Rainer Maria Rilke
David Bowie's "Blackstar" and Norbert Stein's "Das Karussell" — When Words Rule Music
Both David Bowie and Norbert Stein present distinctive and subtle approaches to the hybridizing of poetry and music.
By Steve Elman, The Arts Fuse
Two new CDs offer bold adventures in the continuing quest to juxtapose music and poetry. David Bowie's Blackstar is the one you surely know about already, a dramatic final statement from a world-famous artist who defied expectations to the end. Norbert Stein's Das Karussell, released in Germany on Stein's own Pata label, is an illumination of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, gratifying and muscular, from an artist whose previous work was completely unfamiliar to me. They are quite different in sensibility and execution, but they both draw from the jazz tradition, and they share at least two cautions to potential listeners: take this stuff seriously, and listen with both ears if you want to understand.
Bowie was as much a poet as he was a performance artist and a pop star, and his poetry is central to Blackstar. Stein is a jazz saxophonist and composer who generated the music of Das Karussell from the images and ideas of Rilke; even though the poems are spoken rather than sung on his CD, they reverberate through the instrumental performances that follow them.Bowie's last CD, written and performed while he was staring death in the face, does not deliver what you might expect. There are no exhortations about not going gently into that good night, no meditations on the skull of Yorick, no blank stares into an open grave. Instead, it consists of five stark mini-dramas that feint at finality, followed by a meshed pair of songs that just might be farewells. The words are printed black-on-black in the CD booklet, daring the listener to read them, forcing the reader to hear them slowly: "Skull designs upon my shoes / I can't give everything away." "In a season of crime none need atone." "This way, or no way / You know I'll be free." "If I never see the English evergreens I'm running to / It's nothing to me."
Blackstar can be seen as a companion piece to 2013's The Next Day, something like a yin to its yang. Bowie's casual fans are more likely to be pleased by the latter, since it has more conventional tunes, less dense lyrics, and plenty of drive, despite Bowie's anger at damn near everything that was going on in the world at that time. If you wanted to, you could listen to The Next Day with only half an ear and enjoy it. But Blackstar requires full listening for any kind of appreciation. True Bowiephiles will give it that kind of attention, but others surely will not. Listening to music, after all, has become an activity most often undertaken while doing something else – driving, cooking, cleaning the house, doing your taxes, etc.
If heard as background, Blackstar might disappoint. Its mood is primarily dark, and despite rock-solid drumwork by Mark Guiliana (and Boston-based drummer James Murphy on two tracks), this is an album of serious words. It has serious music to match, from a quintet of jazz players led by tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, including guitarist Ben Monder and McCaslin's three regular bandmates, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim LeFebvre, and Guiliana. All these players bring their distinctive jazz abilities to the material without forcing the music away from its essential character, and Monder keeps the guitar parts particularly well-rooted in rock. No one moment of the CD identifies it as "jazz," although a good deal of it is jazzish. For example, two of the songs ("Sue," where Murphy is drumming, and "'Tis Pity," with Guiliana) build to a furious intensity in which the jazz skills of the players allow them to burn and float simultaneously, a quality that rock-trained musicians rarely achieve.
Blackstar isn't background music, no matter how that's defined. The compositional structures are rich and thick, with plenty of ambiguity suggested by spots of near-polytonality, harmonic contrasts on the tunes' "bridges," and dramatic changes in tempo. The production is spacious and gently tweaked from tune to tune. But the music of Blackstar is about the words, and to understand its strength we have to make an effort to define what these last songs are "about."
"Bowie" and "enigma" are frequently paired in reviews and on-line discussions (Google refers you to some 579,000 sites that use the two words together). But "enigma" seems like a flabby cop-out to me. Bowie had very specific things to say; if listeners could not always interpret his songs specifically, that wasn't his fault.
And Blackstar is nothing if not specific.
Two of the songs could be from films about twisted relationships: "Sue (or In a Season of Crime)," with additional music credited to jazz composer Maria Schneider, is a noir in microcosm, with sacrifice, love, betrayal, and murder flashing by, not necessarily in that order. "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" juxtaposes the language of John Ford's incest-murder-mutilation tragedy with contemporary tough talk ("Man, she punched me like a dude / 'Hold your mad hands,' I cried"), a montage of love as war.
