Vol. 43 Issue 1 Reviews
Clemens von Reusner: Electroacoustic Works

Compact disc, 2018, NEOS 11803, available from Neos Music, www.neos-music.com/.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

von Reusner CDClemens von Reusner is a German composer whose work is focused on exploring the boundaries of acousmatic music. For almost four decades he has produced a body of work involving electroacoustic music, radio plays, and soundscape compositions. His recent release on Neos: Clemens von Reusner: Electroacoustic Works contains seven compositions composed within the last decade that represent a variety of approaches to making acousmatic music.

In Anamorphosis (2018), the first work on this collection, we hear carefully crafted, high quality sounds and production techniques. Von Reusner has created a sonic universe in which unidentified or unidentifiable sounds are used to form a highly compelling, plausible, artificial or virtual landscape. Sounds ‘appear’ from nowhere, moving at various speeds and trajectories passed the stationary listener. This is mostly accomplished by using gradual changes in amplitude and spatial positioning. It was sometimes difficult to tell whether separate events existed as part of a composite timbre or texture, or whether they were intended to be heard as separate entities.

Von Reusner allows his materials to develop organically at a leisurely rate within through-composed forms that allow the listener sufficient amounts of time to become attuned to minute changes in the overall texture. This strategy draws the listener in from start to finish.

The second work, Ho (2008) begins with a series of sharply attacked, synthetic sounding timbres, bathed in a heavy dose of reverb. Some of the sounds seem intentionally to resemble sci-fi sounds, at times conjuring up sonic images found in Bebe and Louis Barron’s well-known film score for Forbidden Planet. Each new sonic reiteration contains a rich variety of waveforms articulated in different ways using various amplitude envelope shapes.

Von Reusner takes a ‘kitchen sink’ approach to his introduction of sonic materials – there are a plethora of simple waveforms, processing techniques, simple and complex forms of modulation, all situated within a highly fragmented soundscape. Often the general texture is quite thin and sparse. Because the pacing of events is aperiodic, the listener is continually surprised when new timbres and sounds are added. Materials are added very gradually, with the effect being that each ostinato or fragmented texture is listened to intently, with a close focus. Sounds are heard within a disconnected, pointillistic format, with few antecedent-consequent relationships besides those that occur simply due to placement in the same timeframe.

The composer has clearly thought a lot about panning details and gestural shaping. For example, a low-pass filtered noise is amplitude-modulated with a low frequency oscillator that loudly begins in the left channel, and moves over to the right channel as it decrescendos, building back to full force as the sound returns to the left channel.

The composer’s use of pitch-centered ‘instruments’ reminded me of much work with Csound, and in fact according to the liner notes: “Ho was achieved by means of additive sound synthesis using the Csound audio programming language.” Each ‘instrument’ type is clearly heard and re-identified, as it is re-heard, even when processed with other types of sound treatment. Set loose at the beginning of the composition, it is almost as if each instrument follows its own trajectory throughout the piece.

About two minutes from the end of this 12 minute piece, the music becomes locked into a background ostinato pattern over which the composer brings back some of the previously heard sounds in a less urgent manner. This carries the piece to its conclusion, which is marked by a scratching or paper crinkling sound. The listener is left to ponder what it all means.

Definerte Lastbedingung (2016) (Defined Load Condition), the third piece, presents us with an unusual method to produce an acousmatic work. According to the liner notes: “Definerte Lastbedingung works with the sound of electromagnetic fields generated by electrical equipment. Recorded with a special microphone, this sound material has hardly any of what is otherwise typical for ‘musical’ sound. There is no spatial depth, nor any dynamics.” Unlike the previous composition for which I suspected the use of Csound, in this work I would never have guessed at the novel way in which the composer created his sound palette.

At the beginning of the piece we hear complex frequency-modulated, cymbal like sounds time-stretched, combined with granular, water droplet sounds that become part of subtle rhythmic patterns. The background contains materials in slow motion. We hear very slow crescendos and decrescendos, which give the impression that we are physically in close proximity to the sounds.

After approximately three minutes the texture changes to pulsating timbres combined with sounds that could have been made by the Star Wars character, R2-D2, as well as additional granular sounds. Some of the sounds seem to be deliberately reversed, suggesting the pliability of time itself. Two and half minutes later a much sparser and more percussive timbre takes over, related to the previously heard granular sounds but bathed in liberal doses of spatialized reverb.

This dissipates at about 6:47, at which time a new section begins featuring a variety of sounds pulverized with unexpected silences and reverb trails. Next, grinding motorcycle sounds appear, making their way from channel to channel. This leads to a series of pointed, single attacks followed by more reverb trails. Throughout this section there is much attention paid to filtering and equalization.

At nine minutes into the piece the texture becomes much more sparse, similar to the first few minutes but in a more elongated, drawn-out manner. The composition builds in intensity as the granular rhythm droplets are brought back. This is followed by a long, fizzled fadeout that effectively closes the piece.

The fourth work, Dry Friction (2012) is, according to the liner notes, “based on the sound of metallic surfaces” composed out within a framework that harnesses “different manifestations of friction.” The introduction includes a good deal of resonance boosting, or nasal filtering, of sustained Karplus Strong-like timbres. To this, the composer adds reverb with a long decay time, as well as short-lived sounds that unexpectedly occur and then vanish. There is an audible dialectic between ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ sounds but it is difficult to discern the dry sounds given the omnipresence of the wet background. Here the composite sounds, given this complex texture, take on the properties of the sounds that are bathed in reverb. To accomplish the opposite, to hear the dry sounds as dry, one might imagine them being set off from the rest of the material via pockets of silence that surround them, heard on their own without their wet counterparts.

