Two By / With Walter & Sabrina

Walter & Sabrina
Danny Dark

Walter & Sabrina / Dietrich Eichmann Ensemble
Danny Dark

I set out to shed some light on Walter Cardew and Sabrina (Stephen) Moore, but I hereby declare myself trounced by the intricacy of their subplots. A solitary, apparently unconnected consideration, more literary than musical, grazes this listener’s mind when attempting to hook up the different parts of the conundrum: the cryptic essays decorating every item churned out by multimedia artist and psychoacoustic sonic researcher Andrew McKenzie, better known as Hafler Trio. Unlike McKenzie’s calculated circumventions of normalcy, Moore’s merciless lyrics offer the audience a quest for the reasons for human helplessness, a lookout for hope of sorts. Still, when trying to focus the attention on the words’ cultivated sleaze it’s easy to get sidetracked by the exceptional quality of the instrumental material, since, unlike Hafler Trio, Walter & Sabrina dress words with something more than drones. Their output is expertly designed to disturb the disturbed and stymie those searching for the missing link between the music and their ignorance. Forget the sordid pictures adorning the sleeves of the duo’s releases and the fact that all human beings must every once in a while come to terms with ungovernable impulses, especially sexual. Everything else causes perplexity, too: the duo’s façade actually hides a chamber group; the porn elements coexist with some of the most notable playing of the last twenty years; and the lyrics are frequently submerged by the music, or slashed by ruthless, stabbing noise. What are we looking for, besides being aware that Jung Ahh Fleisch and Demons! are the second and third part of a trilogy that began with We Sing for the Future?
In Jung Ahh Fleisch‘s liners, there’s a partial answer: “We are lonely, don’t want to be; we need to give people clues, ways into our art.” The only discernible clues are to be found in the extraordinary complexity of the music, scored for reeds, brass, strings (including guitar and double bass), piano and percussion, and including vocal parts for two counter-tenors (Peter Crawford and Samuel Penkett), a soprano (Celia Lu) and a contralto doubling on cello (Ayanna Witter-Johnson) plus Moore and Gunnar Brandt. Sections where the orchestration is confined to a three-semitone span suddenly open out into marvelously stern counterpoint, on a par with the sharpest offerings by Art Bears or Thinking Plague, yet the dissonant idiom makes this much harder to take. An urge for redemption underscores the entire CD, intellectualism partially forgotten in favour of a systematic rejection of whatever logical explanation one might try and find. “Kat’s Fitting In”, the strongest track, is a superbly designed if distressing patchwork, a blend of virtuosic theatre and unforgiving reality – picture a cross of early Art Zoyd and Motor Totemist Guild – that will upset any pitiable listener eager for a lazy Sunday morning. The record is tough as nails, the final tracks “HP” and “Is That Nice?” (both featuring the Dietrich Eichmann Ensemble – more about that later) dealing with not-so-secret relationships via devastating clangor and raving desperation.
Demons! is a longer project – 116 minutes on two CDs – and the words are mostly delivered this time by Moore himself, his often hysterical yet polished recitation a challenge for those hoping to discover new sources of post-Henry Cow methodological complication. Dietrich Eichmann – composer, musicologist, pedagogue and founder of the Oaksmus label, who has studied with Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Frederic Rzewski, Garrett List and Walter Zimmermann – would appear a most unlikely partner for W&S’s tales of human failure, even though the members of his ensemble, Gunnar Brandt-Sigursson, Michael Griener, Alexander Frangenheim and Christian Weber, are no slouches themselves in highlighting this kind of obsessed response through sheer procedural brilliance. The soundtrack to Moore’s performance includes autistic repetitiveness, expressive hostility, neurotic patterns, percussion whenever a hole becomes available and a pair of magnificent double basses rumbling in the crucial moments. Make no mistake, this is as uneasy listening as it comes, and Walter & Sabrina caution that the digital distortion disfiguring the voices and instruments “shouldn’t be mistaken for faults”. Funny, then, that during the first playback, a power shortage in my house caused the disc to fizzle in the player and grind to a halt with an error message. Fiendish stuff, indeed! Lovers of avant-garde theatricality, or those who still revisit the spoken segments of Zappa’s 200 Motels, will have no problem with this, but greenhorns may find it tests their endurance.
So, we’re back to square one. Distortion eats chunks of text in Demons!, and the instruments are often louder than the singers in Jung Ahh Fleisch‘s mix. Does this mean that the artists prefer us to be acquainted with just a fraction of the story? Are we supposed to pick up on the available clues and formulate a private narrative? Should we listen to the music watching a silent hardcore movie for enhanced comprehension? Is this just a big hoax? Words, I’m convinced, are a deception, incapable of bridging the millions of conflicting points-of-view of human existence. These two CDs, results of a collision between spiteful malice and craving for salvation, are in any case nourishing fare for the attentive listener.


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