The Vinyl Anachronist
I'm saving the best for last. I've been wanting to talk about this album for a while now.
As I've already mentioned once or twice, I've received quite a few 2L recordings to review over the last few months and now the pile is gone. This lone title, with Cikada written prominently across the front cover, arrived shortly after I returned from CES at the beginning of the year so it was last to be reviewed. That means I really couldn't discuss it in the same context of a trade show as I did with the others. That's unfortunate because I'd really love to see the crowds respond to it. My gut says I'd clear the room, but at least a couple of people might stay and declare this one of the most intriguing recordings they've ever heard.
To the unadventurous, Cikada might sound like a recording of random sound effects and an occasional BIG moment that makes you leap out of your chair. (For now, I'm just going to call this album Cikada--Carola Bauckholt is the composer, Ich muss mit Dir reden is the title of the album and the piece is performed by the Cikada Ensemble, the same intriguing group responsible for Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes.) Perhaps that's why this recording might not work at an audio show or a dealer event. You can't just listen casually. You have to crawl inside these sounds and inhabit the same space.
Once you do this, you start to notice that there are structures and rhythms to these strange sounds. You start to recognize these patterns as somewhat musical. Then you start to notice how many of these sounds are produced by somewhat conventional musical instruments, and how the startling blast of a siren can slowly reveal itself to be a clarinet or a violin. Next, you'll hear a sound rumbling under the floorboards that might be a double bass and it might be a didgeridoo. And is that someone trying to stop a desk fan with their front teeth?
Then, after you make enough of these connections, the music starts to rise out of the chaos as an actual melody, a beautiful one, played with emotion. The surprising part is that these epiphanies, which never appear for more than a minute or so, start to connect to the sound effects until you realize something.
It's all music. It's been so all along.
What I'm describing, of course, is a musical challenge, one that many won't accept. You do have to dig deep into Cikada, and that means reading some of the most descriptive and helpful liner notes I've ever seen. The album contains four lengthy pieces totalling more than 54 minutes, but the music changes its structure so often that the entire experience resembles a suite. In the liner notes, however, you get very specific insights into the meaning of each section, and what images these sounds should evoke. These insights come from two different perspectives--that of Kenneth Karlsson, the pianist and artistic leader of Cikada, and composer Carola Bauckholt. If you feel that Cikada is too overwhelming to digest all at once, these insights will help to bring everything into focus.
I have plenty of experimental music in my collection. At this point in my life, I'm starting to understand that I really dig most of it. What separates Cikada from the majority of those other albums is the way it is recorded. I've said over and over that these titles from 2L Recordings are state-of-the-art when it comes to sound quality. But this album may win the blue ribbon for its enveloping 3-D presentation--and I'm not even listening to this amazing disc through one of the available surround-sound formats supported by 2L through their innovative recording technologies. There's unprecedented soundstage depth, at least in my experience.
But what's most amazing is how well each performer and each instrument is highlighted on the stage, and how the resonances coming from one instrument interacts with its immediate environment, especially when it comes to the other instruments. You can hear all of that here. You can hear everything. That's why I enjoy this album so much, and why I have to play it in its entirety each time. This is difficult material and it's obviously not for everyone, but reviewing this album has resulted in some of the most memorable listening sessions in quite some time.
Theater Byte -
The Cikada ensemble, founded in Oslo in 1989, has always consisted of 10 “Cikadas” who are Odd Hannisdat and Karin Heilqvist (violins), Bendik Bjornstad Foss (viola), Johannes Martens and Torun Stavseng (cellos), Magnus Soderberg (bass), Rolf Borch (clarinet), Anne Karine Hauge (flute), leader Kenneth Karlsson (piano), and Bjorn Rabben (percussion), all under the baton of Christian Eggen. From its inception, Cikada has championed avant-garde repertory and has commissioned numerous works. In the case of this album, Ich muß mit Dir reden (We must talk), the group collaborates with highly regarded German composer Carola Bauckholt. In Bauckholt’s background essays on her work and the pieces in this program, she states: “A clear aim of my music is to create a space where disparate types of material are able to coexist and communicate with each other—the raw, the coarse, and the unexpected come face to face with the highly cultivated instruments of a classical chamber ensemble.” The titles in the following playlist should not be taken too literally as they are more suggestions of mood rather than programmatic images:
The creation of the composer’s musical universe often engages unusual sound effects, for example, two ultrasonic toothbrushes that the percussionist applies to the piano’s soundboard in Sog, random vocal utterances in Keil and Sog, the pouring water in Treibstoff or the heavy scissors rubbing a wooden box in Laufwerk.
This program with its numerous special audio effects and shifting soundscape would challenge any ensemble but Cikada’s players are most certainly up to the challenge of Carola Bauckholt’s musical world. Although each piece is given a specific title, there is no concrete program per se but rather a series of abstractions that exploit both traditional and nontraditional “instruments.” Is Ich muß mit Dir reden the beginning of an intimate conversation or, in this mostly wordless program, is it like what Felix Mendelssohn created in a much earlier musical era, Lieder Ohne Worten (Songs Without Words)? That question is apparently up to the listeners to decide.
This performance was recorded in DXD in one of 2L’s favorite venues, Norway’s Jar Church. The musicians are seated in a circle around the array of microphones with the piano in the back. The audio team produces a crystal clear rendering of the players and their special sounds.
The program booklet has informative essays on the pieces written by the composer herself, director Karlsson’s take on his performing group, along with program tracks, performing and production credits, and recording session photos.
