Somnambule - Writing About Music

Bernd Schurer - Schurer ~ Vexations

The move by a significant proportion of the musical digirati towards an often stringent minimalism of sine tones, scrapes and arhythmic glitches may be perceived as a deliberate or unconscious reaction to late capitalism’s intense culture of exhaustive assimilation. The timespan of Warhol’s predictive dictum regarding fame will soon need to be reduced to 15 microseconds and the global village is in danger of becoming a global hamlet, an all too restrictive place from which the sane will need no further excuse to plan their escapes. From this perspective, the music of diverse, undeclared alliances of musicians creating their own narratives within the interstices of digital networks may be viewed as acts of resistance as well as creativity. Although heralded as offering the potential to loosen music from its authorial and contextual shackles, the dj, the (re)mix and the pick and mix culture engendered by Apple’s iTunes playlists generally appear now to be tools of assimilation into a culture of ever-contracting attention span. The conceptual underpinning of this change is a currrency which, contrary to initial expectation, increasingly devalues the subject of its all too shortlived gaze. Whether deliberately responding to the increased intensity of these conditions or not, the work of artists such as Kaffe Matthews, Christof Kurzmann, Fritz Hautzinger and a host of others, as well as preceding generations, proves effectively antithetical to the consumptive appetite of mainstream culture.

Bernd Schurer is a prime candidate for inclusion in this relatively invisible canon and Vexations requires a degree of concentration on the part of the listener. Heard in isolation each track, although interesting, the project’s cumulative power is inevitably lost. Schurer’s subject is the piano itself, together with the heritage of Erik Satie’s experimentation and he engages with the instrument as both pianist and alchemist, researcher and perhaps to some ears, vandal. His weapon is the computer with which he wraps, shrivels, distances and occludes the piano. The few, relatively untreated pieces establish a certain transparency which enriches the more heavily processed work. The music revealed in these pieces appears to mix Satie’s original piece with similar music by Schurer. Both are cool, reflective and a little reminiscent of Chopin’s less stormy Preludes in their lyricism and the seriousness of their demeanour. The other, more heavily processed tracks such as Palpitant, find Schurer wrapping his piano in sand and bubblewrap and bringing it to the boil on a gas stove. Microcosmos_W/Glitches presents a solemn visage whose cheeks are marked by occasional, pox-like glitches. Md.? is heard as if through fractured mirrors. And so on. In all there are 28 sketches with durations ranging from 17 seconds to more than four minutes.

The project is an act of watchful circling and parrying between Schurer and his instrument. Indeed, Vexations suggests a number of metaphors: interrogation, alchemy, deconstruction and so on. There is a melancholia to much of this work, a sense of decay and disruption which provokes thoughts of Alban Berg and the paintings of Egon Schiele and early Oskar Kokoschka. Tangential connections may also be traced to Cage’s feeding of a haybale to a piano and Joseph Beuys’ felt-wrapped piano. In other words this is a richly resonant work; there are surely many other associations which might be traced and conceptual possibilities to be explored. Vexations is a quiet, concentrated and ultimately convincing work which satisfyingly resists easy assimilation.
Colin Buttimer
August 2004
Published by the BBC