- Stuart Broomer,
Polwechsel in Time -
Sometime around the dawn of the 20th century, in the opening pages of Exploits and Opinions of
Doctor Faustroll Pataphysician. A Neo-Scientific Novel, Alfred Jarry wrote, “Doctor Faustroll was
sixty-three years old when he was born in Circassis in 1898 (the 20th century was (– 2) years old)”.
That especially malleable sense of time – the notion of its negative, its anticipatory – might serve as
useful companion to the music of Polwechsel, the name signalling the shift in polarities, the sudden
inversion in order, a simultaneity of movements that will place us in a radically different temporal
condition, space in place of drama, mystery in place of theatre.
In 15 seconds, the saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy famously contrasted the time of
improvisation with the time of composition: “In 15 seconds the difference between composition and
improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in 15
seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.”
But what might take place in 15 seconds with Polwechsel? And where might that material
come from and when was the material decided upon? Was it composed or improvised or both? Was it
composed after it was improvised? Has an improvisation had all its tones’ distinctive partials filtered,
or composed, out of it? The music of Polwechsel is its own form, whether it’s with a work’s particular
generation in question or dated from its future. This celebration of the group’s 30th anniversary is
composed entirely of recent works, but each will move around in time as well as in form, in ways
that belong to traditions of both improvised and composed music, but also in ways that belong
distinctively to this group. It demonstrates breadth and depth that suggest great temporal reach,
embracing musical values that touch the art’s ritual origins and offering a sense of ongoing relevance
and renewal. True to the group’s spirit, this anniversary project is not a retrospective but a probe into
an array of fresh possibilities.
With its interests in extended improvisation, Polwechsel is related to a few other long-
standing groups. The English group AMM might be the longest running, devoted to improvisation
from 1966 to 2022. Pianist John Tilbury, a veteran AMM member, has recorded with Polwechsel.
Closer still, in the mix of composition, improvisation and electronics, is the comparably long-lived
Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV), that collective of American composer-instrumentalists who first
assembled in Rome just as AMM was getting together in London. There’s also Gruppo di
Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, the short-lived Italian ensemble whose ranks included the
composers Franco Evangelisti and Ennio Morricone. George Lewis’s Voyager and Anthony Braxton’s
Diamond Curtain Wall Music are other notable projects that explore interactive computer
programming and improvisation in original ways.
Polwechsel, however, has developed in a way distinct from any of these other groups and
individual musicians, more frankly treating improvisation as a technique, a component, though still
treating it as a credo, an act of faith in spontaneity. Polwechsel, now insistently, sets improvisation
free from its own time, exploring a special zone, one in which a group of composer/improvisers
balances both sides of its musical practice and, in doing so, creates a radical, almost, chemical
reaction, the components fusing into a different form, one that doesn’t sit still, that, insistently,
continuously, oscillates between the poles of composition and improvisation, the insecure envelope,
the vibrating component. Things happen here that are new to our listening experience: textures,
qualities, combinations, of timbre, pitch, envelope and time.
Like any group, Polwechsel is a social organism. It makes musical forms. Since at least Elias
Canetti’s Crowds and Power, the conductor is a figure of suspicion; since Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus
(and more recently, Richard Powers’ Orfeo, extension of the myth into gene manipulation’s realm)
the composer is too. Thoughtful musicians have interrogated the roles of authority and leadership,
but few have treated the issue as imaginatively as Polwechsel, exploring them in myriad ways,
throughout their history, and more pointedly still in the program of Embrace, created at a time when
social organization is being stress-tested on every front. Distinct patterns of organization inform each
piece with an openness to collective transformation.
Listening to genuinely new music, one might ask fundamental questions: What is it doing to
me? Do I like what it’s doing? How is it doing it? Is it good for me? Polwechsel’s music, true to its
name, is a shift in polarities, a destabilization, a reconfiguring of elements. In many of these
pieces, traditional principles of organization are moved around, changing form in the process. At
times it’s possible to listen to some of the works contained in Embrace and puzzle about which
instruments of the ensemble are doing what, or what pattern of organization is present, and in each
case struggle for an answer.
Often instrumental identities are obscured. This might begin with the principal instruments
of the group, with cello and bass, the lowest-pitched instruments of the violin family, and which, in
certain approaches, can blur identities. The presence of two percussionists may only identify half of
the group as playing anything that might be struck. Something else marking Polwechsel as different
is its internal dynamic: it isn’t fixed. A veteran of many groups, Martin Brandlmayr offers a pertinent
For a long time, I thought my music was sort of apolitical, so much focussed on sound that I
felt it was a world of it´s own, but this perception changed over the course of time. I think
Polwechsel is an interesting group in these lights. 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.
Most of the pieces of Embrace include improvisation in ways that are distinct from anything
usually considered improvised music. Here improvisation may move around in a work, an
independent agency, or it may be translated into an electronic work, a precise diagram of the original
sound. Sometimes electronic mock-ups serve as models for instrumental re-enactment. Musicians
might improvise over pieces that are already compounded. Improvisations are used as components, to
be sliced up, spliced and reintegrated into lab works, stripped of overtones, cut up, composed into
other elements. Usage inevitably conditions judgement, likely favouring the “natural”, punishing the
“artificial”. The categories are fake. The improvised, the composed, the acoustic, the electronic, the
forest primeval, the laboratory (Frankenstein’s laboratory?): the terms are neutral until we’re
insistently specific. Polwechsel operates in a realm of compositional speculation in which results
reveal degrees of the otherwise impossible.
Whether they spring from or become mediations, fusions of the tactile and the abstract, the
electronic and the acoustic, these works represent a new terrain, the result of work passing back and
forth between traditionally human and essentially technological methodologies, the two practices
fresh in different ways. At some level, the group is always newly imagined, created in the abstraction
of its processes.
