Speaking for Apollo: Peter Rühmkorf on ECM

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Peter Rühmkorf (1929-2008) was among the most influential postwar writers of his native Germany, winning every major literary prize for his prolific output of essays, poetry, plays, and prose. Yet despite having given spoken performances on stage with pianist Michael Naura and vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter for over three decades, his only appearances on record in such a configuration were captured via two rare ECM “SP” albums from the late seventies. I was beyond fortunate to be offered these two albums off the shelves while visiting label headquarters for the first time in Munich, and the die-hard fan will want to seek them out. Going beyond mere sound structure or program music, Rühmkorf was rather looking for something harmonious between the spheres of language and sound production, and on these long-out-of-printers I think got rather close to that ideal.

Apolloprogramm

Kein Apolloprogramm Für Lyrik (ECM 2305 801 SP)

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone, marimba
Eberhard Weber bass, cello
Recorded August 1976, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of this first long out-of-print relic translates to “No Apollo Program for Poetry,” and indicates Rühmkorf’s interest in going beyond mere sound structure or program music. Rather, he was looking for something harmonious between the spheres of language and sound production, and here I think he was approaching that ideal. Rühmkorf further professes a downright biological need for poetry and skirts, in his darkly effervescent way, the line between emancipation and integration.

As with most of ECM’s speech acts, this one will be of little poetic use to those who don’t understand German. It should, however, be of immense value to the label’s fans for its musicianship. In addition to a rare early appearance by bassist Eberhard Weber (who also plays cello on one track), one is treated to some fine playing from Naura and Schlüter. Aside from two short tracks of Rühmkorf alone, the album is brimming with attractive makings of music. The trio activity of “Tagebuch” (Diary) establishes a grand, theatrical sort of precision with minimal means. Weber is robust and elastic as ever, sometimes climbing his way into the center and at others laying down club jazz atmospheres with Naura at the keys and playing us out on a bed of velvet.

For the most part, the playing is so illustrative that translations are hardly needed. “Hochseil” (Tightrope), for instance, balances Rühmkorf on a lone marimba that also carves helixes of reverberant post-production, while Weber’s percussiveness in “Zirkus” (Circus) builds like the tension of a trapeze act. And, whether steeped in the balladry of “Meine Stelle Am Himmel” (My Point In The Sky) or gilded by the flanged cello of “Elegie,” the poet rides an arpeggio of new horizons, only to culminate in the deeper finality of “Komm Raus!” (Come Out!).

Phönix

Phönix Voran (ECM 2305 802 SP)

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura piano
Leszek Zadlo saxophone, flute
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone
Recorded March 1978, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Thomas Stöwsand

Whereas on the previous album Rühmkorf stressed the importance of pathos with an air of resigned unrest, on Phönix Voran (Phoenix Preview) he chews the fat of inner strength in closer quarters. Adding to that claustrophobia—even as he installs a window view—is Polish musician Leszek Zadlo, who replaces Weber’s bass with saxophones and flute throughout, and to astonishingly cinematic effect.

Rühmkorf’s ever-practical enunciation cracks open the piano and vibes like an egg, thereby releasing the soft yolk of Zadlo’s flute in a cradle of light and shadow. This combination, a sparkling one, works again on the freely improvised “Selbstportrait” (Self-portrait), which inhabits its own unsettled text with an increasingly kaleidoscopic gravidity. The flute lastly appears as Rühmkorf’s only partner in the aesthetically beat poetry-inflected “Allein Ist Nicht Genug” (Alone Is Not Enough).

Elsewhere, the saxophone takes precedence of sound and space. The opening reed tones of “Auf Einen Alten Klang” (An Old Sound), pure and singing, find natural traction in the Naura/Schlüter nexus, then dance freely as Rühmkorf works his narrative labor into a material image. Zadlo and Naura share one duet in “Paradise Regained” for a vivid portrait of night. Yet the fullness of the project’s vision is best realized by the entire band. Highlights in this regard include the deliciously titled “Ich Butter Meinen Toast Von Beiden Seiten” (I Butter My Toast On Both Sides), a lovely track with the wherewithal to hold its prose like nourishment in the belly, and the sweeter onomatopoeia of “Impromptu.” And as finality lands again in the bustling farewell of “Tagelied,” we begin to realize that perhaps it is the voice that accompanies the music, not the other way around.

While it might not always seem so in the thick of things, in hindsight the connections between speech and instruments are to be found not in meanings but in shapes. Naura’s music, which comprises the backbone of both sets, already has such a solid narrative arc that Rühmkorf is an intuitive fit to manifest its dips and climbs. Gems, these are.

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