Recorded 1966-68, 1977-78, 1984
Originally from Berlin, Konrad Boehmer honed his compositional skills with the likes of Gottfried Michael Koenig, Pierre Boulez, Henri Pousseur, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Bruno Maderna. At least half a generation younger than the above-mentioned composers, Boehmer debuted in the early 1960s and has since deployed his professorial talents in the Netherlands and in the US.
His very detailed approach to composition, however ‘electric’, eschews many of the trappings that defined the canon of processing in vintage electronic music – reliance on generators, sonic masses, echoes. When Boehmer incorporated pre-recorded tape material, he did so with a fully semantic approach – a far cry from Stockhausen’s intuitive cut-ups.
Despite the wealth of external inputs, Boehmer’s electro-acoustic creations sound introspective and concentrated. The structural complexity of his work does not invalidate their seamless and pristine, entirely legible character. In addition to his ‘electric’ and electro-acoustic works, Boehmer has been also composing for more traditional media, including piano, percussion ensembles, chamber ensembles, choirs and symphony orchestras.
It is astounding that Boehmer’s talent has remained so underexposed outside the (hermetic) circles of European academia and concert halls. There is much more in his oeuvre that could and should be appreciated among the fans of Nurse with Wound, Operating Theatre, Hafler Trio or Un Drame Musical Instantané. The recording presented here should also appeal to those to follow the careers of Dagmar Krause, Phil Minton and Frederic Rzewski.
This early composition opens by infusing space with an oppressive sonic register: gurglings, chuckling buzzes, non-resonant mechanistic clashes all bite our earlobes with irregular dynamic assaults. Crescendo of liquid bubbles, staccato cricket buzz and crackling feedback come and go, obstructing our auditory access to swooshing glissando blankets. The reigning effect here is liquidity, with some extra sibilance on topmost layers. But the composer refuses to apply insecticide; as another liquid cascade ebbs away, buzzing arthropoda buzz by in gyrating duets and trios. When gigawatt electronic thunder interrupts this litany of naturalistic associations, windy gusts of grey noise soon follow. The initial impetus drops off and a fairly slow-paced sequence ensues at various textural levels. Much space is devoted to flicker noise, but the proceeding seems subtractive, rather than additive. On one occasion, a reverberating machinery rumble kicks in. After a short recess, submarine bubbles reinvent the context. Contrasts are now distributed in a balanced fashion, with much energy still channeled through some liquid medium. Most of these sensory structures are knit together in a sequential fashion with little, if any overlap. Stockhausen’s influence is definitely perceptible. In the last subsection, a sputtering motor sound is being embraced by micro-bubbles and a low-range torrent. There is some enforced stationarity in the illusions generated by the structural stasis here. The composition does really not advance, but rather like engines circling on a race track, it alternates in energy levels and frequency. Boehmer avoids both excessive accumulation and obvious splicing of material. Overall cohesion relies on atemporal functions, many of which are elicited within a pre-defined range of (mostly liquid) effects.
Cry of This Earth
This composition – part of a trilogy composed in the early 1970s – relies largely on Christopher Shultis’s deeply-pitched percussion – cymbalic overtones, fast tympani rolls – and interjected voice-overs. The distant mix generates a sense of a stage-like detachment. Electronics floods the space, but throttles back, slipping down the gutter of nothingness. When the xylophone comes to the fore, we hear the first declamation – first female, then male, punctuated by a drum roll. Tympani and stratospheric electronics spice it up with (frustrated) melodic spices. Finally a soprano joins (Thea van der Putten), colored by a friendly vibraphone. The delivery is dramatic, somewhat oblivious to the continuing (also female) narration. Tympani, xylophone and the two voices compete for influence, reminding me of the disorienting operatic effects on U Totem’s first record. Sequences appear, only to be closed by non-resonant percussions tracks. The ‘song’ proper is now entirely supported by abstract percussion and xylophone. Small hand drum prepares the atmosphere for the spoken text in French. Damning, high-pitched sounds sprout into the short breaks, bruscamente. Then a spoken male voice in Spanish takes over – to a more defined percussive (xylophone, large cymbals and gongs) accompaniment. Boehmer’s whispers his own part (in German) – gliding over smeared out notes teased from the vibraphone and electric organ. Wooden percussion clucking disturbs the emerging order and so does the electronic interjection. One can’t dispel the sensation that the drummer part requires a lot of attention in this section of the composition. The other two voices soon return, with more conviction, making a point among the swishing electronic flyovers. Spanish recitation (male) and French a-melodious chant (female) appear endorsed not only by the avalanches of electro-bubbles, but also by the electric organ’s condescending harmonizing and some graphic accents from the percussion. A long dying note from a cymbal closes the trilogy.
