Thursday, September 24, 2009

Wandering in a boundless land - Klaus Schulze "Virtual Outback"

Some time ago, my friend Marty R mentioned Klaus Schulze to me – a musician who had worked for a short time with Tangerine Dream but had then gone onto drive his own career. Even with my notorious difficulty for remembering names I managed to somehow store this one in file somewhere in my brain and so when I happened to see Klaus Schulze’s album Virtual Outback today at Missing Link records in Melbourne, I bought it.

Virtual Outback has only two tracks – its first, “The Theme: The Rhodes Elegy”, at 65 minutes, is longer than a lot of other entire CDs. The piece itself conjures up, and sustains, a mood of wild stillness, of vast, empty landscapes, and holds onto it for its entirety. I don’t know of any other piece, even in the classical genre, that has been able to do that – to envelop you in a single place, and keep you there utterly entranced, for so long. It is an incredible achievement – and this is incredible, truly incredible, music.

Its sounds blend together the purely electronic with the electronically enhanced – and the result is music that seems to come both from another world and out of the very depths of our own. It is haunting, beautiful - a tribute to the eternity of the earth, and an elegy for its transience.

After a slow, desolate opening, where an oboe sings a forlorn song, sounding like it could be coming from the beginning and the end of time at once, the music picks up momentum, with a beat that may well be the heartbeat of the earth itself. Hovering above we continue to hear the oboe song, being passed now from one instrument to another, sometimes trembling on the electric guitar, sometimes growling in the depths of the cello, but always sounding alone and ancient.

The music builds its picture of vast empty space, which, even with its emptiness, seems to have a sort of life – perhaps because of that heartbeat pounding beneath it. But, in time, the heartbeat stops and voices appear in its place, chanting soft, distorted, ghostly phrases, some barely decipherable words urging us not to ask the question “why”, and you are left feeling that whatever life was once here has now gone, with only its memory left.

The music moves from moments that are so still you are afraid to breathe, through moments where incredibly powerful images and moods arise from the emptiness: stunning guitar work that seems to cry tears for everyone who has ever been sad, and for everything that has ever been lost; drum beats that falter, like a funeral procession that staggers under the weight of too many deaths; small phrases that dance, almost happily, for a moment or two, but then give way to long, sustained notes that waver and slide, softly, like a lonely dog howling from too far away to be comforted.

There is only one way to listen to this music – alone, with nothing and no one to distract you from it. It is music that will surround you, and, after a while, you will almost feel that the line between you and it has been lost. Have it on in the background while you’re cooking the tea, and you will miss its point, and its power, entirely.

The album’s second and final track, “Chinese Ears”, is over in a mere 15 minutes – a little snippet of music after the massive work that preceded it. It was actually written for the Chinese millennium celebrations of 2000/2001 – a project that never quite came to fruition, which is a shame, really, because it is powerful, driving music. It is music that lands us squarely in the centre of modern, bustling China, with electronic keyboards keeping the sound moving at a breathless pace but giving way now and then to more reflective moments, like the lonely, wailing sounds of bowed strings - a cello, perhaps – weaving its ways around phrases from the depths of the ancient orient. Or like the haunting choir, with ominous pulsating bass beneath it, and eerie bamboo flute above it. But always the bustle of the keyboards returns, driving the music, like China itself, relentlessly forwards. It’s music that seems, paradoxically from this composer so famous for taking his time to say things, to capture thousands of years of Chinese history in just a few brief moments.

It’s a fascinating and engaging piece – but one that is not in the least bit connected to its predecessor on the album, and really should not be listened to alongside it. “The Theme: The Rhodes Elegy” is too enormous for anything to stand beside it without being lost in its shadow. Both pieces, if you play them one after the other, detract from each other but, thanks to CD player programming you can, and certainly should, play only one at a time.

An absolutely stunning album. Thanks Marty!

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