Conrad Schnitzler has had a long history and collaborated plenty, yet he’s always seemed like something of a loner. He was a founding member of both Tangerine Dream and Kluster, but didn’t stick around long in either. He seems most comfortable as a solo musician, and despite all the styles he’s fallen into, his music has always maintained a feeling of cold isolationism. Usually sounding more synthetic than human (perhaps due to his almost exclusive use of electronic instruments), history will likely view Schnitzler as a composer rather than a rock musician. While these solo piano studies sound as far as you can get from being a scientific space guru, it’s actually a logical step in Schnitzler’s career. After all, aren’t all “serious” composers required to write some piano music at one point or another? Never mind keeping up with the Joneses; after more than three decades of making advancements in music, looking to something more within the old traditions of Western European music for inspiration is certainly an understandable move.
So, deep within tradition he goes, but are you really going to want to listen? Where he ends up is somewhere between Pierre Boulez and Cecil Taylor. His music maintains its hollowness and (as is often the case with music for solo instruments) the piano makes it sound more like academia than ever. Much like the mid-20th century, post-World War II avant garde, his music comes off as too free to be written and too precise to be improvised (without a score or some written notes about the music). Dynamic change, sustain, and other musical parameters that we take for granted become equally as important as the notes themselves. Dense clusters accurately pound out seemingly more than the hand is capable of, only to be followed by abrupt silence. He presents information to us on his own terms, and comprehending it takes time, but perhaps it’s not impossible. Schnitzler’s piano music is penetrable and the language he’s speaking is remarkable. In the midst of his pointillist bursts is a definite personality, and there might even be a sense of humor in there somewhere. “Untitled 6” bears similarities to the wit of Charles Ives: surprisingly tonal, however, filled with intentional dissonance and blatantly sabotaged.
He’s not usually thought of as a virtuoso piano player, but these recordings would clearly suggest otherwise. Complex, performed with the clinical accuracy of a player piano, and coupled with the fact that recordings for solo instruments are usually a tough sell, there are a lot of reasons why this music isn’t for everybody. But those willing to really sit with Klavierhelm will find an impressive body of work where organic forms seamlessly collide with self-imposed structure.