Saturday, 28 March 2009

Live at Mt. Fuji: Something old, something new....

Although Manuel Göttsching had toured Japan as part of Ashra in 1997, his first solo performance in the Land of the Rising Sun was at the Anoyo Prism Festival, Mount Fuji. Thankfully that concert, which took place on 29th April 2006 was captured and released on CD almost a year later by MG Art as Live at Mt. Fuji.

The concert is book ended by two classic Göttsching compositions, Sunrain and Shuttlecock, both of which present fascinating variations on their studio counterparts, taking the listener on a familiar yet refreshingly new journey. The original tracks have both been rebuilt from scratch, using contemporary technology for a gleaming, clean digital finish.

Sunrain, a strong contender for the title of Manuel Göttsching’s signature tune has a contemporary trance feel in this new reading. Sure, the rumbling bass line and irreplaceable, underlying flickering keyboard part are there but with this is new streamlined version the gentle sounds of the EKO Computerhythm drum machine have been replaced with a refined techno beat. The original 1976 composition formed a bridge between classical minimalism and the transcendent trance music of the future long before the classic E2-E4 was improvised. In this version, which is double the length of the original, Göttsching reclaims the genre he invented but in his own way and with his unique musical identity firmly intact. Overall the results prove to be mesmerising.

The slow, brooding, latin flavoured Saint & Sinner, which first appeared on the fine Concert for Murnau CD appears next in re-worked form. Whilst that project was entirely guitar free, this reading of the track is a showcase for a masterful laid-back electric blues workout, the notes flowing from Manuel’s Stratocaster like gentle, cooling drops of rain. Fans of Manuel’s work will instantly recognise his style here in another piece of music confirming his status one of the great guitar players.

Trunky Groove, a new recording exclusive to this CD, is simply beyond comparison. To attempt to compare the crisp, multiple layers of meticulously programmed rhythms here with drum and bass or any other musical genre would do this unique fifteen minute piece a grave disservice.

A light synthesizer drone presents a slightly ominous tone for this musical cityscape and, as the varied rhythmic sounds stutter and tumble deliciously, organ-style synth chords pave the way for a howling, dissonant tremolo heavy guitar solo. Funky rhythm guitar chords lead back to the organ sounds and finally the stripped down rhythms and drone take the piece to a close. If this description sounds strange then so is the music but it is also never less than fascinating. A full album of material in this style would certainly be a welcome addition to the Manuel Göttsching discography.

A medley of music featured in different form on the 2005 CD release Die Mulde (recorded 1997) follows. The slow moving cloud formations suggested by the melancholic title track flow into Die Spiegel, which echoes the works of minimalist composer Terry Riley with its cyclical patterns of notes. This really does seem like the aural equivalent of watching a waterfall: layered sequencers present a hypnotising, silvery, seamless liquid flow of sound. Despite the overridingly pastoral feel of Die Mulde, the final part, Zerfluss finds a gentle factory-machine drum pattern beneath thoughtful, wistful synth chords in a composition as reflective and mysterious as life itself. A playful glockenspiel keyboard voice tiptoes across the music and is finally joined by an awesome, soulful extended Göttsching guitar solo, an element not featured on the original version.

As mentioned previously, the last offering on this 72-minute CD is a new take on the 1977 classic Shuttlecock, first recorded for the album Blackouts. Here the familiar tight, multiple, interlocking clusters of guitar notes are traded in for a fast, trance inducing sequencer line and soft rhythm, over which Göttsching plays a breathtaking guitar solo. Slowly evolving patterns of notes flood from his nimble fingers, funky, electronically treated rhythm guitar chords blend in and out of the mix, and then this fresh treatment draws to a close with a blistering distorted lead guitar solo. An entrancing, extended re-imagining, this serves as a powerful reminder of the musician responsible for Inventions for Electric Guitar and E2-E4, two of the most important albums in the history of popular music.

Curious, uninitiated fans of top quality instrumental music will be thrilled to discover the diverse showcase for Manuel Göttsching’s far-ranging talents found on Live at Mt. Fuji. Existing fans, on the other hand, will certainly not be disappointed with these imaginative contemporary re-workings of classics, presented alongside a great new track. A highly recommended CD.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Your favourite album?

