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Ulrich Krieger - Early American Minimalism, Walls of Sound II

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Artist: Ulrich Krieger

Album: Early American Minimalism, Walls of Sound II

Label: Sub Rosa

Review date: Oct. 27, 2004

At what point does art becomes culture? Besides the quality of the performance itself, that seems to be the essential question confronting the listener of Ulrich Krieger's Early American Minimalism: Walls of Sound II, which features performances of works by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, focusing on the exploration of modal patterns. Minimalism as a gesture or philosophy has lost its poignancy; it is fait accompli that its revolutionary quality naturally diminished as it became accepted into the canon of Western art music. So it may be fitting that younger artists like Krieger, a 44-year-old German composer who has studied at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin and the Manhattan School of Music, are releasing reverent, solemn interpretations of so-called high minimalist pieces, though it is unclear to what end.

The scores on Walls of Sound II are highly conceptual. "Music in Fifths," by Philip Glass, consists of circular, embedded rhythms generated by a constant eighth-note pulse and additive secondary rhythms in parallel fifths. Originally performed with an electric organ and two soprano saxophones, it is rendered here it with six saxophones (Krieger's primary instrument), giving the piece a subtle, if at times banal, tonal quality.

Reich's "Pendulum Music" is perhaps the most conceptually interesting, if least sonically compelling performance. Referring to this "audible sculpture phase piece" in an interview in Perfect Sound Forever, Reich explains, "If it's done right, it's kind of funny." Krieger's interpretation is kind of funny, then: the piece consists of two microphones swung, from opposite sides, in front of a speaker. Feedback tones are heard each time the microphones pass the speaker and, as the pendulum slows, a pulsing drone emerges. Reich admits, maybe because of the lack in tonal quality, "it's not a piece that needs to be done very often. I was not interested in recording it." Pattern music aims to somehow give the acoustic process physical and psychological qualities. Riley's interest in trance and ritual, rooted in his relationship with classical Indian music, always translated most coherently into a physical sound space, and his compositions are the most apt to create new perceptual experiences. "Dorian Reeds" is Krieger's most effective performance, and also the least strict interpretation of a score. The piece, originally written for multiple saxophones, is performed by Krieger using a delay technique. Sustained notes and shimmering ostinatos are repeated and enter into a delay system where they are slowly abstracted. The piece, over 30 minutes long, is a constantly evolving universe of sound and morphing microcosmic patterns.

The last two pieces, Philip Glass' "1 + 1" and Steve Reich's "Reed Phase," might work best in a museum, and exist here as tributes to the composers rather than attempts to communicate with a listener. The Glass piece is purely percussive, consisting of additive rhythms played on a tabletop, creating a sustained low rumbling noise. "Reed Phase" is an instrumental piece emblematic of Reich's early tape works, consisting of a single pattern played by two saxophones, one slightly faster than the other, creating a phase shift over a long period of time.

The project of resuscitating these composers is symbolic, in that we have reached a sort of endgame of postmodernism. These originators are now seen as canonical, while their music has been absorbed into popular culture, whether film soundtracks (Glass) or contemporary electronica; the cross-pollination of Indian and Western forms is mirrored by Jay-Z and Punjabi MC. Not that there exists an equivalence between the two, or that culturally heterogeneous forms are not endemic to pop music. But it is interesting to think how far we are already from the late 1960s, when these compositions were first performed.

John Cage, describing experimental music in 1937, wrote: "There is an essential difference between making a piece of music and hearing one. A composer knows his work as a woodsman knows a path he has traced and retraced, while a listener is confronted by the same work as one is in the woods by a plant he has never seen before." For those who have never heard the work of these composers, Walls of Sound II might be a revelation. (Krieger, who has undertaken independent didjeridu studies and research in Australian Aboriginal music and culture, is certainly a fellow traveler with a deep understanding of these composers and their work.) For those who have, this is no longer experimental music. Though it has not been deprived of its value, the compositions based primarily on a method and the objective of making the listener aware of how he or she is listening over time no longer have the same sense of immediacy. Besides Riley's work, the most evident ritual here is Krieger's own performance, an invocation of spirits of the past in its own right.

By Alexander Provan

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