Do not come into the open!

Jump into the inextricable process: In praise of drummer Michael Wertmüller

Diedrich Diederichsen

October 2001. Things are coming to a close. At the Donaueschingen Music Days, for instance. Heaviest Metal drones crash into fragile string textures. Musicians of the chamber music ensemble Neue Musik Berlin, by now with faces reddened beyond healthiness, are slugging it out at the border of human capacity. Tempi beyond anyone’s ability to count, full-scale electric noise assaults, snarled violin webbing. Who could ever be capable of adequately playing 19,7/265 time signature while notations drift by on computer monitors past the musicians’ eyes, each at a different velocity, directed by a central computer functioning, according to the composer, as a “conductor with fifteen arms”? Well, the longhaired composer will know.

Transitional, feverishly saccharine dream-like passages are submerged by heavy blocks of sound. Did we just hear the tenderly digitized detonation of an ocean liner in the dry dock of Death Metal? Why did two birds survive this? At some point, it is quiet for a short moment. Applause erupts, breached by boo calls, becoming louder, drowned by thunderous shouts of ardor. Who rocked Donaueschingen here? Michael Wertmüller’s composition “Time. A User’s Manual” (“Die Zeit. Eine Gebrauchsanweisung”) has been performed. Since then at least, friends of New Music know what Free Jazz fans in Berlin, metalheads, and insiders of electronic fringe phenomena have been made familiar with, time and time again, in short intervals within the past months: Wertmüller takes no prisoners. Both the scale of complexity, as well as the scale measuring the physical capacity of musicians is without limit.

Within music, corporeal, bodily developments seem to be progressing to a large degree without influence from the aesthetic milieus in which those who inhibit these bodies dwell. Within digital Dance Music, along the iridescent borders of Metal culture, but also Free Jazz, Improv and particular branches of New Music, styles and means of playing have developed within the last ten years, which eradicate the old antagonism of complexity and intensity by use of physical exertion reminiscent of extreme sports. Be it complex Breakcore thunderstorm or Death Metal cannonades, the prevailing of the simplicity of exaltation in the moment of ecstasy is no longer valid. From the wild Dance Music of Venetian Snares to the fake Death Metal of Killl, the axis of concentrated high velocity, of crazily whirling ecstasy supreme, progresses with no escape, and exactly due to this prolonged thundering, evoking a feeling of liberation. Equally so, composers such as Siemens Award laureate Brian Ferneyhough have been forcing performers via concerted and cunningly implemented overtasking, and a detour through concentration, to the physical maximum. Don’t come into the open! Jump into the inextricable process!

However, connections between milieus are seldom, and it hardly happens that someone might deal with this development in a systematic and synthetic manner. Respectable protagonists of New Music have only seldom dealt with the extremes of Rock and Jazz. Exceptions such as Vinko Globokar, Michel Portal or Richard Teitelbaum prove the rule but can also be described as antecedents of a second generation including John Zorn, Heiner Goebbels, or Otomo Yoshihide. They all have expanded the subject of the contemporary either as adventurers seeking to cross borders, capable of transformation, or as postmodern collagists. Almost in all cases, the attractiveness and the risk of crossing the border as such was the decisive action. But not with Wertmüller, he has a different origin: a connectedness of genres and milieus which already existed prior to someone coming along, recognizing this fact, and combining subjects. Independent from observers, so to speak. Its joint properties are its novelty: use of new technology, media, but also a new physicality.

The composer Wertmüller, whose teacher was Dieter Schnebel in Berlin, among others, spends a large portion of his time as drummer of various bands. In 1990, John Zorn, Bill Laswell, and various friends of the author were not the only ones who recognized similarities between the then new Speed and Death Metal and the ecstatic techniques of Free Jazz in the late 60’s. But none had conjured a synthesis so convincing as the Swiss band Alboth!. They sounded as if Cecil Taylor had never played with any band other than Napalm Death. Had the genre typical grunting, hissing, screaming vocalist of Death Metal and the hypernervous, racing piano of Free Jazz been separated at birth? Or was it just an exaggeration of metaphors of reunification typical for that era? An ultra-precise and highly energetic drumming formed the basis for this unexpected harmony. And indeed, the drummer was Michael Wertmüller. Even in this role, he operated pretty much as if equipped with fifteen arms, even if, after the fact, one could only discover two of them.

Wertmüller maintained contact to all involved spheres of music. And added a couple more. First step was becoming a composer. For his friends in the Swiss band Steamboat Switzerland, he wrote compositions for the release titled “Wertmüller”. Together with their bass player Mariano Pliakas, he whirled through various ensembles by and with Peter Brötzmann. During the great Brötzmann Days in Berlin last autumn he could be experienced in various constellations. Recently he could be seen with his new band Ives#1 at Club Transmediale or at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. “Live At Tonic – Farewell” by Pliakas/Brötzmann/Wertmüller has just been released: a stunning salute to a club in Manhattan murdered by gentrification and amusement culture.

In Ives#1, Wertmüller and Pliakas collaborate with singer Thomas Mahmoud and computer musician Gerd Rische, director of the Studio of Electroacoustic Music at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Mahmoud had previously been singer of Von Spar, reflexively agitated political rockers, for a while considered the official successors of the Goldenen Zitronen. However, this successorship did not provide long-term interest to him. Today one has the feeling as if older scores for overtasking vocals such as by Hans Joachim Hespos (“Palimpsest”, 1971) were joined in his throat by the ghosts of forgotten great grunters of Death Metal genres such as Chuck Schuldiner. Ives#1 is possibly the first band in Wertmüller’s biography that can no longer be understood as a mix of, reaction to, or amalgamation of something, but only as the next great step. That which happens when being patient and insistent upon not wanting to liberate oneself, permanently and immediately, but to both work through and shake, rattle and roll the complexity of corporeal concentration and computers without either wanting or believing to need the attainment of some kind of imbecilic, cathartic end.

Without either wanting or believing to need the attainment of some kind of imbecilic, cathartic end.

Photo: Michael Wertmüller at his instrument, in this photo at the Enjoy-Jazz-festival 2006