Technically speaking, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer's latest album, Re: ECM, took several years to complete, but in another sense it's been decades in the making. Both artists have been fans of the German jazz label since they were young—the former since he was 15—and owe to it the obsession with sound that defines their music. "Immersing oneself in the productions of ECM, one learns a lot about the optimum sound experience," they say. "We too have the paramount rule of making no compromises where sound is concerned." The connection goes beyond artistic influence: ECM records have been part of Villalobos' DJ sets for years, and the label got in touch with him after someone from Universal, their distributor, heard him playing in a club. The idea for a remix album came up, and Villlalobos got in touch with Loderbauer, his longtime friend, collaborator and fellow ECM fanatic. The two artists toyed around for a while, eventually producing four or five demo tracks. When they showed them to Manfred Eicher, ECM's founder and mastermind, he immediately gave them his blessing, along with permission to use whatever they needed from the label's 40-year catalog.
The two artists produced Re: ECM over several months at Laika Studios, a small complex just behind Berghain where Villalobos and numerous other artists work. Surrounded by keyboards, monitors and a cable-strewn modular system, they immersed themselves in the project throughout the fall of 2009. They ended up drawing mostly from the label's recent releases, partly out of necessity: since it wasn't possible to use separate tracks for each piece, they had to choose records in which instruments stood in isolation, which evidently led them to contemporary artists like Christian Wollumrød, Alexander Knaifel and Arvo Pärt. The duo pillaged these records for source material, sampling everything from full ensembles to bare microphonic impressions, i.e. relative silence.
Re: ECM is not a collection of techno tracks that heavily sample jazz or classical pieces—in fact, nothing on the album even distantly resembles club music, though it does bear each artist's distinct signature. For Loderbauer, there are moments that sound like Moritz von Oswald Trio or nsi., especially 2007's Plays Non Standards. For Villalobos, the album has the same lush imagery of Thé Au Harem D'Archimède, but without the 4/4 pulse. The extent of their reinterpretation varies from track to track, but in most cases they preserve the essence of the original—say, the melody in Christian Wallumrød's "Music for One Cat"—and utterly transform the rest. In "Recat," this means shuffling up a straight brush stick rhythm, and turning a bowed melody into something that sounds plucked. In nearly all cases, a strange, abstract character is added.
As its fairly verbose liner notes will tell you, Re: ECM is genuinely avant-garde: its explicit goal is to break boundaries and explore new ideas. Villalobos and Loderbauer are constantly testing the limits of their medium, and as electronic producers, this means doing everything possible to act and sound more like a jazz band: live, spontaneous and acoustic. Re: ECM makes an impressive go at this. Because it uses only acoustic recordings as source material, it often has the sonorous quality of something captured live in a room. The original records also give the album an emotional subtlety that's rare in electronic music.
But Re: ECM's most remarkably jazz-like qualities can be attributed to modular synthesizers, perhaps the album's most important instrument. These complex and unpredictable machines lent the process an element of chaos, creating sounds that neither artist could have foreseen. They also forced the duo to stay on their toes: once the system has been shut down and turned back on, it's impossible to find the same sounds again, so the final version of each piece had to be completed over the course of one day (incidentally, Eicher mixed most of ECM's 1,000+ records in one day as well). This means that, much like on a jazz album, each track is an edited recording of a live session, much of which was unscripted and could never be precisely recreated.
Even if you can't be bothered with things like acoustics, frequency ranges or the ins and outs of modular systems, Re: ECM is still a success. The album is incredibly rich from beginning to end, and totally unpredictable—one piece ("Reblazhenstva") puts a gentle electronic beat beneath a mournful choir, the next ("Reannounces") is all tribal drums and what sounds like a shrieking didgeridoo (but probably isn't). The breadth of sounds is truly exceptional: harps, clarinets and crystal-clear piano keys are offset by mutant versions of themselves—bizarre groans, buzzes and other oddities that defy description. Meanwhile, the album touches on dozens of ultra-finely cut emotions, at times weary ("Recurrence"), at others curious ("Reblop") or euphoric and a bit delirious ("Redetach"). And finally, the "optimum sound experience" is not lost on the casual listener: the sheer vividness of the productions could almost carry the album on its own.
Re: ECM will most likely be derided for being dry or snobbish, especially by fans of Villalobos the DJ. Experimental stuff like this has long been familiar territory for Loderbauer, but for Villalobos, as weird as he can be, it's his first big release with zero club potential. Yet even as it shows a new side of many people's favorite artist, it also sees Villalobos in a familiar role: pushing the envelope stylistically, and bridging the gap between musical cultures.
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Tracklist: Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECMCD1
01. Reblop (from Christian Wollumrød's Fabula Suite Lugano)
02. Recat (from Christian Wallumrød Ensemble's The Zoo is Far)
03. Resvete (from Alexander Knaifel's Svete Tikhiy)
04. Retimeless (from John Abercrombie's Timeless)
05. Reemergence (from Miroslav Vitous' Emergence)
06. Reblazhenstva (from Alexander Knaifel's Blazhenstva)
07. Reannounce (from Louis Sclavis' L'imperfait des Langues)
08. Recurrence (from Wolfert Brederode's Currents)
09. Requote (from Christian Wallumrød's Fabula Suite Lugano)
01. Replob (from Christian Wollumrød's Fabula Suite Lugano)
02. Reshadub (from Paul Giger's Ignis)
03. Rebird (from Paul Motian's Tati)
04. Retikhiy (from Alexander Knaifel's Svete Tikhiy)
05. Rekondakion (from Arvo Pärt's Kanon Pokajanen)
06. Rensenada (from Bennie Maupin's The Jewel in the Lotus)
07. Resole (from Alexander Knaifel's Svete Tikhiy)
08. Redetach (from Christian Wallumrød Ensemble's The Zoo is Far)