By Martin Schray
The German-Jewish writer Paul Celan (1920 – 1970) is one of the most famous post-war poets (like Rose Ausländer he belonged to the German minority in Czernowitz/Bukowina, which lies in today’s south-western Ukraine), his work picking out the Shoah as a central theme (especially his own experience in the concentration camps and the trauma of the deportation and death of his parents there) and how post-war German society dealt with this guilt. He is mainly known for his poem “Death Fugue” with its famous line “Death is a Master from Germany”, which is an encrypted processing of the holocaust, strictly structured like a Bach fugue (as the title suggests).
“Atemwende” (“Breathturn”) is the title of a collection of his poems which was published in 1967 but only two of the titles of the compositions on this album belong to this poetic cycle (“Du darfst” and “Fadensonnen), most of them were released in various other works (“Death Fugue” in “Poppy and Memory”, for example).
For the Serbian composer Bojan Vuletic Celan has been a main non-musical influence (as well as Gerhard Richter, Pablo Picasso or Paul Strand) which is the reason why he decided to set some of his poems to music – in a very subjective way he calls “re-composing art”. But Vuletic didn’t want to write one-to-one transfers of Celan’s texts and neither did he want to create background music for them, instead he wanted to compose hermetic pieces of art which could be definitely assigned to the original poems. In general, for Vuletic it was important to show what he feels when he reads Celan.
In an interview he also said that he perceives a wedge in Celan’s personality, something he tried to implement in his compositions for “Atemwende”, where Nate Wooley’s trumpet functions as this wedge in the string quartet. And Celan really was a tormented soul, he suffered from delusions and was admitted to mental institutions several times before he committed suicide. As a consequence, the music on this album has to be quite gloomy and dark with some hopeful, brighter specks.
Especially “Fadensonnen” (“Thread Suns”) is a prime example here: Although it looks like a typical Celan-like description of a wasteland, the poem deals with the desire to forget about the past and the hope for better days. The piece itself is extremely somber, the strings seem to feel their way into it while Wooley adds hardly more than his breath, he rather aspirates the notes instead of really playing it – it is the eeriest but also most fascinating track, it reminds of the soundtrack of the 1970s surrealist cult classic “El Topo”. Vuletic depicts a gloomy past with this music, one which is hard to manage.
While “Todesfuge” is a rather conventional new classical music piece with the trumpet as an unspectacular additional color dot, a track like “Zähle die Mandeln” (“Count the Almonds”) with its percussive and explorative approach is more promising. Wooley’s trumpet strings ( and , , and
says that the compositions consist of elements of new classical music and free improvisation, the new classical ones prevail, which can be very beautiful as in “Du Darfst” (“You are allowed to”) or less challenging as in “Die Fleissigen” (“The Hard-Working Ones”). Nevertheless an interesting listening experience.
Listen to an excerpt here.
Bojan Vuletic – Atemwende (Nate Wooley and Mivos Quartet) (Ignoring Gravity Music, 2012)
My knowledge of modern classical music is as strong as a camel's knowledge of scuba-diving, so far from me to generate any interesting insights on it, let alone rate this album. I just contacted the composer himself to get a copy of the album because it is not the kind of music that typically ends up in my mailbox.
But because we all know that Nate Wooley is one of this blog's favorite musicians, the initiative to follow him and trace his performance also in a modern classical environment was a good one.
What I can say is that I like the album. I like the string quartet's harmonious - even if at times dissonant - contrast to Wooley's more free-spirited horn. I like the way the trumpet adds some fun, some emotion, some iconoclasm to the process, some sounds which I guess are totally foreign to classical music, while equally fully at home in joining the strings in the composed lines. I like Vuletic' sense of dramatic lyricism, the light gravitas of the compositions.
Vuletic has had some previous collaborations as a producer with Wooley, once on the impossible to find duo with Paul Lytton on the Brokenresearch label, which was produced in only 200 vinyl copies, and also with Lytton on "Creak Above 33", on Psi, which is easier to find.
I like the contrast, and even the conflict of instruments and genres, the contradiction which acts as attraction and rejection. I like the purity of the Mivos Quartet's strings and Wooley's uncompromising tones. I like Vuletic' well-paced chamber composition and the openness to raw interaction.
Even if not my kind of music, it is a great listening experience, and that says a lot.