The tribute album has long been one of the more unnecessary and unscrupulous chapters in the musical canon. These compilations rarely operate as anything but superfluous fodder, pieced together by record execs to extract every last penny from a (dead) artist’s lingering popularity.
Of course, the tribute record is inevitable – it epitomizes, in a sense, why children pick up instruments in the first place. Musicians beget musicians, stars beget stars. “They” are the reason “we” play (at least until “we” becomes so jaded, admitting any influence whatsoever becomes embarrassing). The problem is, as flattering as it may be, a tribute album usually consists of hapless covers that actually do a disservice to the original material (and play a key role in why stars secretly loathe their fans).
Ekkehard Ehlers’ Plays is different. Ehlers, a Frankfurt-based artist/educator and label head of Whatness, prefers to “refer”. His abstract compositions channel inspiration rather than mimic it. “Everyone is sampling,” Ehlers said. “Sampling is the figure of historic devices in digital music. My idea is not to sample, but to refer to historic places and figures.”
On Plays, Ehlers’ abstraction solidifies his status as one of the more exciting, creative “electronic” artists in Germany, a country already known for its mixing board prowess. His selection of references spans the spectrum of art: Post-WWII German author Hubert Fichte, saxophonist Albert Ayler, blues legend Robert Johnson, avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew, and director John Cassavetes. Each figure is tragic in his own way, and all passed before their time. Fichte was a homosexual “half-Jew” growing up in Nazi Germany, dead at age 50. Cassavetes brought cinema verité to America, dead at age 59. Cardew struggled with his beliefs, and was killed in a hit-and-run at the age of 45. Johnson was killed by a jealous husband at the age of 27. Ayler wound up drowned in New York’s East River at just 35.
Ehlers’ true intentions behind each of these pieces are hidden among the abstract strands that make up Plays, but there is no mistaking the emotion invested throughout. Each project (three EPs and two 7”s) traverses unique ground, but the tragic, rebellious background of his subjects permeates the collection. The following interpretation of his work is by no means definitive. Plays’s nebulous nature defies strict explanation and will undoubtedly mean many things to many different people.
The mood changes quickly. An ethereal mist settles over the second Cardew piece, clinging to drawn-out ambient vocals. While the first piece may have reflected Cardew’s initial gift, this muddled pool of sound seems to hint at confusion or vacillation. Cardew certainly seemed lost at the end of his life, spurning his prior experiments in the avant-garde in favor of Maoist agitprop designed for the proletariat. Ehlers’ disorienting production here aptly captures Cardew’s beautiful, but troubled mind, aimlessly writhing in its own profundity.
The second Fichte piece explodes out of the gate, relatively speaking, with sounds ousting silence as the protagonist. In fact, one could even make the argument there’s a speaking role present. A distorted horn of some sort, squawking like the teacher in Charlie Brown, babbles throughout the piece while treated strings, guitars and not-quite-piercing tones swirl the periphery. The horn’s oration is affecting, evading cadences in typical beat poet fashion. Unpredictable, yet strangely groovy, of all the compositions on Plays, this may be the most impressive; a Poem Electronique for a fallen compatriot.
Drama only begins to describe Ehlers' take on Ayler. One would logically expect a variation on Ayler’s intense, magically demented reed playing. Yet, Ehlers only hints at Ayler’s chaotic blasts, scattering brief flurries throughout the two pieces. Rather than focus on Ayler’s fiery, over-the-top semantics, the overlying theme here is positively chilling – downright Hitchcockian. German cellist Anka Hirsch performs Ehlers' composition, sculpting dark alleys where there should be light. The pace is achingly slow, cautious even. Lacquered glitches drip somewhere in the shadows. Even when rapid-fire staccatos emerge, the cello remains ever-present, casting an ominous tone over the proceedings.
On first listen, this interpretation seems all too peculiar. Given additional thought and different perspective, however, these pieces fit perfectly. Ehlers' Plays series is not a reinterpretation of its subjects’ music or accomplishments; these are reflections on the humans themselves: Cardew’s psychosis; Fichte’s loneliness; Cassavetes’ rebellion. And so with Ayler, these sonic frescoes aren’t necessarily strictly homage to his revolutionary take on jazz. Ehler, instead, has vividly recreated Ayler’s mysterious demise. The piece reeks of death. No one knows for sure how Ayler ended up in the East River, whether he was murdered or suicidal, and Ehlers' terrorstocked memoire only perpetuates the mystery. Music rarely sounds this disturbing.
1. Cornelius Cardew (1)
2. Cornelius Cardew (2)
3. Hubert Fichte (1)
4. Hubert Fichte (2)
5. John Cassavetes (1)
6. John Cassavetes (2)
7. Albert Ayler (1)
8. Albert Ayler (2)
9. Robert Johnson (1)
10. Robert Johnson (2)