Sunday, April 4, 2010

Cluster - Qua (2009)

As far as krautrock goes, I’m more a fan of the kosmische, the ambient and the motorik moments than of the riotous long-form hippie-era free jams in which the genre had its inception – apart from Cluster, other favourites include Neu! (a band whose full potential is sadly only realised in a few songs), Harmonia, Kraftwerk’s Ralf und Florian, and Manuel Göttsching/Ash Ra Tempel’s New Age of Earth (not to mention the wildly influential E2-E4). But if one was to think that the creative force of this movement, if movement it can be termed, was largely spent by the early eighties, Cluster’s 2009 album Qua (their first in fourteen years) demonstrates that this was not the case universally.

Despite the seminal quality and historical importance of their earlier work, in particular Zuckerzeit and Sowieso, Qua is, I think, Cluster’s finest moment (although After the Heat is a strong contender). This is an album which manifests their finest qualities – a pop melodiousness which is filtered through a lens of experimentation which means that it never manifests in the traditional song form but rather lends a quality of the unheimliche, the familiar residing in the unfamiliar (and/or vice versa) to their work – along with an understated musical sensibility in which the content of the music unfolds itself at the listener’s pleasure, equally amenable to playing the role of Satie’s furniture music (and Satie, for me, is a key reference point for Qua), but also, like the work of the corduroy-suited composer, to serious engagement, a fascination with the intricacies of ambience and minimal (though not necessarily repetitious) sound. On this note, one is reminded of the way in which David Lynch’s early work draws one into the microscopic world of the everyday, and there is a similar cinematic quality here, though without the overtones of melodrama and anxiety which haunt Lynch.

Rather than the more usual lengthy explorations of the krautrock oeuvre, the pieces on Qua tend to be short (with the exception of the stunning 'Gissander,' which clocks in at just under seven minutes), and in this they bring to mind found objects, whose purpose remains indeterminate and mysterious, but also not a question of importance. In these electronic explorations, there is nothing resembling a hook as such – this is music which dissolves as one listens to it. I’m reminded of the cover, and indeed the mood, of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling (a work concerned with scale and texture) – a photograph by artist Judith Scott – or of Foucault’s memorable description of aphasia in the introduction to The Order of Things:

‘when shown various differently coloured skeins of wool on a table top, [they] are consistently unable to arrange them into any coherent patterns … within this simple space in which things are normally arranged and given names, the aphasiacs will create a multiplicity of tiny, fragmented regions in which nameless resemblances agglutinate things into unconnected islets: in one corner, they will place the lightest-coloured skeins, in another the red ones, somewhere else those that are softest in texture, in yet another place the longest, or those that have a tinge of purple or those that have been wound up into a ball. But no sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again…’

In other words, there is something deconstructive happening here, but also a sense of order inasmuch as that is both implied and denied by objects in a space; and it is in this paradoxically peaceful space of tension – which could also be viewed as the tension between observation and affect, and the in-trinsic directed exploration of spaces in which the two processes coexist parasitically – that Qua locates itself, and into which it draws the listener.

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