René Margraff: Phasen
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As a cultural phenomenon, the pseudonym makes for a fascinating object of study, especially when one considers that its use is largely concentrated in popular music. Few film-makers, visual artists, or writers uses aliases, unless a name is adopted for a collective, such as Bauhaus, Dada, or The Group of Seven, or for other, highly personal reasons, such as Sylvia Plath's decision to issue The Bell Jar under the name Victoria Lucas in 1963 or J.K. Rowling's to publish 2013's The Cuckoo's Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. But more often than not, artists in these disciplines publish their works under their birth names.

In contrast, the adoption of an alias is commonplace in popular music. Perhaps the practice originated when figures like John Lennon and Paul McCartney reasoned that a name like The Beatles would offer a less clumsy way of presenting themselves, a move that other groups followed and that ultimately evolved into a practice that single musicians adopted, too. Which leads us to Phasen, a new release that experimental composer René Margraff has decided should be released under his real name rather than the Pillowdiver alias he's used since 2008. One possible explanation for the move is that it's Margraff's way of saying that Phasen is a more direct statement of his artistic practice, an intimate portrait that shows the Berlin-based producer letting down his guard and stripping away whatever usual defences come into play.

All such conjectures aside, Phasen sounds to these ears like a very straightforward statement, one that has no epic goal or ambition in mind but is instead more humbly focused on presenting Margraff's musical persona as it exists in its current form. Recorded and processed between early 2011 and May 2013, the thirty-seven-minute release (available in a 500-copy run) presents eight explorative meditations, all of them more concerned with texture than melody as conventionally understood—which is not to say that melody is entirely absent but that when it is present it subtly emerges as an outgrowth of the textural design.

No instrumentation is identified, but, if past recordings by Margraff can be used as a reliable precedent, electric guitar is presumably the source. It's hard, then, to avoid invoking Fennesz as a reference when Margraff's material is generated through a combination of guitar and processing, but Phasen highlights certain key differences: comparatively speaking, Margraff's sound is blurrier and the guitar's presence camouflaged to a greater degree. The opening piece “blau schwarz” effectively establishes the recording's generally non-abrasive tone (the thunderous “rain (for Jeff Hanneman)” one noticeable exception), and settings such as “rot gelb,” “Abschüssig,” “EV, the horror,” and “still life (bach off)” find Margraff fashioning shuddering windstorms of unsettling and portentous character. Needless to say, Phasen has been crafted with serious purpose, but Margraff also isn't above poking fun at himself, as intimated by the “you call this music2012.9.13llrec18.27.38” title he gives to one of the pieces. To set the record straight, yes, we do indeed call this music.

February 2014