There are similarly extended processes in each of the works of the four current members,
with improvisation an intermediate element in the construction of each work. This creates the
general dynamism, the instability of the work. If improvisation is not precisely structured here, it is
conditioned by an elaborate framework in which choice is limited. Werner Dafeldecker remarks on
the importance of constructed limitations: “The concentration on certain parameters within the
framework of structured musical processes (i.e., the exclusion of possibilities) creates the space and
energy that keeps our now 30-year collaboration alive, I guess...” Those parameters, at the core of the
improvisational process, seem to concentrate the distinctive character of the individual piece.
The complexity of compositional processes in each work is fascinating. Each member uses
multiple processes in formulating a piece, creating electronic models of a composition, creating
multiple sections, electronically transforming group materials and reassembling diverse parts and
methodologies into simultaneous parts or sequential wholes. The ultimate results radically shift the
relationships and content we expect in much contemporary music. What ultimately defines the
music of Polwechsel, however, is its profound sense of mystery, an ineffable quality based in both the
complexity of its making and a collective transcendence of those very processes.
PIECE BY PIECE
The set begins with Werner Dafeldecker’s Jupiter Storm, an immediately unsettling work, a virtuoso
chaos with saxophonist John Butcher and pianist Magda Mayas added to the quartet. Dafeldecker
remarks that “In general, for me improvisation is the driving force, basis and structuring element in
all my musical activities… and the reason why I make music at all.” The subject of the work matches
its intensity. Jupiter Storm invokes a distant, violent, on-going event, Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot”,
which may have been observed as early as the 17th century and inspired a painting in the 18th. In its
present form it rotates counter-clockwise and creates winds of up 430 kilometers per hour. It’s a vast
distance on a human scale, in the immediate neighborhood in terms of the cosmos. At the beginning
of the piece, Butcher’s soprano saxophone effectively suggests particles swept up in that great,
swirling, field of energy.
Dafeldecker describes his compositional process:
I composed the piece using a computer, as I usually do these days, then arranged pre-recorded
material (gongs, piano, complex modular oscillators) which was then spatialized and used for
playback. The players then familiarised themselves with the material in individual rehearsals
and, working with stopwatches, entered their material-solutions into the prefabricated, time-
structured score. The cello and double bass parts are purely improvised.
While Jupiter Storm travels the spaceways, Michael Moser’s Partial Intersect works with
microcosmic measurements of pitch. The cellist explains: “When I compose for Polwechsel, I try not
to follow certain practical patterns but to find sounds, ideas, electronic set-ups or rules that make us
sound and play in a way we have never done before.”
Moser drew inspiration for Partial Intersect from the French spectralist composers of the
1970s, like Gérard Grisey, but he reversed Grisey's process of creating a new sound and playing
"natural" instrumental gestures through spectral analysis that would remind listeners of electronic
music. Instead, Moser analyzed the spectrum of the instruments playing their materials to create an
electronic setup out of their overtones and formants, those frequency peaks in the spectrum with a
high degree of energy. He was searching for a way to create a stringent texture and atmosphere, a
mood and framework that encouraged the musicians to improvise with as few written directions as
Moser derived one layer of material from the group’s rehearsed and recorded material, while
the second layer was mostly improvised with some indications of pitch, order of entrance and
dynamics for foreground and background instruments. Everyone could play at any time except at the
beginning, where the double bass would lay out the composed pitches and durations for the whole
piece. Otherwise, the composer notes, “it’s all about listening and playing. I tried to create a kind of
an environment connected to the instruments where one would find his or her own space of
Together, Moser’s compound process and the music’s slow, deliberate movement create a
vibrant stillness, the hyper-resonance of the instrumental voices emphasizing the complex grained
timbres of bass and tenor saxophone and the bright overtones of bowed and struck metal percussion.
At the outset, the effect of the swimming highs that surround the bass is itself spectral, but a multi-
hued radiance as well, drawing one into an environment in which brief gestures, a cello glissando, a
sudden voice, the piano’s delicate rustle, may assume significance. There are moments when the
midi-keyboard, cello and tenor saxophone suggest the most atmospheric moments of free jazz, but
the rich spread of spectral harmonies also creates an unknown sonic paradise, essentially ceremonial,
but a ceremony occurring under its own auspices and doing so for the first time, stretched between
electronic and acoustic overtones. At the conclusion, there is a certain looming presence, trance-like
but of tremendous breadth, a program of unknown event and mood, a presence that’s also a vibration
of things to come.
Martin Brandlmayr may represent the most explicitly expressed socio-political interests of
Polwechsel’s members, considering his membership in the groups Disquiet and Kapital Band 1 and
his radio play Vive Les Fantômes. That social sense extends to the 40-minute Chains and Grain,
apparent in his consideration of his co-workers:
I really wanted to make a piece that is resonating with the group in such a way that each
member is represented in his individual way, “using”’ the strength and individual approaches
and playing strategies of each player.
I wanted to create a space we all can live in, basically. I used material that we created
all together while improvising, hours of sessions from which I took parts from small snippets
up to longer sections. I restructured everything and composed a 40-minutes piece out of it.
The idea was to use material the players created themselves and not material imposed from
“outside”. One important question to me was how we can repeat material without it
becoming too rigid. The sound material itself is quite clearly defined throughout the piece. I
wanted to shape, with regard to the different approaches of the individual players, the quality
and degree of precision with which musical material is repeated and how it is notated.
I’m interested in continuity in terms of structure on one hand, creation and surprise
on the other, and both are feeding and influencing each other. While some of us play very
defined, precisely repeated structures, others move around more freely in a very defined
musical space, contributing elements of surprise and change. Ideally both are influencing
each other. I’m aiming for a field of tension between exact repetition and a freer form of
revisiting musical structures, with everything in between a playground.
Elsewhere in the piece, we all play looplike structures, but how these loops and
structures exactly interlock is a question of the moment. It was important to me that
there´s space for interaction that is developed in the moment. Chains and Grain should be a
living thing, which is recreated every time we play it.
