Speaking for Apollo: Peter Rühmkorf on ECM

PR

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.

Stephan Micus: Koan (ECM 2305 804 SP)

Koan

Stephan Micus
Koan

Stephan Micus shakuhachi, zither, gender, sarangi, rabab, bodhran, angklung, kyeezee, Burmese bells, guitar, voice
Recorded 1977 in Cologne
An ECM Production

Wayfaring multi-instrumentalist Stephan Micus began his ECM journey with this five-part album of characteristic rituals, now digitally restored for posterity. The Zen Buddhist kōan, often misunderstood as a riddle without answer, is more rightly experienced as a path to openness, and it is this path that Micus has walked since he first committed his sounds to disc. In denying an effect for every cause, the kōan opens both the questioner and the questioned to the possibility of possibility—which is to say, beyond the duality of things. Like the music contained on this eponymous recording, it is not meant to be solved but discovered for what it is. Micus’s music is thus an ongoing kōan, for despite the fascination of his array and technical adjustments thereto, an awareness of infinity prevails.

If we discover anything from the shakuhachi solo that is Part I, it’s that Micus’s unaccompanied sojourns are as multitudinous as his multi-tracked assemblages are singular. For while that hollowed stalk of bamboo, itself a voice without breath, finds accompaniment in the form of zither, gender (Balinese xylophone), and guitar in Parts II and V, in those group settings it feels more like the reflection than the reflected. Each instrument embodies one element in an organic picture, leaving the unsung song to trace its slow-motion arc across the sky, a comet on its way toward slumber. In the final wave, the zither offers itself percussively: the string as skin. Micus’s breath, simple and serene, meanwhile blots the torch of every star until the darkness becomes an expression of light.

Parts IIIa and IIIb feature the rabab—an Afghan lute, which sounds like a resonant shamisen and has both rhythmic and melodic functions—and the deeper sarangi. A translucent shakuhachi marks the first half, but gives way to a Mongolian-influenced sound, scraped like barnacles from the earth’s crust. This leaves only Part IV, in which Micus sings over a congregation of Burmese bells.

In this sound-world, instruments never compete. Nothing “solos,” per se, but coheres by means of an undying spirit, to which only the master musician may attend through a lifetime of rare creation. As one of Micus’s most meditative sustains, Koan enables a microscopically visceral experience that is forever new because it is the very picture of regeneration.

Herbert Joos: Daybreak – The Dark Side Of Twilight (JAPO 60015/ECM 3615)

Daybreak Dark

Herbert Joos
Daybreak -­ The Dark Side Of Twilight

Herbert Joos fluegelhorn, trumpet, cornet
Thomas Schwarz oboe
Wolfgang Czelustra bass, trombone
Strings of Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart
Recorded October 1976 and July 1988 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Carlos Albrecht
Produced by Herbert Joos and Thomas Stöwsand

German trumpeter and fluegelhornist Herbert Joos’s flirtations with ECM have been few, contributing to the big brass sound of Eberhard Weber’s Orchestra and notably to Cracked Mirrors, a marvelous and, it would seem, overlooked date with guitarist Harry Pepl and drummer Jon Christensen. Yet it was with Daybreak, recorded in the fall of 1976 for sister label JAPO, that the knot of Joos first audibly untied itself alongside Thomas Schwarz (oboe), Wolfgang Czelustra (bass and trombone), and the strings of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart.

The emphasis on classical textures will feel familiar to admirers of Keith Jarrett’s likeminded forays, especially In The Light and Bridge Of Light. That being said, the overall effect is shadowy, overhung, though equally honest. “Why?,” for example, answers its own question up front in the very asking. Although an obvious reference to Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, its progression spins closure from an interrogative oboe. The normally pastoral associations of the instrument are shed along with lingering symphonic details, such that when Joos’s breath cuts the air with its golden knife, the strings drip like lifeblood from its plane. None of which is meant to suggest that the music is in any way macabre. For what can there be but hope in the cyclical motif that churns during fadeout? “When Were You Born?” asks another question answered by its own sounding. The delicacies of Joos’s high-register playing render far more expansive maps in this instance, touching proboscis to firmament and sampling sunlight until nightfall. “Leicester Court 1440” features Joos in muted soliloquy. Riding a horse of compressed time, he enacts an agitated recession into the title piece. Joos has only his own echo for company before the inward journey is externalized by the dark arrival of strings. Hence, the “Black Trees” looming not far away. Yet despite the title, they actually let down the brightest of the album’s seeds with an approach that gives voice to nature and seeks universal truth in a bird’s nest. Joos’s lines bespeak haughty quest in “Fasten Your Seatbelt.” This playful frolic through arco fabric balances laughter and fearless arpeggios, while scuttling crabs and landlocked others communicate without need for sound. And when the seatbelt fails us, we are thrown into a life of slower motion, lit by “The Dark Side Of Twilight.” The latter appears only on the 1990 CD re-issue (ECM 3615) and, at 15 minutes, is the album’s most brooding texture. Relaying brass-synth and string chorale settings, it walks a broken circle with its head hung in thought, an outlier among the album’s modest population.

