A word to the unwise: a collaborative effort of this magnitude by two of techno’s most enterprising artists is a major cause célèbre, a true milestone event. Few have reached as far and achieved as much as have Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald, each one a cornerstone of electronic-music innovation over the last two decades. Longevity is a premium not often associated with club culture, where unforgiving (and often stupid) cyclical trends and dangerous trap doors of a more personal nature are the standard. But Detroit-based Craig and Berlin-based von Oswald have kept the techno torch burning by alternately expanding and reducing the basic template, broadening the palate and seasoning it with new tones and textures, adding elements of dub, jazz, house, progressive rock, and classical composition to essentially build a brave new world of sound.
This ambitious, seamless, 64-minute reinterpretation of the fluid sonic impressionism of Maurice Ravel and the music of 19th-century Russian classicist Modest Mussorgsky (the most famous intersection of the talents of the two men came on Ravel’s 1922 arrangement of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition) blends complex historical works into a danceable three-act instrumental drama. “Bolero” is indeed represented here, as are Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnola” and Mussgorsky’s “Bilder einer Ausstellung.” (The source material for all three is a recording by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1987.)
It’s interesting to note that it was recently reported that Ravel may have been in the early stages of frontotemporal dementia when he composed the piece, which some say could account for its repetitive nature. Well, ahem, stand down Juan Atkins: We might have a new unwitting godfather of techno, a mad French genius who began creating sick, hypnotic drum patterns as early as 1928.
Craig and von Oswald’s undertaking begins like a ride on the wings of angels, with somber cathedral organs and a blending of what sounds like bassoons, clarinets, oboes, and trumpets delicately treated with electronic effects all leading the charge. Aided by the light patter of a marching drumbeat, this celestial introduction goes on for a gorgeous 20 minutes or so before the mood darkens, helped by a flutter of synthesizers, resonators, and light dub treatments. While still containing echoes of Ravel and Mussorgsky, Craig and von Oswald begin to push the content until it starts to sound a lot like Chicago acid, an early inspiration for both artists. It’s a pivotal moment in the piece. Either you take the leap and go along for the ride or you get off here. More pleasures await if you stick it out.
About halfway through, an ambient wobble works its way down into the mix, hovers over the klang for a few moments, then takes center stage as the beats recede. It’s the loveliest break of all, a 10-minute interlude that anticipates the last act. Beats roll back in, as do the horns, and strings appear and begin a final ascent. Digital effects are subtle but still apparent, never denying the presence of the recomposers. They make their mark once again with a deepening bass hum and percussive pressure that recalls von Oswald’s Rhythm & Sound project (with fellow dub traveler Mark Ernestus). This is foremost a classical project, confidently rendered by two faithful modernists, who know when to let great music convulse and pulse without unnecessary interference.