Brandlmayr’s process of decomposition in time—decomposition, review, re-composition,
rearrangement of parts, is regenerative, with meanings and possibilities multiplying. From the outset,
Chains and Grain is a work of looming mystery, from the turbine-like bass rumbles and the array of
small percussion instruments through string harmonics and a lingering vibraphone motif, continually
posing repetition read as ritual in combination with the alternative mystery of free play. The effect is
a sense of initiation and journey, including moments in which the group’s essential sound stores –
strings and percussion – seem to fuse in a single voice.
Burkhard Beins contributes two related compositions named for quartz, a crystal, and obsidian, a glass
lava. He comments, “So metaphorically speaking, Quarz has been built from multiple fragments,
derived from one original source, while Obsidian is the petrification of a music I initially envisioned."
Like the previous works, the pieces are developed through multiple improvisatory and combinatory
processes that Beins’ describes in illuminating detail:
In Quarz an acousmatic audio piece became the score itself. This basis track, opening/closing
sounds of elevator doors introducing always new room ambiences, was given to each
musician (including myself) to play/work along without knowing which kind of approach or
material the others would choose, nor what I would edit/mix out of all the individual
Without indicating or defining how each musician should react to the “audio score”
this method of working nevertheless enabled me to provoke coordinated events/changes and
choices of musical material that refer to the same sonic situations, or elements within them.
The original reference piece itself does not appear in the resulting piece.
For Obsidian, on the other hand, I first “simulated” all sections with audio software
using instrumental samples of each player and/or sound created with an analog synth as
“placeholder material”. The screenshots of those multitrack sessions I then transcribed into a
graphic score to which I added a time scale and some general indications concerning material,
dynamics and/or tempo. The actual musical material still had to be found in repeated work
phases, where each player was asked to make individual instrumental suggestions/solutions
for each situation given by the score.
As with the other members’ works here, Beins’ two pieces come to resemble moderated discussions,
invitations to contribute, interpret and express, rather than conventional compositions. In Quarz, the
commonplace mechanical source, those elevator doors, at once opening, closing and absent (those
conditions themselves an Ur narrative), somehow create a new ground for each musician, from
keening cello to explosive bass, from industrial electronic undergrowth to the singing (and signaling)
whistling trebles, signing siren songs of bowed or delicately scraped metallic percussion, the special
quality of the piece an assemblage of radically diverse sounds that are here sometimes in dialogue,
In Obsidian, initially rich in percussion, drums create another world, a dark interior in which
isolated figures recall the sound of changing set-ups in an MRI machine, a multiple interiority in
which turbulent blasts of unidentified air columns surrender to the subtle pitch gradations of a
delicately pressed and beaten drum, before slowly whirled sounds (a tuned cement mixer, perhaps),
first matched to microtoning strings that ultimately fade, stand alone, those sounds, on one hand an
industrial commonplace, that might pass also for the weary synchrony of an indifferent solar system.
Like so much of this music, however, whether somehow or of course, its subtle and
compound sounds and processes, its ever-shifting emphases, mean that this specific description may
never fit another listening, the ears, in their wandering, fixing on other sounds, finding another
pattern, another sequence, somehow, oddly, erasing other readings of a purportedly fixed recording.
Magnetron 1/Magnetron 2 is a collective improvisation by the quartet with Andrea Neumann playing
what she terms her “inside piano”, an amplified custom-made frame with strings. Here the
specifically pitched instruments are Moser’s cello and Brandlmayr’s vibraphone, with Beins playing
meticulously amplified percussion and Dafeldecker playing electronics exclusively. The collective
improvisations are complex, engaging works that one might struggle to distinguish from the other
compositions. With the instruments realigned, we might note another element of Polwechsel’s
distinct character: a certain willed anonymity. The regular recourse to non-specific electronics,
objects and percussion, as well as processing, emphasizes the collective while diminishing the status
of specialized virtuosity, itself a potentially limiting factor to creativity.
Peter Ablinger’s Orakelstücke (“oracle pieces”) has strong elements of the ritual in its structure and
may reflect on the oracular in the everyday. Among its list of contributing instruments, there is a
series of small objects employed percussively as “oracles: Stones, woods, glass balls, etc.” There is a
sense of the mystery in the everyday, the transformation of common materials as touchstones,
common to both Christians and Buddhists, the Christian rosary, the small stones carried by pilgrims
and left at holy sites, the Buddhist Mani stones and beads, and the relics and shards common to many
faiths. That sense of heightened significance might be heard in the isolated percussive strikes that are
crucial components in the identical theme statements that open and conclude the piece, a prologue
and epilogue, which is orchestrated as follows: a wet cleaning cloth beaten periodically on the floor,
periodical no input feedback, double bass and cello. That symmetrical structure extends to the rest of
the piece as well. The instruments include vibraphone and a micro-tone glockenspiel built by Peter
Ablinger himself. The four band members spontaneously improvise their speeches, rather
meaninglessly connected philosophical passages in accordance with the chronological sequence of the
piece. These levels of material are divided into three parts and are interspersed in a precise sequence,
the performers’ reactions to what has taken place before. There’s a unique sense of unease cultivated
by the work’s disparate elements, rendering familiar elements exotic, yet somehow inevitable, and
charging them with intense, even revelatory, meaning, a minimalist work building tension and
mystery with simple if unlikely materials, dramatically deployed.
The title of Klaus Lang’s Aquin may reference the 13th century church father Thomas Aquinas,
whose thoughts on economics, rooted in Aristotle and looking ahead to Marx, continue to resonate in
contemporary life. Thomas developed the concept of the “just price”, respecting the rights of peasant-
producers in a critique of usury and profiteering. That idea of economic fairness among classes is in
keeping with the social conscience that informs Polwechsel's music, extending it back in time. The
piece employs dissonance, very close frequencies, in ways that do not create tension, but rather a
sense of proximity, almost tonal intimacy. In this sense, “close tones” might better describe such
music than the negative “dissonance”, a convenient, if inappropriate value judgement. Instead, what
we hear in Aquin is a sense of temporal co-existence, whether in the early use of the flute with the
organ or in the close-voiced strings in Aquin’s later stages. It’s one of the subtlest elements in the
arena of time, those relationships of pitch expressed in cycles per second.
