Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer


Das Kapital                                                                                                        ©FCG/Nuno Martins 2012

Most concerts at Lisbon’s Jazz em Agosto – Jazz in August – are set in the open-air amphitheatre of the sponsoring Gulbenkian Foundation, a rare mix of site, climate and free jazz with the night air brushing illuminated trees and the sounds – this year – of Evan Parker, Matthew Shipp, Marilyn Crispell, Sunny Murray and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten.

Those principal concerts take place on the first two weekends of the month, but for the past two seasons the festival has expanded its presentations, moving downtown for the weekdays in between those shows to the Teatro do Bairro, a black box theatre in the narrow, winding, hilly streets of the Bairro Alto. The theatre is crowded, smoky and noisy. There’s a lower floor with the stage and some seating and stairs crowded with sitting patrons that lead upward to an open area and a bar. Seating is limited and so are the sightlines, but there’s sometimes music that’s singularly suited to the atmosphere, music that might not quite fit in the luxuriant air of the Gulbenkian Park.

Hanns Eisler’s greatest music was crafted for the radical cabaret culture of 1920s Berlin, for the plays of Bertolt Brecht and the wedding of socialist ideology, blunt poetry and a musical modernism that could already include in a single consciousness – Eisler’s, at least – the twelve-tone row and the manic novelty of jazz rhythms. This year, one of the nights at the Teatro do Bairro featured the band Das Kapital, a European trio that creates fresh music by taking an improvisatory approach to some of Eisler’s best known music, creating in the process work that seems perfectly attuned to Europe’s ongoing crisis of economics and identity.

Hanns Eisler

Long a link between radical music and social consciousness, Hanns Eisler is one of the more fascinating figures in 20th century music. In Vienna in the early ‘20s he was – with Alban Berg and Anton Webern – one of Arnold Schoenberg’s most brilliant students and was the first of them to adopt the 12-tone technique for composition. Moving to Berlin in 1925, he made a dramatic shift in his creative perspective. Deciding that art could not ignore the state of society, he collaborated with the playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht to create the radical songs of work, protest and revolt for which he is best known, adopting the techniques of the cabaret music of his day including – as did Milhaud and Stravinsky – a kind of ersatz jazz.

Later a refugee from Nazism, he spent much of his time between 1933 – when his works were banned in Germany – and 1948 in the United States, teaching composition at the New School and writing scores for Hollywood films that led to two Oscar nominations. Hounded by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he was deported in 1948, settling in the German Democratic Republic, that is, East Germany, where among other things, he composed the national anthem. In East Germany his work soon ran into censure from repressive authorities, marking the third authoritarian state to persecute Eisler and his work (The standard biography is Albrecht Betz’s Hanns Eisler: Political Musician, Cambridge University Press, 1982).

A remarkable figure as well as a gifted songwriter, Eisler exercises a special hold on any musician who is concerned with the relationship between art and social responsibility. When he left America, Woody Guthrie commemorated the event with the song “Eisler on the Go,” since re-recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco. The example is even more pointed for the European musicians who embraced free jazz in the 1960s, embracing and adapting a radical underdog aesthetic for their own creative and political purposes.

Adaptations

The first such recording is Einheitsfrontlied, translated as “United Front” recorded by the trio of Peter Brötzmann, Fred Van Hove and Han Bennink in 1973, a post-Ayler, post Machine Gun blood-letting that brilliantly fuses the political march with the mayhem of free jazz a la Brötzmann. It’s once again available as a 7” single, released by an Austrian label called cien fuegos (cien fuegos CF006), and it is music of such force that it might be a cure for anything. It is seven minutes long and a serious contender for reissue of the year.

Later in the ‘70s, Heiner Goebbels and Alfred Harth collaborated on Hommage/Fier Fauste Fur Hanns Eisler, invoking Eisler’s interpretation of Goethe’s Faust that outraged East German officials. In the past few years, Eisler’s songs have found their way into the repertoire of SOL6, the sextet led by Veryan Weston and Luc Ex that blends free improvisation with art song. There’s an on-line video available of a Sol6 performance from May 2012 with Ingrid Laubrock singing a spare and powerful rendition of “Song of a German Mother.”

The most ambitious approach by improvisers to Eisler repertoire, however, must be Das Kapital, the trio of German tenor saxophonist Daniel Erdmann, Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen and French drummer Edward Perraud. In 2011 the trio released two CDs of Eisler’s music – Ballads and Barricades and Conflicts and Conclusions on the Das Kapital label. I’ve listened to them frequently since I first got them, because they answer needs for music that contains multiple components – melodic coherence, vitality, spontaneity and freedom. Eisler was no ordinary composer – he wrote, after all, complex serial chamber music, Hollywood themes, theatre songs and a national anthem. As a singular resource, Eisler is almost the socialist Gershwin. His special fitness for the present emerges in a dialogue with Poulsen.

A Conversation with Hasse Poulsen

Stuart Broomer: Have you heard other improvisers’ approaches to Eisler?

Hasse Poulsen: Yes, of course, but we have not studied their ways of playing. We just realize that it is not so far from what we are doing, so something in Eisler's music attracts musicians that like both free and melody.

SB: How did the group come together?

HP: Edward was playing with both of us (Hasse and David Erdmann) separately and some day in 2001 he invited us to jam in his practice room. Boom – here we go – bound for a long and serious story that will bring us around the world.

