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coverpic flag Germany - Full Moon 71 - 07/24/02

Ekkehard Ehlers

So NY WKTU's own Johnny Vicious mixed together all sorts of hard trance for his recent Ultra.Dance 01 two disc compendium. Both Nelly Furtado and Jessica Simpson get the crotch-pulsing hardcore heat reconfiguration, as does Crystal Method (with, of all people, Scott "Pimple Toilet" Weiland) their voices all lifted like the frail tracing papers they are and settled upon dense slabs of backing dance tracks, BPM varying ever so slightly from number to number, the voices interchangeable. And the trick with such a level of remix is to attain the saccharine balance of tension and release, or desire and fulfillment. No matter what the song might actually be structurally founded upon, i.e. verse-chorus-verse, the tension here arises from the intrusion of silence and lack, of tracks dropping out until it is either the bass, the beat, or the voice, and amidst all that sudden space stuck in the middle of the dance floor (or between the ears, if you must listen to this as you strut Chelsea), you wonder, when is the beat coming back? C'mon, where is it? Nervousness ensues as it all drops away. Bass as the nervous patter of the modern heart. And then BAM! Unce unce unce as Tommy Robinson once put it, or else: pulse pulse pulse it all returns, and kinetic ecstacy is kindled. Track after track it runs this way, smearing into each other with Vicious' touch.

All of which is fine for the most part. A disposable vocal pop infused with the more robust sonics of trance rhythms, which to these ears has been the most disposable form of electronica thus far, able to offer up Body Snatcher pod-type versions of everything from "Imagine" to "Theme from Star Wars" all with the same beat throbbing under their thin membranes, bursting through with alien blood and doppelgangers. A goo dripping good time, as surely you've seen them in line for the clubs, right? No harm. Another world entirely.

But that was until I realized that track 3 of disc two, Vengeance featuring Clare Pearce is actually a version of Tim Buckley's singular distillation of all his troubadour magic, "Song to the Siren." To have thunk that ten foot billboards of a denim-clad ass and sparkly halter-top at Virgin Megastores could actually contain such a pearl in its rhinestones (the only calm in the turbulent masterwork of Buckley's far-out (of print) Starsailor) about the seduction of the artist by the ever-unattainable woman in all her muse-like splendor was too ironic not to laugh, much less at least give it a chance at 3 am with the bass on high. Vested with a perfunctionary spin, for a peculiar point, I was hopeful that if any nuance of the song: its delirious waves, its oceanic depth of sadness, its human quivering, its bends-inducing beauty, its ancient mariner wind, its oyster-jawed mystery, if there were but one glimmer in this, perhaps I could live in this world of plastic polyurethane sailor-types and make it livable again. If only it is not a shipless ocean.

I did all my best to smile. There is no other world than this though. Dreams of other air or a sense of weightlessness in this gravity is unattainable. The "Song" I am enamored of is not communicated, unless the baseness of its physical sensationalism and insipid idea of key melody is considered a gesture conveyed. The scarcely wrenched plea of "Here I am, waiting to hold you" is cooed more as a cruising ploy than anything else. Missing entirely is the subtlety of space, or foolly believing that suggestion of silence would only ever bring tension, tightening or lessening only, never quiescent, and that such a void might not offer a truly wrung release, seeing how your emotions ride out on the waves endless.

So at the outset, Ekkehard Ehlers might be mistaken as being merely audacious for releasing three 12"s and two 7"s last year where he "plays Cornelius Cardew, Robert Johnson, Hubert Fichte, Albert Ayler, and John Cassavetes." Very wary here. The first reaction to be stirred is, "whadda ya mean, plays?" Are they just covers, or more artist concepts? Or are they just names? What would it mean to play John Cassavetes? (What was it like for Ben Carruthers to play Ben Carruthers in Shadows?) The first thing that happens to ask questions like this is that lines of distinction get eradicated. Especially with the artist playing the artist, the confusion spreads. To follow the color bars and topographical maps provided, Ehlers stakes that it is more impersonal, the individual properly placed within his respective locale, the idea of the name as icon. Yet isn't it also the "great man" approach to art history?