The sense of duration in the piece extends to the sense of historical time occupied by the
music as well as the music's gradual evolution. Even without Aquin’s title suggestion, there's a sense
of just intonation arising in the pitches, a suggestion that the music's medieval duration of tones
extends to the later material’s hints at a spectral emphasis in the strings, a complement to Moser’s
Partial Intersect. Aquin’s invocation of the past, and an ancient ecclesiastical vision of socio-economic
justice, echoes through to the contemporary circumstances of Embrace.
In its sustained pitches, Aquin touches on the fragile precision of pitches in the period
instrument movement, that sense of accuracy of pitch and tuning, that slightly slower micro-world of
A410 cps versus A440, that molecular sense of pitch and the dissonances of “true” pitches. It suggests,
too, the world of sonic ecology, the life of little sounds. Even the occasions of high-volume industrial
sounds in Polwechsel’s music are invocations to constant close listening, to the detail, the nuance in
the background. This music is never nostalgic, rather suggesting the retrospect, the look backward,
the remodel as a broader view of the available past, stretching the frame and prospects of the
present’s available space.
The music of Polwechsel cannot be explained, let alone “explained away”. If explanations are soon
shed like swaddling clothes, the music and mystery remain, self-extending mechanisms. The ultimate
works possess tremendous complexity, from their multi-disciplinary beginnings to their ultimate
realizations. We enter them as compound constructs, multiple environments; their subtle and
complex instabilities invite and reward return visits. Part of the joy of the studio, the lab, is that their
ultimate assemblage swallows any notion of the “original”, whether a “live” performance or the score,
the works expanding and evading any encapsulation as they move outward. Imaginatively capturing
an “element” of a work only adds to the complexity of its relationship to other components. These
works seem continuously new. A composition might only exist here, with us, no echo of something
lost, but rather the serene, ideal, isolate artifact, shimmering in our ears.
There are many moments here in which a sound will transform into another: a drum roll will
become the grit of a bow drawn across a bass string; a drum figure will mimic the clicking pattern of
an MRI machine. These strange ambiguities may ultimately be resolved, but resolution is not the
point; rather it’s the initial transference, the depth of listening that reveals new congruities, processes
and sounds overlapping; involvement is rewarded in the transference, even the sacrifice of clarity for
involvement, for the notion of the consciousness and attention to detail to catch or construct and
enact the resemblance in the first place.
This is a quality, a central act, of Polwechsel’s musical practice, the way in which it points to
the possibility of transformation, the instant of transformation, the recognition as revelation, not the
“trick” but the possibility of perception’s intense scrutiny of the material world revealing the inner
life of consciousness in the instability of both materiality and perception.
It is, in this sense, a music made for a kind of absolute listening, just as it is music made by
such an act. This sense of exactitude/inexactitude, the frequency of listener decision-making, will
colour much of this music, is, in a sense, the music’s heart and community.
This listening is a kind of reconstruction, touching on a certain instability, like an
imperfection in an old glass windowpane on a cold day viewed in childhood, the substantial outside
world in the flaw shimmering as if it’s about to break up into a jeweled nothingness.
This most extended journey can feel like a walk in a nighttime alley, at times modulating into
a woodland walk, when muffled animal sounds replace the sound of metallic detritus, giving ways to
those moments of reverie around a single sound’s moment of undoing.
Running towards a sound retreating in time… there are moments when this does not seem
like music at all. These give way to moments in which, it can seem like the only music there
is…reconceived as a mode of attention. On one final listen to one of these pieces, before a delayed
conclusion, I realized that the group's compound processes are such that, in many instances, the
music might not be heard twice, that in some sense it's being opened, patterned, that is, improvised,
by the listener in each new hearing.
The works are not just layers of music, they are also substantive layers of time, working
through complex relational networks. There exists here free improvisation that is cut into
composition and vice versa. Polwechsel works in unalike things, each musician functioning as both
composer and improviser, but also as editor/assembler, the compound experience of time in the
compound work ultimately defining temporal relationships in a further process. A speculative
definition of the current condition for originality: the compound experience of compound time. In
this music, in a distinct way, we enter fully into the plurality of our experience of a work of art, a
music that is multiply, collectively, insistently self-conscious, a sound collage at once exercising
simultaneity and duration. This is directly related to, and extends, certain large-scale improvising
ensembles and the polyvocal and polymorphous works of certain composers, e.g., Stockhausen, Cage,
Messiaen, Grisey, Braxton.
Might this altered improvisation be “purer” with the machine’s (the transducer’s)
intervention, scrubbing off overtones, the performer’s personality, the instrument’s particular
character, in a process of depersonalization. Here improvisation might be a kind of disembodied
creation, a perfect, spontaneous action, a preternatural ontological song, song of being, meta-song,
humanity and product reduced to essence, compacted for travel into deep space.
- Reinhard Kager,
ON THE THRESHOLD OF NOTHINGNESS -
Polwechsel as the precursor of a musical upheaval
Anyone who has ever had the dubious pleasure of having to put their limbs into an electro-medicinal four-cell bath might have noticed the term ‘pole change’ (Polwechsel) on the device’s control panel. With a push of the corresponding button, the poles of the hydroelectric baths are switched: the electrodes of the two basins for the legs are now fed through the negative pole, those for the two forearms through the positive pole, so the direction of the direct current also changes.
