Improvisation is not a common practice in New Music, where compositions, down to the last detail, are set out in writing and are entrusted to highly virtuoso and best-rehearsed instrumentalists for their performance. Indeed, it is even rare for the composer and player to be the same person. So it was all the more surprising when in 2019 Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, composer of music categorized as reductionism, began to meet with cellist and composer Tilman Kanitz in the latter’s studio for improvisations, eventually recording them for this disc.
In this encounter, different experiences meet like magnetic poles. Tilman Kanitz, formerly artistic director of Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, has gathered musical experiences from across the world, particularly in India, which benefited his sensibility for complex sounds and for the liveliness of calm, while Stiebler was among the first in Germany and Europe who in the 1960s broke away from the expressionist avantgarde to shape a new kind of listening, a more quiet and concentrated one.
The respective roles seem obvious: the cello will create a basis with sustained sounds for the piano’s sweeping movements on top. But it isn’t quite so simple, as Kanitz, long trained in microtonality and Just Intonation, directs the sound of the cello into a sphere inaccessible to the piano and its fixed pitches, keeps altering the sound, and the way the two instrumental languages or even worlds engage in a cautious interaction results in a mutual exploration of a temporal topography.
Tilman Kanitz explains: “For me, making music is a meditative research process. Playing with Ernstalbrecht Stiebler, I feel that I’m moving in spaces inbetween, that the tonal space that I contribute comes in contact with the tonal space played by the pianist. They intersect and overlap, move apart, for me this is a deeply spatial experience . . .”
And Ernstalbrecht Stiebler adds: “Music has a much more farreaching impact, it is the medium by which we experience space, feel it in fact, also within ourselves, subconsciously, or we hear how the cello moves across a variety of interconnected spaces. Here and now: this immediacy is the chance and the quality of improvisation. Find the courage to hear the depth and the stillness, the power of space, and to realize it.”
What distinguishes improvisation from composition for those who listen, for the audience, is their completely different activation of listening behaviour. Improvisation is not predetermined, and as this music is created newly in every moment, it subliminally signals its being at peril. Because of this, the listeners become participants in a social situation. The Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig already verified in 2010 by experiments that when people listen to an improvisation, even if they cannot distinguish it from a composition, their amygdala, the centre for compassion in the brain, is surprisingly stimulated much more strongly than during a prepared performance (A. Engel, P. E. Keller: The perception of musical spontaneity in improvised and imitated jazz performances. Frontiers in Psychology 2:83.). Improvisation, then, inevitably causes you to be more mentally alert, more ready to run to help, as it were.
Stiebler’s works since the 1960s have been documents of a progressive condensation of sounds and structures – so the current new freedom is at least unexpected: “I do perceive it as a natural continuation. There have always been possibilities to evolve, within the sounds, and I’ve found that out only now, through the collaboration with Tilman. So many pieces are written out so rigorously and there’s no way to break out, which is really a pity, but with a certain openness for what comes out of your fingers spontaneously, it’s sometimes much better than having intended it.”
The playing styles of the two musicians in the recordings of this LP are certainly dissimilar, Kanitz and his sustained sounds creating a different sense of duration than Stiebler as he meanders in this sonic spacetime continuum, but the subtle transformations in his play keep putting the pianist in new situations – and vice versa.
This freedom of movement among the intuitively created sounds doesn’t run counter to the two musicians’ common pursuit of reduction, as they both remain listeners. Each sound here is created with respect for silence.
For all the caution in their exploration of their music together, the compositional experience of either musician is not rendered obsolete. Kanitz: “I would even explicitly call it artistic creation. Then again Instant Composing would fit as a term here, it is indeed artistic creation in the moment, with the aspiration of putting it down” – namely in the form of these recordings, documents of both a most refined aesthetic interaction as well as a musical narrative in its own right.
Text: Matthias R. Entreß
Recorded and mixed 2020–2022 at Studio Tilman Kanitz
Artwork: “Rythme du millimètre SB 38” (1977) by Aurélie Nemours. © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022.
Edition Telemark 933.08
2022 Berlin. Mastered by Werner Dafeldecker.