When the ensemble Polwechsel first appeared in the early 90s, they were a harbinger of a genre of music, arguably pioneered in the improve world by AMM, that came to be, to the annoyance of many, known as reductionism, music that concerned itself with low volume, minimal amounts of sound and, indeed, a healthy dose of silence. It was quite shocking at the time, coming at the heels of several decades worth of high energy free improvisation, originally in the US but taken to heart in Europe. Radu Malfatti, one of the original members of Polwechsel, would continue to this day to take this approach to various extremes.
While cellist Michael Moser and bassist Werner Dafeldecker were constants in Polwechsel, the other members have rotated a bit. Traces of Wood is the second recording from the incarnation with percussionists Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlmayr, an unusual but very tasty two-strings/two percussion set up. Since the extraordinary first recording (Polwechsel, on hat[now]ART, recorded in 1993 and 1994) one problem has dogged subsequent efforts, that being a certain aridity. The group always tried to balance between improvisation and composition and too often the latter predominated, with the pieces themselves registering as excessively dry and formal.
Happily, this new disc resolves much of that issue, despite the fact that each of the four tracks is composed, one per member. Beins, whose own work can rarely be accused of any dryness, leads things off with "Adapt/Oppose", the strings opening with rich, bowed harmonics, deep and lustrous. Cymbals, bowed and struck, appear, forming a huge welter of sound before a sharp metallic clang signals a shift to sparse taps. Sparse but not dry as they suspend in space, very much alive, soon buffeted by cello scurrying, sustained vibraphone and more. A very alive piece, structurally complex, progressively more abstract over its duration, revealing more relationships on every listen. Moser's "Grain Bending #1" begins with a bang as well, a clatter of percussion and arco, but with a very different character than the Beins, here tumbling over one another in a more astringent environment. Moser, probably more than any other member, was most responsible for those arid areas previously cited and there's a little bit of that here but not nearly as suffocating as before. The quiet portions breathe and the percussive events, while reminiscent of all manner of "new" music from the 60s on, indeed possess the grain of the title and feel appropriate and interactive with their accompaniment, nestling right in even as they're flexing their elbows. There's even an overtly lovely, chorale-like portion for cello toward the end. A fine piece.
Given his tenure with Radian over the previous decade or so and his tendencies therein, one might expect a certain amount of rhythmic flash from Brandlmayr but his "Nia Rain Circuit" really only refers obliquely to those concerns. Percussion does seem to drive the piece and one hears the briefest snatches of the kind of high-speed, precision drum work that Brandlmayr is noted for but, on the whole, the composition is a set of somewhat fractured episodes, each offering a bar glimpse into a "room". It flows less smoothly than the preceding two works but, at the same time acts as a kind of tonic for them, a good fit in terms of the disc as a whole. Finally, Dafeldecker's "S 64°14" W 56°37"", using recordings made by the composer at that location in Antarctica, concludes the album in chilly and stirring fashion. The frigid rumblings underpin some splendidly icy scrapings by Polwechsel, very well integrated; often it seems imitative of natural sounds like ice fissures, boreal winds and such. Near its conclusion we hear deep bowed strings once again, recalling the disc's beginning.
Traces of Wood is a welcome return to form, Polwechsel's most satisfying recording since their first.
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