As a matter of fact, when Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser, who founded Polwechsel in Vienna in 1993, were looking for a name for their group, they were inspired by a pole switch fortuitously glimpsed in a display, although they harbored no electrotechnical – and certainly no hydrotherapeutic – ulterior motives. They were much more excited about the broad array of associations that is opened by the term ‘pole change’: polarity inversion, change of direction, reversal, pivots in perspectives, and many more come spontaneously to mind. And from an aesthetic point of view, this change was precisely what the group, currently comprised of Viennese and Berliners, was one of the first in Europe to implement musically: a radical departure from an expressionistic attitude that had characterized music making in classical music since the age of Romanticism – extending even to the twelve-tone compositions of Arnold Schoenberg or Alban Berg, and later also to the wild free jazz of the 1960s.
In the improvisation scene most of all, such an undramatic type of music, which in the beginning almost entirely avoided energetic peaks, seemed very strange. For still predominant at that time, even in more experimental formations, was the pattern of tension and release that structured the extreme densities of free jazz. Yet what had been perceived as a welcome protest against social injustices – in view of ever-increasing racial hostilities in 1960s USA, or in view of ever more intolerable repressions in the GDR – was no longer compelling for critically-minded individuals in the more liberal 1990s. As a result, especially in Europe, improvising musicians who loved to experiment were on the lookout for new aesthetic paradigms beyond free jazz. And found them paradoxically in an originally little-known peripheral strand of the classical music establishment.
Already at the end of the 19th century, one can discover a forerunner of the new stance in improvisation: Erik Satie, the initially neglected French composer, whose piano pieces Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes flow along with ease. From Satie’s uncommonly unperturbed approach to music it was only a step to the even more radical compositions of the US-American John Cage. In the 1950s, he integrated the realm of everyday sounds and, above all, of complete silence (which strictly speaking doesn’t exist, as he demonstrated in 1952 in 4'33''), into his compositions as essential elements. Related to Satie’s mindset was Morton Feldman, likewise from the USA, who created compositions lasting up to six hours through subtle constructions of imperceptibly changing patterns, in which the duration and variations, not the intensity or dynamics, generate the tension.
The series of composers who turned away from expressive gestures, especially after the end of World War II, can be extended at length. To cite some examples: the transcribed improvisations of the Italian Giacinto Scelsi as well as a few later works from the 1980s by his countryman Luigi Nono, such as Das atmende Klarsein. Additionally, the concept pieces of the US-American Alvin Lucier, often situated at the limit of audibility, such as his mid-1960s Music for Solo Performer, based on deep frequency brain waves; or Eliane Radigue’s three-hour Trilogie de la Mort, in which the superimposed soundscapes are minimalistically altered. And from the most recent period, Peter Ablinger’s noise compositions in the series weiss/weisslich should not remain unmentioned.
Despite the wide-ranging diversity of the above-mentioned composers, their works nevertheless share a number of premises in common. In his book Reduktion. Zur Aktualität einer musikalischen Strategie, 2003 [Reduction. On the Actuality of a Musical Strategy], Peter Niklas Wilson sought to designate a few essential criteria that are traceable in most of the approaches, albeit with varying emphases. The term ‘reduction’ – which Wilson uses as distinct from ‘minimalism’, in order to evoke no associations with the minimal music of Philip Glass or Steve Reich – signifies first of all a conscious restriction of the musical material, a “concentration on just a few acoustic elements”, so as to guide recipients’ perception toward the nuances of the selected sound reservoir. According to Wilson, this leads to a “decrease in the density of events”, to a “deceleration” and, at the same time, to a new appreciation of the relationship between sound and silence. Through the general avoidance of theatrical gestures, so to speak, the individual sound could finally be expanded “into an essentially homogenous auditory space”: “It is not a matter of privation, of asceticism. Rather, it involves eliminating what is unwanted, so as to free up perception for other things.” (p. 38 ff.)
In improvised music, it is much more difficult to try to find any precursors of Polwechsel who adhere to similar criteria – which underscores the pioneering aesthetic spirit of this extraordinary quartet. An almost solitary instance was the Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza, which existed from 1965 to 1975. Significantly, the members of that group, founded by the Italian composer Franco Evangelisti, came from the realm of composition. Polwechsel might well have been inspired by their idea of basing their pieces on conceptual frameworks, over which they then improvised. It was a definitive break with the principles of free jazz, where musicians usually play without prior consultations and no formal courses of action are stipulated.
Comparable groups back then were mostly based in Great Britain. Besides the guitarist Derek Bailey, who often played solo or in frequently changing group constellations, one can identify a similarly ascetically-oriented formation whose sound has a close affinity with Polwechsel: AMM. Concealed behind the group’s cryptic name, its most well-known members are the drummer Eddie Prévost, the guitarist Keith Rowe (until 2005) and the composer Cornelius Cardew, who as a cellist belonged to the group from 1966 to 1973. Under his influence, at the end of the 1960s, AMM began to engage with the ideas of John Cage. Consequently, the stoic calmness of Asiatic music and a new way of dealing with consciously calculated pauses became increasingly significant for the ensemble. And new relations developed between sounding and already fading tones, between sound and silence – moments that, without a doubt, also play an eminent role in the conceptual improvisations of Polwechsel. It’s not by accident that the pianist John Tilbury, who has played with AMM since 1980 and who has abundant experience with Morton Feldman’s music, turns up as a guest on the Polwechsel CD Field (2009).
Inspired by such forerunners of reductive music, which would evolve only later into an actual movement, Polwechsel produced its first CD in 1993/94. Werner Dafeldecker, who introduces his double bass as sparely and precisely as his jazz colleague Charlie Haden, and Michael Moser, a classically trained cellist who has premiered countless compositions, brought two like-minded musicians on board for the CD: the trombonist Radu Malfatti, one of the most radical exponents of musical reductionism, and the guitarist Burkhard Stangl, known for his spartan poetic sound. The title of one of Stangl’s own CDs, Loose Music (1996), also functions as an apt description for the music of Polwechsel: an eventless music liberated from traditional linearity, in which “time gets structured as a counterpart to central positions in Western music”, as the music producer Peter Oswald pertinently observed in the booklet. A classical linear unfolding of the musical form from thematic germ cells is relinquished in favor of an apparent suspension of time, which nonetheless opens space for listeners to more intensively perceive what they hear, to develop a new, more fulfilling sense of time, including a self-reflexive awareness of their own fluctuating modes of reception.
