For about twenty years Polwechsel have been operating at the interface between improvised music and contemporary composition. Recognised as one of the seminal groups in this area, they started out when a paradigm shift in music was taking place. Driven by a small circle of musicians, notably in Vienna, Berlin and Tokyo, this shift introduced profound changes in the development of improvised and experimental music, as the relations between avant-garde, high art, pop and various subcultures of the nineties were re-evaluated. The musicians involved in this transition occasionally drew on modes of playing employed by improvisational collectives of the sixties but also referred to influences from the highly concentrated sound and noise worlds of new music composers while keeping a critical distance to the energy and expressiveness of free improvisation, as well as embracing genres such as rock music, and electronic club culture. In many cases they called into question the polemically defended former opinion of a dichotomy between composition and improvisation. This has resulted in musical concepts and performance practices that these traditional terms alone can no longer adequately describe.
Polwechsel were among the first groups of this multifaceted music scene to establish aesthetic strategies and performance practices that were soon recognised as a radical form of ›reductionism‹: a paring down of the habitual musical linguisticality in favour of a microscopic exploration of singular musical events; a deceleration and deautomation of musical processes in favour of immersive listening; an eschewing of the dramaturgy of musical forms in favour of focussing attention on the fleeting presence and physical materiality of sound; an awareness of the flip-side of sound, of background noises, silence, disruptions in sound production and musical articulation. The music seemed to rebel against the information we are being flooded with through the current modes of social communication just as it invited the listener to discover a whole world in the neglected, imperfect, confusing detail – an ordinary world perhaps or even a counterworld, but certainly not a refuge. Perhaps the minimal, measured gesture that produced this music also took a sceptical look at the creative enthusiasm and innovative drive which had come to dominate the post-Fordist working practices.
The reductionism of the time was a school of perception that linked the protagonists of Vienna’s experimental music scene to Berlin Echtzeitmusik, Japanese Onkyo and New London Silence. It still serves as a common horizon of that generation of musicians, but belongs to the past. As Michael Moser said about the work at that time, »To reduce further would mean to stop playing«, that is, to become silent. The situation thus called for pushing the music into another direction. Polwechsel’s changes of direction and perspective have also been reflected in the different instrumentations and collaborations, for instance with the laptop musician Christian Fennesz on Wrapped Islands (2002). The current line-up – since Archives of the North (2006) –includes the two percussionists Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlmayr, who bring a wide range of musical experiences between experimental rock and electro-acoustic improvisation to the group. Meanwhile, the ensemble has begun to introduce musical aspects that either were not included initially or only included to a small extent, such as tonal relationships, harmony, rhythm, but also questions of form, musical space and, consequently, expressivity. Thus in the light of the experiences gained through ›reduction‹ a reconsideration of the whole array of the musical means of expression has begun. But what is most noticeable is the difference in the individual approaches, something already laid out in the group’s beginnings that is now increasingly splitting up into a broad spectrum of musical concepts.
POLWECHSEL – Kein Gleichstrom mit der Masse
Of all music, it was difficult to foresee that free improvisation, traditionally the music of abundance––indeed even of excess––could become the main setting for reductive strategies. After all, historical ensembles such as Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza and AMM, both products of the sixties’ (counter) culture, had already demonstrated the aesthetic fruitfulness of reductive approaches to real-time music, decades earlier. But they remained secondary voices in the concerto of improvisational emancipation, drowned out by high-powered, vociferous free jazz. In the nineties, however, two things came together in improvised music: a rediscovery of those ignored voices; and an intense, renewed reception of contemporary composed music’s soundworld—in particular, the reductive approaches of Morton Feldman and Giacinto Scelsi, but also the rich noise-world of Helmut Lachenmann’s scores.
Peter Niklas Wilson