What is your favourite Manuel Göttsching, Ash Ra Tempel or Ashra album? I'd love your thoughts on this. Please drop me a message and let me know what you think and why. All contributions will be considered and if your views end up in the book you will be credited. I'm really looking forward to your opinions!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Ash Ra Tempel 1975 press cutting

A big thank you to Andy King for this wonderful Ash Ra Tempel cutting from 1975. If only concert tickets were still this price! (-;

Friday, 13 March 2009

Schwingungen: Visions of Heaven and Hell

The first four Ash Ra Tempel albums tend to follow a pattern: that of a heavier first side and a mellower, more introspective second side and nowhere is this diversity more apparent than on Schwingungen, the second release by the band, with it’s heavenly and hellish contrasts.

The original side one of the Schwingungen album begins with Light: Look at your sun and some tender, melancholy pastoral guitar playing by Manuel Göttsching. As the music develops it is clear that this is a lament as heartfelt and sad as anything that Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green ever played. The lyrics and music suggest a utopian walk in a leafy forest, a Garden of Eden, in harmony with both humanity and the rest of nature: We are all one. The tone becomes heavier with some powerful distorted Göttsching blues guitar soloing and glides gently to a close, much as it began.

The second part of the first side, Darkness: Flowers must die, fades in slowly with a soft didgeridoo-like electronic buzzing sound. A shimmer of cymbals and light guitars, are accompanied by the bongos of Uli Pop. As John L begins to sing it is clear that the music has re-emerged in the midst of a terrifying nightmare. The singing, which has some parallels in some of the stark, crazed performances of Can’s Malcolm Mooney becomes more unsettling, a coarse, guttural roar. The lyrics make it clear that this is no utopia. This is not a vision of what could be. It is a vision of what is: an unforgiving, concrete jungle, where, torn from the garden the human spirit withers.

Flowers must die
Flowers must die
I see, when I come back from my lysergic daydream
Standing in the middle
Of the glass and neon forest
With an unhappy name: City
Flowers must die

Tumbling drums, bongos and fast rhythm guitar are joined by the saxophone of guest musician Matthias Wehler, as the music gathers pace in a dizzying ritual. This is what L.A. Blues by The Stooges might sound like if that messed up ball of sonic barbed wire could ever be untangled. Finally John L screams:

I want to be a stone
Not living, not thinking
A thing without warm blood in the City

Manuel plays bluesy guitar solos over the rest of the instruments, now treated with a flanged effect and a few echoing howls from John L. bring this gripping, yet disturbing musical journey to a close.

Schwingungen (vibrations), which occupies the original second side of the album, is an altogether gentler affair. The first of the two parts, Suche (search) begins with vibraphones, played by drummer Wolfgang Müller, and gentle electronic ambience. Experimental and exploratory, this is like an exercise in creating a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere. The strings of an electric guitar are scraped subtly amidst a thickening cloud of haze. Tom-toms echo, as if recorded in the distance and gain prominence in a gathering drone, accompanied by high register organ chords. As the music becomes increasingly atonal, the second theme Liebe (love) emerges. Göttsching plays a gorgeous, soft wah-wah guitar and a voice sings wordlessly, like a choir. Both reassuring and beautiful, the music is filled with tenderness. Floating through the ether, the final moments of the album reward the listener by taking them straight to the gates of heaven.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Restoration and Exploration: Concert for Murnau

On attending the Braunschweig International Film Festival in Brunswick, Germany in 2002, Manuel Göttsching found himself invited by the organisers to produce a score for a silent film. The idea was that the music would be performed live alongside a screening during the following year’s festival.