Three of them are dramas of the alienated: "Lazarus," written for Bowie's theatrical collaboration with Enda Walsh, is a yearning-for-release monologue by Thomas Newton, the alien played by Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. "Girl Loves Me" is a cri de coeur of a desperate young man, simultaneously in the now and in the future, using language from Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The title track is dire and vaguely martial, infused with ritual, violence, and protest ("On the day of execution / Only women kneel and smile . . . He trod on sacred ground / He cried aloud into the crowd . . . Take your passport and shoes . . .I'm a blackstar, I'm not a pop star, I'm not a gangstar [sic], I'm not a wandering star, I'm not a porn star, I'm not a white star . . . We were born upside down / I'm a starstar / Born the wrong way round"). Its images justify a report from Jody Rosen in Billboard that Bowie told Donny McCaslin its subject is ISIS.
And then there is the pair that close the album ("Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away"), meshed together with an overlapping segue, among the most beautiful and moving of all Bowie's works, where he may be saying farewell in his personal way ("I'm falling down / It's nothing to me . . . Don't believe for just one second I'm forgetting you . . . Seeing more and feeling less / Saying no but meaning yes / This is all I ever meant / That's the message that I sent / I can't give everything away.")
In these two songs, we also get a fine Ben Monder guitar spot, and two McCaslin tenor saxophone solos that perfectly demonstrate the quality that jazz people like to call "telling a story" – they are improvised statements that take you from point A to point B and leave you profoundly fulfilled.
McCaslin's language on his horn is akin to Norbert Stein's, although they hail from different post-Coltrane generations. McCaslin might be seen as part of the fourth generation, the one in which Michael Brecker was the central figure. As a soloist, Stein sounds like a third-generation player, spiritually related to Dave Liebman and Steve Grossman, with an agreeable slight vibrato that humanizes his timbre. As a composer, he has a firm foundation in Ornette Coleman, at least on his new release; three of the themes on Das Karussell are strongly Ornettish.
But, as with Blackstar, the music on Das Karussell: Norbert Stein Pata Messengers Play Rainer Maria Rilke is in service to the words, and Stein has taken a bold risk that pays off sensationally well. Instead of setting Rilke's words to music in lieder or accompanying readings of them with musical color, he introduces each of the eight compositions on the CD with an unaccompanied reading of a poem by Ingrid Noemi Stein, a gifted young actress who reads the words with admirable clarity and grace. She never chooses the singsong that so many poets employ when reading their own words. Instead, she gives us a clean, elegant stream of voice that draws us into Rilke's thinking and haunts the music that follows.
Stein describes the poems he chose for the project as being about "life, love, and passion," but anyone who knows Rilke's texts knows that they do not easily resolve themselves into straightforward themes. Example: the title poem, "Das Karussell" [The Carousel], is ostensibly a description of a merry-go-round in colorful whirl. But why does Rilke point – three times – to the occasional appearance of "ein weisser Elefant" [a white elephant] if not to suggest the persistence of mortality within the bustle of living? Why is one of the merry-go-round animals "ein böser roter Löwe" [an evil red lion] ridden by an anxious little boy? And why does the poem bitterly undercut its final image of a smile ("ein Lächeln . . . verschwendet an dieses atemlose blinde Spiel" [a smile . . . squandered on this breathless, blind game])? Clearly there are other games afoot on this carousel, and in the other poems as well, and the odds in these games are always in favor of the House of Death.
German is a language of umami – its sonic beauty is like the smell of mushrooms, or the crunch of dead leaves underfoot. It is not convivial like Italian or elegant like French or flamboyant like Spanish. Its relationship to English is primitive, even feral. The two languages, descendants of a common Teuton progenitor, share a dark camaraderie, occasionally starkly similar ("das Ende ist dort" [the end is there]) and often densely, mysteriously different ("Graue Liebesschlangen . . . verdauen Lust-Klumpen" [Gray love-snakes . . . digesting clumps of passion]). An English speaker with a smattering of German vocabulary can almost understand Rilke directly at one moment, but then the poet's meaning slips away into a forest of unintelligible syllables.
Norbert Stein has thoughtfully provided English translations of the poems in the CD booklet, and a careful reading of them alongside Ingrid Noemi Stein's narrations can free an English-speaking listener to hear the substance as he or she slides into the music.
