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Zeitkratzer – Whitehouse Electronics/Alvin Lucier


Since 1999 Zeitkratzer have done a sterling job of carving a particular niche for themselves in the under-explored hinterland between academic/serious music and the less academically considered world of noise/ ‘other’. I first came across them on the formidable 2002 release Noise \ … [Lärm], where they interpreted pieces by Merzbow, Zbigniew Karkowski and Dror Feiler. It’s been nine years since then, and it’s still an absolute monster of a piece. To a certain noise-inclined audience they’re possibly best known for their transcription of Metal Machine Music, arguably the seminal noise album. Or rather, the seminal noise album for a certain audience… Now.

You’re probably guessing that there’s a sub-text to this, so I’ll give that a little prod and see if it shakes. When I was 17, the idea of a ‘classical’ group doing Merzbow or any of the other noise luminaries of the day – CCCC, Incapacitants, Gerogerigegege, Masonna, Hijokaidan [etc] – was unthinkable. What I didn’t realise was that great swathes of the ‘classical’ world had already suckled on the black teat of noise. For different reasons, certainly, but I’ve little doubt that there are moments of, say, Xenakis or early Penderecki which are as agonising as anything noise (the genre) has ever produced. This isn’t a criticism of Zeitkratzer – they’ve produced some amazing stuff over the years, and it’s probably right that they should be the go-to ensemble for Whitehouse and Alvin Lucier. It’s more pointing to the fact that, next to dear Iannis, playing Lou Reed is bound to be a breeze (relatively speaking). While noise was gestating, new complexity was nearing puberty. So with that in mind…

Whiteouse Electronics

“Classical band do Whitehouse? Wow! They’ve managed to transcribe Whitehouse onto non-electronic instruments? Amazing!”

The above is not what this record does. What this record does do is show up precisely how unspeakably fucking boring Whitehouse are to listen to, how bereft of compositional ideas they are, how they essentially have built a career around baiting liberals. And William Bennett doesn’t sing on this, so there’s not even that (admittedly fun) comedy.

There probably was a moment, probably nearing 30 years ago, when Whitehouse’s priapic pantomime was in some way something more than lazy, pointless, turgid dogshit. It’s definitely an interesting record, in so far as Zeitkratzer, under Reinhold Friedl‘s direction, have been remarkably assiduous in their choice of timbres, exactingly matching the electronic tones of Whitehouse’s originals. And part of me can see that Whitehouse are definitely a significant cultural/musical event worthy of some sort of preservation. The problem is that… well, I’m not going to waste any more time. Whitehouse are shit, Zeitkratzer are amazing, and this record might as well be called denuding emperors.

Alvin Lucier

…and I assure you, I did listen to the above quite a few times before I came to that conclusion. I wanted to like it, really I did. But playing it back-to-back with the Lucier one just forced my hand. This is a brilliant record. I think Alvin Lucier possibly suffers from having too seminal a piece in I Am Sitting In A Room, which is a great shame – he’s developed a fine stock of pieces that, while usually isolating aspects of the physics of sound-production, bear an astonishing musicality at odds with the ‘cerebral’ nature of the creation. Lucier often leaves elements relatively open in his compositions – from what I can gather about music for a piano with magnetic strings, it seems to be an exploration of tonal possibilities afforded by up to five e-bows tickling piano innards.

Pianos being pianos, there’s a rich mass of overtones, and Zeitkratzer disinter alien hums and buzzes from the secreted middle of the piano, gorgeous and aching. Given he features on the Whitehouse Electronics release but not this one, it’s ironic this ends up reminding me of Rhodri Davies‘ brilliant works with e-bowed harp. Elsewhere we have a triangle solo (a fucking triangle solo!) in “Silver Streetcar For The Orchestra,” where Maurice de Martin, some top-flight mics and a lush room acoustic conspire to make the triangle sheepishly belt out the odd overtoney melodies it’s been hiding, wallflower-like. For me, the standout piece is “Violynn” (for violin and tape). I can’t figure out what’s going on compositionally, but there such an odd relationship between the long violin-tones and round sine-like sounds which makes every slight imperfection of the bowing jump out. It’s such an affectionate, peculiar track… well it stopped me dead in my tracks. Gorgeous, brilliant, baffling, lush.

So yeah – if you only know Lucier for I Am Sitting In A Room, or you’re feeling guilty about putting your ears through so much abysmal tripe in your life (no names mentioned, your honour), it’s well worth a punt. And wouldn’t it be nice if Lucier were thought of as a composer as much as a studio curio? Yes. Yes, it bloody would.

-Kev Nickells-

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