notes on dazwischen
1. eddie prévost
2. ian stonehouse
3. john tilbury
I have known Sebastian Lexer for the best part of ten years. I first met him when, after leaving his native Germany, he came to study music at London’s Goldsmiths’ College (where he first came into contact with John Tilbury). He, along with some of his contemporaries, decided to join the weekly improvisation workshop that I had begun to convene. Since then we have become good friends and colleagues. I have seen how he works in respect to his chosen instrument, his thoughtful collaborations with others and how he negotiates with the newer technologies that are making an impact upon our musical world. It is this latter aspect that is the most obvious concern of Sebastian’s first solo CD. And the texts which make up the booklet that accompanies this CD deal with the consequences of Lexer’s exchange with computer and piano. John Tilbury considers some of the conventional musical antecedents that have informed Sebastian’s musical thinking, his approach, the consequent arising effects and implications. Ian Stonehouse reviews some of the more technical considerations. Both writers, who also know Lexer well, naturally carry assumptions about Sebastian which inform their narratives but which may be hidden from the reader. So, I take this opportunity to advise readers and potential listeners to this album, a little about Lexer the artist and Lexer the man.
In becoming part of the improvisation workshop, Sebastian began to embrace and expand upon a line of musical enquiry that arose in the musical philosophy of AMM. However, he also began to appreciate that a musical community is much more than a collection of clever and ambitious individuals. With little ‘official’ resources devoted to this kind of musical life he acknowledged that it was necessary, as well as potentially more rewarding, to invest in the society of improvised musicians. To this end – as well as being a valuable colleague in ensembles like 9!1, in which Lexer features to good effect and (in my opinion) elegance – he has always been generous with his time and services to others. As a musician, as a recording engineer, as a supporter and as an organiser. To wit: his ongoing Interlace Series at Goldsmiths’ College. This began in 2002 and continues to this day.2
Music for Lexer is something which reveals and expands his (and our) humanity. I have lost count of the moments that I have found his music intrinsically moving as well as supportive of others. He takes the sounds and the aspirations of this fleeting genre of music and makes them beautiful. For me he embodies the model musician. This CD may be Sebastian Lexer’s first as a soloist but no one should infer that this is in any way a beginning. This music has the mark of a mature reflection upon the materials and the issues at hand. I am confident that Sebastian will imprint upon the ensuing development of a music, and social movement, of which he is an emergent creative part.
Eddie Prévost—May 2009
1. none (-t) 9! (featuring: Nathaniel Catchpole, Jamie Coleman, Alex James, Ross Lambert, John lely, Sebastian Lexer, Marianthi Papalexandri, Eddie Prévost and Seymour Wright.) 2002. Matchless Recordings MRCD54.
2 the website and audio archive of the concerts http://interlace.incalcando.com
Derek Bailey once said that “Improvisation is not knowing what it is until you do it, composition is not doing it until you know what it is” (Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation by Ben Watson, 2004). Sebastian Lexer’s approach to improvisation arguably resides between these two points, as the title of his CD implies (dazwischen = in-between). Since taking to Max software in 2000, after being introduced to it by Dr. Katharine Norman in the Electronic Music Studios at Goldsmiths, it’s only very recently that he’s been able to fully contextualize what he is doing from a broader social-political perspective, as demonstrated in a presentation he gave at Goldsmiths in March 2009. The technology he employs – laptop, Max software, microphones, speakers (set inside or very close to the piano), and an array of control devices – afford him the opportunity to curate a range of sonic events carefully constructed out of, and augmenting, the sounds generated from within and around the piano itself. The software can generate and hold within itself an array of possible futures that he may choose to investigate, transform, struggle with, or abandon. The importance of the technology, and how he has customised it as an improvising musician, is that it gives him the space to listen and respond, on the cusp of (not) knowing and (not) doing, whilst maintaining – as he has claimed - a fundamental pianism.
The ‘patch’ that he has developed within the Max software environment (Max is an object-based programming language) was originally titled Instant Events, though latterly it has been rechristened piano+, succinctly encompassing the entirety of his extended piano technique. The piano+ patch can be set to record what he is doing in and around the piano, or, on occasion, what fellow performers and their instruments are also doing, analysing and “reporting pitch information, loudness, density and so forth”. It can then process these sounds through techniques such as granulation (as on time and rapprochement), ring modulation, extreme filtering (defining edges) etc., and the results replayed instantly or stored and triggered later by other events, such as the detection of certain pitch values or volume thresholds. Although he has acknowledged a degree of control freak-ery, maintaining final authority as to which sounds will emerge, this is not at the expense of allowing the unexpected to unfurl, flourish and inform the direction an improvisation might take. Rather like a Calder mobile, a series of small deliberate sounds placed far away counterbalance the presence of a sudden larger gesture close to. It’s a contingent process, and the notion that he is curating these sonic events is an appealing one, not unlike his role as organiser of the Interlace concert series since 2002.