However, the saxophonist does not compromise by giving us his most tuneful interpretation first. The leadoff, "Wie sol lich meine Seele halten" [How shall I hold my Soul], is a graceful love poem where Rilke tries to hold his soul apart from that of his beloved and finds it impossible. Stein's theme may be a depiction of this struggle – angular, tense, without tonal center – which eventually transits into free improv.
Better for a first-time listener to begin with the third poem, three rather grotesque lines called "Graue Libesschlangen" [Gray Love-snakes]. Stein might have opted for something sinister or sinuous in the music. Instead, he emphasizes the Lust [passion] of the last line, giving the snakes an appealing in-tempo bounce, vaguely Latin, in a definite key.
So it goes through the CD. Listening to it becomes a process of embracing each Rilke poem and then unpacking Stein's meditation on it. Love is the subject at the forefront for the most part, and it is usually a mystical kind of love, very unlike the tortured love in Bowie's songs. But the two poets see eye-to-eye, at least twice.
"Ich fürchte so vor der Menschen Wört" [I am so frightened by the Words of Men] contains these lines, which Bowie himself could have written: "Die Dinge singen hor ich so gern / Ihr ruhrt sie an; sie sind starr und stumm" [I so love to hear things singing / [But] you touch them; they stiffen and grow still]. Stein's music for this text has something in common with Bowie's music for Blackstar, martial and intense, recalling Albert Ayler's folk-like marches.
And "Freilich ist es seltsam, die Erde nicht mehr zu bewohnen" [It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the Earth] imagines regretfully leaving behind mortal trappings "dass man allmählich ein wenig Ewigkeit spürt" [before one gradually feels a little eternity], which isn't very far from Bowie's "I can't give everything away." In this case, Stein's interpretation is through-composed without an improv section. The line is very affecting, lyrical and tuneful, with Etienne Nillesen providing a delicate underpinning of free drums, and then there is a surprise second melody that takes a turn towards Japan.
The musical execution by Stein's group, the Pata Messengers, is top-notch on every track. Guitarist Nicola Hein has a role here similar to Ben Monder's on Bowie's disc – he is pungent and plangent, a foil against which the other players sound traditional. In his solos, he draws from the whole post-bop guitar palette, from Wes Montgomery to Sonny Sharrock, and in "Das Karussell," he goes beyond it, with the use of a bar on the strings for an effect much like Ornette Coleman's violin playing. Drummer Etienne Nillesen has the discipline to follow some intricate composed lines and the stamina to open up to full-bore free playing when necessary. And bassist Joscha Oetz is a delight throughout, with a warm, woody tone in the ensembles and a sure touch for his solos.
The concrete has danced with the abstract in a swirl of variations throughout music history: sung words, spoken words, rhymes in rhythm, songs half-spoken, monotone chant, opera, museum installation, back-porch jam; from Gregorian chant to hip-hop, from campfire to minaret to Broadway to street. There are almost as many solutions to the words-and-music challenge as there are musicians on the planet. In these two releases, Bowie and Stein each advance the tradition significantly while strongly swimming against most contemporary currents. In each of their CDs, the words rule the music, but the music inflames the words. Each presents a distinctive and subtle approach to the hybridizing of poetry and music, and each calls the listener back for repeated hearings. They do not give us easy music, but the best music is never easy.
Steve Elman's four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.
Steve Elman, The Arts Fuse
An inventive set of music, well worth checking out
It has been several decades since one could accurately say that nearly every significant jazz artist is from the United States. In truth, jazz has been an international music ever since recordings became widely available in the early 1920s. Proof that high-quality jazz is being created by those not from the U.S. can be found everywhere, including on these three releases.
Norbert Stein is an adventurous tenor-saxophonist from Germany. In 1986 he founded the Pata Music label, recording and releasing 22 CDs thus far. Play Rainer Maria Rilke is an unusual set that features his quartet (with guitarist Nicola Hein, bassist Joscha Oetz and drummer Etienne Nillesen) alternating explorative instrumentals with brief readings of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke by Ingrid Noemi Stein. While the narrative is in German, the liner notes give an English translation of the poems. Only about seven minutes of the 47-minute playing time is taken up the poems, so the main focus is on the quartet's playing. Stein has a warm and often melodic style that is open to free explorations worthy of Albert Ayler. His playing is unpredictable yet consistently rewarding. The originals sometimes sound like folk melodies, in a couple of cases the music is a bit funky, and there are also lyrical ballads. The result is an inventive set of music that is available from www.patamusic.de and well worth checking out.
