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Ekkehard Ehlers - Plays

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Artist: Ekkehard Ehlers

Album: Plays

Label: Staubgold

Review date: Sep. 26, 2002

The tribute album has long been one of the more unnecessary and unscrupulous chapters in the musical canon. These compilations rarely operate as anything but superfluous fodder, pieced together by record execs to extract every last penny from a (dead) artist’s lingering popularity.

Of course, the tribute record is inevitable – it epitomizes, in a sense, why children pick up instruments in the first place. Musicians beget musicians, stars beget stars. “They” are the reason “we” play (at least until “we” becomes so jaded, admitting any influence whatsoever becomes embarrassing). The problem is, as flattering as it may be, a tribute album usually consists of hapless covers that actually do a disservice to the original material (and play a key role in why stars secretly loathe their fans).

Ekkehard Ehlers’ Plays is different. Ehlers, a Frankfurt-based artist/educator and label head of Whatness, prefers to “refer”. His abstract compositions channel inspiration rather than mimic it. “Everyone is sampling,” Ehlers said. “Sampling is the figure of historic devices in digital music. My idea is not to sample, but to refer to historic places and figures.”

On Plays, Ehlers’ abstraction solidifies his status as one of the more exciting, creative “electronic” artists in Germany, a country already known for its mixing board prowess. His selection of references spans the spectrum of art: Post-WWII German author Hubert Fichte, saxophonist Albert Ayler, blues legend Robert Johnson, avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew, and director John Cassavetes. Each figure is tragic in his own way, and all passed before their time. Fichte was a homosexual “half-Jew” growing up in Nazi Germany, dead at age 50. Cassavetes brought cinema verité to America, dead at age 59. Cardew struggled with his beliefs, and was killed in a hit-and-run at the age of 45. Johnson was killed by a jealous husband at the age of 27. Ayler wound up drowned in New York’s East River at just 35.

Ehlers’ true intentions behind each of these pieces are hidden among the abstract strands that make up Plays, but there is no mistaking the emotion invested throughout. Each project (three EPs and two 7”s) traverses unique ground, but the tragic, rebellious background of his subjects permeates the collection. The following interpretation of his work is by no means definitive. Plays’s nebulous nature defies strict explanation and will undoubtedly mean many things to many different people.

Ehlers’ first take on Cardew relays melancholy and hope, maybe more so than anywhere else on Plays. The first piece features delicate organ drones gradually rising to the heavens, each tone blooming, exhaling, before finally giving ground to another. Behind the syrupy layers of warmth, an in(con)sistent rattle pokes imprints in the gloss, adding an air of uncertainty to the euphoric foreground. The two contrary, but hardly conflicting, sounds lend an intricate sense of depth to the piece, with each party respecting the other’s space.

The mood changes quickly. An ethereal mist settles over the second Cardew piece, clinging to drawn-out ambient vocals. While the first piece may have reflected Cardew’s initial gift, this muddled pool of sound seems to hint at confusion or vacillation. Cardew certainly seemed lost at the end of his life, spurning his prior experiments in the avant-garde in favor of Maoist agitprop designed for the proletariat. Ehlers’ disorienting production here aptly captures Cardew’s beautiful, but troubled mind, aimlessly writhing in its own profundity.

The Fichte compositions mark a dramatic departure and establish the variety of emotion on Plays. Ehlers shifts from the claustrophobic cosmos of Cardew to a more wide open, spacious approach on Fichte. While Ehlers tried his best to fill the Cardew with too many ideas, Fichte’s piece relies on the tension between silence and near silence. The first section begins with a high-frequency pitch opposed by lower register clicks. As the song progresses, more sounds come out to play, steadily piling up layers of clicks, chirps and swooshes, but the production only enhances a sense of loneliness. All of these characters are kept in the background to compete for a supporting role behind the silence. Fichte, in life, prided himself on outsider status, and Ehlers’ homage here looks beyond the philosophy and the poetry and anthropology, and instead paints a portrait of the man trapped in a solitude beyond his control.

The second Fichte piece explodes out of the gate, relatively speaking, with sounds ousting silence as the protagonist. In fact, one could even make the argument there’s a speaking role present. A distorted horn of some sort, squawking like the teacher in Charlie Brown, babbles throughout the piece while treated strings, guitars and not-quite-piercing tones swirl the periphery. The horn’s oration is affecting, evading cadences in typical beat poet fashion. Unpredictable, yet strangely groovy, of all the compositions on Plays, this may be the most impressive; a Poem Electronique for a fallen compatriot.

Switching skills again, Ehlers’ interpretation of Cassavetes work strips away the freeform in favor of ambient stasis. Both Cassavetes pieces involve orchestral loops, similar to the dreamworlds of Stars of the Lid, especially their work circa The Tired Sounds of… The first Cassavetes composition ebbs and flows underneath a varnish of audible hiss, as if unearthed from some Hollywood catacomb. While the string section loops with metronomic consistency, Ehlers surrounds the synths with digital duststorms, similar to Christian Fennesz’s Endless Summer. What the second piece lacks in sophistication, it makes up with emotion. Once the loop settles, the strings march steadily onward for close to 10 minutes before Ehlers slowly disassembles. The Cassavetes EP, while simplistic compared to the rest of Plays, establishes and maintains a dramatic, triumphant edge quite well.

Drama only begins to describe Ehlers' take on Ayler. One would logically expect a variation on Ayler’s intense, magically demented reed playing. Yet, Ehlers only hints at Ayler’s chaotic blasts, scattering brief flurries throughout the two pieces. Rather than focus on Ayler’s fiery, over-the-top semantics, the overlying theme here is positively chilling – downright Hitchcockian. German cellist Anka Hirsch performs Ehlers' composition, sculpting dark alleys where there should be light. The pace is achingly slow, cautious even. Lacquered glitches drip somewhere in the shadows. Even when rapid-fire staccatos emerge, the cello remains ever-present, casting an ominous tone over the proceedings.

On first listen, this interpretation seems all too peculiar. Given additional thought and different perspective, however, these pieces fit perfectly. Ehlers' Plays series is not a reinterpretation of its subjects’ music or accomplishments; these are reflections on the humans themselves: Cardew’s psychosis; Fichte’s loneliness; Cassavetes’ rebellion. And so with Ayler, these sonic frescoes aren’t necessarily strictly homage to his revolutionary take on jazz. Ehler, instead, has vividly recreated Ayler’s mysterious demise. The piece reeks of death. No one knows for sure how Ayler ended up in the East River, whether he was murdered or suicidal, and Ehlers' terrorstocked memoire only perpetuates the mystery. Music rarely sounds this disturbing.

The final installment is the Robert Johnson 7”, which features two four-minute ditties capturing the two sides of the Delta-blues pioneer. The first is a dusty piece of guitar virtuosity, restrained but hardly solemn. It’s been said Johnson was the greatest guitar player folks had ever seen, and the intimidating feel of this piece seems to reflect that. The second Robert Johnson is a straight-up micro-haus hoedown, with a distorted vocal hoot serving as the hook. Johnson’s sexy reputation and hedonist persona oozes forth over the track’s four minutes, but, much like Johnson’s life, ends much too early and without warning.

Plays has to be one of the more ambitious undertakings of the past year and Ehlers succeeds on every level. These recordings honor past artists with both emotion and innovation. One can study its overwhelming abstract complexities or simply bask in its passion. Either way, there’s little doubt Plays stands as one of the most unique and welcome tributes in a long time.

By Otis Hart

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