HELMUT SCHÄFER : Thought Provoking III
23five017, Compact Disc
published in 2012
$12.98, plus shipping

Thought Provoking III is the final document from the electro-acoustic composer Helmut Schäfer who died in 2007. The Austrian artist spoke of his work as "characterized by the use of very intense and direct musical language which powerfully describes his personal experience and reflections on society structures, the blindness of modern and informed masses and everyday functionalism in between civilization." That intensity of expression manifested itself through performances and collaborations that took Schäfer around the globe, including presentations at Documenta X and ARS Electronica both in 1997. For all of his tireless work, Schäfer's recording output is relatively small, focusing mostly on his collaborative work with noted musical extremist Zbigniew Karkowski.

Schäfer posited Thought Provoking as a radical shift from his brutalist electronic engineering to a spatialized, open-ended composition based on the muffled tones from an ad hoc instrument he built from salvaged church organ pipes and hair dryers. The first presentation of this work took place in his home town of Graz, Austria in 2003; the second was a collaboration with violinist Elisabeth Gmeiner in Vienna two years later; and the third & final performance occurred in 2006 with percussionist Will Guthrie and Gmiener at the St. Andre Church where he first presented it in Graz. After Schäfer's death, Guthrie reconstituted the rehearsal takes from that performance for this recording of Thought Provoking III, attempting to re-imagine the controlled energy of those sessions with Schäfer's aesthetic framework at the forefront. The bellowing hums from Schäfer's organ pipe and hair dryer contraction ebb and flow amidst intermittent percussive flourishes, subtle gong overtones, sustained violin trills, and fizzling electronic mark-making. On the second track of this disc, long-time friend Zbigniew Karkowski presents a smoldering electro-acoustic remix of Thought Provoking III as a fitting tribute to Schäfer.


Just Outside
February 2012

A 2007 [recording] that Will Guthrie (who plays herein) was kind enough to send me and a very good one. The main track is a piece by Schafer (who committed suicide that year) featuring himself on organ pipes and electronics, Elisabeth Gmeiner on violin and Guthrie on percussion and microphones. I'm not familiar with his earlier work and don't know how/if this fits in, but it's wonderfully tense, the violin tracing a delicate, erose drone over similarly timbred pipes (apparently laid on the floor and activated, without much interference, by hair dryers), with wonderfully varied fluttering and clattering (though spare) percussion alongside. The violin hints at romantic lines but skirts their borders also managing to never become overly astringent. The music is very taut--it stretches then snaps back, expands dynamically, then pulls in; an unusual combination of a breathing quality with dryness, not stuffy at all but very low humidity. There's a hint of the ritualistic somewhere but that and any other reference point never become overbearing. Instead, one wanders around some large, strange room, dusty and eerie but pulsing. Oh, it falters now and then, but overall it's a pretty special piece. It runs about 24 minutes and it followed by a kind of remix by Zbigniew Karkowksi, a frequent collaborator of Schafer's. It's fine, more violent and overtly electronic that its source, but is really just an adjunct to the main work. -- Brian Olewick