Alto saxophonist Seymour Wright, a regular collaborator, has stated that he has “a certain moral responsibility… to look beyond the scope of orthodoxy (even of current saxophone unorthodoxy)” within his work as a performer (The Wire, March 2009). Similarly, Lexer seeks to circumvent certain laptop orthodoxies, often manifest through over‑amplification and the tyranny of the loop. He cites a remark from composer/performer Dave Smith, made during preparations for a performance of Paragraph 5 from Cardew’s The Great Learning in Leipzig, 2000 – “no sheep mentality!” Lexer’s performance technique and use of processing is overtly measured and subtle, often on the edge of audibility, perhaps something of a trademark, but perfectly in keeping for someone who has studied with John Tilbury and been part of the generation of musicians to pass through Eddie Prévost’s improvisation workshop. The final track, opposition, seems to capture what’s most unique about his approach, a mix of immaculate restraint and serendipity, teasing out and extrapolating the smallest details into a fragile yet captivating music, a virtually seamless conjunction of technology and performance.
Ian Stonehouse—May 2009
Right from the beginning a sensitivity
is brought to bear on the sound sources. Tapping. Rooting around for sounds. Prospecting for sounds. Testing the ground. Sound-diviners. We are experiencing the birth pangs of melody.
Trio: piano, percussion and strings The piano is of course a string instrument, no need for hammers, and on Lexer’s piano the strings are coaxed electronically to produce a full repertoire of sustained sounds of varying character: wavering, insistent, intermittent, uneven; long sounds which gain in richness and complexity, hitherto unimaginable. Technology allows the sound to go on for ever.
And yet, the piano carries with it an enormous amount of historical baggage. Every sound is redolent of the past. On the one hand, Lexer’s eclectic repertoire of study in previous years may well have stood him in good stead as an improvising musician: Beethoven, Scriabin, Crumb, Cage, Schubert, Debussy, Liszt, Feldman, Takemitsu. On the other, by means of his computer the music is able, if desired, to transcend the instrument and its history.
I am impressed by the varying degrees of intentionality and the spatial deployment of sounds (isolated, remote, etc.) which enrich Lexer’s music. Shades of Cardew and Wolff. For example, in an ensemble the piano sound can be effectively subsumed, not obliterated, into the context; different degrees of presence, from the soloistic to a situation where its contribution is barely perceived but none the less telling – overheard rather than heard, working in the nooks and crannies, fleetingly emerging from time to time.
Lexer aims to expand performance by making studio techniques available on stage and including electro-acoustic techniques in live performance – making the physically impossible possible. Decay and the way it is extended and metamorphosed through electronic treatment.
Lexer’s music comprises and juxtaposes the whole repertoire of tones, and noises, associated with the piano. All those sounds just faintly associated with the piano are brought into focus and brought to musical life. The piano creates its own delicate accompaniment of quasi aleatoric, electronic noises; these subsidiary ‘noises’ are always interesting. Lexer’s piano is a kind of Pandora’s Box; this intrigues me.
On track 5, Abscissa and Ordinate, the ending is long drawn out with moments of considerable beauty. The economy of tones is Feldmanesque. The music slows right down, against a hum and a sustained sine tone in the background.
Reflecting on the difference between studio recordings and concerts, whereas the studio acts as a cocoon, even providing the safety net of rectifying ‘false starts’, the concert situation offers no such comfort; moreover, it can play a key role in how the music begins, indeed, how it continues, e.g. peremptorily, or even in anger. The opening of the final track, for example, suggests this ‘concert’ character, with its assertiveness, its sharp, piercing sounds and spontaneous outbursts.
Ken Edwards’ poem, There’s something in there, from which I quote, captures the materiality of the piano (which is what I admire and enjoy so much in Lexer’s music); that is, the wood and steel from which it is forged, their provenance and the processes they undergo. Even in its natural state such material possesses and suggests certain sound qualities. In the Steinway factory in Hamburg, where some of the sounds in the piece originated, one can observe and hear the gradual ‘instrumentalisation’ of the material (human agency at work) – the piano both as a sound object to be exploited and as an (historical) instrument to be played.
There’s something in there
At least…there may be. Who can say more than that?
It comes in there, or is there, sometimes. It’s suggestive of…
No-one can say what it is.
What is out here is found. It was found in the woods. In the dark woods, in the midst of it all. Like the poet, in the midst of a journey, it steals away.
It’s out here. It’s made of steel.
Steel in the woods. It curves, all the way in.
A steel cave, and what’s in it.
There’s definitely something in there.
Let’s say a probability.
Perhaps the (acoustic) piano cannot survive. Certainly in its 19th century incarnation it is threatened by obsolescence, overtaken by a confident, predatory new technology. (New venues boast state-of-the-art electronic, computerized pianos, but rarely a Steinway, or a Bösendorfer).
Samuel Beckett prophesied its demise in Watt:
“The piano is doomed, in my opinion, said the younger.
The piano-tuner also, said the elder.
The pianist also, said the younger.”
I no longer share Beckett’s gloomy prognosis. In the hands of Sebastian Lexer, with his piano and his computer, good music is being created. Can there be any other criterion?
John Tilbury—May 2009