Imagining a release by three conservatory-trained zither players does not evoke mutinous energy as a descriptor. The Greifer Ensemble quickly set that matter straight with the opening composition on their conventionally titled release, Neue Musik Fur Three Zithern; it is composer Manuela Kerer's Solitudine Vaga, structured as five episodes of altered, extended zither scratching, string-stroking, and koto-like plinking. The trio engage in highly frictive parallel play, evincing the paradox imagined by the composer, as suggested by the title, soltitude-for-a-trio-setting. Musicians Leopold Hurt, Reinhilde Gamper, and Martin Mallaun make use of this strategy in various ways, alternately approaching, covering and ceding space to each other's contributions. Pooled, but far from seamlessly blended on this opener, Greifer's mutinous energy yields to a breath-taking spaciousness on the second of the four compositions included in their programme, Burkhard Stangl's Mellow (My Feldman).
I was fortunate to receive an unreleased version of this exquisite piece from Stangl earlier in the year, performed by the composer on guitar. My enthusiasm for Stangl's homage, equal parts Feldman and the immediately identifiable touch and timbral felicity Stangl fans know from his Erstwhile work, prompted Stangl to sugest Greifer send this release along. Curious as to whether the trio version diverged from the composer's, I played the two simultaneously. They are precisely matched in tempo and overall feel, their variance lying in the contrasting characteristics of the string instrument played. Harmonics-rich, woven with the patient, time-suspending patterns familiar to Feldman fans, Stangl adds to what I hope is an emerging series of such homages (cf. My Dowland, released earlier this year).
The third composition, Burkhard Friederich's aggressive, distortion-driven (D)evil Song, assaults the listener even as the Feldmanesque hung-notes decay, making for a transitional rude awakening. I don't doubt the sequencing is intentional, but find it a nuisance every listen. Considered by itself, (D)evil Song is a somewhat exhilarating romp through zithers smeared and sullied with the timbres and resonances stealthily avoided in the instrument's traditional folk canon. This is the sort of approach I imagine retains a confrontational quality in recital halls, but to seasoned listeners of experimental music, that aspect is negligible.
This last point raises a question I am idly curious about, upon the welcome arrival of Greifer on the performance and recording scene - who is the intended audience for their work? Wolfgang Praxmarer's liner notes seem pitched to the New Music audiences of "adventurous" concert programmers; a glance at their winter concert schedule shows performances in a few German cities, as well as Wien. I am curious to see if Greifer find new listeners in the EAI realm, many of whom have embraced the Wandelweiser composers with enthusiasm. Of interest to me is not comparing their respective sound worlds; rather, it is in the periodic erasure of boundaries that persist between composed and improvised music audiences, and their occasion. It is easy to imagine Greifer on Simon Reynell's Another Timbre imprint, for example.
Whatever niche the trio occupy, their musicianship is superb. Hurt, Gamper and Mallaun all compose and perform in various contexts, participate in many ensembles, and are clearly steeped in Weiss and Dowland, as well as contemporaneous composers. They are in some respects the conservatory counterpart to improvisers like Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, approaching an ancient instrument replete with baggage extending back to antiquity with anarchistic brio. Their mutinous energy might struggle to continue finding commissions from the academic realm, perhaps leading them to open-ended works with a greater latitude for improvisation. Whatever the case, Greifer are making vital music, and with any luck at all, will receive invitations to be heard where genuinely adventurous listeners gather.
The zither is a rich sound-source in another trio recording released in 2012, the beautiful outwash, released on Another Timbre. Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga collaborates here with pianist Tisha Mukarji, whom she met in Berlin in 2009. and violinist Angharad Davies; the latter two released an overlooked gem, Endspace (also on Another Timbre) in 2007. Seek it out, it serves as a great companion volume to this trio's comparably poised work.
As much as I might praise outwash for its sound qualities - every string sonance conceivable issues from the trio - it is their low-boil, keening intensity that makes outwash a stand-out release in another year surfeit with releases. A brooding ballast is sustained throughout, Mukarji's aperiodic tolling piano grounding the string rasps, scrapes and haptics.The trio achieve the sort of ventilated interplay I find most gripping in this area of improvisation - as on Endspace, the level of consideration given each sound is impeccable. I might offer outwash especially to ears jaded by over-exposure to small group improvisation using orchestral/folk instrumentation. A work of extraordinary poise and dark beauty, outwash sits high on my list of favorite releases of 2012.
Title from Burkhard Stangl's liner notes for Neue Musik fur Three Zithern -
...Time-stands-still-music...Thoughts come to rest, only to pool their mutinous energy afresh.
Photos (top to bottom): Greifer / Lazaridou-Chatzigoga's zither rig / Mukarji / Davies / Lazaridou-Chatzigoga