Ehler's Plays is a continuation and furthering of ideas posited by Christian Fennesz back in '98 on his classic Plays single where he reimagines each component of The Beach Boys and Rolling Stones, two revered pop acts of the mid60's, structurally matching the ingrained songs with white-noise washes, hums, wavering feedback, and sputtering strings in such a dazzling array of metallic shines and infinitesimal digital fluctuations that the familiar surface is rendered unrecognizable, its historical significance scrubbed clean and made over. A roomful of monkeys with laptops will be waiting for the day when you will love again. You didn't think, no, that such ear blurring would be critical at a jaded juncture in listening and experiencing, post-post-post, where the accrued baggage of quotes and significance and essentialisms overwhelm the circuits, but it's critical to attempt a re-appropriation. How often does "Good Vibrations" conjure up Sunkist soda instead of a symphony to God? Who has tapped into our nerve-endings? To cover, re-cover, remove the strata of years, of white holy cloaks from these artists' glorified bodies, there are plenty of skeletons to re-draw, and a plethora of new questions to ask what about what Fennesz has exhumed. But while he is off exploring more of the Beach Boys' corpus as it fissures in the summertime, Ehlers is doing the dirty work, digging (up) hidden roots and the tiny hairs that connect these quintessential artists, splashing up with some quandaries of his own:

-- Does the guitar play Robert Johnson? With its thumps, hums, trip-ups, and meandering glissandos, it's never gonna reach "the crossroads," so does it invoke the Devil's finest in the meantime? Or is it more a walking cane that "eases your rider" through to its digitized shade of "the gallows pole"? And what happens when one of his guitar notes is used and looped to open up these portals to the strummed heart of darkness? When he drops in a chirpy sample of Johnson's own whittled voice, does it succeed where the "Song to a Siren" fails? Sampling does come into the fore with both seven inches, as snips of Cardew's The Great Learning and Johnson's "When You Got a Good Friend" are used as the foundation for their brief workouts. Wait, doesn't Moby do this thing for a living? Where Ehlers really excels is on the spacing that the twelve inches provide, allowing an idea to ferment and spread across time.

-- How about when it is a cello cut and sampled that plays Albert Ayler? Why does the mind leap and try to fill in the images for the sound, like the flickers of individual film cells that coalesce in the head? Is it showing NY Eye and Ear Control? The slightest of slurs or clipped cries of the strings, and the mind races, "Oh, I think that is like free jazz." Could be Cobbs on the harpsichord, or Gary Peacock and Alan Silva bowing their brains out across the roiling glitches of their own strings. Ehlers is adept at playing the expectations against the listener, the visions of who the artist was versus what the formless sounds might be, making a cohesive portrait that comes together as much as it fizzles blank or dissolves the nostalgic picture.

-- Is geographical constraint crucial to the artist? What if Hubert Fichte wrote elsewhere? And if the only reason Johnson's voice was ever heard was because of trips to Dallas and the Gunther Hotel in San Antonio, is that really "the Delta"?

-- When listening to "plays John Cassavetes," what of the woozy brilliance of stretching "Good Night" to such strung extremes? Is it a taffy-like indulgence of strands slowly slacking and unraveling, or a sincere attempt to achieve the same small moments that Cassavetes brought to flicker before our eyes, spreading small gestures wide across the screen, pulling apart Hollywood's (and all the false world's) smiling tendons, making the emotional world visceral and real again?

While stretching it, the worms Ehlers digs are writhing with life, albeit reluctant to give up the ghost, much less leave the artistic body behind, and sometimes the glitches and gaps are left empty-handed. Resurrection is a slippery grip at best, perhaps because the retrospective bodies are still being scrubbed of every particle of dirt and human flaw, their bodies soaped up, suds in front of these men's faces even to this date. It might not even be them underneath it all. I would like it to be the hand-held wobbles of Cassavetes, the wicked knife edges of Johnson. What I imagine and what Ehlers conceives are one and the same, perceptions of these men, each side dreaming the other, the private vs. the public, flipping between its two or more halves. As psychologically perfect as the dub plate. Just as I long for Buckley to still be alive and present in this world, star-sailing the airwaves, and it's just not like that. If Vengeance and Vicious can do little more than vulturally scrape, can we salve these fissures completely, putting these artistic eggshells back together again or understanding them more completely? It's always jumping to conclusions, trying to change the world by merely changing your mind. Can it be so simple to reimagine the world? I love it, I despise it. And at the very least, Ekkehard Ehlers plays No Expectations as well.

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