Ekkehard Ehlers: Politik braucht keinen Feind

Following his critically acclaimed Staubgold collection Plays, the restless, fertile artist Ekkehard Ehlers continues to create compelling work on Politik braucht keinen Feind (Politics doesn't need Enemies). Perusing the digipak and poster photos of nightclubbing denizens might lead one to assume that the musical content will be of a dance-based nature. However, we're a very long way from his (apparently now retired) Auch project, for the hour-long Politik … contains three uncompromisingly modern works of a post-classical nature which will appeal more to Ehlers' Betrieb audience. The latter work is, however, more accessible, given that most of its shorter pieces use loops, thereby imputing clearly recognizable structures throughout. In comparison, the first two works on Politik … develop less predictably as they wend their way through cryptically knotty paths; the last, however, being dance-related, unfolds with relatively greater regularity and structure.

Contributing to the enigmatic character of the release are the notes which are entirely in German. Translated, they express Ehlers' concern for musical tenderness, respectful humility in the face of musical freedom, and, evoking Proust, his aspiration to create music capable of reawakening lost moments. Even though the pieces are purportedly fully composed, there is extreme digital manipulation of the clarinet and cello soloists' performances. Ehlers takes Burkhard Kunkel's bass clarinet and Anka Hirsch's cello and performs all manner of layering and sound processing, such that "Mäander," a three part work for bass clarinet, sounds hardly like a recital by a solo instrumentalist but more like a swarm of bass clarinets. No discernible compositional structures emerge; there are no predominating themes to speak of, and the notion of time signature never arises in these parts. Rather, "Mäander" and "Blind" sound like perpetually mutating pieces of variegating tendrils of sound that seem to develop more biologically as opposed to artistically. In short, Ehlers is less interested in adhering to conventions of classical composition but in conjuring fascinating sonic worlds that hardly fit the category of 'easy listening.

"Mäander" is an incredible, multi-layered sound world of 4 or 5 layers of clarinets that is atonal, arrhythmic, ominous, and funereal. One hears the full spectrum of bass clarinet sound possibilities explored: croaking, creaking, hissing, and scraping. Its three parts are much the same in character, although a twilight quality pervades the third section, its treble tone pebbles scattered about the deep croaking bass. "Blin"' is a four part work, apparently composed for five layered cellos. The first arrhythmic part is sickly and nightmarish, the cellos groaning and scratching. Part II features layers of pizzicato plucking, III is predominantly multi-layered bowed tones, and IV is more mournful with keening, undulating sounds. The 22-minute "Woolf Phrase" is a single movement work, seemingly created for a ballet company. This is the most accessible of the pieces, given its regular looping pulse, and is also gentler, more elegiac and tender. As he does often, Ehlers' uses quotations from other artists' works to construct his piece; here it sounds as if samples from works by Arnold Schönberg and Steve Reich have been used.

Obviously, Politik braucht keinen Feind is no easy listen, which doesn't mean it's not a worthwhile exercise. Mention must be made of the recording quality itself, with production by Ehlers and mastering by Josef Suchy, which manages to capture the remarkably rich range of sounds with utmost clarity, giving the listener the opportunity to immerse him/herself fully into these remarkable sonic arrays. Ehlers may alienate those uninterested in being taken on a tour through dissonant post-classical territories, preferring instead a stay in pleasanter climes. Politik… is admittedly exhausting and often overwhelming in its amount of detail, and it's certainly not a recording that you'll play first thing each morning, but in rarer moments the demands of its deep listening proves rewarding.

June 2003