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On May 7th 2010, Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl and New York-based guitarist Hans Tammen met for a recording session at Harvestworks in New York City. Without any preparation or prior consultation, both musicians created this music in the spirit of free improvisation, connecting themselves in order to form a higher unit out of their individual sounds.
As sophisticated sound experimenters become more comfortable with the variety of expressions that can be extracted from computer-based electronics, high-quality sessions like MentalMess are the result. These eight tracks, recorded in one afternoon at Manhattan’s Harvestworks centre for evolving technologies, are completely improvised using the sonic sources engendered by New York resident Hans Tammen’s self-defined endangered guitar plus Vienna-based composer Karlheinz Essl’s m@ze°2 Max/MSP software instrument.
More intrinsically, the key to creating stimulating sounds like these isn’t what theories are proven or which electronic gizmos are attached. It’s how profound, inventive and thought-provoking the end product is. In this case Tammen and Essl, who jokingly titled the session with a contradiction of their names rather than a definition of their emotional state, generate dazzling interactions.
A track such as “Prelock” for instance, begins with what could be effervescent spurts and watery drips resulting from bottle opening, with the tones then pulling back to reveal reed-like snorts and tongue stop-replications plus purported cymbal slaps and keyboard pressure. Crackling static presages what could be an abrasive thunderstorm which oscillates, judders and finally fades. Meantime, while “Friggle” mixes an approximation of downwards slithers of a toy slinky with guitar strums, mouse-like squeaks and half-heard melodies, “Kalister” is more percussive and less playful. Harsh twangs from electric kalimba cut through the blurry interface to isolate string snaps and vibraphone-like resonations. Another highpoint is “Nomisola”, built around staccato drones, as snatches of piano, double bass and even full orchestra samples intermittently reverberate. Until the finale, blustery synthesis intercuts between instrument replications and nearly impenetrable grinds.
Both improvisers create while using software programs that sample while processing, with the sample themselves often manipulated as well.
Tammen’s endangered guitar is an interactive hybrid between guitar and computer that processes in real time as sounds are created, with added control sources a proximity sensor and an iPhone’s accelerometer data. For his part, Essl’s m@ze°2 uses a keyboard, a mouse, several MIDI controllers and a webcam to pan, harmonize, pitch-shift and transpose samples from a database, mixing them with what he and Tammen create in real time. Omnipresent is an ostinato of glitches, static and clicks.
As this session evolved, it gradually dawned on the players that the interaction was breeching further sonic definitions. Essl’s electronically created samples for instance seem to derive from so-called real instrumental tones, while Tammen’s guitar intonation has an unmistakably electronic feel. The Austrian, who often speaks of “the magic of the moment”, appears comfortable, conscious of references, yet negotiating a method of real-time playing.
It’s the same for German-born Tammen. Conceptually he has concerns about defining improvisation. He’s discomforted by players who say they’re creating original sounds when merely recreating so-called improvisations they’re played before. At the same time he distrusts arbitrary playing which gives the improviser too many choices. “The more experienced you become in your playing, the more you conclude that there are really only one, or at most two, perfect choices for any given musical situation,” he declares.
That’s what happens with MentalMess and why so many fruitful inventions are exposed here. Although in the past both Tammen and Essl have collaborated on an irregular basis, with this session they’ve achieved matchless technical and sonic unity.
Toronto, December 2011
Photo: Ashok Mehta
Hans Tammen creates sounds that have been described as an alien world of bizarre textures and a journey through the land of unending sonic operations. He produces rapid-fire juxtapositions of radically contrastive and fascinating noises, with micropolyphonic timbres and textures, aggressive sonic eruptions, but also quiet pulses and barely audible sounds – through means of his Endangered Guitar and interactive software programming, by working with the room itself, and, as a critic observed, with his “…fingers stuck in a high voltage outlet”. Signal To Noise called his works “…a killer tour de force of post-everything guitar damage”, All Music Guide recommended him: “…clearly one of the best experimental guitarists to come forward during the 1990s.”
His numerous projects include site-specific performances and collaborative efforts with dance, light, video, and theatre, utilizing technology from planetarium projectors to guitar robots and disklavier pianos. He received a Fellowship from the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA) in the category Digital/Electronic Arts in 2009 for the ”Endangered Guitar” – a hybrid guitar/software instrument used to control interactive live sound processing.
His works have been presented on festivals in the US, Canada, Mexico, Russia, India and all over Europe. He recorded on labels such as Innova, ESP-DISK, Nur/Nicht/Nur, Creative Sources, Leo Records, Potlatch, Cadence, and Hybrid.
Photo: Marian Essl
Karlheinz Essl was born 1960 in Vienna. Austrian composer, improviser and performer. He studied composition with Friedrich Cerha and musicology in Vienna (doctorate 1989 with a thesis on Anton Webern). As a double bassist, he played in chamber and jazz ensembles. Besides writing experimental music and composing electronic music, he performs on his own electronic instrument m@ze°2, develops software environments for computer-aided composition and creates generative sound and video environments – often in collaboration with artists from other fields. Essl erved as composer-in-residence at the Darmstadt Summer Courses (1990-94) and completed a commission for IRCAM. In 1997, he was presented at the Salzburg Festival with portrait concerts and sound installations. Since 1994, Karlheinz Essl curates experimental music concerts and sound installations at the Essl museum in Klosterneuburg. Between 1995-2006 he was teaching „Algorithmic Composition” at the Anton Bruckner University in Linz. Since 2007 he is professor of composition for electro-acoustic and experimental music at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna.
Beyond his work as a composer of experimental music, Karlheinz Essl has developed his own electronic instrument called m@ze°2, which is based on a computer program written in Max/MSP. Since 1998 he has been using his realtime composition environment predominantly for free improvised music. He has performed with the crème de la crème of avantgarde music. With his instrument Essl can interact spontaneously to any kind of sound environment or music utilizing a variety of external controllers and a video camera in order to shape the musical output.
Updated: 30 May 2018