Boomkat Product Review:
Celebrated Danish Fluxus artist Henning Christiansen gets another deluxe (and lengthy) boxset, this time focusing on his most ambitious and highly-regarded project - music for Heinrich von Kleist's 24 scene tragedy "Penthesilea". RIYL Vladimir Ussachevsky, Robert Ashley, Akira Rabelais, Iannis Xennakis.
'OP.176 PENTHESILEA' is a grand undertaking, both for Christiansen, and for anyone likely to engage with the five hour set. For those with stamina though, it's more than worth the effort. Christiansen and his widow Ursula Reuter Christiansen were both fascinated by the work of von Kleist, and in the 1980s the Danish composer decided to tackle the German playwright's 1808 tragedy "Penthesilea". A modernized Greek tragedy set in Troy that was struck through with visceral cruelty, the play was originally performed in Berlin - so it made sense that the premiere of Christiansen's original piece was in Berlin in 1984. This version is included in full here, and was composed using field recordings, tape machines and electronics.
For anyone fascinated by tape music's more austere fringe, it's startling stuff. Described in the press release as "an audiobook presented as sound," the 45 minute excursion is an evocative set of edited field recordings, with instrumental elements and sparse electronics reduced to ghostly traces. A recording of horses trotting on a dirt road with farm machinery rumbling in the background takes up almost an entire track, while a boxing match is the backbone of another. These precise captures are manipulated to trip us up or distort our expectations, and Christiansen lulls us into a false sense of security before playing with our perception and mangling the stereo field. The most tantalizing parts of this performance are the long-form drone compositions though, that sound more spine-tingling than any contemporary horror soundtrack, using elongated piano tones, corrosive electronics and mindbending tape FX.
Christensen expanded the set for a performance in Rome two years later, turning 45 minutes into four and a half hours. It's top shelf stuff that serves as a virtual primer for Christiansen's entire catalog, folding in a complete overview of his techniques, from his early classical works to his most uncompromising electronic experimentation. On this version, the original field recordings are filled out with even more processed drones and unusual instrumentation from Werner Durand (who plays a Persian ney and baritone horn with sax mouthpiece), Jan Tilman Schade on violonello and tuba, Carla Tatò on vocals and Ernst Kretzer providing extra sounds.
Honestly, it's a work that puts most contemporary electro-acoustic practitioners and field recordists to shame. Christiansen's patience and raw creativity is breathtaking, allowing him to functionally control a narrative for a duration that's tough to comprehend. Sometimes dissonant and industrial, sometimes more earthy - almost like a lost Discrepant oddity - and sometimes teetering into near proto-techno (really), it's an impossible album to anticipate. Just when you think you've heard it all, Christensen will wrongfoot you with a mid-'80s precursor to Akira Rabelais' oxidized embellishments. Genius.