Some of the sounds used in this work sound like they originated as samples and were played back at different sample rates or rates of speed. Alongside these sounds there are other sounds that might remind listeners of musique concrëte sounds. One example of this occurs in the form of processed speech sounds, which we hear in the form of a vocoder with added flange.

As in some of the other pieces from this collection, some of the materials in this piece seem to happen without apparent instigation or consequence. Some of this is due to the lack of follow-through by the composer. For example in Dry Friction there is a significant change to a drone based texture around 8 ½ minutes into the piece. Instead of developing or continuing the drone it simply drops out like most of the other preceding materials. This is not simply a tool of fragmentation, like that found in some of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics’ works. Instead it suggests a structural flatness.

However, around 10:20 the composer allows his sounds to stay put for awhile, in a manner that is in line with their inherent significance. This poignantly leads to a section that includes some intriguing water tub sounds, sounding as if one’s head was submersed in a giant tub filled with water. Here resonance is pushed past the limit, feeding back into the compositional fabric. The piece ends with a juxtaposition of flapping, simple amplitude-modulated sounds.

In a sense KRIT (2018) is not significantly different from the other pieces on this disc. It seems to begin where Dry Friction left off, with the juxtaposition of two distinct textures. But this is unlikely given the six years that separate the two works. The liner notes state: “The basis of KRIT is a chaotic underlying sound that is cut into pieces and rebuilt in many variations. In the course of the composition, chaotic but simultaneously uniform, as well as isolated but extended manifestations of this sound are developed and become audible in different degrees of density and spatiality.”

Whatever the case, this intriguing compositional method produced a work full of spraying liquid sounds, brief moments of bubbling, distant storm-like rumbling, and close-up scratching and thumping. Around the midway point, the spraying becomes much more active and moves across the stereo field in waves, harnessed to various flange-like treatments. Then we hear busy, urban, traffic-like sounds. About two-thirds of the way into the piece it takes on an ambient character, becoming much more sparse and soft. It stays like this for the remainder of the piece, comprising a calm ending. But the ending also includes contradictory material in the form of foreground material that implies continuation, even as late as 30 seconds from the end.

The next work, Sphären der Untätigkeit (2013) (Spheres of Inactivity) “is based on the repeatedly filtered sub-harmonic development of synthetic frequency-modulated sound whose spectral nature is based on the proportions of the golden mean and which regains its original form only at the end of the work.”

Sphären der Untätigkeit begins with the presentation of clearly demarcated sinewave sounds, suggesting that the composer used additive synthesis techniques to create his frequency-modulated sounds. It sounds like a music box in parts, but one that is electrified, distorted, and heavily processed. Events occur sparsely over long stretches of time. An ominous organ-sounding chord is sustained in the background, processed with what sounds like convolution reverb, while the foreground is occupied by a percussive drill sound, suggesting an unstable texture.

Unlike some of the other works on this disc, Sphären der Untätigkeit unfolds at a very slow rate, at least for the first several minutes. This allows for the listener to track meaningful changes over larger chunks of time.

Topos Concrete (2014), the final piece from this collection, is another example of a work that uses interesting methods to produce an acousmatic composition. “To make solidified concrete audible, various objects made of glass, metal, paper, plastic, stone, and wood were drawn along the floor – like an oversized stylus of a record player. Using contact microphones, the resonant movements of the objects were recorded.” This material becomes the basis for the piece.

From a soft, white noise beginning, we hear a slow fade-in, as if a camera lens has slowly come into focus. To this the composer adds high-pass filtered sounds. “The Greek word ‘topos’ means area and is rugged and inhospitable landscape with mountains and valleys, although it appears smooth and even from a distance.” These sounds are in line with the definition of topos, in that the ‘smooth’ introduction becomes more rugged as sounds appear closer to the listener.

In the next section we hear the application of low-pass filters onto time-stretched sounds. The sounds collide, triggering each other to start and stop. When instigated they often are passed through a resonance filter, which makes for a poignant effect. Sounds fade to silence followed by sudden, loud re-entrances and bursts of noise. Then they vanish, leaving granular water droplet sounds in their wake. The water sounds are saturated with reverb, giving rise to the thought that the composer has produced a virtual wet environment with sonic icons for wetness. The piece ends with a series of high-pass filtered percussive sounds processed with reverb and delay.

Acousmatic music is much more appreciated in Europe than in the US. Perhaps the US listener, lacking certain accouterments of an imagination, demands visuals or narrative plots. Much of the music on this disc does, in fact, leave one to wonder about musical narratives, since many of the timbres, textures, and sounds heard come laden with semiotic meaning. If acousmatic, here, means a style of composition we are in the presence of a fairly limited definition, which can aid in the recognition of various style traits associated with the composer. If we take the term acousmatic as a way to listen to sounds, we are also in the presence of a fairly limited experience that privileges large-scale organic forms for example. The organic approach to form mirrors the size of the computer screen, which can determine composers’ ideas, or change of ideas, for more traditional-minded acoustic composers who compose at their laptops.

There is much attention paid to localized gestures on this disc, less so with regard to large-scale structures. This is definitely a bottom-up approach to composing. One of the problems with using a plethora of sounds without attaching them to some kind of large-scale structure is that the listener gets lost in the localized sound-to-sound level. Without structural hierarchy the sonic fodder takes on a flat, or shapeless, character. No doubt von Reusner’s work would benefit from live diffusion, which would accent the works’ sense of movement and other dynamic qualities that require a three-dimensional space in order to fully take effect.