Ends and beginnings: Ernstalbrecht Stiebler

Sunday 26 July 2020

Like many people – judging by the interview on this album’s web page – my knowledge of Ernstalbrecht Stiebler’s music centres on the CDs of his 1990s music released on Hart Art. Based on this, I had mentally labelled him as “Euro-Niblock”, listened to it, enjoyed it and never went into it too deeply. An album of new pieces has now been released on Another Timbre, works for strings composed between 2007 and 2016: Für Biliana shows both how Stiebler has continued to develop as a composer and how listening has changed over the past quarter-century. Beginning with two short solo works for violinist Biliana Voutchkova, Für Biliana is made out of double-stops in which held notes are harmonised on the other string, alternating in almost cadence-like figures; in Glissando the moving tone on the double-stops slides in, or out, of unison with the held pitch. In each piece, the music is formed of phrases instead of a steady drone, with occasional tremolos in Glissando that make the piece resemble a slow caprice. Heard in retrospect, the attenuated romanticism in these brief works becomes more evident in those Nineties pieces. There’s a continuous balancing act between the instability of the harmonic language used and the stability of its immobility, where neither can truly claim precedence.

Voutchkova is joined by cellist Michael Rauter for Duo 4 / Parallelen, a longer work from 2007 where each plays overlapping dissonances in a kind of antiphony. The language is pure Fifties avant-garde, an unresolved major seventh, but it is transformed by its stasis, effectively becoming its own tonal centre. Nevertheless, the tension between the two suggests a resolution is still needed and Stiebler achieves it through silence, as each successive iteration starts to fade away into something more gentle, eventually finding rest.

I lied when I said this album was made of newer pieces. Stiebler’s Extension for string trio was composed way back in 1963 and it’s incredible in the ways it both resembles and differs from his recent work. Joined by Nurit Stark on viola, Voutchkova and Rauter play the ephemeral material with a steady, unaffected solidity, adding inflections and articulation to a recurring tritone for almost twenty minutes. It’s a prescient work that goads the critic into drawing comparisons with La Monte Young’s trio, but it’s more interesting to compare it to Stiebler’s own Duo 4 / Parallelen. Both with essentially the same subject, Extension prolongs the harmonic stasis with differentiations in attack, phrasing and dynamics, elaborating a detailed chamber work out of a minimum of developed material, while Duo 4 / Parallelen takes the same approach, but with greater subtlety and refinement. Where the earlier piece uses pizzicato disruptions and changes in speed to vary the texture, the latter work makes use of alterations in solo and duo voices, phrasings and rests.

This weekend I dug up those old Hat Art discs again and heard how those works sound much less like a function of a process than I remembered. Thanks to Für Biliana we can hear now how those pieces relate to the music that came both before and after it, simultaneously.