The blue spiral

Composer Norbert Stein at the triennial music festival in Cologne

Abstract carve drawing of man on the run

An octet for Norbert Stein is more than just eight players. It is a whole orchestra, with himself playing in it. Though unpretentious as a composer, Norbert Stein is not undemanding. Orchestras are not just required to play his music, but to turn it into something their very own. And audiences, more than just sitting still, are expected to open themselves up to that special quality of his music which transcends the audible. In this respect, Stein belongs as much to Karl Heinz Stockhausen as to the contemporary jazz tradition from which he has never departed since his spell in the “saxophone mafia” of Cologne. First and foremost, however, he is a stubborn individualist whose personal “Pata Musik”label shields him from categorization. At the triennial music festival in Cologne’s “Stadtgarten”, pata-music was the medium of his three-fold self-portrait as composer, conceptualist and saxophonist –

three aspects best presented according to the thesis/antithesis/synthesis model. The thesis or “Pata Blue Chip” merges synthesized sound with a sequence of associative, non-figurative video images to form an integrated whole. This is done completely spontaneously using preset material. Stein, Xavier Garcia, Christoph Hillmann and Frank Koellges realize this concept without onomatopoeic sampling, keeping it, like video artist Reinhold Knieps’ contribution, on an abstract, richly associative level.

Carvedrawing of humans and animals by a streamThe goal is to scan the size of a space rather than fill it with contents. The leitmotif is a blue spiral, turning to evoke harmony and endless movement, which lends the music an object-focused rather than fleetingly progressive quality. Music and pictures are completely disparate. Unlinked and unrelated, they form an acoustic-visual installation which illuminates one and the same object with different mediums. What this object actually is, escapes definition and probably lies in some imaginary center which pulls the attention of all on stage. Equally novel is the sound picture created by the Pata Masters – a quintett of three windplayers (Norbert Stein: tenor saxophone, Michael Heupel: flute, Reiner Winterschladen: trumpet) and two percussionists ( drummer Klaus Mages with Matthias von Welck on the slit drums and gongs). Taking the deepest of audible frequencies as their foundation (von Welck’s slit drums are immensely rich in upper tones and Heupel often uses his incredible sub-contrabass flute percussively), the Pata Masters build up a compact framework of poised, yet energy-laden rhythms.

Each closely intent on the other, the windplayers produce their solos – clear melodic signals, mostly arranged in parallel, sometimes rubato, elaborately structured, but archaic in inspiration. Dispensing with a long climactic build-up, idea is heaped on idea in dramatic cumulation. Fragments of melodies and sounds meet in a restrained but powerful confrontation, crowding around an imaginary center and clamouring for attention. This is the bustling disorder of a meditteranean market, with all its contrasts, and not the predictability of the self-service store.

The strong socio-spatial element of the music was expressed most strongly in the orchestral (or octet) finale. The Pata orchestra, comprising the rhythm team (von Welck, Koellges, Hillman and Mages) and wind section (Stein, Heupel, Winterschladen and Gratkowski), backed up by Stein and Hillmann on the synthesizers, pays homage to a dense composition which, departing from a broad baseline, explores many different avenues without confining itself. Stein is less interested in subtly defined sound pictures than in free expression. But the freedom of the musicians to improvise does not make the result an arbitrary one. On the contrary, Stein is a sound craftsman with a precise aim in view and an eye both for detail and the final picture. Not just his music, but his exactingness and generosity on the stage turn the concert into a unique social experience. And one that stays in our memories too, since it shows us something we can all take home with us – an imaginary center.

Hans-Juergen Linke, Frankfurter Rundschau