I was tempted to start this review with the warning “traditionalists need not enter” but, having traversed this relatively brief program twice, I now believe that 2L has, once again, opened new doorways for those listeners with musically open minds. A demonstration quality recording that exposes one of the many paths that classical music is now taking.
German composer Carola Bauckholt was a student of Mauricio Kagel, and will be a reasonably familiar name to those of you who haunt contemporary music festivals in Germany and elsewhere. She was a significant figure on the Cologne scene in the 1980s, co-founding the Thürmchen ensemble and engaging in music publishing.
This is the kind of music which can take a while to appreciate, exploring themes and sonorities that go beyond what you will be used to if you’ve yet to move far beyond Mozart and Beethoven. The first two pieces come from Bauckholt’s earlier Thürmchen ensemble days, the works subsequently having been taken up by Cikada. Treibstoff meaning fuel or propellant has an ongoing rhythmic ostinato feel and a slightly uneven, hobbling momentum that always makes me think of something horse-like moving along somewhat reluctantly. This shares sounds of abrasion and sawing with Laufwerk translated as ‘drive mechanism’ in the booklet. Sonic samples are part of the piece, but as these are taken from instruments already present you don’t really sense these as an electronic part. Huffing and puffing, the dropping of piles of wood, prepared piano and the rest turn this into something introvert and eventful, while at the same time sounding spontaneous and improvisatory.
Transparency is a significant part of Bauckholt’s pallet. There is always plenty going on, but each part has its own significance. Humour too, of the Mauricio Kagel kind, is also to be perceived if you are in the mood to perceive it that way. The music isn’t ‘funny’ as such, but there is a theatricality about things which calls up all kinds of associations – the animal-like noises towards the end of Laufwerk being a case in point.
The last two works in the programme were both commissioned by Cikada. Keil of ‘wedge’ engages with communication; Bauckholt writing in the booklet that “words constrain me… I don’t trust words. They are tainted with a feeling of skepticism.” She is however captivated by the sounds of languages that she doesn’t understand: “Sounds set me free, especially when they are placed in new and unfamiliar contexts.” Subsumed sounds, almost a feeling of performance underwater come through from Keil, the instruments at times murmuring amongst themselves, while at other levels they do their own thing, coinciding with other musical happenings as if by chance. Frustrations emerge later on, and an element of violence which is enveloped in beauty as the piece draws to a close.
Sog, ‘pull, slipstream, undertow’ is a piece in which “the ensemble blends together in a low mass of sound that invites us to dive in.” This is a dark world of intoned notes and words, but “just like our eyes adjust to the dark, our ears begin to delve into the depth of sound” as the piece progresses and develops. These are predominantly low sounds, but there is still that ever-present transparency of timbre and sense of detail – a kind of clarity of direction and expression that prevents things becoming amorphous. By halfway through the piece the sounds have emerged upwards, and the music begins to grow out of new, sustained tones in the mid-range. Slow changes, glissandi, and strange interruptions remind one of something organic, spreading and growing in ways that are not always entirely pleasant, the penultimate buzzing having an aura of death and decay. Do the musicians say what I think they say at 16:30? The final moments have a concentration of event on which the entire programme can stand, let alone Sog itself.
Documentation is good, though dates of composition somewhere in the text would have been useful. I’ve been listening to this over the usual headphones but the surround effect is superbly produced, and there are illustrations in the booklet that show instrument and microphone placement for each session. For those of you to whom ‘squeaky-gate’ music will never have any appeal, this is unlikely to change your point of view. Listeners intrigued by the avant-garde cutting edge will want to experience these recordings and will find much to intrigue and stimulate.
Audiophile Audition -
A haunting electronic score with superb sonics.
This album is a collection of contemporary music by composer Carola Bauckholt. Played by the Cikada Ensemble which has gained a reputation far beyond the boundaries of Scandinavia as a special ensemble for contemporary music, as well as for projects at the nexus of composition and improvisation. Its repertoire includes works for electrically amplified string quartet, as well as works which combine acoustic string sound and live electronics.
The quartet also often works in unorthodox instrumental combinations such as quintet with accordion. The quartet’s core repertoire includes major works from the second half of the 20th century by composers such as Kaija Saariaho, Rolf Wallin, Luigi Nono, Iannis Xenakis, Toshio Hosokawa, and James Dillon as well as collaborations with musicians across genres such as Annette Peacock, Steve Swallow, and Trygve Seim.
Ms. Bauckholt was born in Krefeld, West Germany. She worked at the theater at the Marienplatz in Krefeld and studied music with Mauricio Kagel the Cologne Musikhochschule from 1978-84.
The music is quite interesting, and there is a large variety of sounds, sometimes I hear what sounds like an electronic equivalent of wood being sawed, at other times I can relate to the sound of distant dogs howling in the night. There are muffled voices and electronically enhanced plucked strings. I’m not meaning to trivialize the sounds. The sonic picture is quite compelling and interesting.
Needless to say, this music will be appealing to people who like contemporary avant-garde compositions, and to others, it will simply be an assault on their eardrums. I’m in the former category, and I enjoyed the experience. The sounds are sometimes startling, sometimes rather dreamlike. On the other hand, it’s not the kind of disc I will listen to over and over.
The album is far more involving in its multi-channel versions. This is percussive and electronic music. At times the sounds seem engaged in conversation moving around the room. I don’t think a listener would get the composer’s desired effect in two-channel stereo.
In terms of sonics, this album a typical 2L production, meaning it’s of the very highest audio quality. The positions of the instruments are sharply placed. In the surround mix, the sounds come from all over the room, yet have very obvious fixed positions, either at the speaker location or floating in between. It’s a demo quality album, and will certainly be a good test of your speakers and sub-woofer if you have one.