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.

Friedrich Hölderlin: Turmgedichte (ECM New Series 2285)

2285 X

Friedrich Hölderlin
Turmgedichte

Read by Christian Reiner
Recorded January 2012, Garnison 7, Wien
Recording engineer: Martin Siewert
Mastering at MSM Studio, Munich
Engineer: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Wolf Wondratschek
An ECM and Joint Galactical Company Production

Vienna-based artist Christian Reiner reads from the so-called Turmgedichte, or “Tower Poems,” of Friedrich Hölderlin. The German poet has, of course, long been lodged in ECM’s consciousness (see, for example, Scardanelli), though nowhere nearly as long as he was himself lodged in the selfsame tower, later known as the Hölderlinturm, in which he would spend the last 36 years of his life, until he fell like the pen from his hand in 1843. In his liner notes to this spoken word album, Peter Sloterdijk speaks of the tower as “an ur-scene of German culture,” and its looming presence and stonework are accordingly felt in every syllable crafted at Reiner’s lips.

Reiner, whose work encompasses radio plays, theater productions, and other forms of experimental speech art, possesses a genuinely penetrating voice, but in the context of Hölderlin’s poems it is the voice that possesses him. The first word he speaks is followed by a pause so pregnant that we are drawn into the moment as eternity. Reiner thus allows us to inhabit the spaces of the words as if they were as architecturally significant as Hölderlin’s tower. We can feel the night pulsing through sentences, the poet’s mind closing in. The voice, then, becomes another soul, spun filament by filament until it speaks of its own accord.

CR
(Photo credit: Tibor Andreas Kiss)

Aside from the signposts of the seasons, the word Mensch(en) is a major semantic touchstone of these texts. Its very sound looks beyond any flesh-bound meaning toward a dialectical non-being. It is not the man but the construction of the man, of the body as an instrument of love and lore, a book of pages bound by the circumscription of years and autobiographical anomalies. Before long, we feel that Hölderlin’s cosmology has become fraught with the weight of its own invention, and that every word is an attempt to burrow through its infrastructure in hopes that it will be hollow enough to float away at the puff of just…one…more…word. We also have the signoff of Hölderlin’s alter ego, Scardanelli, as well as the dates preceding their signature, to lead the way beyond landscapes of flesh contracting from the chill. And if we listen closely enough, we might hear the distant cries of cities whose populations tread the streets like spiders, their match-heads filled with mortal fear of friction. But even they cannot help but bump into each other, unleashing fires that wipe out entire boroughs, so that all we are left with in the end are friendship and love wandering like wild animals in a forest.

Although I can’t imagine that Turmgedichte will be of appeal to anyone who doesn’t speak German, one may nonetheless link it to the readings of Heinz Holliger’s Scardanelli-Zyklus—only now we are exposed to the music of the language itself. In light of this, I would correct myself by distinguishing it from spoken word albums as instead an album of words that are spoken, for it is the act of their articulation that here matters most. The letters, of course, have organs, characteristics, and genetic idiosyncrasies, but in their sounding they are able to touch something grossly internal in all of us.

Speaking from on High: Bruno Ganz and ECM

We will never record it: the black
Choirs of water flowing on moss,
The black sun’s kisses opening,
Upon their blindness, like two eyes
Enormous, open in bed against one’s own.
–Lawrence Durrell

Swiss thespian Bruno Ganz will be familiar to any cinephile as angel Damiel, the veritable heartbeat of Wim Wenders’s 1987 classic Der Himmel über Berlin (a.k.a. Wings of Desire), one of his many iconic turns on the silver screen. Field any admirer about his acting, and his voice is sure to come up in the conversation. Ganz speaks as he moves, carefully yet not without an honest revelation of frailty.

ECM producer Manfred Eicher was already well aware of these vocal powers, and in 1984 and 1999 sought to strike them on a handful of poetic anvils to see where the sparks might fall. The results were two exemplary spoken word sessions which, though things of beauty, may alienate anyone without knowledge of the German language. It is a curious thing when this happens: a performer whose cinematic gifts are so easily shared through subtitles and international distribution, while his speech off screen is limited only to those who understand it sans technology. With no translations to hold our hands, we left to wander these worded landscapes alone.


Hölderlin – Gedichte gelesen von Bruno Ganz
 (ECM New Series 1285)
Recorded March 1984 in Berlin
Engineer: Bernhard Voss
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ganz walks the fingers of his diction across the many bridges between bodies heavenly and earthly to be found in the writings of Friedrich Hölderlin. He begins between the Gemini and ends bearing a torch of proper time, scratching the sky like fingers of St. Elmo’s fire from the masts of those final utterances.

And indeed, fire was a leitmotif for the deteriorating poet, who painted himself a sufferer of ephemeral things. He sometimes set his semantic jewels into hymns, like the laudatory “Der Ister,” in which he bids,

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day,
And when the trial
Has passed through our knees,
May someone sense the forest’s cry.

