Qluster Tasten

[Bureau B; 2015]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: piano-led neo-classical, ambient
Others: Kluster, Cluster, Hans-Joachim Roedelius

As the story goes — it’s not really a very good story I’m afraid, but it’s one I’ve heard told1 — the invention of the piano was a triumphant feat of engineering, cruelly betrayed by the invention of the volume control. All the ingenuity dedicated over centuries to the instrument’s responsiveness and expressiveness, to giving the player greater direct, intuitive control, was undercut by a crude, indiscriminate, and inhuman twisting (or sliding, if you prefer) mechanism2. Worse (!), the situation deteriorated even further with the proliferation of synthesizers: not just the volume, but the very waveforms, the sounds they could produce, had even less to do with what a musician (if we could even call them that any longer) did with his or her fingers and a keyboard, a sorry state of detachment and alienation from musical labor.

This new outrage, to follow the thread even further into the depths, led to two kinds of responses. One camp was left wondering why further progress had to be sought when perfection had already been pretty much achieved with the concert grand piano and decried the increasing inhumanity of keyboard-based instrumentation and the lack of respect for the successes of tradition. Meanwhile, the second imaginary group embraced the brave new possibilities this made available, wondering why anyone would bother using such an uptight and outmoded means of expression as an old-fashioned acoustic piano in this day and age when they ought to have been paying attention to whatever it is that’s supposed to be the essence of the new this year (lord knows); why, after all, stop progress merely upon having aligned expression and volume when every possible sonic parameter should be in our control?

The straw man’s straw would be strewn all over the fucking floor by now it these weren’t things I’ve heard with my own damn ears. These are caricatures of existing tendencies, and the point is not whatever pseudo-allegorical messages can be dug out like earwax — Tasten runs orthogonal to all this. Although previous Qluster albums fit quite neatly into the electronic- and synth-based ambient/kosmische story in which Hans-Joachim Roedelius (the only remaining member from Qluster’s earlier incarnations as Kluster and Cluster) was a pioneering figure more or less from the start, the regular old acoustic piano has been a somewhat less celebrated feature of his work almost as long. Tasten takes this second angle further, finding Roedelius joined by Onnen Bock and Armin Metz, all three playing only and exclusively Steinway concert grand pianos.

As it happens though, Tasten is work that only occasionally makes use of the full range of dynamics afforded it by the three pianos. The predominant moods are restrained, often melancholic — it almost goes without saying that Eno (who collaborated on a number of occasions with Roedelius and the late Moebius) and Harold Budd are obvious reference points; Tasten also not infrequently hits a rainy-day cinematic note, tonally reminiscent (without making any claims about actual influence) perhaps of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack work. Likewise, it only sometimes feels really necessary that there are three Steinway concert pianos at play — and not surprisingly, those times are the album’s most intriguing, when the figures intricately overlap, the notes begin to cascade over and ultimately blend into one another, i.e. when the music isn’t beholden to a tune or a “little phrase.” In those moments, it becomes a kind of music where the melody is secondary to the timbre, as it were, and the continuity with Roedelius’s earlier work becomes readily apparent: one of the most interesting musical possibilities available to the synthesizer, if we can simplify a little, was how sharply it transferred the focus away from melodies to the sounds themselves. Similarly, despite the shift back to more “traditional” instrumentation, Qluster still seem to be primarily exploring the way the pianos resonate with one another, which is nicely highlighted by the way the album’s occasional and unobtrusive unconventional uses of the piano subtly vary the music’s textures.

It’s interesting, then, that the album’s press release (and how often can you say that?) makes the suggestion that Tasten be filed under “Rock” and notes that there’s little classical music in Roedelius’s background. Could that be a tacit acknowledgment that maybe people will be interested in this not as neo-classical piano music as such, but as neo-classical piano music made by a pioneer of a certain kind of synth-based ambient and cosmic music? Be that as it may, the techniques used on Tasten are by no means exclusive to “rock,” and of course multiple allegiances are not an indication of backwardness, particularly when it comes to Qluster’s antecedents. In an age when Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1 is grotesquely ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget just how weird Satie was, both as a human being and as a composer, and that however overexposed some of his stuff is now, he was once working à rebours (something like Vexations never makes it to television!). And there are any number of nodes between Satie (John Cage, for example, was instrumental in Satie’s rediscovery) and Qluster, including Roedelius’s own previous electronic work. At their best, Qluster bring together facets of a whole complex of traditions in a seamless and discreetly affecting way.

1. That is, cobbled together from a variety of (probably disreputable) sources on the internet, as well as at least one documentary about the history of the piano broadcast on actual television a few years back.?
2. The final scene goes like this: a man dressed in black stands by an electric piano on a windswept beach, a solemn expression on his face. He turns a knob on the piano — the volume control. He looks up at the camera and grimly delivers this sentence.?

Links: Qluster - Bureau B

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