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Monday, January 8, 2024

Polwechsel - Embrace (4LP boxset, Ni Vu Ni Connu, 2023)

By Eyal Hareuveni

The Vienna-and-Berlin-based ensemble Polwechsel celebrates this year its 30th anniversary. This groundbreaking ensemble focuses on the interface of collective improvisation and contemporary composition, or how compositional ideas serve collective improvisation. Polwechsel shifted throughout the years from radical reductionism and almost stillness in the 1990s, which concentrated on silence, background noises and disruptions, to a change in direction in the 2000s, which saw the introduction of traditional musical aspects such as tonal relationships, harmony and rhythm, all without dramaturgical developments that steer toward a climax, and democratic, non-hierarchal dynamics. Polwechsel is now a quartet featuring founding members double bass player Werner Dafeldecker and cellist Michael Moser, along with percussionists Martin Brandlmayr and Burkhard Beins, who joined later. It included other innovative musicians like guitarist Burkhard Stangl, trombonist Radu Malfatti and sax player John Butcher.

True to the group’s spirit, this anniversary project is not a retrospective but a probe into an array of fresh possibilities. It is a limited edition (of 300 copies) box set of four-vinyl. Like-minded musicians and former members join Polwechsel to perform eight new pieces reflecting the breadth of its varied and demanding compositional and improvisation strategies and investigations. The box set includes insightful essays by Free Jazz Blog’s Stuart Broomer who analyzes the manner Polwechsel balances compositional elements and improvisation techniques, as well as each of the characters of the compositions and concludes that “what ultimately defines the music of Polwechsel is its profound sense of mystery, an ineffable quality”; Austrian philosopher Reinhard Kager who maps the seminal influences and shifts that shaped the aesthetics of Polwechsel; and Viennese music journalist-producer-double bass player Nina Polaschegg who puts chronicles Polwechsel withing the Viennese experimental scene in the 1990s that fostered Polwechsel’s supposedly uneventful music and the evolution of the ensemble.

Polwechsel hosts former member tenor and soprano sax player John Butcher, hyper-pianist Magda Mayas, Andrea Neumann who plays deconstructed piano, an amplified custom-made frame with strings, and Austrian composer Klaus Lang who also plays harmonium and flute (Lang collaborated before with the ensemble on Unseen, ezz thetics, 2020). Dafeldecker, Moser, Brandlmayr and Beins wrote new compositions, in addition to two new compositions by Austrian composers Peter Ablinger and Lang. These enigmatic and mysterious compositions find inspiration from such surprising sources like Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot” which rotates counter-clockwise and creates winds of up to 430 kilometers per hour, the work of French spectralist composer of the 1970s Gérard Grisey, and the opening and closing sounds of elevator doors, touchstones common to both Christians and Buddhists, and the 13th-century church father Thomas Aquinas, whose thoughts on economics, rooted in Aristotle and looking ahead to Marx, or focusing on decomposition in time – decomposition, review, re-composition, and rearrangement of parts, and a certain willed anonymity while diminishing the status of specialized virtuosity. Broomer’s enlightening linear notes add many details to each new composition.

But Embrace is much more than complex technical and philosophical details about music making. The four musicians of Polwechsel are fearless and imaginative sound artists who have established unique dynamics, and at times of the ensemble as one, inseparable sonic entity. Polwechsel keeps experimenting and investigating compositional and improvisation strategies in its own demanding and fascinating way, often culminating with mysterious, trance-like atmospheres characterized by the vibrant and hyper-resonant stillness that calls for absolute listening. The music of Polwechsel radiates a most humane and political message as Brandlmayr says:

“In Polwechsel, the non-hierarchical world of free improvisation on the one hand, and the much more predetermined hierarchical structure/concept of composition on the other, is a permanent issue. How much can the composer determine? How much can the ensemble or parts of the ensemble oppose and contribute? Of course, I think this is an issue in a lot of groups, but in my experience in most of the groups, bands and ensembles I was involved in, somehow fixed working strategies and social constructions are developed over time. In Polwechsel, all this is constantly on the map and needs to be redefined with every piece we develop. So we find ourselves in the middle of social and political issues.”