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Monday, July 10, 2023

Steffen Roth's Musical World

Last year, I was introduced to the music of Steffen Roth, a drummer, composer, and organizer based in Leipzig, Germany, at the now (sadly) defunct Au Topsi Pohl in Berlin. A little while later, I attended his Potentiale Festival in the middle of the German countryside, and among some excellent performances, I had the chance to hear Roth with two long-standing collaborators from Leipzig, woodwindist Bruno Angeloni and bassist Stephan Deller. Their short set was a "bonus" at the spontaneous concert stage, and for me, a highlight of the festival. This past spring, the trio was an official part of the Jazzwerkstatt Peitz 50th, and again, their set was a bright spot on an already well illuminated program. Between these points in my musical timeline, Roth and Angeloni have released two recordings - one with the electronics work of Alwin Weber and the other with with Deller.

Prozessor - NPBI (Anna Ott, 2022)


The description of NPBI on its Bandcamp site states "noise and pulse based improvisation by Alwin Weber - Electronics, Bruno Angeloni - Saxophone and Steffen Roth - Drums," and yes, it is exactly this and some more. The music is both aggressive, they push their instruments to their outer extremes, but it is also deeply communicative, in so much as they do not step on each other's musical toes as they weave a complex tapestry of sounds.

Weber, a sound artist and electronic musician, plays a prominent role in the music of Prozessor. His samples form an important part of the NPBI's first track 'Studio Trip #1,' a nearly 30 minute improvisation. The words and sounds that are sampled, about making the world a better place and overcoming and inspiring (though the context seems to be rather tongue and cheek) as well as early 80's computer game sounds, play repeatedly and provide a touch point for the others to both react to and sometimes completely ignore. Later in the track, Weber is reprocessing the instruments and adding deep tonal textures to the sound. During 'Studio Trip #2,' Weber seems to be adding a treatment to Angeloni's sax, giving it a buzzing bee effect, while also adding glitchy accompaniment to the roiling improvisation. Angeloni provides energetic, tireless playing as he switches between melodic ideas and fractalized comping, while Roth is a central component adding both an energetic as well as supportive pulse.

While I am listening on a digital file from Bandcamp, the physical version is out on tape and the "Studio Trips" all hail from a studio recording, while the second tape entitled "Live Excerpts" are live tracks from the 2021 Jazztage Leipzig festival. "Live Excerpts - N," the longest track at 15 minutes 40 seconds, while containing the some of the same samples as "Studio Trip #1," starts out much differently with Angeloni's bass clarinet playing at the fore, rather than the electronics and drums, which instead create a sonic bedding. The sonic quality of these tapes is more muted than the studio recordings, which provides a more buffered approach to hearing the music - some of the sharpness of the electronics is dulled and fits closer with the acoustic instruments, helping to reveal more layers to the playing.

To my ears, NPBI is the type of electronic/jazz recording that can help bridge the gap for the listeners who may otherwise hold electronics at a distance. The trio convincingly blends the electronic and acoustic components together in a cohesive and captivating way.


MOTUSNEU - Opsedale (Boomslang Records, 2023)

Opsedale is the album I had been waiting for since the Potentiale Festival. MOTUSNUE is the all acoustic trio of Roth and Angeloni with bassist Deller. Revisiting my lines from my previoius two encounters with the group, I see that I already used up a good number of adjectives.
"Angeloni, on alto sax, dazzled with an unending array of fractured lines and Deller was a dynamic instigator. Roth added a concentrated energy that guided the group through this unexpected highlight." (Potentiale)
"Quickly however, the blazing melodic shards from Angeloni and telepathic reciprocation from Roth and Deller re-oriented us. The trio's persistent sound rose and fell as Roth seamlessly switched between roiling pulse and energetic thrust." (Petiz 50)
I'll try to avoid these words again, but it is difficult, the dominant approach of the trio is one of telepathic reciprocation, fractured atonal lines and dynamic instigation. It is also, however, important to note that the group can also work on a more sensitive level. For this, let us jump into the latter half of the recording. On 'Observing the Past', Angeloni is on bass clarinet and his playing captures the best of the instrument, the deep, woodsy timbres and its dynamic range. Roth is receptive and conversant with the woodwind, reacting to the melodic wisps and rhythmic impulses, while Deller can be heard adding both supportive as well as textural elements to the mix. The piece is not what may be described as "exploratory," meaning the group is testing out ideas before locking in on a direction, but rather it is dedicatedly abstract and probing with purposeful ebb and flow.

A contrast can be found in the opening track, 'Albatross', which - for lack of better words - can be described with the adjectives fractured, dynamic and instigatory. First there is Angeloni on alto sax, squeezing out prisms of sound, from which the others then reflect their sounds off the many sharp angles. Deller's bass lines are deep and continuous, while Roth constrains himself to the core of his drum kit, providing undulating waves of sound. As the track progresses, it becomes clear that not one instrument is in the lead, rather they are pushing, reacting, and instigating each other to a fitful ending. The next track, 'Leben in Riss', doubles down on the fractures and amps up the intensity. 'Broken Wave' begins as a bit of showcase for Deller who generates a glitchy drone that the others add their own rhythmic and atonal tinctures.

Throughout Opsedale, the musical camaraderie is visceral and the musical tension is high, making for a lively and demanding recording rich with musical rewards.