The music of Daybreak speaks to children in the language of adults. It photographs the illusion of age and melts it into a sea of numbers. Not every detail will be preserved in that translation, but in the process we come to understand that history and music are sometimes like water and oil. In this chamber of the past, futures hide in corners the light struggles to reach.

Daybreak
Original cover

Michael Naura/Wolfgang Schlüter: Country Children (ECM 2305 803 SP)

Michael Naura
Wolfgang Schlüter
Country Children

Michael Naura piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraharp, marimba
Recorded June 1977 at Radio Bremen
Engineer: Dietram Köster
Produced by Peter Schulze

Oftentimes, when pouring through the back catalogue of any label’s out-of-print releases, one stumbles on a few clunkers before arriving at any forgotten monuments. In my listening experiences thus far, ECM has flipped this dynamic considerably, offering a wealth of musical history to explore and appreciate. Among the ruins, however, is this humble little project, lost to the age of the label’s brief SP imprint, which lasted all of three albums. Country Children brings together pianist Michael Naura, whose music graces most of this set, and Wolfgang Schlüter. Originally trained as a drummer before a knee injury led him to mallet instruments, Schlüter cites Lionel Hampton (who he heard live in Berlin in 1952) and Milt Jackson as early influences. After a stint with the Michael Naura Quintet, which dissolved due to Naura’s illness, he played with the NDR Bigband for three decades. Since then, he has focused on teaching and remains one of Germany’s most formative vibraphonists.

“Ballade für eine Silberhochzeit” is a lush opener, almost the shadow of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Over a beautiful two-chord ostinato, vibes dance exuberantly in a tightly restricted space, but with resplendent melodic freedom. “Schlafen” is a heavily improvised stem with the occasional blossom of composed material. Whereas its heavily convoluted beginnings might elsewhere seem a turgid dream from which one awakens into consonant resolution, here they imply the opposite: an opening of eyes within in sleep’s promised dream. “Take Us Down the River” is more exuberant, much in the vein of Keith Jarrett in the throes of a re-imagined standard. “Argentina” is alive with urban energy, a subdued elegy for remembered villages and mountains. The piano here is paired with a sprightly marimba, making for a drier and more evocative sound.

A flip of the record to Side B brings us to one of the most heartfelt renditions of Krzysztof Komeda’s theme from “Rosemary’s Baby” you are ever likely to hear. This is followed by the title track, which feels steeped in an unnamed nostalgia. “Sad Queen” is another stunner, and my favorite among the album’s originals. “Variation auf »Abendlied«” is dedicated to Peter Rühmkorf, the highly influential German writer whose voice appears alongside Naura and Schlüter in the first two ECM SP titles. It is another lovely offering, consolatory in its gentle persuasion, a track of subtle boisterousness filled with an abiding energy. The final track, “Call,” ends the album on a bittersweet note.

These musicians are like two halves of the same instrument. Their collaborations are beautifully conceived and executed, and make for a fitting complement to such likeminded pairings as Chick Corea and Gary Burton. It’s a wonder this album has yet to be reissued. I would think that, especially with the nod to Komeda, it would fit snugly alongside François Couturier’s Nostalghia and Tomasz Stanko’s Litania. This is a gorgeous and wide-ranging album, one equally fit as the background to other activities or for relaxed deep listening. An unsung gem, and easily one of my top picks currently vying for freedom from the ECM vault.