Konrad Sprenger - Stack Music
Archaic history declares that Pythagoras invented harmony. Amongst teachings that ranged from the transmigration of the soul, the veneration of the fava bean, and the existence of a “counter-earth,” his philosophies pioneered the various material harmonic relations of the octave and their connection with weight as the measure of tension. It is here where we find Pythagoras’s attempt at an essential sonorous order, or harmony of relation — Pythagoras’s ontologically regulating principle. The myth describes that Pythagoras began his musical thinking after wandering by a forge and hearing the resounding sounds within. “He found five men hammering with five hammers [and] To his astonishment, he discovered that four of the five hammers stood in a marvelous set of proportions, which, when combined, allowed him to reconstruct the laws of music.”
Author Daniel Heller-Roazen describes: “Yet, there was also a fifth hammer. Pythagoras saw and heard it, but he could not measure it; nor could he reason its discordant sound. He therefore discarded it.”
Much of experimental music in the post-Cagean lineage, especially music adopting minimalist postures and even more especially music within the first and second generations of New York minimal composers, attempts to explore the excitable tension, microtonality, and reasonable irreconcilability of the fifth hammer. Their art is to integrate this discord into the milieu of general “hammering” — an impossible project for Pythagoras, but one heard in the resounding sonority found in the late Tony Conrad’s droning performance idiom, where hammer tones were blurred in a spectral sound achieved from the droning of precise pitch within special tunings. It is also heard in the work of Arnold Dreyblatt’s “Orchestra of Excited Strings,” Ellen Fullman’s “Long String Instrument,” and Henry Flynt’s exploration of the objective sound elements of blues and country music being, as Flynt himself has noted, “demonstrably incommensurate with the categorization of sound in European musicology.”
In a manner similar to and often in association with many of these artists, Berlin composer Konrad Sprenger “felt restrained by the limits of traditional instruments and the techniques tied to them, [and has] spent years developing various algorithms and custom instruments to realize his work.” For Sprenger too, the resonating string is the tableau and concept-delivery mechanism to precisely integrate the wild sonic excitation discarded by Pythagoras.
To do this, Sprenger has developed rhythmic patterns based on the Euclidean algorithm. If any of us needed reminding (me), the Euclidean algorithm “optimizes difference” through a step-by-step procedure based on the principle that the greatest common divisor of two numbers does not change if the larger number is replaced by its difference with the smaller number. He applies this with a computer-controlled multi-channel electric guitar that, in his own words, can “create complex rhythmical patterns whilst tuning the strings during performance — sounding at once like an electronic instrument, a drum computer, a guitar, a harpsichord, even at times as a full orchestra.” He supplements these sounds with software like Melodyne and progresses them as insistent rhythms in the style of “Minimalism, Krautrock and Techno,” honing their focus as a “propulsive, full-spectrum sound.”
Sprenger’s “Stack Music” — its cleanliness, its rigorous astringency — evokes the sudoku-like simplicity of stacking pythagorean triangles. It also references Benjamin Bratton’s Stack, a “multilayered structure of software protocol stacks in which network technologies operate within a modular and interdependent order” (from energy/mineral sourcing, subterranean cloud infrastructure, urban software, massive universal addressing systems). Despite the historicity and academic leanings of Sprenger’s project, there’s also sonic allegiance and beautiful overlap with D’eon’s Music For Keyboards suite, as well as some of the pointillistic practices of Lorenzo Senni.
“Opening” invokes the core of the album’s erudite mood, calling to mind Pythagoras again with a “hammered” string duclimer tonality — never wavering, just exhibiting the tone, raising it an octave, then blooming it into subtle arpeggiations. Apparently, the piece is based on an early live performance recorded in New York and composed at Phill Niblock’s Intermedia Foundation Loft. “Finale” is immediately more compositionally spacious, conjuring a droning totalism in the style of Rhys Chatham (both his guitar and flute work) as well as primitivist scenery, with train whistles going by in immediate homage to John Fahey’s “Days Have Gone By.” These references could easily come across as overwrought, but Sprenger clearly isn’t interested in their mere aesthetic quality or manipulation, as are many within the revivalist practices of contemporary guitarists. Clearly displayed on the Kosmische “Rondo,” there’s an exclusively compositional restraint here that allows reference to smear into further abstraction. This is furthered through computational mediation, pushing the sound toward the substance of minimalist music, a fetishized substance threaded through the wide guitar tableau and explored relentlessly in Pythagorean temples and New York Lofts alike.
Asymmetrically, about two minutes minutes into “Largo” (the final piece), the album’s jubilant potential is wondrously unveiled. As ascending melodies skyrocket Sprenger’s conceptual asceticism into visceral emotion, shining, dynamic plucks and cymbals roil in a marimba-like cadence, transforming the album’s bookish tone into an almost raw celebration. It’s a striking revelation, as bass tones stack into a cathartic, flourishing crescendo. Elegant and never tiring, Sprenger’s historical project beautifully expands an experimental archeology that many reference but don’t often feel. On Stack Music, this history appears as contemporary as ever, displaying the relentless task for the human to press thumb to wire, sharing sonority with that “counter-earth,” confronting the fifth hammer, optimizing its resounding infinitude — however impossibly — for our brief study, our brief celebration.