That tension is ever-present on this disc, and yet the music, divided into a suite of five tracks, is quite consistent in its mood and its effect. A significant portion of the album consists of piano – alternating between melancholy, spacious melodic lines and deep, rumbling horror movie chords – set against field/found recordings, drones, and hissing static backdrops. This is very theatrical music, performative in a way that reminds me of Taku Unami and Takahiro Kawaguchi’s Teatro Assente, a great Erstwhile disc from a few years back and a similarly unsettling-but-joyous listen with a narrative thrust driving its sounds.
Given previous work, many will probably ascribe that playful/eerie narrative quality to Lambkin, while crediting Pisaro with the album’s more tonal elements, but I suspect the divide isn’t so stark. Indeed, considering how different these men are as musicians and, seemingly, as personalities, it can be surprisingly difficult to separate their contributions from one another. I rarely get the sense of competing sensibilities pulling in different directions; they layer and collage their sounds into a cohesive, almost overwhelming sound world in which individual contributions matter far less than the totality.
The album opens with “Leuchtfeuer,” four and a half minutes of rumbling piano ambiance. Heavy, bassy chords, black and ominous, swell to the point of distortion, then gradually take on a brighter tone as the pianist (Pisaro?) moves up the keyboard. Even as the playing becomes slightly more melodic, the notes are still sounded forcefully enough that the overtones ring out, stretching against the limits of the recording. Occasionally, there’s a hiss of static or the clatter of someone moving around in the background. The pacing is slow, even graceful, and a note is often given space to decay before the next is sounded, but unlike a lot of the tranquil Wandelweiser music that utilizes this kind of palette, the mood is menacing in a way that Lambkin’s work has often been but Pisaro’s seldom has. The introduction hints at cliché – summoning visions of foreboding horror movie credit sequences – but this music is too genuinely emotive and deeply felt to be mere pastiche, avoiding the easy jump scares and superficial darkness of its reference points.
The motif returns for the closing track, “Unkönig,” which has an identical length and also features haunting piano filling a near-empty sonic field. The album’s structure is curious: the opening and closing tracks are mirrored, as are tracks two and four, a pair of 17:17 behemoths looming around the 5+ minute central piece. There’s clearly a story being told here. The duo accompanied the album with a six-line poem:
Black butterflies crowd the midnight sky.
A beacon pierces the offshore mist with firelight.
We awaken to the flutter of bats, a passage of hawks.
An icy wind of bleached birches and synthesized snow.
Rude chorus of fragmented mouths submerged in rumor.
The king lies deposed, un-dead.
There are doubtless references, literary and otherwise, that I’m missing, but the poem (which the duo apparently applied to the music only after recording) and the song titles – all of which refer, when translated from German, to phrases from the text – add to the sense that this is an abstracted, elliptical narrative. The gloomy piano solos that open and close the album frame a mysterious journey. Occasionally, images from the poem resonate symbolically with the sounds heard (as when cooing birds might be interpreted as “a passage of hawks” towards the start of the second track) but on the whole there doesn’t seem to be anything so straightforward going on. The album is so effective precisely because it feels like a narrative without actually telling a story. It’s a purely musical narrative, its “story” contained in the movement from one sound to the next, and in the juxtapositions between the layered sounds. A neat metaphor, that, for both written composition and Lambkin’s process of arranging recordings.
Despite the overall somber atmosphere, the second track, “Aufflattern die Fledermäuse,” opens with a buzzing, beeping cell phone. This whimsically deflates the sturm und drang of the ominous piano, providing a reminder that this frequently frightening, mysterious music can be traced back to two guys in a room messing around with tapes and electronics and recording gear. There’s so much music that self-consciously (and self-seriously) tries to be scary and intense, so it’s refreshing that Lambkin and Pisaro, while making their own venture into this kind of sonic theater, deflect those impulses so deftly. There are frequent reminders that the realities of the recording environment are inseparable from the actual “musical” sounds being recorded. Such intrusions ground the proceedings, recalling the chair squeaks and blender noises on “2 Seconds,” from Pisaro’s 2010 Erst collaboration with Taku Sugimoto.
The two 17-minute tracks, with their constant narrative momentum and sudden shifts from one sound world to the next, are masterful slabs of musique concrète. The second track, with its title referring to the poem’s “flutter of bats,” is appropriately nocturnal. Breathy growls evoke the human voice, the wind through trees, and the extended techniques of brass improvisers, though the exact source of the sounds, as with much of this music, is never clear. Around seven minutes in, after several disorienting shifts, the backdrop subsides to a whispery bed of static – the surf, the wind, breathing, white noise – while the piano takes on a chiming quality, as though the strings were prepared or played directly with mallets.
The more forceful piano eventually returns, and the blocky chords ring and decay against an increasingly sparse backdrop: some stray crackles and rustling, a footstep or an object being moved across the floor, low-level hiss that might as easily be the noise of the recorder as a deliberately introduced sonic element. There’s great confidence and patience in allowing this piece to gradually shed its complexities in favor of the spartan simplicity of the piano. Throughout the piece, new elements are introduced, noisy drones swell and fade, and early on there are some abrupt, jarring transitions. At times, the piano – which first appears on this piece after a minute, just as the theatrics and noise really kick in – seems lost amidst the fog, but by the end these assaults have faded. It’s as though the piano is the narrator of this grim but abstract tale, taking a trip through a dark forest at night, getting stuck in the thickets, then finally finding a clear path to open road. The album’s structure and sonics encourage such fancies, inviting the listener to get swept up in the music’s high drama.
In this context, the central track, with its gray, hissing drones and field recordings – the “icy wind” of the poem’s fourth line – provides a respite, a neutral and inexpressive center. It’s as stoical and uninviting of speculation as the rest of the album is dramatic and multi-layered. The title of the fourth track, the 17-minute mirror to the second, seems as programmatic as the others: “broken” or “fragmented” mouths show up as humming transmogrified into a tonal drone, garbled voices speaking a nonsense language, sampled speech and laughter, birdcalls, distant loudspeaker announcements, howls that might be the wind or a wolf or a man imitating either. The piano disappears for the piece’s long, droney middle section, reappearing for the last few minutes, when more of those ominous, steady chords are set against a dense bed of mysterious rumbles and thuds.
Schwarze Riesenfalter is something very special. Rich and immersive, this music is thrillingly balanced between restraint and release, between high drama and quietude. And yet, as tempting as it is to assign those opposing qualities to the two musicians, to think of this work in terms of competing aesthetics, the album fiercely resists such reductiveness. Whatever sounds and ideas each artist brought to the studio, they’re woven together tightly enough here as to be impossible to untangle.
It’s yet another example of the ways in which the amorphous area of music covered by Erstwhile and similar labels has changed and expanded in the decade-plus that I’ve been following it. There’s a great deal of cross-fertilization going on now, and a number of strange, unclassifiable hybrid albums like this have emerged as distinct scenes and sensibilities have encountered one another. Schwarze Riesenfalter is, on one level, very approachable, its obvious structural and conceptual hooks providing a route into its oddball depths. Once inside, though, it can be difficult to keep one’s bearings or quite grasp everything the duo is up to. Mischievous, moody, and thorny, this album reflects an uncertain, ambiguous balance between composition, improvisation, and process music that’s become more and more common in albums in this general area over the past five years or more. The sense of newness, of ideas meeting and clashing for the first time, is very apparent, and that’s what makes this disc so exciting.
Available from Erstwhile Records.