The silent film that most captured Göttsching’s imagination when viewed from the perspective of a potential music score was Schlöss Vogelod (Haunted Castle). Directed by the legendary F.W. Murnau in 1921, just one year before his vampire classic Nosferatu, Schlöss Vogelod is a dark, tense thriller based around an unresolved murder. A party of aristocrats gather for an annual hunt held by Lord Vögelod but they are confined to his castle as a result of torrential rain. Count Johann Oetsch arrives as an uninvited guest. Baron Safferstätt, who is also at the party is soon joined by his wife, the Baroness. The Baroness’s ex-husband was murdered several years ago and, although it was never proven, many suspect Oetsch of the crime. Count Oetsch is asked to leave and refuses. Instead he embarks on a hunt in the pouring rain. In the meantime the Baroness agrees to wait at the castle, in order meet Father Faramund, a priest, as she has something important to say.

A large source of inspiration for Manuel’s score was the work of another German musician, Willy Sommerfeld. During the 1920s Sommerfeld developed his reputation as a legend whilst working in Braunschweig cinemas, accompanying many of the greatest silent films of the time with his fine improvisational piano and violin work. Göttsching could clearly see a link between this approach and that adopted by Ash Ra Tempel with their daring improvisational live performances of the early 1970s. The original idea was to improvise an electronic score, a sort of contemporary update of Willy Sommerfeld’s methods of working with the piano. Initially Manuel began work on some pieces using drum machines and samples of whispered vocals but it soon became clear that attempting to work improvisationally with electronic equipment would be very difficult, as it would inevitably require some form of pre-programming.

Manuel’s next idea was to incorporate an orchestra. This seemed particularly fitting as the piece was to be performed alongside a screening at The State Theatre of Brunswick, a venue that has an orchestra and choir to accompany musicians. Again, the improvisational format proved to be potentially problematic as large orchestras are accustomed to working with written musical scores. Göttsching also felt that his early ideas to incorporate vocal fragments would be unsuitable for a traditional orchestral and choral format. Working electronically he began to produce pieces using horn sounds to convey the hunt, one of the central themes of the film and a cello sound as a musical device to express the suffering of the Baroness.

Whilst composing music for the planned screening Manuel had been using a demo tape made from a black and white version of the film, which played at 24 f.p.s. (frames per second). Unfortunately, the restored, colorized version of the film, which was delivered in August 2003 had a corrected, much slower speed adding 20 minutes to the running time. This changed the mood of the film and much of the dramatic tension completely, meaning that the music would have to be presented in a totally different way.

Running out of time, Manuel’s classical music training was put to use, as he was able to compose and produce notation for some of chamber pieces. The score now consisted of a number of compositions played on two violins, two horns and cello by musicians from the Staatsorchester Braunschweig. Some of these compositions were unadorned, whilst for others the classical musicians were accompanied by electronic music, which Manuel later added. The three longest pieces written for the performance, which made up about half of the score were performed electronically.

Two concerts for Murnau were performed on 31st October and 1st November at the Staatstheater (National Theatre), Braunschweig, Kleines Haus by Manuel, along with the quintet of musicians from the Staatsorchester Braunschweig. The beautifully packaged CD Concert for Murnau was released by MG Art in 2005 and included 55 minutes of music from the performances. Some of the material from the concerts was not included as it was designed specifically to accompany the images and would not make sense without them. Among these fragments was a rather frantic piece titled Die Nacht. With drum and bass-like rhythms this sounds like a manic precursor to the more sedate rhythms of Trunky Groove, later released exclusively on Manuel’s Live at Mt. Fuji CD.

The released material on the Concert for Murnau CD presents a fascinating blend of electronic pieces, compositions for chamber musicians accompanied by electronics and musical vignettes for chamber orchestra alone. The music is frequently sombre and melancholy, perfectly matching the mood of the film. It is clear that Göttsching is exploring new ground here, keen not to produce music in the same mould as his earlier work. In a typically bold move there is no guitar on this album and the three extended pieces, played electronically, in no way imitate Manuel’s 1970s albums. On first listen the chamber pieces may feel like a stretch to fans of rock (and/or) electronic music but repeated listens reveal these to be highly addictive. Auf zur Jagd is simply gorgeous, whilst Accused is both claustrophobic and compelling. Manuel Göttsching has recently stated that his next studio project may involve an orchestra and on this fine form we can only hope that this is the case.