SB: Was Eisler always part of the group’s reason for being?

HP: Oh no, the first six years was strictly free improvising. But we always liked to play around with different stylistic elements – jazz, rock, punk, reggae, electro, non-idiomatic, etc.

SB: What qualities do you find in Eisler’s music that lend themselves to improvising?

HP: Eisler can be compared to other popular composers of his time: Gershwin and that crowd, but since he was very close to Arnold Schönberg and to the musical avant-garde his compositions always include surprising elements: the forms do not follow the 8-bar pop structures, his ways of harmonizing are not necessarily functional but use “normal” chords in ways inspired by atonal and free tonal music. This makes his music seem like a material – right, Heiner? – that is very inspiring as a basis for improvising.

SB: Do you think Eisler has a special significance for the present?

HP: That is for the present to decide. Musically he is very overlooked as a composer. His work is really impressive and very personal. Working with Eisler has made us realize that the traditions of music and art and the traditions of politics are very closely related. In politically experimental periods, art is very rich and inventive, whereas in reactionary periods artists are called upon to produce nice stuff to decorate the lives of the well-off and to entertain the stupid masses with stupid crap. Of course experimental and great artists exist in all periods, but when people seek to reinvent society and to make the world a better place, they also want to meet new and exciting art. So art explodes. It is great, it is fun; it is life. So we can learn that reactionary Thatcher-Reagan-Blair-Chirac policies are neither good for society nor for art, as if we did not know that.

I see Eisler's music as part of a certain tradition that uses all existing musical elements as well as doing some solid basic musical research on the material. You can put him in the same club as Stravinsky, Messiaen, Louis Sclavis ... it is a big and very creative and imaginative club.

Das Kapital

Das Kapital would be a remarkable band without the name or the repertoire, but they bring special talents to the improvised transformation of Eisler’s work. It’s surprising to find a current band that achieves a traditional balance of presentation and improvisation, a kind of free-jazz cabaret, complete with anecdotal introductions about the songs – delivered by Poulsen, usually, and occasionally Erdmann. There’s “Coal for Mike,” for instance, complete with the background tale about Mike a railway worker who dies on the job. His house is right by the railway tracks and when trains pass the workers throw pieces of coal to keep his widow and children alive. It’s the kind of sentimental working class solidarity that Brecht excelled at, and the theatrical presentation now is multiply removed. In an embedded pun on “train,” the song is delivered as driving modal jazz that sounds very much like John Coltrane circa 1961.

The musicianship in das Kapital is extraordinary. I’ve grown used to Edward Perraud’s sonically beautiful performances with Hubbub in which there is very little drumming but a lot of bowing and scraping and rattling, directly akin to the kind of percussion practiced by Eddie Prevost in AMM. Perraud’s recordings with Jean Luc Guionnet meanwhile – most recently in Ames Room and Fish – are at the opposite pole, infernal, brilliant, energy-music thrashing. But in Das Kapital his playing invokes a kind of tunefully theatrical drumming, his lines matched to melodies, over-accenting them in an almost vaudevillian way at times, a tiny hand-held cymbal struck at the end of a line, a telling dramatic flourish or sudden roll. He moves between this baroque embellishment and powerful, polyrhythmic play in the spirit of Philly Joe or Elvin Jones that can take the ensembles from ironically static to charging in very short order.

Similarly Hasse Poulsen is a master of traditional jazz guitar who manages to continually refract it through a strangely folksy delivery and the barrage of noise effects available through pedals. There is a special asymmetry between his acoustic flattop – looking for all the world like the guitar of choice for folk and country singers (the kind of thing Woody Guthrie could emblazon with the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists”) – and the kinds of refined jazz and raw noise that he draws from it.

Daniel Erdmann can swing the melodies back and forth over the line between lyricism and bathos with a shift in tone from airy lyricism to pronounced vibrato. In a way the mix of broad tonal melodies and free improvisation may inevitably (at least for this listener) recall the music of Albert Ayler and its fascinating deconstruction of simple themes and an ambivalent relationship to the idea and experience of melody, central as well to that Brötzmann recording of Einheitsfrontlied.

There is a beautiful reciprocity in the music, in that the compositions and the treatments give one another a new life. This reciprocity is evident throughout the moods of Eisler’s music from its gentlest moments – the lullaby-like melody of “Wienerlied” (Vienna Song) delivered with a disjunctive syncopation or a staccato free-bop treatment of “Hollywood Elegy” – to the dark ironies of “Sklave wer wird dich befreien” (Slave, who will free you?) skipping to a Latin beat. The music is consistently engaging in terms of its lyricism, rhythmic energy and interactive improvisation, but it assumes other meanings through the intersection of (at least) two revolutionary nostalgias: the socialist notion of a revolutionary working class and the hallucinatory anarchism of free jazz, all enriched by the intersection with jazz and its traditional proximity to civil rights.

This sense of an intersection is a significant component in Das Kapital’s work in which two forces that might be reduced to nostalgias come together to make the present possible as a creative moment, necessarily both aesthetic and social (dialectics, right?).

Should Das Kapital come to North America (they’ve recently released a non-Eisler recording that they might tour – Das Kapital Loves Christmas [at last, a jazz Christmas record that makes explicit the connection with capitalism]) – they might well become the legitimate house band of a revitalized Occupy Movement.

Stuart Broomer©2012

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