Marcus Schmickler: Richters Patterns

Monday 30 November 2020

For the past ten years I’ve been quietly kicking myself for not paying more attention to Marcus Schmickler’s compositions, failing to twig that they were more than just a sideline for a pseudonymous laptop-noise bro taking a stab at respectability and/or grants. Having been impressed by his Rule Of Inference, with its takes on Gesualdo and dervied works< I've been hanging out to hear more. Richters Patterns is a decent chunk of more recent works, a double CD from Tochnit Aleph. The five pieces here show a number of Schmickler’s interests working together to produce strong music of equal sensory and intellectual interest.

The title work, a 30-minute piece for large ensemble with Schmickler contributing with his computer, sounds the most conventional – at first. A collaboration with filmmaker Corinna Belz, the piece employs Gerhard Richter’s recent use of digital manipulation and printing to produce mirrored and repeated sections of one of his abstract paintings, in ever thinner slices. While Belz transfored these slices into a moving image, Schmickler made a musical analogue, producing an extended composition of varying degrees of activity within an overall frame of stasis: largely still, occasionally hurried, but never moving. Deprived of the movie, a casual listener may not divine the structural principles at work, as Schmickler has developed his language beyond the statement of an idea. The computer’s contribution to the music is not obvious, except maybe to make Ensemble Musikfabrik sound like a bigger orchestra (they flesh out the sound very well in any case, apparently playing without a conductor here.)

Kemp Echoes was first performed as part of a concert wedged between two of Stockhausen’s classic works combining live musicians with electronic processing. Mikrophonie II and Mixtur heralded Stockhausen’s love affair with ring modulators, employing them to create complex tones and new frequency spectra through their interaction with acoustic sound. Kemp Echoes is a tour de force in auditory phenomena, acting as history, research, summary and status report all at once. It starts innocently enough before mutating into a constant succession of sliding tones, beating frequencies, modulations, subtones and psychoacoustic phenomena. Schmickler’s computer is present here, but not always where you think: he draws upon subsequent use in composition of the harmonic series and microtonality, as used by spectralist composers, and working with Musikfabrik’s oboist Peter Veale to produce ring modulation effects through purely acoustic means. It’s a superb example of embracing the futuristic idealism of the postwar avant-garde while also showing how much of that idealism has been achieved or surpassed by means which we now take for granted. Yeah, it’s also a trip. I hope the premiere recorded here isn’t the only performance.

The remaining pieces may be less substantial, but two are equally enjoyable. Fokker Bifurcations is a microtonal set of rising arpeggios for Yarn/Wire’s ensemble of keyboard and mallet instruments that revels in its weirdness of melty, jangled harmonies and odd pitches. There’s a healthy mix of a good ear for exciting sounds and compositional chops in all of these pieces, so that you can be knocked out by the sonic novelty of certain moments without ever getting impatient waiting to hear “the good bit” again. The album concludes with ATA OTO, a collaboration with the Logos Foundation and their robot instruments. This could be a goof-off, but Logos’ robots make above-average mechanical and electronic noises, with incongruous overlaps, entries, exits and mix-matching between them. It’s not clear from the notes if Schmickler had any compositional role in the piece or if he’s just jamming along with the bots.

Although it’s the longest piece here, E-UROPAS / Plurality of Centers comes across as the slightest. A Cagean collage of cultural critique, it wears its cultural thesis of post-postmodernity as its prime material, first in one channel, then in the other. Large fragments of Cage (speaking), Berg and George Crumb are sampled and played back, and looped. The speakers quote cultural critique at length, in English and German. Everything glides over the top of everything else with Cagean placidity, at odds with the political urgency in the texts by the likes of Debord and Cardew. If we’re up on our theory (or recent music history) it feels oldfashioned and trite, as though trying and failing to achieve a synthesis; if we’re not, then it’s indulgent or patronising. Each part cancels out another, resulting in cultural nullity; this may be the point but it doesn’t seem worth the time of effort. This is by far the oldest piece here, from 2006: not only an earlier stage of Schmickler’s development but a different world, one that already seems more of a leftover of the last century than the present.

Having ended on a bummer, I should note that the album in toto is worth more than the current asking price of the download.