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Bruno STROBL (b. 1949)
Electroacoustic Music - Volume 2
Zungenspiel [11:55]
Bruno Strobl
rec. 2021, Vienna, Austria

Bruno Strobl was born in 1949 in Klagenfurt. As indicated on his website, he is a composer, conductor, electronic musician and improviser with involvement in nearly 30 CDs.

For ten years from 2008, he was Chair of the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) in Austria. He is now based in Vienna as well as Germany. Active in many areas of contemporary music with a constant portfolio of performances, teaching and commissions, he has won a clutch of awards and prizes; he remains a key figure tirelessly advancing the cause of this lively area of music.

Recently released on the Austrian Gramophone label, this CD, the second volume in an unpretentiously entitled ‘Electroacoustic Music’ series, contains three works lasting just under an hour. You will hear neither tired attempts to mimic sounds from the ‘real world’ nor abstract whines and sine waves. Although it contains no tonal - or atonal - or tuneful material, it is eminently approachable and sufficiently varied to be very enjoyable.

Strobl’s music is compelling, delightful and stimulating. Perhaps most successfully and satisfyingly, it achieves a convincing marriage between acoustically analogue generation, computer (re-)engineered sound and purely digitally-generated material.

Strobl’s world undoubtedly builds on the experimentation of post-war electronic music but it shows - without spurious spotlighting - one of many possible and compelling paths forward and onward from the self-conscious hybrid of car horns and encapsulated whistles of early musique concrète.

Significantly, Stobl’s music features attack and decay, rhythms, cross-rhythms, accelerandi and rallentandi. There are moments when a clear ‘soloist’ is given prominence, when apparent melodic (at least cells, modules and motifs) directions do not develop as we thought they were going to - this is particularly obvious around the eleven-minute passage of Mühlentänze, for instance. Textures and tessiture vary, but never merely because Strobl knows how to control his resources; there is always a purpose and the listener is carried from one section of focus and pleasing excitement to the next.

On the other hand, Strobl’s music is never anodyne or insipid. Electronics and acoustics it surely uses, but the welding of the two produces something highly original and compelling, rather than being demonstrative of some sort of urban or natural phenomenon.

No literal traffic, no literal waterfalls; no heterodynes, no processed jackdaws - but one has no doubt that the original impetus (tools, mills, the oscillations of a saw’s teeth and so on) has always been fully fermented. The elements of each inspirational source - where appropriate - are completely distilled. Strobl’s image is a clear and honest, one where he lets the sound speak for itself.

In other words, Strobl achieves a mature and enticing blend between a picture which, on the one hand, evokes sound because it takes and works with and on elements of the original: mechanics; echoes; metallic objects; inflexible, often harsh, surroundings which owe their existence to durable regularity. And yet on the other hand it’s always sound which seems specifically to welcome the listener in, which needs an audience and is conscious of and glad for it.

Strobl seems to be able to do this chiefly because his music always has direction, purpose and variation. You’re keen to know what comes next, rather than maybe feeling you have actively to work out how a particular sound was achieved and how to ‘interpret’ it. You get the feeling that Strobl is happy in any aspect of this genre and able to make the most of whatever resources he has at his disposal and can allude to, (re-)create and manage virtually any of the sounds for which he has ‘soft spots’ (see below). Furthermore - and more importantly - he is producing this world for us listeners; he is not in a closed loop for the (electroacoustic) equipment’s sake.

The longest piece here - at a couple of minutes or so less than half an hour - is Mühlentänze (Mill Dances). It takes for its inspiration - and convincingly suggests - the ‘five mills clattering by the rushing brook in the “Valley of 100 mills” in the Carthinian district of Southern Austria’, as the CD’s booklet explains. There seem to be water, machinery, birds, trees. Above all, the sense of unquestioned purpose which mills invite visitors to experience, but of which both those who work there and those who consume mills’ products become unaware - but, after listening to Mühlentänze, you can’t quite put your finger on why Strobl’s sounds have worked as well as they have and such fascination never interferes with the musicality of the work’s communicative powers.

As Zungenspiel (Tongue play) begins, it is sure to remind you of Stockhausen at his best.  As the booklet which comes with the CD says, ‘Bruno Strobl has a soft spot for sounds’. This - the shortest work here - certainly celebrates the essences which so occupy the composer. He blends and overlays deep, booming rhythmical assertions with quasi-white noise and a variety of mid-to-upper-range sounds which shriek ‘Momentum’. Yes, there is the sense of hearing a very busy railway station concourse from deep in the clinically dead corridors which tunnel beneath it, but this is never sound for sound’s sake, because Strobl somehow manages to suggest intersections of sensation (often with little or no change in dynamic) that mean something… someone (or some acoustic machine) is hard at work proving points which are internal to the music in a way that Hymnen was never meant to be.

Sägewerk (Saw work) in some ways stands for what Strobl has achieved in all three pieces. Think of the ‘ups and downs’ of a saw’s teeth. Translate their (probably regular) alternation into the both melodic and dynamic contours of (‘conventional’) music. Add the specific grating and ‘collision’ of a hand or mechanical (circular) saw with the material it’s cutting… more metal here, but also wood. That’s what Strobl recreates. He doesn’t imitate it - although there are passages with the intensity of an angle-grinder’s job. Neither does he try to be clever by hinting at such interaction’s attributes; rather, he creates something entirely novel and expressive of how sounds work in and of themselves. The starting point of the familiar object (a saw and its teeth) seems to be quietly present so as to provide structure and development. Short snaps of rhythm and sudden (though never gratuitous) interjections are superimposed rather than clumsily added. Yes, the booklet explains that the sawing acknowledges work on a neighbour’s farm during lockdown in 2020. But the piece - like all the music on this CD - is to be appreciated and enjoyed for the superb intricacy and conviction of the pure sound by itself.

The acoustic of this CD is, almost needless to say, as conducive to our enjoyment as it needs to be. The (presumably assistant) engineer responsible for mastering the project, Martin Klebahn, has done everything to give us a forward yet unobtrusive experience which - at the same time - is not hard on the ears during repeated listening. Austrian Gramophone’s booklet, although improperly proofed, offers useful insights into Strobl’s world and purpose. More detail, with greater insight into the technicalities and processes which Strobl uses, would have been welcome but as a snapshot of what one of the most imaginative, competent and inspiring musicians in this field is able to produce. Whether you are new to electroacoustic music or already familiar with the genre, this CD is likely to intrigue and satisfy.

Mark Sealey

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