We can almost feel the leaves tickling us through Ganz’s breath, can almost smell the purge of fervent prayer that springs from its lines. He, Hölderlin, folds the pages of childhood into a book of spiritual recall who once bathed in the waters of “Der Neckar,” that river of yesterday which snakes outside the window of his tower. It draws him like no other place, its grip stronger than mythology’s most resilient scars:

Perhaps someday my guardian deity will bring me
To these islands, but even then my thoughts
Would remain loyal to the Neckar
With its lovely meadows and pastoral shores.

Even as he holds a sure ticket in his written life, a ticket that might take him anywhere, he would rather tear it into a thousand snowflakes and powder the craggy peaks of “Ihr sicher gebaueten Alpen” (“You solidly built Alps”). This fragment of stillness, this flicker of oneness with Nature, is no more than the shadow of an avalanche deflected by a palette knife.


Hölderlin

Gentle slumbers and wistful years pass like light through gauze in “Der Abschied” (The Farewell), morphing into the outstretched hand of Diotima, her omnipresent heart refolded into a dialogue with Mnemosyne:

The fruits are ripe, dipped in fire,
Cooked and sampled on earth.

That same heart has become the hearth, seasoning lies until they smell like truths. Ganz carries over this sustenance as he emotes the subtle horror of “Rückkehr in die Heimat” (Return Home). Like a bed sheet that can never be completely smoothed out, every fiber of his being raises interest elsewhere, so that by the time he turns back to “Da ich ein Knabe war” (When I was a boy), there is only the spoken word to show for his passing. Hölderlin shapes the text like a stairway into the very bosom of his proto-family:

When I was a boy
  a god would often rescue me
    from the shouting and violence of humans.

A later verse seems to turn in on itself:

The euphony of the rustling
meadow was my education;
among flowers I learned to love.

This, like many, was or grew out of, a fragment, the spore of a grander evening song that sprouted wings but chose to walk instead. In it thrives the search for purity where there can be none, except through the letters that shape its concept. Yet Hölderlin has no place on the battlefield of sign and message. The poet’s cause is by definition laced with deception, for the one who utters it cannot remain on the page.

Hölderlin’s is a world of meditation, where the vagaries of the flesh are quashed by the beauty thereof; a place of cosmic pulses and tears of starlight.

In closing, René Char’s Prometheus brings the sun to earth, laying it in the veined hands of Paul Celan, whose varicose words react like leaves on a dead tree—which is to say they sing for as long as they fall.


Wenn Wasser Wäre
 (ECM New Series 1723)
Recorded 1999 in Zürich and Basel
Engineer: Fabian Lehmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title here means “If there were water,” and buries us alive in “The Waste Land” before we even delve into the album proper. The booklet is far more informative this time around, and in a beautifully realized essay Steve Lake threads the spatial and temporal divide between T. S. Eliot’s masterwork and the poetry of fellow Nobel Prize laureate Giorgos Seferis. Through an intimate awareness of these texts and sounds, he notes, we are bound to neither.

While Ganz was working on the set of Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day, the Greek auteur handed him a volume of Seferis’s poetry. Enthralled, he responded to Eicher’s gentle nudges to record this follow-up session. This time, selections from composers György Kurtág, Giya Kancheli, and Nikos Xydakis shuffle the deck of his recitation into an even darker eclipse.

What was fire to Hölderlin is now water to Seferis, who casts his sentiments, and us along with them, in “Flasche im Meer” (Bottle in the Sea):

Here we moored the ship to splice the broken oars,
to drink water and to sleep.
The sea that embittered us is deep and unexplored
and unfolds a boundless calm.

Gone is the majesty of sunset, the strangers’ footprints in the sand. In their place, a shoreline of broken chairs and ammunition: a sister landscape to Eliot’s.


Seferis

Yet it is Seferis’s “Thrush” that is the anchor of this vessel. Its unabashed interweaving of the erotic and the unsettling evens the scales:

Light, angelic and black,
laughter of waves on the sea’s highways,
tear-stained laughter,
the old suppliant sees you
as he moves to cross the invisible fields.

Water has a voice. It is wordless, but more emotional than anyone who listens. Powerful or not, you cannot overcome it. Years may go by before the lamps flicker again. You touch your hand to the first door you can find. You turn the knob…

            …and you find yourself
in a large house with many windows open

running from room to room, not knowing from where to
    look out first,
because the pine-trees will vanish, and the mirrored
    mountains, and the chirping of birds
the sea will drain dry, shattered glass, from north
    and south
your eyes will empty of daylight
the way the cicadas suddenly, all together, fall silent.

Not unlike the words he reads, Ganz is the feather-light sledgehammer of pathos. He crushes without hiding, hides without running. At his lips the word is holy because it communicates without image. It is the tightening of a chest when joy and fear alike reveal themselves to be as far from language as one can get. It rains from the sky in music, and tells us who we are.

But it is the sea
That takes and gives memory.