to knowingly presenting masculine or feminine music at any particular point. Anima projects a vivid, kaleidoscopic sound world and incorporates some intriguing gestures although ultimately its underlying concept largely went over this reviewer’s head.

The two works with electroacoustic material are the briefest on the disc but neither could be described as insubstantial. According to Thomas Meyer’s note, the sound-world projected in Cendre (ash) for bass-flute and eight-channel live electronics (here presented in a stereo mix) is inspired by the impermanence of the physical remnants of any matter, but also by its potential to form the root of something completely new. Cendre blends raw, breathy mouthpiece-driven sounds with bass-flute material which could at times be described as melodic once it is allowed to escape the parameters of the work’s conceit. The electronics provide an otherworldly layer of counterpoint – in a live performance the eight speakers are positioned around the hall apparently rendering it difficult for the audience to distinguish the acoustic bass-flute sounds from the processed ones– this impact is inevitably reduced for the home listeners by the stereo mix. Schafer’s music at times verges on the inaudible. Cendre is conversational, delicate and might just evoke the wispy airborne textures of Boulez’s …explosante –fixe…for some listeners.

The remaining piece on the album, Ringwood, has nothing to do with the beautiful town of the same name in the New Forest. This piece for clarinet and electronics takes its name from Ringwoodite, a mineral found deep within the Earth’s crust (it takes its name from the Australian Earth Scientist Ted Ringwood). Ringwoodite is polymorphous, and can exist in different crystalline forms and hues, though predominantly it is deep blue. It is also thought it contains liquid properties, and it is this which alludes to the electronic layer of the piece; to quote Meyer’s notes “…in a sense (it) extracts attributes found within the sonic texture of the clarinet, rearranges it and reforms its ‘liquefied’ contents.” I am not an exact scientist and possess only a very vague grasp of the chemistry involved here, but I do really like Ringwood and I think I can detect connections to some of these processes in the alternations of multiphonics, trills, and clear (deep blue?) tones in the taxing clarinet part, mesmerizingly delivered by Richard Haynes. The electronics provide a halo which collides with the instrumental content to create sporadic moments of intangible beauty. The distortions that arise in the last moments of Ringwood involve ring modulation which presents a clear link to Stockhausen’s electronic experiments of the 1960s.

I realise this is a longish review, but Dominque Schafer’s wide range of enthusiasms and inspirations result in a music which takes some unravelling on the part of the sympathetic listener. In my case I have found the effort surprisingly worthwhile as far as this disc is concerned. Kairos are once more to be congratulated for continually striving to broaden the horizons of curious listeners by revealing a wealth of fine new music, often created by composers working on the fringes, to a wider audience. The performances and sonics on this issue uphold the finest traditions of the label.

Richard Hanlon


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