Michael Wertmüller — discorde

One day I will dance to your music.
(King Buzzo)

To point it out, right at the beginning: Class Struggle simply sounds great! Of course we can’t talk about a class struggle in a Marxist sense in this particular context, nor of philosophical or revolutionary ideas; but simply of contrasting musical approaches, modes of thought, preferences, tastes, antagonisms.
When I got to perform at the Rote Fabrik (Red Factory) in Zurich with my very first own band in a double concert with the Melvins, I was still very young. The Melvins were already thought of as the best rock band of all times, globally and in the entire universe; and this is still the case. Before his time with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain worked as roadie for the band. Total grunge-coolness from Seattle. My own band was called Alboth! and in Zürich we were regarded as sons of the Bernese educated classes who were playing some kind of strange twelve-tone jazz-rock music; these pieces were my first attempts at composition. Indeed – we all came directly from the academy of music, but from the very beginning we had picked up the dirt from the streets, had played endless numbers of gigs at practically no fee in Italian, French, American and Spanish squats; at our first concert in New York we had slept on the stage of the club at minus 15°C, wrapped in our drum mats, and so on. At any rate – a few articles appeared in the arts pages, people realized that we were playing a strange kind of dodecaphony – “Schönberg on Speed” was one of the labels.
And now, our concert in Zurich was announced by a huge poster with the caption:
The house was sold out as a result; I was so deeply motivated that I bust my snare drum right during the very first number. Of course I hadn’t thought of bringing a replacement; I simply went on playing, on the 12’’ tom tom instead of the snare, until the Melvin’s roadie motioned me to come backstage after finishing the piece. So I hurried off stage – and there was super-drummer Dale Crover, handing me his snare. King Buzzo was standing next to him, whispering into my ears:
“one day I will dance to your music”.
This is a brief story to illustrate the title and at the same time a paradigm of how my music was developed.
During my time as drummer/percussionist in symphony orchestras and as student of composition with Dieter Schnebel – where I mainly learned to dissect serial music – I also performed with the wildest jazz and rock bands; and early on and continuously until today with Peter Brötzmann. Between these two extremes there exists a kind of fuzzy overlap until the present day, created by blurred definitions, professional ignorance and prejudice. If one views contemporary music’s whole bandwidth, one can see that over the last years new styles and playing modes have developed, transcending genres and defying simple categorisation. Contact between the various areas is nonetheless scarce. Especially musicians playing contemporary classical music very rarely concern themselves with the extremes of rock and jazz, avant-garde and hardcore, variations of techno and improvised music.
These antagonisms have always interested me. To combine strict compositional, even serial thinking and pure musicianship, New Music and jazz, to imagine things without ideologically concreted trenches between the genres. For me, this is the right approach for this Klangforum Wien/Steamboat Switzerland collaboration.
That I met the musicians of „Steamboat Switzerland“ seems inevitable in a small country like Switzerland. The “Hammond Avantcore Trio”, as Dominik Blum, Marino Pliakas and Lucas Niggli call themselves, has been regarded for years as the most interesting band active in the border regions between New Music, rock and improvisation. Its music also cannot be compartmentalised. With their brilliant knowledge of both contemporary as well as classical music, the three musicians negotiate the shapeless zones between the genres with absolute confidence.
„Steamboat Switzerland“ negate the division between composition and improvisation, between so-called “serious” music and music “for entertainment”; they move on a musical meta level and avoid conventional genre-islands. This is effectively the realm between chair and bench of “New Music” or “Serious Music” and jazz or rock.
I first met percussionist Niggli in the context of the Swiss Youth Symphony Orchestra. At the end of the 1990s he was part of my percussion sextet; for a while we followed each other’s development until “Steamboat Switzerland” commissioned the composition of “Pieces I – VII” in 2001 for the Taktlos Festival (Tactless Festival) in Berne. Since then we have collaborated repeatedly in various contexts – together with bass-player Pliakas amongst others with Caspar Brötzmann, John Cale, as well as in the concert series “noch#” at the Academy of the Arts Berlin; and since 2004 with Peter Brötzmann as “Full Blast” Trio. Steamboat Switzerland commissioned me to write further pieces – “z-rat. I – V” in 2004, “die zeit. Durchführung” in 2007 for MaerzMusik Berlin and “time_involved in processing” in 2009 for Musica Viva Munich. They were the core ensemble performing the operas “Anschlag” (Lucerne Festival in 2013) and “weine nicht, singe” (“cry not, sing”) for Hamburgische Staatsoper in 2015. At the Lucerne Festival in 2010 the orchestra piece “Zeitkugel” (Time-Sphere) was premièred with Dominik Blum as solo-pianist/organist.
In the autumn of 2013, „Jeunesse Wien“ organised a 3-day special with my music at the Vienna Porgy & Bess Club; this was the catalyst for my relationship with Klangforum Wien. There, my “contradictory” musical worlds were presented, the jazz/rock-things as well as the strictly formalized “serious” music, performed by Steamboat Switzerland. It was natural that I came into contact with some of the musicians of Klangforum who were part of the audience; and to develop the idea of bringing the two ensembles together – of course in collaboration with conductor Titus Engel, who is at home in all musical regions; a Klangforum and Steamboat defeater/victor.
The piece turned out to be a triptych, with an “in picture picture”, inspired by the video of the song “walk this way” by RUN DMC and Aerosmith.
The rehearsal spaces of these two bands of quite different styles are situated in adjacent venues; when they practise, they disturb each other, banging and pounding against the walls in irritation; but then they realise that in fact, if one were to combine these two types of music, one would be able to create something completely new. Well – here we are not dealing with anything quite as romantic as this; however in the first scene, “discord tryp_a”, everything is built around a dodecaphonic melody resp. an all-interval-series – rather in the style of traditional New Music, centred around Klangforum. The series is permuted and diminished twelve times; and in every modulation a new, accelerated speed emerges. During exactly 4’29’’ the piece accelerates from a speed of MM=60 to MM=322.  Initially “discord tryp_b” continues in the same tempo and gradually modulates the speed in order to achieve a kind of complex “swing feeling”, so to speak. Polymetric and harmonic superimpositions are employed to create the impression of a melding of styles of KF and SS – with SS gradually taking over the lead, culminating in “in picture picture”, where it reaches its most intense expression. In “discord tryp_c” the piece finally achieves full amalgamation. A massive tutti. A mighty acceleration which still retains the same all-interval-series of “tryp_a” tempered by the Zimmermann- and Stockhausen speed-modulation-method.
I don’t think that one will ever dance to my music, just as people will never whistle Schönberg in the streets; but played by high quality musicians such as Pliakas, Blum, Niggli, Fussenegger, Nyqvist, Tarrete, Schiske, Furrer etc., some movement is possible.
The feat to accomplish, therefore, lies in harmonising the concise edge, rigour and precision of the classical-romantic serial composition with the intrinsic free spirit of jazz to achieve an accord, which vanquishes crossover and generates a new voice.
This is about transgression, excess. Such sallies into the unknown, into the not-yet-tried-out result in disaster by a certain necessity. In its way, such a class struggle is schizophrenic, is strife, fragmentation. One doesn’t always know where this is going and in this surprise, in the amazement and wonder, the space opens up for what is actually new. (Michael Wertmüller, 2016)