Klaus Lang & Golden Fur: Beissel

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Usually, when someone says that a piece grows on you, they mean that they didn’t like it at first but then came to find at least certain aspects to admire. I’ve started to write this review without any clear idea of what I’m going to say about Beissel, because it is a work so protean in nature that it is much harder to define than its form at first suggests. The piece keeps growing with each hearing, accruing new qualities that both enhance and confound what had been heard before. Another half-dozen hearings and my review would be different again to what I had originally planned to write after listening the first time around.

To start with some facts: Beissel is a collaboration between composer/performers Klaus Lang and the trio Golden Fur (Samuel Dunscombe, clarinets; Judith Hamann, cello; James Rushford, viola and harmonium). The work is a group composition, performed in the abbey at St Lambrecht near Styria in Austria, in 2016. Lang is best known for his compositions made from faint traces of sound, at times hardly there at all (listeners may or may not notice that his early string quartet The Sea of Despair ends with 20 minutes of silence.) As an ensemble, I’ve only previously heard Golden Fur as interpreters of other composers’ works.

To continue my simplistic caricature of Lang’s music, Golden Fur have drawn him out of his shell for this session. The most significant moment in Beissel comes early on, when the harmonium rises up out of the church organ’s tones in a different intonation, at once wonky and radiant like a force of nature. It’s quite glorious and is emblematic of the music to follow. For forty-five minutes the music flows from rest to restiveness, at once disturbing and oddly reassuring. Each performer blends in yet can also act as a goad from time to time, pushing the sound out of any complacent consensus.

The other instruments combine in ways which can make them difficult to distinguish, giving them the aural trick of taking on qualities from whatever I’ve just listened to before. On certain hearings, the music has resembled electric guitar drones, string ensembles, large solo organ, pure electronics, a phantom flute. Like I said, the music is protean. The title refers to Johann Conrad Beissel, the 18th century religious leader who travelled to America to found a utopian religious community. He devised a compositional method of algorithmic permutations, designed to reinterpret the text of the bible as music. Beissel is apparently one of these hymns, slowed down to glacial stillness.

It would be nice to praise the playing as focused, but there’s a tremendous sense of freedom in what’s happening, of sounds discovered in a shared moment. The source material allows a rich field of possible combinations, where strange tunes and harmonies are liable to burst out at any moment. Beissel is a fine example of the artist as a critic, opening up new avenues of exploration in existing work. The playing of the four musicians captures an act of rediscovery, unveiling an alternative musical world.