Slowcream: And

VA: Reflections on Classical Music
Point / Universal

And strikes me as being the most successfully-realized Slowcream collection to date, with its five parts functioning as connecting movements within a grand orchestral scheme devised by Me Raabenstein. The Berlin-based composer uses the human hand as a conceptual springboard for his third full-length in specifically focusing on the hand's status as an organ of manipulation and sensation (the track titles thus refer to the fingertips' receptors' sensitivity to pressure, temperature, vibraion, moisture, and texture). In general terms, And, which originated as a commission for a modern dance project, is a disturbing symphonic work that's like a forty-minute-long nightmare transcribed into aural form. One presumes that Raabenstein stitched the material together from classical samples but the elements are so seamlessly woven together little evidence remains of their sampled origins.

Emerging from silence in a swirling undertow of nightmarish strings and plummeting horn figures, “Pressure” layers ominous string and braying horn melodies across a slow death march rhythm. A similarly brooding ambiance permeates the second part, where Raabenstein subtly adds electronic treatments to the menacing mix of piano and sickly strings. The third part, “Vibration,” initially alleviates some of the tension but gradually plunges headlong into an underground torture chamber of its own cryptic design where it remains until the tortuous closing moments of the final part, “Texture.” Major Major, whose speaking voice appears on Live Long And Prosper's “Suburb Novel” and a number of tracks on 2009's Wax On Wool, is thankfully absent this time around; in place of the too-particularizing effect spoken word brings, And's dramatic intensity is bolstered by the contributions of guest soloist Greg Haines who adds cello and organ to three of the album's five pieces.

Unlike someone such as Murcof, say, who underlays brooding classical music-based material with electronic beats, Raabenstein eschews blatant dance music-related rhythms altogether (the closest thing to a regulated rhythm is the dragging pattern that crawls alongside the strings in “Moisture”). Such a choice might render And less accessible by comparison, but it ultimately gives the Slowcream material more integrity; in short, And doesn't compromise in its embrace of a classical style and is all the better for it.

Raabenstein also was commissioned recently to compile the XVI Reflections on Classical Music, an eighty-minute collection that provides a comprehensive overview of the classical-electronic spectrum (and, incidentally, includes his “Suburb Novel”). One might question a few of his sixteen picks—Lawrence's Daydream,” for example, is certainly a pretty enough integration of choral singing and acoustic instrumentation but calling it classical is a stretch—but ultimately the collection should be seen for what it is: a personalized yet generally on-point representation of a young and still-evolving genre which has roots in multiple parts of the world (Germany, Japan, England, France, USA). Invariably, a bit of a “usual suspects” feel can't help but colour the artist selections, with Gas, Philip Glass, Murcof, and Max Richter, among others, making expected though not unwelcome appearances.

The album is sequenced so that an intitial emphasis on piano-based pieces gives way to diverse orchestral-related settings. Takeo Toyama situates elegant piano arpeggios within a hyperactive solarium setting in “Lithium,” while Hauschka's “Zuhause” provides a high-spirited representation of his “prepared piano” style. Sylvain Chauveau's “Il fait nuit noire à Berlin” then offers a beautiful two-minute sampling of his own piano style, after which alva noto conjoins electronic rhythm patterning to Ryuichi Sakamoto's delicate playing in “Moon.” Francesco Tristano's later “Andover” weaves a seductive story of mystery in its intermingling of piano and electronic textures. Elsewhere, Murcof's “Maiz” well-represents Fernando Corona's classical-electronic merger, while Type Records' Ryan Teague and Greg Haines receive some deserved exposure via “Prelude III” and “Snow Airport,” respectively.

Any compilation is a trade-off of sorts. Some pieces suffer by being presented in isolation from their original, fully-integrated contexts; Max Richter's “Arboretum,” for example, memorably spotlights Tilda Swinton's recitation amidst its typewriter clinks and strings but The Blue Notebooks is best heard as a whole; Akira Rabelais's “1382 Wyclif Gen. ii. 7” likewise has a more powerful impact when heard as part of Spellewauerynsherde rather than by itself, and the five-minute excerpt from Gavin Bryars' Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet can't help but feel unsatisfying when so much of the work's effect is predicated upon long-form repetition (admittedly it's hard to argue against the idea that samplings of such works gives unfamiliar listeners a starting point that may prompt investigation of the complete releases). Other pieces surprisingly benefit: hearing Philip Glass's brooding “Abdulmajid” in isolation from its “Heroes” Symphony context actually engenders a new-found appreciation for Glass's nuanced arrangement of the Bowie original.

On the positive side, the diversity of approaches within the genre is brought into sharp relief: following the Gas excerpt with the Final Fantasy song indicates just how different the material within a shared genre can sometimes be. Certainly Wolfgang Voigt's “Zauberberg 4,” a prototypical Gas fusion of brooding orchestral samples and 4/4 techno beats, is galaxies removed from Owen Pallett's melodically-distinctive Final Fantasy track “He Poos Clouds,” which audaciously fuses vocals and classical orchestra instrumentation. In the final analysis, Reflections on Classical Music at the very least succeeds in providing a generous and encompassing portrait of a burgeoning genre that should be of especial benefit to the neophyte.

October 2009