BY STEVEN ROSEN
The avant-garde German keyboard player/composer/electronics explorer Hans-Joachim Roedelius is 79, but he’s not slowing down with new recordings or, most critically, new ideas. These two albums show him collaborating with very different partners, but able to find a comfortable and productive path on both to keep pursuing and refining his musical approach.
He respects the beauty of quiet spaces in instrumental music – of music as a friend of solitude and peacefulness – without ever letting his work slip into pure ambience or soothing New Age-style compositions.
He is not about making background music. His keyboard work has drive, shape and a certain revelatory forcefulness even though he avoids the speed-and-volume clichés that usually give electronic music its kick. (Although when he wants to, he can rock.)
And he knows how to balance repetition with melody. Roedelius is more post-rock than contemporary classical and he can play a club or concert hall. (Also post-jazz – you can hear the ghosts of In a Silent Way or early Weather Report in Tiden, only free of extravagance.)
Roedelius, an influence on Brian Eno’s instrumental music, first came to prominence in the daring, radical Berlin music scene of the late-1960s and formed Kluster/Cluster with artist Conrad Schnitzler and electronics musician Dieter Moebius. Roedelius and Moebius went on to create Harmonia with Michael Rother of Neu! So he’s an important part of the musical movement that have given us Can and Kraftwerk. He’s now based in Vienna.
Tiden is his second Bureau B album with the younger Stefan Schneider, following 2011’s Stunden. Schneider, who provides the electronic treatments that work so well with Roedelius’ grand piano and synthesizer, was in a 1990s German-rock band called Kreidler, is now part of To Rococo Rot, and has issued solo albums as Mapstation.
There are 13 songs, all involving and reasonably short. Schneider provides a droning foundation, with higher-pitched explorations, to semi-minimalist figures that Roedelius plays on piano in “Indie Woogie.” On “Toast,” the percussive, percolating electronic treatment creates a base for the launching of short, sharp guitar-like squeals. The composition proceeds with a metronome-steady beat, but there are so many little musical digressions peeling off and corkscrewing around the center that it is never robotic. Rather, it’s warm and human.
On “Bald,” Roedelius’ piano work is slow and gentle and Schneider uses that as his home base from which to develop his own sound-making. The seemingly simple piano key-strikes and chords of “Anderer” seductively haunt.
The album with Cole, Selected Studies Vol. 1, is unusual in that the British singer-songwriter/guitarist has neither written nor sung pop-rock songs for the project. And according to the Bureau B site, he’s not playing guitar.
So for those wondering what Cole’s lyrical, romantic songcraft would be like with Roedelius’ spare, introspective keyboard work, this isn’t it. Roedelius, we are told, barely touches the piano. Instead, both are using electronics for sonic effects on this instrumental album.
The 11 songs, or “studies,” offer a variety of sounds – at times you could swear there’s guitar playing, as on some of the high-pitched, intrepid electronic sounds of “Selbstportrait – Reich.” In particular, the interplay between Cole’s guitar-like electronic soloing on the goosy “Fehmarn F/O” and Roedelius’ organ-like keyboard is reminiscent of “Light My Fire’s” classic instrumental break.
Occasionally, the center of an individual composition takes too long to become evident and we wander into ominous-soundscape territory. That happens at the start of “Wandelbar,” although after awhile Roedelius’ keyboards (including what sounds like ghostly grand piano) provide direction.
Whenever the music’s compelling hold threatens to dissipate, Roedelius’ keyboard synthesizer provides personality, such as on “Virginie L,” where he patiently uses repeating motifs to build impact.
Cole, a fan of Cluster, has an interest in experimental music and in 2001 had made an instrumental electronic album, Plastic Wood. He had sent that to Roedelius, establishing a relationship. It took more than a decade after that to get this recorded. It’s worth the wait. Please bring on Vol. 2 in 2014.
DOWNLOAD: “Toast” from Tiden; “Virginia L” from Selected Studies Vol. 1.