Sven Kacirek – Scarlet Pitch Dreams (tuned percussion)

Posted on March 11, 2012


Pingipung, Pingipung 32, 2012, LP/CD/DD album, 48m 45s

€? to be released April 23

This is a record that sounds good. It is serious, experimental, creatively rigorous; it is the audible trace of a man in pursuit of an uncompromising artistic agenda, that makes no concession to the market. And yet, it is an unaffected expression of sheer pleasure in sound, easily as much an act of jouissance as it is a linguistically structured utterance. Kacirek’s love of timbre is powerfully evident in the sophistication with which it is deployed, in the lengths to which he is prepared to pursue its effects, and the intellectually contingent effects of listening to his music are accessible only through the bodily experience of the sound. To get it, you need to get into it. Scarlet Pitch Dreams weaves a beguiling dance through received notions of the authentic and the contrived, as Sven Kacirek employs his considerable artifice, as a performer of some technical virtuosity, to imitate the artificial. To realise the synthetic with such verisimilitude, using only traditional performance skills, is both a breathtaking conceptual manoeuvre, and an impressive feat of instrumental technique. You’re probably wondering what the hell I mean, so I had better attempt to describe his music.

Sven Kacirek is a percussionist, who plays both tuned and untuned instruments. The majority of the sounds on Scarlet Pitch Dreams come from Kacirek hitting things, but there is also some prepared piano, some double bass (arco and pizzicato), and, on two tracks, some singing. Most of the textures are built up in layers of interlocking percussion, the pitched and unpitched positioned in a curiously non-hierarchical relationship, like the many interdependent voices of the gamelan. Even when the orchestrations employ instruments capable of long sustained tones, pitch duration is usually extended through tremolo effects and repeated attacks, which has the effect of atomising the music; this accretion of tiny discrete musemes may draw attention to the particulate and the particular, however, but it is employed to generate textures in which continuity and coherence are the predominant effects. All the elements employed are employed in much the same way, which is not to say without respect to their particular characteristics, but as sources of sound which Kacirek feels free to dispose wherever his compositions may require: it can be hard to distinguish idiophone from prepared piano, pizzicato bass from drum. In the title track the vocal plays as much of a rhythmic part as a melodic or lyrical one.

Don’t let me give the impression that these eleven pieces are simply flurries of all-over percussive texture, however: they have melody, harmony, dynamics, timbral transformations and frequently complex arrangements. Pitched and unpitched elements weave out of each other in branching and overlapping phrases that possess great simplicity and clarity in isolation, but which generate complex reflexive meanings in dialogue with one another. Textural structures are diminished and augmented to great dramatic effect. The melodic and harmonic content of the compositions is mostly tonal, rather than modal, with short simple chord progressions accommodating straightforward and effective melodies: they impart a narrative of mood to the pieces, as in the dark and melancholy ‘About Me And You’, but never monopolise the work’s meaning as melody does in conventionally homophonic textures.

Kacirek is a technically accomplished jazz drummer, and he employs those skills, not just in articulating the sounds I’ve already described, but in working with brushes to elicit a jaw-dropping variety of sounds from materials (wood, glass, paper) not usually regarded as percussion instruments. It is not just the timbral variety he achieves which is interesting, but the remarkable sleight-of-hand by which he creates resemblances to the sounds of electronic music; on first listening to Scarlet Pitch Dreams I identified a variety of glitchy electronic sounds, and a few distortions and filters, which the accompanying press release informs me are all the consequence of Kacirek’s creative brush work.

Everything on this album was apparently notated, and then performed in the studio, in contrast to Kacirek’s previous releases, which employed a certain amount of studio based ad-hocism. How easy it would be to realise these sounds in performance, with an ensemble, is an open question: there are usually several Sven Kacireks playing on this album at any given moment, and while there are certainly many gifted percussionists in the world, the problem of timbre has been one, historically, which has proved resistant to notation. In fact, despite the composer’s interest in ‘handcraft’ and performative authenticity, this multi-tracked recording is as much an artifact of the studio as any electronic production, and the lengths Kacirek has gone to in imitating the sounds of technology serves to compound rather than to unravel the ambiguity of its position within the dialectic of the authentic and the artificial. The decision to rely on bodily artifice, rather than electronic or digital artifice, opens up a variety of discourses around the definitions of technology and artistic truth; there are no answers to be found here, and Kacirek does not adopt any obvious position on these matters, but the implication of such ideas in the work serves to enrich its meanings, and to generate a rewarding degree of crosstalk between its emotional and intellectual effects.

As I said at the outset, Scarlet Pitch Dreams sounds good. It’s not the kind of recording where your first listen leaves you wondering what the hell just happened, and you come back for successive visits from a desire to decode it. It is immediately appealing, with its atmospheric and involving textures that often resemble post-rock as much as they resemble jazz or experimental music. Of course much as it may privilege texture, this is the work of a man whose stock in trade is rhythm, and there is great rhythmic complexity in the detail of these compositions, but that complexity is often subsumed in the ‘all-over’ effect of a rapid and copious succession of impacts. It is never ‘difficult’ to listen to, but it amply rewards the kind of listening usually reserved for ‘difficult’ music.

The titles of the compositions on this album are arranged as a continuous, grammatically complete statement, that denies any traditional referential content, but offers ‘eleven ideas turned into what you listen to right now’, and invites the listener to find their own narratives in the work. As such, the names given to each piece appear arbitrary (‘Embraces Eleven Ideas’, ‘Or Other Stirring Or Boring Tales’ and so on), and call into question the division of the album into its constituent parts, although each composition is quite self-contained, and creates a sound world distinct from the other ten. It does seem to invite us to hear the album as a single creative work, but at the same time it asks us to consider the relationship of the whole to the fragmentary, the broad brush-stroke to the particular detail, as does the repeated use of tremolo articulations, and the cover art. The artwork presents Kacirek’s face broken into square tiles, like those in a sliding block puzzle, and only partially revealed. These powerful dialectics, between the fragmentary and the whole, the artificial and the authentic, the bodily and the technological, certainly inform the meanings of Scarlet Pitch Dreams, but articulated through the compelling narrative sense of the harmonic rhythms and dramatic arrangements, they seem to be placed at the listener’s disposal. Kacirek is an artist with a lot to say, but he is also clearly motivated by a desire to offer his audience a field for their imagination to play in. The lack of obvious stylistic identifications reinforces this freedom; but it’s Kacirek’s own effusive pleasure in his sounds that really drives it home.

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