Discovering any form of art is often described as a journey. Anyone interested in a particular artist will eventually be led towards the work of another. In the ongoing sonic adventures at OBLADADA, a name that started appearing when we reached a certain point, quite a distance down the crazy path, was Michael Ranta. The US percussionists’ name suddenly started appearing in the mix with all sorts of ensembles that start to gather at the outer reaches of experiment music from Germany and Japan, from the mid 70’s onwards.
As the voyage blurs from the music that’s expanded into something else, Ranta’s name litters several albums that, even now, bristle with a crazy focus decades later. His work with Takehisa Kosugi, Toshi Ichiyananagi, Hermut Geerken, Mike Lewis and Connie Plank sit in a weird zone between fragmented rock, avant jazz and droning spaced worlds.
Even a quick summary of his background, cites Ranta as someone that’s continually been in the headiest of places in music. He was a studio assistant of Harry Partch in the mid 60’s, part of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s ensemble that played at the world exhibition in Osaka in 1970. He’s lived and taught all over the world since, been involved in theatre and film, and as you might sense, someone we have a deep respect for here.
Die Mauer is Ranta’s musical accompaniment to a ballet by Phillipe Talard, recorded from performances in 1988/89. It’s been sitting somewhere unreleased for over 30 years and finally was released by the wonderful Belgian label, Metaphon towards the tail end of 2019. Quietly, the easy to overlook, monochrome sleeve photography and understated typography of Die Mauer was gently pushed out into the world.
We missed it, but in the short time since discovering it more recently, are convinced it’s one of the best albums we have heard in ages. Whilst it’s impossible to gauge quite how the sound worked alongside the visual spectacle of ballet, stage and lights, this sonic layer, experienced in isolation, is 68 minutes of exhilarating morphing and blooming.
Gathering together various instruments, percussive devices, textures, voices and electronics, we end up in a stream of overlapping sounds that react to each other like chemicals. Prelude rises out of reverbed sludge into a filmic clash between a samurai warrior and a steel band. Danse Générale plots a metronomic gamelan groove over shimmering fragments for at least 10 weightless minutes before voices are thrown over the whole thing like paint splatters. Everything you might list as a vital element of music or song, but this time, assembled by aliens.
Lost In The Dark is just that, a sense of space without any visual reassurances, transmissions in inky black fog. Lamento bends elongated notes around corners. Underground scurries off down a secret void.
The album reaches some kind of jaw dropping beauty in the near 12-minute crest of Absurd. Trailing out of looping folky mist and metallic water, everything aligns in a sublime surge that’s hard to define. Electronic spirals eventually rise around the keys in a way that’s breath-taking, and entrances you at the active wormhole junction of this strange beauty for several minutes.
Confirmation, rattles and drones towards low chanting of a hidden monastery, whilst The Wall Is There twinkles like warm sunbeams. The brief Soloist Over The Wall draws huge sawing arcs of string before Bells In Space slowing embraces sounds stretching out into space before dissolving out of view.
As a listening experience, Die Mauer begins to feel like two monumental peaks as the two longest tracks, Danse Générale and Absurd somehow gather together what the shorter tracks focus in on. It would be easy to generalise what happens here as pleasant and ambient, but this is music that’s somehow far more gripping than that. Ranta blends elements that sound somehow completely familiar but with characteristics that, equally, have never been exposed before.
The title Die Mauer – translates from German as the wall, and was composed just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The titles give some clues to how this barrier cut through communities, its physical form being much more than just bricks and mortar. The elation of it finally being pulled down, new embraces over rubble, and that sense of a new future is still difficult to forget.
Sonically, Ranta simply takes sounds that evoke different places and times and gently stirs and blends them, with the touch of a master, into some recipe for a truly magical soup. Die Mauer is nothing less than a superbly mysterious treat.
Whilst we’ve arrived at this album late in the day, its undoubtedly a listening highlight of 2020.