One can easily imagine that this conceptual model was perceived as an alien element at the beginning of the hip 1990s, in the context of both new composed music as well as in the jazz scene. Beyond that, Polwechsel stood in stark contrast to what was then, particularly in Vienna, a loudly booming electronic scene. The exponents of that scene emerged partly from ambient music or dub, like the recently revitalized duo Kruder & Dorfmeister, or from noise and drone doom, like the late Peter Rehberg and Franz Pomassl, or from experimental rock music, like Patrick Pulsinger and Christian Fennesz. Although the latter also played together with Polwechsel on a notable CD, Wrapped Islands (2002), instrumental sound – however altered – nevertheless stood and still stands at the center of the group’s improvisations, even if its four members occasionally experiment with electronic devices.
Despite the international hype surrounding the very differenly oriented Viennese electronic scene, Polwechsel did succeed in making a stylistic impact on the experimental music scene as a whole. For a long time, an axis running primarily through Vienna–Berlin–London–Tokyo was the place where Polwechsel found its like-minded fellow musicians, either as guests or later even as members. After the British saxophonist John Butcher joined the group in 1997 in place of Malfatti, there was no change in the line-up until 2004, when Polwechsel dispensed with the guitar altogether and integrated two drummers instead, namely, the Upper Austrian Martin Brandlmayr and the Berliner Burkhard Beins.
Whoever might have feared, at that time, that the ensemble’s music would thereby become more monochromatic was taught a lesson – since Brandlmayr and Beins are anything but typical percussionists. Rather, they are sound artists who often veritably caress their instruments, only to then insert even more evocative accents, yet always with the intent of doing more with less. Both musicians additionally bring strong, creative conceptual ideas to the music of Polwechsel, as can already be impressively heard on Traces of Wood (2013), the second CD of this quartet, which has been playing in the same line-up since Butcher’s departure in 2007.
In this respect, Polwechsel demonstrates an aesthetic continuity that has nowadays become rare. To be sure, the newer recordings have occasionally become a bit denser in texture and richer in imaginative sounds. The playing processes, too, are rounder in form, more obvious than at the beginning. Some even attain an almost playful character, as in the new recording on this anniversary box with the composer and harmonium player Klaus Lang, who with a flute even lends his piece Aquin an Asian touch. Yet although the quartet also uses electronic instruments, such as on the tracks with Andrea Neumann, Polwechsel has until now preserved its finely transparent instrumental character. Along with the inner tranquility to maintain long arcs of tension, and the sensitivity to rigorously balance the relationship between action and non-action. As Jean-François Lyotard wrote in an essay on the painter Barnett Newman: “What is sublime is that even with the threatening imminence of nothingness, something still does happen, takes ‘place’, which announces that everything is not over.” Something of this awareness also dawns when listening to the music of Polwechsel. Even the question mark after Lyotard’s “Is it happening?“ resonates apprehensively in its fragility.
- Nina Polaschegg,
Polwechsel in time-lapse,
a brief overview of 30 years -
September 2000. I met my father in New York. He had business there and proposed, “let’s go to a concert this evening, pick something out.” No sooner said than done. What did I find? Austrian musicians, names I hadn’t yet heard of. After the concert, my classical-enthusiast father declared: “I don’t understand what I heard, but it was totally exciting to hear what went on there.” The music fascinated me, too. From the perspective of improvisation, its rigorousness was relatively new to me at the time; a little later I dove deep into all these sounds of free improvisation and also into the conceptual methods behind them. Polwechsel – where does the band’s name come from? Naturally, it sparks many associations. Not least, that when establishing the group, the musicians frankly pulled off a kind of “Pol-wechsel” – a switching of poles. From a musical point of view. Given that back in the early 1990s, the main focus of attention of so-called free improvised music and of free jazz was still clearly on expressive, energy-oriented playing. At least more or less. Although power playing didn’t necessarily predominate – the earlier, chiefly German “Kaputtspiel” [“play-it-to pieces”] phase was over and done with – even so, rather intense interactions and processes and rapid, at times pointillistic interplay were still demanded of the participants. Progressions aimed teleologically, tension building toward releasing and subsiding. But as happens so often, the group’s name, apt in this respect, was arrived at by chance, as Werner Dafeldecker told me. The two founders of the formation, Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser, were walking through Vienna and thinking about a name. At some point they found themselves looking at a window display. And there lay a pole switch [Polwechsler], a device that converts direct current into alternating current. Are there coincidences like that?
Polwechsel in time-lapse – a brief overview of 30 years
Early in the 1990s – the double bass player Werner Dafeldecker and the cellist Michael Moser are looking for new ways of improvising or, more generally, of making music. They weren’t alone in this. In Berlin, London and Tokyo, musicians from a variety of disciplines were developing comparable kinds of work, music that would later circulate under the rubric of so-called reductionism. But back to Vienna, to Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser. The primary background of one: jazz; of the other: contemporary composed music. Their common denominator: free improvisation. In Vienna at the start of the 1990s, for some of the young musicians soon to become internationally successful, this meant that they had attended workshops organized by the Wiener Musik Galerie. It wasn’t and isn’t a place, but rather two energetic individuals, namely the music organizer Ingrid Karl and the trumpeter Franz Koglmann. Since the 1980s, they have brought notable figures in not only contemporary jazz but also so-called free improvised music to Vienna. There, musicians such as Werner Dafeldecker, Michael Moser as well as the guitarists Burkhard Stangl and Martin Siewert gained vital impetus for the development of their own playing. Intensive examination of the spare, concise music of Anton von Webern, of Morton Feldman’s quiet soundworld that rejected ultimate development, of Helmut Lachenmann’s expertise with noise, of John Cage’s efforts to transcend subjective expression, or of Giacinto Scelsi’s almost wondrous research into a single tone circling around a sonic nucleus – to name just the most important – led the young seekers to resolve to combine the best of both worlds. In other words: to create compositions and clear playing concepts, yet allow these to become enlivened with the experience of improvisation. This concept is one of the constants in the evolution of the Polwechsel formation. Process-oriented thinking rendered into concise form and structure. All of it without dramaturgical developments that steer toward a climax. The textures that Polwechsel creates are never static – even when, at times, internal movements seem microscopically small. And yet they radiate the paradox of calmness paired with absolute tension. Maintaining tension instead of increasing and then releasing tension – the music of Polwechsel can be described in these few words. Points of reversal and change of direction turn up quasi without warning, apparently suddenly. Almost like the constantly zigzagging path of a hare scurrying off. This also contributes to maintaining the long arcs of tension.
