Vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher’s latest album SOL will be released via Neue Meister today, 5 June 2020. It was recorded last year over several days in residence at the Opderschmelz, the regional cultural centre at Dudelange in Luxembourg. AJ Dehany was invited to sit in on the recording sessions and this is his account of the experience:
Pascal Schumacher is a composer and vibraphone player from Luxembourg. SOL is his new album for vibraphone with additional electronic manipulations. It was recorded over a residency of four days in the main hall of the Opderschmelz centre in Dudelange on the French border. I was invited to be there because I’d written about Rosace.8, an orchestral work of symphonic scale and ambition which he had debuted in February 2019 at the Luxembourg Philharmonic. Rosace.8 and SOL are companion pieces: one live and orchestral, one an intimate studio recording.
It is instrumental music with a hypnotic appeal, in no genre, not jazz nor classical, not pop nor film, a strange music with at times a naive quality, with subtle sophistications through the interaction of sound and production and, in some tracks, layers of overdubs. The pieces build with complex interlocking of the parts whose simplicities bind together in intricate patterns, both in live and recorded contexts. There were no scores; songs were prepared, but, he said, “when there is just you, you don’t have to write anything down”.
Trying to be quiet I crept into the hall with my boots in my hand. The others were wearing sneakers. Lucas Archambault was filming and taking photographs of Pascal playing in a brightly lit central crescent of vibraphone, glockenspiels and tubular bells, a light enclosed in darkness. Pascal has played concerts there many times, and chose it because recording solo “you don’t necessarily need to be in a studio. I wanted to be in a beautiful and hopefully inspiring room”. He also works with Joachim Olaya, an engineer and producer whom he has worked with for nearly a decade. Olaya’s contribution forms a signature component in earlier trio albums and now this album, which is solo but also very much a collaboration.
The thick, heavy sound from the tremolo pipes almost overwhelms that of the ideophonic blocks of the vibraphone. Really there are two timbres, two sound worlds going on in friendly rivalry. The room fills with sound. A few minutes into the as-yet unnamed piece he varies up the rhythm disarmingly then pulls back to quieter gallop, a soft vamp, then ends on a perfect fourth. We hear the playback with a wobbly echo effect sounding very cosmic and modern space age – an indication of what it will sound like after post-production, when an extra dimension is added to the live room sound. It both radically reifies and destabilises the core vibraphone track
The vibraphone itself becomes a secure voice in a bed of noise – though the constant fluctuation of the tremolo makes it always spooky and unsettling in and of itself, then Joachim adds a specific harmonised delay sounds like a ghostly chorale, mimicking tape loop effects with more metallic sounds extended from the overtone series in a chaotic stormy drone like scraping a metal pick along guitar strings.
In the studio Pascal and Joachim often discuss the nature of the music as a negotiation between minimalism and jazz. They’ve spent a lot of time trying to break away from what he calls “the jazz licks, jazz clichés.” Minimalism seems different in character to what might be termed ‘faux naif’/’naive music’. I asked him how much can you strip away before it loses interest.
“It’s a really interesting topic,” he says, “being jazz trained and having played jazz for so many years fills you with certain ways of expressing yourself, especially on the rhythmical side. I integrated jazz phrasing for so many years that now when I am looking more into ambient neoclassical kinds of music (the ones I love most) it is hard for me to play simple rhythms… really! That’s where Joachim helps me. That’s why I like to have him around; he gives me simple feedback, that makes immediate sense to me, but sometimes is really hard to do. Jazz is the music, that I teach, but I listen to Nils Frahm and Olafur and Sven Helbig and Chilly Gonzales and Max Richter and Francesco Tristano, and and and…”
In the mild mid-evening, we sat outside in the centre of town. Around us the whirling blue lights and sirens of fire engines raced up and down the streets. There had been an accident further along, but mainly it reminded us that over in Paris the cathedral of Notre Dame was burning. No-one was unaffected. We were and are unified in our sadness. Remarkably, the Rosace of Notre Dame survived the conflagration, and so it seems somehow fitting that Pascal’s orchestral work Rosace.8 and SOL should become artefacts of commemoration and community, survival and rebuilding.
The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has added another level of piquancy to the work. In our physical isolation, we are rediscovering our connections with each other. There is a paradox in ‘solo listening’ and ‘solo playing’ as if there were just one of you—a paradox that leads you to question what it means to be alone with music, or even what it means to be ‘alone together’ with another person, whether happily or in misery. No one is ever really alone, yet we are all essentially solo artists. The working title of the album was Solo+… because solo is always solo plus something or someone else. Because, thankfully, we are never really completely alone.
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk