Having been a fan of the specific branch of early 2000s "electro-acoustic improv" perpetuated by Jason Kahn and his cohorts on the artists' now-retired label Cut.fm, I was taken aback some years ago at seeing an outlier, contrabassist Christian Weber, enter this purist fold. It's a big, dynamic wooden instrument capable of a lot — particularly in Weber's mitts — but I signed up to hear Norbert Möslang's buzzing florescent lights, Olivia Block's collage soundscapes and Günter Müller play with 17-second delays. I'll admit I wasn't really understanding (or shruggingly refused to embrace) these folks' aesthetic direction, which one could up as "Reductionist," until Taku Sugimoto's Music for Cymbal. Here, a single cymbal is repeatedly struck in at various tempi amidst grand pauses for 72 minutes; it also begins with three minutes of silence. It's a difficult listen in the same way that sitting still can be.
Though he has worked with Kahn for decades, I felt a similar gate-keeping feeling with Christian Wolfarth based on the images of a person with a snare, a cymbal, a chair, and no way to produce any of the "electro" in that equation. Oh, he's another reductionist? Let him in.
The majority of Part I is a duet between two distinct sounds: pinecones and a struck surface (Part II takes a similar approach but with "dead wood, a drum or 39 pinecones.) One is micro, frail, and brittle but realizes as an intricate percussive bed with a blurred droning quality when manipulated in quick succession. The other is a grounding, sticky "splat" on a drumhead, which happens much less often and plays a more interjectory role amidst the prickles.
With that, any more detailed description at this point becomes less about the elements of music and analogous to the listener's life experience or imagination. For whatever reason (I have never worked on a crab boat), listening to this takes me to a placid morning of fishing where all I can hear is the interactions of crab claws that I'm sorting through my pots; throwing them back (splat), dropping them in a "keep" bucket. Per my wife and Andrew Chaote's poem in the liner notes, there is a novel "popcorn popping" quality to both the sound and pacing, leading me to mentally overlay the form and dynamics here over the physical and sonic reactions happening in a microwave for four minutes.; "Right there, that's the point where you wait three seconds then click cancel or it's going to burn" is loosely how Part I realizes.
I'm not poking at Wolfarth or the work; there just aren't words to embellish the simplicity of what's happening.
It should be mentioned that this work was predetermined through dice, and 39 / Part I — III is a musical game. Per Wolfarth, "The note values, the corresponding rests and the tempi are rolled. In some cases, the duration of the individual sequences is decided-upon using the dice according to a strict concept" with the purpose of breaking or at least questioning his "...habits and certain formal aspects."
Leaving a large part of the piece open this way does create some head-scratching, pendulum-swinging moments as seemingly foreign elements wander in. Near the ten-minute point of Part I, a distant jet (maybe pitched up on its 3rd and 4th passes over the house) and casual bird talk drift through. My hand immediately goes up, as this oddly placed juxtaposition essentially rips one from the intensity began with note one. Did the system make things maudlin or otherworldly, or do I need to challenge my expectations of form?
Further, immediately after 26 minutes of intense stirring and thuds of Part II, the final work begins with six minutes of a church bell. Stripped of the "attack," it seamlessly loops, subtly evolves, reverses, and shows no interdependence as Wolfarth returns to a smaller-scale, less busy gesture that carries us to the end without fanfare. When described, this passage feels out of place; listening to the album in its entirety, this and the aforementioned form-busting environmental shift provide a surprising "balance" to 39 as a whole.
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