Scott Yanow, Los Angeles Jazz Scene
An excellent work with excellent poetry, vocals and some amazing avant-garde jazz
I had an interesting time putting the various pieces of the title of this CD together. The musicians and the poetry I had no difficulty with but it was the “Das Karussell” part, and trying to tie it all together that was a little more difficult to do. After reading all of the information contained in the liner notes, and brushing up on my rusty, minuscule knowledge of the German language, I finally put things together. Actually, I obtained a greater appreciation for this CD due to that exercise.
This CD is a curious amalgam of spirited, yet well played quartet jazz, and poetry. Still, the “Das Karussell” threw me for a loop initially, and then I started to put things together. First, this CD has 16 tracks. The odd numbered tracks are poems by the renowned German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke and the even numbered tracks are performances by the Pata Messengers. Each poem is recited by Ingrid Noemi Stein who is the daughter of the Pata Messengers leader Norbert Stein. The poems are actually quite good and if you can read and/or understand German, you will gain appreciation for Herr Rilke’s offerings. For this particular CD, selections were chosen that deal primarily with life, death and passion. The poems are transcribed into English in the liner notes if you want to follow along. They are also used as the title for each track on the music side of things. The phrase “Das Karussell” means “The Carousel” and is the title for one of Herr Rilke’s poems and is also the title of track 16 on this CD.
Now, before I proceed, I need to let you readers know that the majority of the selections played by Norbert Stein and the Pata Messengers is avant-garde or free style. This is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to music but I personally enjoy listening to it. All of these musicians are highly skilled and very accomplished. Along with tenor saxophonist Norbert Stein, we have Nicola Hein on electric guitar, Joscha Oetz on double bass and Etienne Nillesen on prepared snare drum and cymbals. There are some very interesting arrangements for each of these tracks, not from a musical standpoint but from the musical pairings within the group and the melodies and choruses they play. For example, on track 2, “Wie soll ich meine Seele halten” (How should I hold my soul), which is a very nice poem by the way, Stein’s sax and Hein’s guitar play the melody while Nillesen’s drums and Oetz’s double bass play free form. Somewhere in the middle of the track, the guitar also begins to play free form followed by the sax. Soon they all are playing free form at the same. The verve and intensity of the group’s playing intensifies with each instrumentalist seemingly going off in his own tangent. But do not think that things are getting chaotic as the music rises to a loud cacophony because the musicians are seemingly playing off each other using their skill in musical expression. As the track progresses and the mixture of instrumentalists seemingly doing their own things begins to rein back in and they continue to play the identifiable melody. This is the essence of free form and the Pata Messengers do an excellent job of staying true to the music and to each other.
On track 4, “Fragst du mich: Was war in deinen Traeumen” (You ask me: what was in your dreams) we have more of the same but Joscha Oetz and his double bass stood out here. He played his double bass with a bow, but at the same time, his sound was both expressive and communicative. I really felt like I was connecting with him as he was playing. Track 6, “Graue Liebesschlagen” (Gray Love-Snakes), though it has an odd title, was probably the most lyrical and musical track of the entire disc. Those of you who really are not into the avant-garde will really like this track as you can really hear how truly gifted the Pata Messengers are. Track 8, “Freilich ist es seltsam, die Erde nicht mehr zu bewohnen” (It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth) is at least as musical though a little slower in pace and more contemplative. Track 10, “Loesch mir die Augen aus: ich kann dich sehen” (Extinguish Thou my eyes: I still can see Thee), as the previous two musical tracks did, started out playing lyrically, but by the middle of the track, was full on free form, but this time, guitarist Nicola Hein was playing some real interesting cords, especially towards the end of this selection. Track 12, “Einmal, am Rande des Hains” (At once, at the edge of a grove) features some really nice sax work by Herr Stein as he played some really nice riffs towards the latter part of this track. I felt that tracks 14, “Ich fuerchte mich so vor der Menschen Wort” (I am so frightened by the words of men), and track 16, “Das Karussell” (The Merry-Go-Round) are both more of the same, however, Herr Hein really did some outstanding guitar-work on Das-Karussell. He had all manner of mind blowing sounds coming from his guitar. I could almost swear it sounded as though he was bowing his guitar. It will be real interesting to discover what he did to manipulate the guitar strings to get that unique sound.