“Uneventful Music” – that’s not only a fitting description of Polwechsel’s music, but also the title of a CD by the guitarist Burkhard Stangl, one of the protagonists in the initial, solely Viennese, formation. He too was dealing with similar questions. He drew inspiration from the Wiener Musik Galerie workshops and from working with the trumpeter Franz Koglmann, whose own music emanates lyrical equanimity rather than pushing its way expressively to the fore. Burkhard Stangl was likewise asking himself the question of how to rethink improvisation. The fourth member of the group’s founding lineup in 1993 was Radu Malfatti. The trombonist had already devoted himself to increasingly reductive and soft sounds for a number of years. And even back then, in his former adopted country England, he still was met with incomprehension.
The year is 1993. Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser team up with Burkhard Stangl and Radu Malfatti in the formation Polwechsel. The idea: clear concepts and compositions, clear structure, no expressivity. The collective instead of individualism. The four go into the studio and record two pieces. More recordings follow in September 1994. In 1995, the first Polwechsel CD is released by random acoustics, pianist Georg Graewe’s Cologne label. Christian Scheib, then editor for contemporary music at ORF Austrian radio, wrote the liner notes. The tracks “Pole” – “Nord”, “Ost” and “Südwest” originate with Werner Dafeldecker; Michael Moser contributes “NNO-Fernaumoos”. Compositions, not improvisations. And yet one senses the flexibility, the particular (aural) stance of the four experienced improvising musicians. What is it that irritates many listeners, leaves some baffled, others curiously enthusiastic about the hitherto more or less unfamiliar material? Specific sustained or quasi-repetitive actions, distinct impulse-triggers signal change in direction or switch actions on, off, or around. Clarity, transparency, no wild interactions. Here is the courage to for once allow an isolated sound to stand for itself and unfold its effect for a while. To demand precise, focused listening-to, to place pure sonority at the center of attention. “How long does a sound carry” – that was one of the questions Polwechsel brought into focus, particularly during the earliest stage of its work. In “Ost”, soft sounds that ask for attentive listening initially dominate. As the piece progresses, distinct impulses enter in, until the goings-on do escalate somewhat expressively. And then settle down again. “Südwest” still evokes associations to familiar improvising – yet here, too, in a new, very different guise. What from today’s perspective can surely be interpreted as a dense carpet of sound was unfamiliar at the time the CD was released – simply due to its generally moderate to greatly diminished volume level. Also due to its lack of soloistic escapades, for Polwechsel fundamentally acts as a collective. When instruments solo, then not in the sense of a solo elevating itself over some kind of “accompaniment”, but rather as an equal playing partner whose voice just then is to be perceived on its own. But always embedded in the entire body of sound. “NNO-Fernaumoos” by Michael Moser is based on the collective. The pivotal elements of the piece are glissandi, formulated in calmly flowing combinations of tones that make up a perpetually transforming soundscape.
Compositions – but how precisely notated are they?
Polwechsel writes for Polwechsel. The aim is not to offer interpretations of the scores of other musicians. That wouldn’t work, since the colleagues’ mutual familiarity and knowledge of each other’s ways of playing lie at the core of the formation. There are pieces based solely on time instructions. Possibly with a few additional instructions on sonority, dynamics, pitch or gesture. Others, in turn, specify timbres or gestures, the phasing in or out of sounds, triggering impulses of one kind or another. But Polwechsel always operates on the basis of a clear, well-thought-out set of rules. Other scores are notated in more detail, with comprehensive guides that explain the symbols and the treatment of instruments. One largely constant factor is the avoidance of clear rhythms and bar indications. Durations are reckoned in minutes and seconds. Layers and pulses instead of traditional bars and meters. One realizes by now that scores of this kind allow themselves to be rendered in high-quality sound only when specialists are at work. They must, on the one hand, be able to deal with the phenomenon of the score, i.e. to read and familiarize themselves with it, and to play according to the corresponding set of rules. On the other hand, they must be highly competent in improvising – since the most important prerequisite for the interpretation of Polwechsel scores is listening, combined with the ability to decide and react at lightning speed. Just as with planning an alpine tour, it’s a matter of: ascertaining & recognizing the terrain (what’s happening musically right here?), assessing & deducing, deciding (what’s coming up next according to the score?), planning details (what do I play now?) and implementation. Then, constant alertness to the status quo.