Apocalipsis cum figures
Dagmar Krause’s voice scares us with cataclysmic scenes of fire and hail, as dantesque and horrifying as Bosch’s nightmarish vistas. Petrified by agony and horror, the voices also come off as sardonic. Krause’s voice is sometimes transposed through a chorus treatment and is surrounded not only by an anguished jumble of ghastly slurps, gargles and guzzles, but also a suitably apocalyptic and very metallic piano (Frederic Rzewski). A refrain of male voices goes almost doo-woop (Jan Hendriks, Ernst Jansz, Henny Vrienten), when a French narrator announces arrival of other creatures. Overall, a sense of uncertainty reigns, as in the highly improper duet of piano tremolos and unhelpful belching. German sentences (from Hölderlin) can occasionally terminate a phrase and plunge us into a silence, but it never lasts. The French text, on the other hand, is delirious, exorcising the images of “semen”, “angels”, the Virgin and God, all surrounded by barking dogs as if hijacked form a Psychic TV or Dali-Wakhevitch recording. Dagmar Krause picks up some of the more deranged passages from Karl Marx and its juxtaposition with Marquis de Sade does not grate here. Phil Minton’s plaintive crooning proclaims “I am free”. Howling monkeys, stately Eislerian piano and a hunched German text operate between a mechanic dynamo and robotic voices – in a dense, crowded underworld where dissonance is order and tonality is hell. A whole treasure of interjections swamps the listener – simian creatures, pianistic salvos, animalistic glorps, bird calls, French expressions of indignation and blasphemy. Intimidating, monstrous voice growls as others attempt a conversation above this unsettling canvas. The piano is punctual and aggressive, but it is the Hague Percussion Ensemble that occupies center stage here: chimes, closing gates, multi-voice ‘Erinnerungen an Prophets’, fast drum runs. The French recitation is defaced, clipped at the top, molested by devilish shouts of panic, eerily contrasted with doo-woop sing-alongs (apparently a piece by Skriabin). In this sonic mayhem, growling beasts meet oral hygiene and female scolding mocks male despair. Some electro-percussive effects are repetitive, wrapped around fragments from an English song. When a measure of piano-voice order returns the percussive layer reorganizes the texture with march-like snare drum and tom-tom preparation. Many voices in French are so critically slowed that they are barely comprehensible. Some voices are muffled, other strangled, other suffocated or vivisected into ingressive-sounding, and that despite a strong bass buttressing that annoys us so much in Hollywood action movies. That bass phrasing contrasts here with either vibraphone or high piano notes, just when we are to hear about the last hope: “I am god I am god”. The sacrilegious text is first spoken, then chanted, then exclaimed. After a male recitation in French, sweeping electronics ushers us into the sinister underworld of growling, braying and vomiting. And this menace means business: “the night, so deep that you won’t see the way, you won’t hear your own voice”. Then, the tortured, damned voices reveal, unexpectedly, a tepid bourgeois song, sung in English with a piano accompaniment amid the spiky cacti of electronic swirl, piano arpeggios and all THAT howl. If this really is the end of the world, then this is quite fascinating and worthy living through, sonically.
Konrad BOEHMER: “Acousmatrix – History of Electronic Music V” (1966-68, 1977-78, 1984)
Several other recordings are available, but they are not necessarily electronic or electro-acoustic works.