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Lula ROMERO (b. 1976)
Ins Offene, for 10 instruments and live electronics (2012/13) [22:33]
Die Wanderung, for solo instruments and live electronics (2016/17) [34:09]
Entmündigung, for two sopranos, alto and live electronics (2015/16) [19:00]
Lula Romero, Vertixe Sonora, Luc Döbereiner, Lukas Nowok, Thomas Hummel, Constantin Popp (live electronics)
Aki Hashimoto, Silke Evers, (sopranos); Noa Frenkel (alto)
Zafraan Ensemble/Premil Petrovic
rec. 2018, Teldex Studio, Berlin; Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln; SWR Studio, Schlossbergsaal, Freiburg, Germany
WERGO WER64292 [75:43]

Those readers who are experimental music cognoscenti may be aware of the technique known as ‘granular synthesis’. For those unfamiliar with the idea (like myself) it apparently involves the isolation of microscopically brief samples (typically under 50 milliseconds) of live instrumental, vocal or natural sound which are captured by software, and are subsequently selected, recombined and produced electronically via loudspeakers during performance. It’s a strategy that seems pivotal to Lula Romero’s art, and which at times inculcates her music with a sculpted, tactile quality. Romero was born in Majorca, and has studied in Seville, The Hague (with Cornelis de Bondt) and Graz. She has lived in Berlin for the last decade and with the release of this disc she has become the 104th composer to be represented in Wergo’s extensive and invaluable series Edition Zeitgenössische Musik (Contemporary Music Edition), a collection which has been curated over many years in league with the German Music Council.

In among the list of awards and commissions identified in Wergo’s brief biography is a summary of Romero’s main compositional impulses, which are characterised as “….the exploration of… space in music with reference to musical structure and sonic material, in relation to feminist theories and practices and questions of social equality.” If these words suggest a music which is likely to be uncompromising and confrontational they are well chosen; Romero takes no prisoners in any of these works. I have to say I found them rich in interest and was more than happy to take on the challenges they presented.

In fact granular synthesis dominates the sound world of the longest work here (placed second), the six movement sequence Die Wanderung (The Journey). The first five pieces involve solo instruments and live electronics, the last combines the instrumental quintet with further synthetic manipulation. Each panel lasts between five and six minutes. The first for accordion is a sonic hall of mirrors which plays around with the percussive sounds produced by the player depressing the keys and buttons as much as it does with the pitches themselves. The glassy overtones and harmonics that emerge often conceal their source via a halo of amplification, distrortion and metamorphosis. The spits and pops that emerge in the next piece are presumably granulations. This involves a tenor saxophone which weaves gentle threads of sound, and with a kind of pulse provided by irregular, synthetic raindrops the instrument comes to life –. an imaginary encounter between Coltrane and Eimert, perhaps. It segues imperceptibly into the third ‘journey’ for cello, another instrument whose percussive potential Romero exploits to the max. To add to the lexicon of mathematical and scientific allusion which Julia H Schröder includes in her (actually quite comprehensible) note, perhaps one could describe what we hear as ‘nanomelodies’, a collection of tiny, controlled arco events. Similar ideas are explored in the flute example; fascinating experiments with chords, microtones, trills, glissandi and what sound like vocalisations and tentative clouds of radio interference. The final solo instrumental panel involves a harp, which sounds dry, somehow muted by the electronic manipulation rather than made more resonant. There’s a sudden flurry of activity, a beating on the sound box, more ‘interference’. This harp is dirty and ugly, rather than prettified. Loose strings rustle in the undergrowth. Romero creates harp music of potential and possibility which hangs around the periphery of convention; only toward the end of this piece in the soloist’s gentle trilling do we recognise a disembodied, decontextualized ‘version’ of familiar harp sound. I found the final movement for all five instruments oddly anti-climactic. The flute, sax and cello seem to take turns in leading the argument, while harp, accordion and electronics provide a counterpoint of texture. If Romero’s games with the singular potentials of these solo instruments are certainly compelling, I found the ensemble conclusion of Die Wanderung less convincing, although it may have seemed like a good idea on paper.

An even tougher nut to crack is Entmundigung (‘Disenfranchisement’) for three solo female voices and electronics. It’s inspired by a celebrated tract by the Slovene philosopher Mladen Dolar called ‘A Voice and Nothing More’, whose ideas can be linked to the social and political connotations of ‘voicelessness’. It begins with clouds of glowering, grumbling electronics. A deep alto voice intones on a bending single pitch. It duels with higher pitches – are these the soprano voices or the electronics? Or both? Entmundigung is dominated by ambiguity and overlap- voices real or synthetic project hints of language. At one point a curious three-part harmony emerges where the ear strains to disentangle voice and synthetic sound. After an extended period of stasis, the distinctiveness of each begins to clarify. The alto voice from time to time seems to mimic operatic conventions. The sounds here don’t flow at all, they deliberately conflict, challenge and provoke. Does this constitute a musical experience? Synthetic sounds occasionally suggest the distant, imagined choirs of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo. At 8:40 the alto voice sounds almost shamanic in its quiet intensity. By the 11:00 mark the granulations occur in the form of sandpapery textures and raw vocalisations which expand and contract. Pauses come as a relief to the listener. As the actual sounds are clearly ‘unbeautiful’ glassy, quiet interjections and silences seem like balmy oases of repose. As the work literally stutters towards its conclusion the final vocal sounds one hears seem to represent a last gasp. I found Entmundigung both compelling and uncomfortable. I can’t imagine playing it again any time soon.

In comparison, the opening work on the disc Ins offene (Into the open) for 10 instruments and electronics is certainly more accessible, if not necessarily more conventional. Its opening, whereby jagged drum tattoos joust with spectrally creepy violins and flutes pre-empts an abrupt mellowing which dissolves amid gentle harp textures. The episode is characteristic of music which inhabits a busy, pock-marked environment, suggesting sonic rockpools of teeming life almost inaudible to the naked ear. In this regard I’m not sure that the excessively bombastic percussion that intermittently occurs does the music any favours, however. I was especially impressed by a section of Ins offene beginning at 5:42 where harp and piano seem to be mirroring each other; this triggers an arresting chain of events which concludes in some primitive interplay between low winds and strings. The harp seems to provide something of a subconscious, almost omnipresent transcendental background. The electronic presence doesn’t really become apparent until the 8:00 mark when weird high-pitched sounds which could be transmitted from outer space intersect with percussion and wind sounds which evolve into distant rumbles of what might equally be thunder or trains in tunnels. Wind instruments guffaw and mock like pairs of insolent magpies accompanying radio signals. More confrontational material predominates until 17:00 when an uneasy peace is restored, notwithstanding the odd loud jab. The silences which eventually emerge seem out of place given what has occurred up to this point. Ins offene conveys a kind of instrumental musique concrete with a few telling electronic interjections. It’s both fascinating and unsettling, spectacularly so when experienced through a pair of decent headphones in the dark.
Whatever one’s response to this densely eventful, challenging music, it is unlikely that open-minded listeners will be unimpressed by the immaculate and invigorating musicianship displayed by the various soloists, ensembles and technicians who perform on this disc. Wergo’s sound is superlative, which seems critical given the unique sonic environments Lula Romero has devised here. I found little that I could truly describe as beautiful, but even at her most provocative this composer’s voice both deserves and demands to be heard. Listeners who are truly serious about new music will discover much food for thought in these three works.

Richard Hanlon

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