In 1998, Polwechsel 1 was released in a new edition by Hat Hut, the renowned Swiss label for jazz and contemporary music. And – like a few other Polwechsel CDs – not in the jazz and improvisation division, to be sure, but clearly positioned in the hat (now)ART series as compositions. Polwechsel 2 followed in 1999. Radu Malfatti went off on his own radical paths. For a number of years, the British saxophonist John Butcher took his place. He had already played in a London trio with Radu Malfatti. It was through the contact and exchange with Polwechsel that Butcher became wholly convinced – as he himself says – about what would later be described as reductionism. Polwechsel 2 is characterized by laminar playing. The collective comes more distinctly to the fore here, sounds are layered, entrances and exits promote no obvious interaction, but shape a soundscape brimming with interior motion. Once again, the compositions stem from Werner Dafeldecker and Michael Moser. A collective free improvisation, recorded in Nickelsdorf, completes the CD. Listening to the pieces in comparison, the differences between improvisation and composition quickly become clear. The fluid layers and smooth surfaces of laminar playing are at the core of both variants, yet the works are stringent and differ from each other in structure and clarity in the alternation and variance of the discrete components. New in Polwechsel 2: Werner Dafeldecker contributes electronic sounds, which form a kind of timeline in “Toaster”: acoustically generated sounds group themselves around quiet electronic vibrations with occasional glissandi. Polwechsel 3 was released in 2001 by Werner Dafeldecker’s label durian. The following year, Polwechsel collaborated with the electronics pioneer Christian Fennesz. According to Werner Dafeldecker, their CD, released by erstwhile, was atypical for Polwechsel. Why soon becomes apparent. The musicians improvise freely. The sound is smooth, yet to some extent unusually densely woven. The band seems more like a meta-instrument than like a collective of discrete individuals. Electronic in its overall impression – which, moreover, certainly becomes increasingly characteristic of Polwechsel (and other musicians of that period): the sonic intertwining of acoustic and electronically-generated sounds.
The year 2006 finds Polwechsel again with the Hat Hut label, this time in the hatOLOGY series. For the past year, they have played in another lineup. Guitarist Burkhard Stangl goes his own way. Taking his place are two percussionists: the upper Austrian Martin Brandlmayr and the Berliner Burkhard Beins, both absolute specialists and finely attuned to timbres in playing. Extended playing techniques, timbres made of and beyond pure pitch, all of it remains fundamental playing material that gets consulted regarding construction and flexible modes of composition. One notices how tight the ensemble becomes as the years go by. Precision and clarity become even stronger than they were at the start. But an additional development becomes evident since the change in lineup. Continual self-reflection occurs not only via refinement of the fundamental ideas. These themselves likewise get newly questioned. Polwechsel gently begins to distance itself from its original, virtually ascetic restriction to the most minimal sonic mass, number of events and decibel level, without ever leaving it all entirely behind. Chords, dynamic contrasts, denser textures, elaboration of motifs or rhythmic structures – compositional features once totally excluded – gingerly find a way again into their music. If, however, chord-like structures do turn up now, then only as reflected through prior experience of an austere aesthetic and the productivity of minimalism: they are remnants of memories, notions, vague associations – never quotations or moods. Dynamic contrasts are purely musical timbral contrasts and temporal configurations, not expressions of feelings. Michael Moser and Werner Dafeldecker, up until now the two primary Polwechsel composers, now go a step further on the Polwechsel-path toward a considered re-integration of formerly restricted compositional parameters and, in the process, reflect the history of Polwechsel itself: traditional methods frequently return to the ancestral Polwechsel idiom as disruptions, refractions or stratifications. The Berlin percussionist Burkhard Beins is himself among the pioneers of reduced playing. His younger colleague Martin Brandlmayr builds on these experiences and likewise poses new questions. Refining and subtly altering, further developing, restructuring – together with ongoing precision and clarity, these are and remain a constant throughout the music of Polwechsel. What has begun with the new lineup and the CD Archives of the North is pursued in the following years. Martin Brandlmayr and Burkhard Beins also contribute compositions. (CD Traces of Wood from 2012, also on Hat Hut). For the CD Field, released in 2009 by Hat Hut, Polwechsel invites the British pianist John Tilbury. As one of the originators of British improvisation music, he had already begun to improvise with the group AMM in the 1980s. In 2018, Polwechsel makes recordings together with the organist and composer Klaus Lang, which are released in 2020 by Hat Hut’s successor label ezz-thetics. Both musicians, John Tilbury and Klaus Lang, are related in spirit. And they share Polwechsel’s aesthetic ideas. The results are perpetually new sonic mixes – here too: fine nuances, subtle variance. Timbres of various kinds. The special thing about unseen is that it was recorded in the St. Lambrecht Abbey Church. Klaus Lang plays the church organ, not the harmonium, as he usually does in concert settings. The acoustics are expansive and layered in depth, as befitting an ecclesiastical space. Two very tradition-bound components – the resonance chambers of church and organ – mix with sounds of the here and now. Contemplative immersion is newly conceptualized, even doubly coded here. A reflection whose components extend even further. By the way, John Butcher isn’t a participant, but he’s heard again as a guest musician with Polwechsel on the current recordings for the 30th anniversary.
In addition to previously released recordings, the comprehensive LP box set for the 30th anniversary also contains a few new ones – from the core lineup as a quartet and with guests such as Klaus Lang, Magda Mayas and Andrea Neumann. At times, the pieces evoke associations to baroque bass lines that spread for a while in the ensemble as a chordal perpetuum mobile, only at some point to fray into a field of excitation of higher and lower tones. Then the core team of Polwechsel again throws short, high energy, razor-sharp gestures into the room, pauses, then lays down a new action. Strictness and playfulness, this too is a constant. In collaboration with Andrea Neumann, the four create quiet soundscapes as if one were strolling through a shimmering enchanted forest.
Not just for its 30th anniversary, Polwechsel likes to invite guest musicians. With the aim of exploring new nuances with like-minded players. Guests provide input and drive the thinking process onward. Whether in exhaustive spoken-written exchange over great distances or in rehearsal, recording and (seldom) concert settings.
From radical innovation to subtle re-entry and perpetual self-reflection, without scurrying here and there like a hare, throwing their own ideas overboard. “How long does a sound carry?”, that was one of the questions Polwechsel posed itself at the start of its work. “How long does the basic concept of Polwechsel carry?” – they repeatedly keep asking themselves this question – with success, since the music with a high recognition value is nevertheless anything but repetition.