Negative Space Music

Moritz von Oswald’s Silencio

Moritz von Oswald’s new solo album Silencio takes his signature restraint in a strikingly different direction.

Moritz von Oswald (R) and Juan Atkins.

The title track starts things off slowly, like a match struggling to stay alight in the wind. But forty seconds into the second number, “Luminoso”, everything changes.

We hear voices. Many voices. But not the sort found on the remarkable records von Oswald released with Rhythm & Sound in the early 2000s. “Luminoso” sounds nothing like reggae.

This is choral music in the mode of avant-garde classical compositions, seamlessly blended to serve a disquieting end.

While only some of Silencio’s eleven tracks include these voices, the memory of them haunts the album’s instrumental passages.

The effect is similar to the dissonantly angelic choir in Jürgen Knieper’s score for the 1987 Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire.

What motivated the legendary Berlin producer to try this approach?

Part of it, I imagine, had to do with frustration at how his previous work has been pigeonholed.

Despite the crucial role that he and his creative partner Mark Ernestus played in the development of minimal techno and dub, they clearly saw this work as part of a larger project, not reducible to any particular genre.

From that perspective, releasing an album like Silencio makes a great deal of sense.

Not only does Silencio ensure that we will hear von Oswald’s future work with more finely tuned ears, it also invites us to revise our understanding of the records that came before.

People who normally look down upon popular music will have a hard time rejecting the work of Basic Channel or Rhythm & Sound once they realise that it was made by artists who could have opted for a less accessible approach.

It also helps that von Oswald underscores his indebtedness to dub reggae by including remixes of some tracks, ones he labels with the reggae term “version”.

Indeed, in the case of “Volta”, the version precedes the standard.

Superimposing this term on music that initially seems better suited to classical nomenclature is quite a flex.

Indeed, Silencio is hard to categorise.

Would someone listening to it blind discern a connection with other von Oswald projects, such as Rhythm & Sound and Basic Channel?

I’m not so sure.

What is certain is that once Silencio’s creator is known, figuring out the record’s relationship to those projects becomes a crucial component of the listening experience.

Silencio lacks the pared-down, pulsing beats that made the Rhythm & Sound records a crucial touchstone of the dub aesthetic, particularly in post-Cold War club music.

Nor does it feature the crackling neo-Kraftwerk textures that distinguish Basic Channel’s work of the 1990s from the mainstream electronica of that era.

But the longer you hear Silencio, the more complicated these absences seem.

Amid the languid waves of sound, I began to hear what wasn’t there almost as clearly as what was: the heartbeat of Basic Channel’s “Quadrant Dub”, Paul St. Hilaire’s voice echoing through the chambers of Rhythm & Sound’s “King in My Empire”.

Despite the superficial differences between Moritz von Oswald’s projects, they share a roominess. It never feels like he’s trying to pack sound into a tight space.

On the contrary, the challenge is to prevent it from disappearing into the ether.

That’s always been one of the biggest projects of dub – to incorporate silence into music without giving in to it completely. Hence, the title of von Oswald’s record.

But there’s another side to it.

After I listened to Silencio several times in a row, I thought I might be hallucinating.

Could there be a structural relationship between the album and von Oswald’s more rhythmic-oriented recordings?

Strange as this may seem, I began to perceive Silencio as representing their negative space. Almost as though he was sampling it and using it as a jumping-off point.

To be precise, these were the previously inaudible sounds that had held those records in place. And those recordings, in turn, were retroactively transformed into the negative space of Silencio.

To put this another way, by demonstrating that von Oswald could have made different compositional decisions in the past, the album gives his entire oeuvre a substantial makeover.

If Moritz von Oswald goes on to make another record in a techno or dub vein, we will know that he did it because he wanted to, not because he had to.

In the meantime, what we have is an album that is their logical aesthetic consequence, that’s both neither and all of the above.

I can’t think of a more difficult artistic thing to do, especially given the temptation such successful producers face to repeat themselves.

Particularly coming from someone who was in a band like Rhythm & Sound, which inspired legions of imitators.

Silencio avoids that repetition but quickly reminds you of what it could have been – and still might be.

Photograph courtesy of Merlijn Hoek. Published under a Creative Commons license.