Months ago, around the time Sebastian Lexer finished one stage of his PhD studies he told me that now he felt that the technical side of his academic research into the Max MSP system he had been developing was complete, he felt himself in a position to be able to stop adjusting and improving the tools he used for his music and to begin using what he had, working with the materials in their current state to find their potential and their limitations through their creative application. On Dazwischen, his first solo album just released on Matchless Recordings Lexer has realised this in wonderful fashion. He has taken the piano, its form, its sound and its history and applied his Piano+ digital framework around it, extending that potential further, making, as John Tilbury states in the disc’s liner notes, the physically impossible possible.
I don’t fully understand the workings of Max MSP, or Lexer’s Piano+ patch, but essentially it seems to work like this; Lexer plays the piano, I hesitate to say normally, because he spends half his time inside the hood rather than addressing the keys, but in a manner improvised music listeners will be familiar. The sounds inside the piano are then captured by one or more microphones that instantaneously feed the signal into a laptop, where some of the sounds are processed and then output through a set of speakers. This all happens in an instant, and the nature of the processing is controlled by Lexer via a small control box usually perched just above the keyboard. So the listener gets to hear both the original acoustic sounds plus the electronically altered sound (where Lexer chooses to use them) almost instantaneously.
Just as the danger for a software developer is to be forever amending and never applying, so the danger for a musician using new technology is that they may get carried away with its potential, ignoring the qualities of the original naked instrument and forgetting to make good music in the process. For an improvising musician the application of software to an acoustic instrument then adds the further challenge of not slipping into the pre-determined structures that technology leans towards, something made even harder when working solo, without the external impetus of collaborative input. I suspect that Lexer understand these challenges well, and his struggle with these oppositional polarities may be referenced in the album’s title, which translates as “in between.” Throughout Dazwischen’s six tracks the music never sounds anything less than completely organic and unforced. The use of processing is never hidden, Lexer makes no attempt to disguise his processes, and while in many places the digital sounds are subtle, elsewhere they sound nothing like a piano. Everything comes together with exceptional compositional balance, and the hardest thing for me to accept on my first listen to the CD was that I was only hearing the work of one musician. The combination of acoustic and electronic sound, and their often very different natures suggest two musicians at work, or some kind of overdubbing in use, but in fact these six pieces were recorded in single takes, incredibly all in the same studio session on one day in November 2008.
Lexer has a long friendship and musical relationship with the current members of AMM, Eddie Prevost and John Tilbury. Both have acted as tutors to Lexer in the past, Tilbury formally at Goldsmiths College, Prevost as the leader of the weekly improvisation workshops that Lexer has attended for the best part of ten years. Both provide liner notes to the album, and their influence on its music is abundantly clear. Lexer’s most remarkable talent is his sense of space and the compositional placement of sounds within it. His choices of acoustic or electronic sound, pitch, and timbre seem immaculate throughout Dazwischen, combinations of acute harmonies and bruising counterpoint but always just the right decision, with just the right amount of silence before or after. If this was completely composed music it would be a remarkable work. That the music was so beautifully arranged in an improvisational setting is nothing short of stunning. This sense of timing, the ability to build tension just by placing two sounds alongside each other comes directly from the AMM textbook. Tilbury’s touch can be heard here, and Prevost’s ability to build a framework for a piece of music to move within. There are arc-like climaxes in most of the tracks, moments of explosive expression and charged, delicate lulls. Lexer’s own voice is of course the main driver here, this is no AMM pastiche, and certainly his use of technology takes things on beyond the work of his teachers, but the spirit remains, the subtlety, the ability to mould moments of fantastic emotive expression from often just the most elemental of resources.
Each of the tracks has its own character. The opening Time begins with a combination of the lightest of touches and crashing, slightly affected chords that take me straight back to Tudor’s Variations II but feed through into wailing tones and a digital chattering. Defining Edges combines prepared piano notes with tiny percussive ticks and deep, echoing throbs. The deeply troubling Tone sees Lexer pick out little clusters of notes, only to eradicate them with massive crashes and blasts of noise. While there is not a weak track on the album the closing twelve-minute piece Opposition is the icing on the cake. Here the music begins with thudded piano notes and their slightly altered electronic echoes shifting in jarring rhythms, but after a while things curl in on themselves, slowing to a gentle, deeply charged pace as a continuous tone appears in the background, perhaps for the only time on the album. Over this a beautiful arrangement of Felmanesque notes and ghostly moans mixes with rattling, scraping, and later a sinetone. The last six minutes of this piece of music are truly wonderful.
Sorry for the hyperbole, sorry for not knowing the words to describe how this album has felt for me over the past couple of days. I have listened to it in excess of twenty times now. I’ve no idea what others will make of it, but for me it hits all the right spots, over and over. Dazwischen is the perfect combination of the acoustic and electronic, the new and the old, the familiar and the challenging. It is for me easily the best album I have heard for quite some time. Its impact on me has been remarkable. While walking along the Oxford canal path today I found myself stopped still, feet rooted to the floor, eyes closed, as the dramatic surges in Tone played themselves out. I had at that point already heard the album a dozen or more times already. I probably looked stupid but thats what great music does to me.
By Richard Pinnell | August 20, 2009
The Watchful Ear