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Peter ABLINGER (b. 1959) Against Nature Wider die Natur (Against Nature) – extended flute project (2020) [52:01] Nichts (Nothing) for two drums (1983) – version for solo flute [4:31] Überlegung 19 (Consideration 19) for flute (1988) [8:14] Acht Zeichnungen (Eight Drawings) for electronics (2020) [7:45]
Erik Drescher (voice, glissando flute, organ pipes, bottles, bird pipes, bass flute, piccolo, small wooden flute)
Peter Ablinger (voice, electronics)
rec June-July and September 2020 at Werkraum, Berlin KAIROS 0015104KAI [72:43]
The Austrian composer-provocateur Peter Ablinger studied in Graz and Vienna with Gösta Neuwirth (Olga’s uncle) and Roman Haubenstock-Ramati. A resident of Berlin, he has been a major player in the sphere of contemporary music for more than thirty years, organising events, festivals and concerts, many involving Klangforum Wien with whom he has long enjoyed a fruitful association as guest conductor. Closer to my part of the world, he was a research professor at the University of Huddersfield between 2012 and 2017. Since the early 1980s Ablinger has produced an extensive oeuvre which embraces some conventional formats but mainly involves frameworks he could reasonably claim o have devised himself. Commercially recorded examples of his art have appeared hitherto on labels such as Hat-Art, Mode and HCR as well as Kairos.
Against Nature is his third monograph to have been issued by that label. It seems to me that the titular work has at least one element in common with music on the previous releases, specifically the piece Quadraturen IV (Selbstporträt mit Berlin) for ensemble (on the album Der Regen, das Glas, das Lachen - 0012192KAI, released in 2000), and each of the pieces on the fascinating Voices and Piano (0013082KAI, released in 2009, featuring the extraordinarily precise pianism of Nicolas Hodges). Whereas the former is a vibrant and arresting orchestral ‘analysis’ of the composer’s own ambient recordings of Berlin street sounds, the latter are pianistic ‘commentaries’ of recorded readings, speeches and interviews given by a host of significant cultural and political figures who helped shape the twentieth century (they include Mao-Tse Tung, Morton Feldman, Lech Walesa and Guillaume Apollinaire among others). In the case of Voices and Piano the original taped speech is broadcast via a loudspeaker; the accompanying piano parts skitter along reflecting the contours, speech-patterns and even the meanings of the words but never imitating them as literally as say Steve Reich does in works such as Different Trains or The Cave, whilst Ablinger’s dissonant (but remarkably pianistic) style constitutes a different language altogether. Once encountered these pieces (Ablinger originally planned to compose a collection of about eighty from which performers could extract their own selections) are not easily forgotten – I cannot recommend the Hodges disc highly enough.
Resonant echoes of these analytic techniques seem to abound in Against Nature (Wider die Natur is its German title). The circumstances behind its conception and execution were largely determined by the privations forced upon the composer by the pandemic. In May 2020 Ablinger’s wife Sigrid visited Brandenburg and happening upon a particular pond in Potsdam took the opportunity to record the croakings of the local bombina toads. These naturally musical (in terms of both rhythm and articulation) sounds provided the composer with a conceptual kernel he could exploit, not least because he had recently been working with the flautist Erik Drescher who had been pressing him during this challenging period for a collaboration. The composer floated the idea of creating a work spontaneously in a hastily improvised, home-made recording studio (as opposed to writing a score), using a ‘conceptual’ flute with a hugely extended range of 7½ octaves (more than a symphony orchestra), achieved by a number of ingenious additions and adaptations involving the likes of glissando flute, bird pipes, piccolo, bottles, bass flute, organ pipes and a variety of field recordings. In the booklet Ablinger provides a detailed account of how he and Drescher put the piece together; whilst I don’t even pretend to comprehend many of the technical and theoretical subtleties he seeks to share I think I can glean this much: over a period of weeks the collaborators curated a large number of fragments each lasting roughly sixty seconds. These were each painstakingly put together using strategies such as layering, copying, overdubbing and the like, creating samples involving as many as seventy different flute ‘voices’ or as few as one. In addition structural clues were provided by other works from Ablinger’s catalogue – the three of these have been included on the disc as ‘appendices’ to the main event.
So how does it ‘roll’ as a CD to be played in one’s living room? The early ‘numbers’ are rather spartan, but the advantage of experiencing a sequence of 59 tiny individual panels is that any longeurs are inevitably very short-lived. That this is experimental music is never in doubt; the technology is clever without being too slick, the connections between pieces are less than seamless and some are so high-pitched that they border on the inaudible (although my cat Merran certainly picked them up – I filmed her perplexed - and I think delighted - responses to some of them.) Even though the precise instrumentarium for each fragment is dutifully annotated in the booklet the listener is still likely to ask “just how are they making that sound?” Moments of exquisite beauty rub shoulders with periods of inertia. There is little that is ugly. Many of the sounds achieved absolutely defy the confines of my vocabulary.
But does the work truly ‘hang together’ as an entity? I have to say I was far less convinced by Against Nature than by my previous encounters with Ablinger’s work. Notwithstanding moments of mesmerising (if short-lived) beauty (sample track 45, 3 Surfaces for instance) to my ears it is too diffuse and fragmented. Changes are occasionally jarringly abrupt. I described the composer as a ‘provocateur’ earlier because he is, in many ways a musical scientist who fearlessly pursues sonic investigation using methods quite unlike those of like-minded adventurers such as Enno Poppe. Regardless of this I guarantee I will certainly revisit this piece – it exerted a compelling, if inexplicable fascination upon me (and more importantly my cat).
As for the appendices, Nichts (Nothing), originally for two drums but here in a clever arrangement for flute is a delightfully strange, rather wonderful little piece, full of percussive pops and beats. Überlegung 19 (Consideration 19) for flute incorporates twelve tiny movements which involve varying repetitions and selections of what appear to be the first three notes of Frère Jacques – in itself it seems utterly devoid of interest for the casual listener and I assume it was included for the sake of completeness as one of the source materials involved in the composition of Against Nature.Acht Zeichnungen (Eight Drawings) for electronics are agreeable synthetic episodes which nonetheless add little to one’s understanding or appreciation of electroacoustic art. In sum, whilst Peter Ablinger is most certainly an important contemporary figure whose music is recorded all too infrequently, adventurous types would be well advised to seek out the earlier Kairos discs, especially the brilliant Voices and Piano, before dipping their toes in this particular primordial flute/toad pond. Richard Hanlon