This CD has great sonics and was very well recorded. For you audiophiles reading this, the sound quality of this CD is very high and is the type of sound you can use to show your system off with. Tonally, it’s a little warm but not objectionably so, and it is very clear. Ingrid Noemi Stein’s vocal reading of the poems before each of the musical tracks is very clean and holographic. It sounds pretty much like she’s in the room reading to you. Overall, this is an excellent work with excellent poetry, vocals and some amazing avant-garde jazz. If you like that form of jazz, you will love this CD. It’s worth seeking out.
Mike Wright, Stereo Times
They seem to have almost telepathic communication
With over 35 years of recording behind him, saxophonist Norbert Stein is a well-established player on the German music scene and he's still going strong. He is constantly changing his ensembles, using different players that bring new ideas to his music. The groups usually have the word "Pata" in their name and for Stein's most recent release, Play Maria Rilke, the group has been dubbed Pata Messengers. (In the true spirit of "Pata", they sound nothing like the Jazz Messengers.)
As indicated by the title, Stein has opted to use the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke, one of the most venerated poets of the German language, as a springboard for music. But rather than setting Rilke's poetry to music, Stein uses a different tactic. He has the poems read by Ingrid Noemi Stein. Then the quartet plays pieces, written by Stein, presumably inspired by the poems. Ingrid Stein's recitation of the poems (in German) have a beautiful, unaffected delivery. Nothing is overstated and the recitations are all the more effective because of that. It's a perfect balance to the pieces that follow which are a varied lot. The quartet pieces straddle the line between free jazz and Stein's more melodic impulses. This has long been Stein's approach to music and it has served him well. Stein's tenor is commanding both in melody and in his extended range forays. His fellow musicians operate on the same level. During the free passages, guitarist Nicole Hein recalls Sonny Sharrock at his most searing (i.e. "Ich Kann Dich Sehen"). But he can also work a groove with sharp chordal comping, as on the swinging "Einmal Am Tande Des Hains". Oetz' bass sound is thick and meaty and it holds the music together. He clearly relishes functioning in that role. Most unusually, drummer Etienne Nillesen plays a snare drum and cymbal. Despite this pared down equipment, he's able to give the music drive, texture and color. It's a quartet that's working as one unit and they seem to have almost telepathic communication. If one hasn't heard Stein's music before, this project, though unusual, is well worth checking out for an indication of what he does.
Robert Iannapollo, Cadence Magazine
Further reviews of the CD "Das Karussell" as pdf. download:
- The Arts Fuse Steve Elman (in English)
- Los Angeles Jazz Scene Scott Yanow (in English)
- Stereo Times Mike Wright (in English)
- Cadence Robert Iannapollo (in English)
- JazzBuzz Vangelis Aragiannis (in Greek)
- Jazzrytmit Jouko Kirstilä (in Finish)
- jazz.pt Rui Eduardo Paes (in Portuguese)
- Jazzthetik Hans-Juergen Linke (in German)
- Culture Jazz Giard Thierry (in French)
- His Voice Zdenek Slaby (in Czech)
- Jazz Quadrat Leonid Auskern (in Russia)
- Jazz Special Bjarne Søltoft (in Danish)
- ImproSphère Claude Ponce (in French)
- KultKomplott Hans-Juergen Schaaf (in German)
- jazznrw.net Stefan Pieper (in German)
- Concerto Martin Schuster (in German)
- Jazz&Tzaz Phontas Troussas (in Greek)
- Citizen Jazz Franpi Barriaux (in French)
- tomajazz Pachi Tapiz (in Spanish)
- Jazz Convention Flavio Caprera (in Italian)
- Blicklicht Jens Pittasch (in German)
- Jazzpodium Hans-Juergen von Osterhausen (in German)
- Jazzthing Rolf Thomas (in German)
- Silberhorn Marcus.A. Woelfle (in German)
- Jazzcity Michael Ruesenberg (in German)
- WAZ Wolfgang Platzeck (in German)
- Wolnzacher Marktinfo Wolfgang M. Seemann (in German)
- stereoplay Werner Stiefele (in German)
- arpeggio Ruediger Behschnitt (in German)