Polwechsel: ‘Standstill has never been useful for us’

The long-running Vienna quartet look forward to catching up with an old partner in crime at hcmf// 2017.

Emerging in the 1990s as part of a wave of acts questioning and dismantling the assumed boundaries between improvisation and contemporary composition, Vienna ensemble Polwechsel have clocked up nearly a quarter-century and eight albums’ worth of meticulous yet expansive music, including collaborations with Fennesz and John Tilbury.

Currently a quartet featuring founders Werner Dafeldecker (double bass) and Michael Moser (cello) joined by percussionists Burkhard Beins and Martin Brandlmayr, Polwechsel’s hcmf// 2017 performance on Thursday 23 November sees them team up with former member – and welcome Festival regular – John Butcher as well as the composer and organist Klaus Lang.

We spoke to Michael Moser to find out what’s in store.

hcmf//: Over the past two decades your music has moved away from what some might call a ‘reductionist’ approach to include more tonal, harmonic and rhythmic elements – how have you achieved this in a way that feels right to you?

Michael Moser: We ourselves never thought of being reductionists; the term was coined much later and we never really felt at home with it. We tried to stay focused on our musical ideas and how to transport them.

We came together with the idea to create our own music without compromise towards any direction. Under the given social, cultural and personal conditions at that time, this resulted in what was years later categorised as a ‘reductionist’ approach.

On the other hand, it is true that reduction of parameters always played a methodical role in the creation of our music but simply because we were searching for what was right and interesting enough for us. Standstill has never been useful for us.

hcmf//: Are there any musical elements that you still feel don’t have a place in Polwechsel?

MM: There have always been musical elements that did not have a place in Polwechsel depending on context and framework, but we never really felt hindered in our creative expression and development since we always felt that we were the makers of our own rules.

hcmf//: To what extent is Polwechsel more than the sum of its individual musicians? Are there any areas where the members come into conflict?

MM: It was always clear for us that we wanted to create a frame of repeatable structures which could be identified as pieces. When we worked on this topic over the years it turned out that in our case the individual abilities of the musicians played a dominant role which methodically influenced form, function and sound of our creations. You cannot overestimate the importance of an intuitive collective consciousness, a band feeling.

Conflicts and discussions have often been the nucleus of new pieces but not so much connected to musical areas than to personal views. In my opinion, this creates the liveliness and energy needed to carry on.

hcmf//: Have you performed with John Butcher since he left Polwechsel in 2009, or is this reunion unusual? What do you expect might have changed?

MM: Our appearance at hcmf// 2017 is our first collaboration with John Butcher since he left the group. Sure our music has changed to a certain extent but John Butcher is a very integrative person and fellow musician and he is a great listener. Therefore, we are looking forward to hearing his voice again!

hcmf//: How does the Polwechsel of today create its music?

MM: We always try to find the most effective method for a particular piece, and there are no limits on this. All means we can think of are welcome; rehearsals always as much as possible.

For the hcmf// concert, for example, we will use a blend of a graphic score with stopwatches, written out pieces and free improvised music.

hcmf//: How much do you respond to the specific location and setting of each performance?

MM: Over the years, with more experience in different locations we started to develop site specific pieces. My personal interest in architecture and acoustics led me early on to pieces like Mendota Stoppages or Datum Cut, which are built on the specific sound of a given space, so that they would sound differently in each space since the room resonances of the space were important parameters of the piece. This consequently led me to do site specific sound installations like Resonant Cuts or Antiphon Stein.

But with pieces that are more traditionally scored and do not use electronics, the only response to the setting is listening to the space and setting your style and volume of playing.

hcmf//: Do you think listening to Polwechsel is primarily a sensual or a cerebral delight for the audience?

MM: Since we think music happens in the perception of the listener and we do not believe in the division of cerebral and sensual because these are very individual feelings and very much entangled, we are not the ones to answer that question but the audience is the one to decide.

hcmf//: When did you first collaborate with Klaus Lang and what do you find interesting about his music?

MM: The history of collaborations with Klaus Lang is long. I know him since very early on, played his pieces and he wrote two works for me as a soloist with an ensemble: the queen. the cowboy (with chamber orchestra) and berge. träume (with choir).

Klaus also composed two trios for my Trio Amos (flute, cello, accordion). Besides that, a concert and CD project with Werner Dafeldecker, called Lichtgeschwindigkeit (bass, church organ) and recent collaborations with Polwechsel.

It is Klaus’s personality, open-mindedness and ability to contribute to all kinds of musical concepts that makes collaborations so interesting.

hcmf//: Lang says on his website that his music ‘is not a means to convey extramusical contents, such as emotions, philosophical or religious ideas, political propaganda, advertisement etc […] is no language used to communicate non-musical content. Music is seen as a free and selfstanding acoustical object.’ To what extent do you share these views?

MM: Yes, I agree that music is a free and selfstanding acoustical object but it very much depends on the social and cultural context and therefore is never free of extramusical contents such as emotions, philosophical ideas, political standpoints etc… since those come into play through perception. Even location accounts for this extramusical content and music can be misused for all purposes.

hcmf//: If they saw you perform, what do you imagine the Polwechsel of the mid-1990s would think of Polwechsel today?

MM: If you start to read a book somewhere in the middle you are most likely not able to grasp the connections of the story but you might be intrigued, to find out the conditions at the beginning, get the whole picture, recognise the path and principles of the acting persons. Finally the whole plot would become comprehensible. Curiosity is always a good companion. That did not change.

Polwechsel + John Butcher + Klaus Lang
23 November @ 7:30pm
St Paul’s Hall
Tickets £17 (£14 concession / online)

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