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Enno POPPE (b 1969)
Rundfunk, for nine synthesisers (2015-18)
Rundfunk I [19:10]
Rundfunk II [15:07]
Rundfunk III [23:02]
ensemble mosaik
rec. 2019, Saal 3, Haus des Rundfunks Berlin
WERGO WER7388-2 [57:19]

“The piece consists of thousands of atoms. The music is analytical and emphatic; it was put together in the laboratory, and I wore a white coat while composing. But a concert is not an experiment; as soon as I no longer understand what is happening, art ensues. Beauty lies in overload.”

Most readers of these pages will recognise the German word Rundfunk as that language’s equivalent of the term ‘Radio’. But as Wolfgang Heiniger suggests in his intriguing booklet essay, ‘Radio’ originally represented a scientific idea which has been diluted over the years and now more straightforwardly describes what Enno Poppe characterises as “a medium which accompanies daily life”. Thus the word ‘Rundfunk’ has become somewhat redundant, an anachronism which epitomises a golden age of sonic experimentation, a relic of an ancient science which in sound laboratories largely funded by broadcasters over five or so decades spawned instruments such as the Moog, Mini-Moog, Ring Modulator, Fairlight, and FM/DX synthesiser inter alia.

In response to the composer’s own words which begin this review I would argue that Poppe’s tripartite work Rundfunk most certainly DOES constitute an experiment – as a listener it strikes me as an attempt perhaps to reconnect listeners of certain ages and musical backgrounds to sounds which were once familiar in prog-rock and pop, which were assimilated into Dance and Disco forms, which pre-empted the world of samplers and sequencers and trance and techno. It’s an experiment presented in the milieu of modern art-music composition, albeit one created for an ensemble of nine synthesisers programmed with software (developed by the same Wolfgang Heiniger) which enables the players to reconstruct these historical sounds which are transformed by individual computers connected to each instrument. As Poppe states later in his note, he “…uses historical sounds, not historical instruments……(they) come from the 1960s and ‘70s…..the pioneers were Gottfried Michael Koenig, Thomas Kessler, John Chowning, Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream”

Rundfunk I commences with a sequence of isolated period plinks and plonks. Each synth seems customised to produce sounds redolent of specific pioneering machines (It will be obvious that I’m not an expert in this area!) The individual notes vary in duration yet seemingly coalesce to produce an identifiable pulse. As the movement proceeds more complex figures and phrases emerge, the intersections between them generating the perception of a beat. Tutti sections seem to be curtailed suddenly and sparer chamber sounds emerge. The argument becomes more intricate in the second half of the movement, while recognisable prog-like sounds roughen and confront. At its conclusion Giorgio Moroder appears to team up with Conlon Nancarrow.

Rundfunk II fulfils the function of a slow movement. A static chord emerges from gently oscillating sounds. Poppe creates an eerie soundscape until a kind of synthetic brass ensemble seemingly escapes from the texture in an almost imperceptibly changing procession. The gentle waves seem to disorientate. Undertones of white noise lend a glassiness to the sound-picture. This creates an effect not unlike that produced by Ligeti’s orchestral Lontano. Poppe interrupts this with the synthesised sound of a ship’s horn; this melts into timbres which roughen to the point where one cannot help but detect the constant whirring of a building-site generator, which is not actually as unpleasant as it might sound. Thereafter listeners may well derive their own customised, unforced, unconscious associations as the sounds contract and competing pulses briefly appear before dying away over interference-like noise as increasingly disconnected pops.

The concluding Rundfunk III is the longest section. While the first half revisits a lot of the sounds involved in the first panel, these are reconfigured in more complex and disorienting ways, increasing one’s awareness of the music’s microtonality. The argument seems to fracture and slowly disintegrate. It borders upon unformed, random noise, though this is temporary. Individual shapes become detectable at around 8:30, merging in whirligig configurations and confrontations. Soon afterwards I found my interest waning considerably, as different tone colours compete incoherently. At 13:00 a gesture evoking a fairground organ being beaten up seems to trigger the wilful disruption of any residual cogency remaining in the work. The resulting harshness seems gratuitous and rather unnecessary. The final 90 seconds consists of a stabbing, drill-like din. One is left wondering ‘how’ one should listen to the piece. Perhaps that’s Poppe’s real objective.

From my perspective, I rather enjoyed the sounds of the first two sections; essentially an elegant play-off between dynamism and stasis. I found the third section over-long, grating, harsh and repetitive. In the essay, a case is made that this fifty-odd minute piece reflects the hour-long duration of early radio programmes, minus the time allotted to news bulletins and weather forecasts. (Glenn Gould applied a similar philosophy to his (in)famous experimental spoken-word documentaries). I can only say that paper logic rarely guarantees aesthetic success. In this case I feel that Poppe could have stopped much sooner. Ultimately Rundfunk might well appeal to those drawn to challenging electronic music, to others perhaps curious about the history of the synthesiser, and perhaps to a few older proggers who yearn, misty-eyed for the Mini-Moog and its cousins. For this listener, while Enno Poppe’s experiment is certainly bold and innovative, ultimately it provides evidence for little more than the law of diminishing returns.

Richard Hanlon

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