Years ago, I had a college professor who described the effect of words in poetry as taking one palmful of rose petals, which have their own scent, and one palmful of some other flower petals, rubbing them together and then opening your hands again to discover the new scent that been made. I thought of this while listening to Off, the third piece of a triptych from experimental composer Markus Mehr, because the equation is somewhat the same. In one hand, Mehr holds simple and lovely piano melodies and string phrases; in the other, loudly hissing walls of sharply stippled white noise and random spatters of electronic chatter. These two elements are ground together, rubbed vigorously, and set free to fly in a new, engaging, and quite stunning new form that at once challenges the listener while celebrating a clearly well-considered balance. Off is a single 42-minute piece of constantly shifting character. The sounds clash and clatter, the air clears for a moment to allow the piano to speak, the wall of sound re-erupts and thickens, a sacred chorus chants its way through some storm-wracked hymnal, tense harshness vies with moments of clearing-skies beauty to return your breath back to you, and the whole time you are fully and hopelessly engaged. The contrast that’s hitting you squarely in the face, this overt pairing of clarity and corruption, of coarseness and calm, is hypnotic. Beyond the piano I wouldn’t even venture to guess what or how much of what Mehr has brought in to form his sounds. There is the electronic, there is the acoustic, there is the howling. And it all co-exists in this maelstrom of intent. Clearly, many of the sources at work are repurposed from Off‘s predecessors, In and On (read those reviews here), each of which were their own experiments. Off, then, represents in part the alchemy of all the disparate elements in one place. Where In was quiet and built to noise, and On started out roughly and pared back to calm, Off insistently puts them together from the start, then modulates the relationship along a constantly sliding scale.
Listening to Off is a challenge, but it’s an incredibly rewarding one. The balance is tricky, because the opposite ends of this equation are the far ends, but Mehr makes its work perfectly. You are pummeled with the unyielding intrusion of blatantly non-musical noise, and you are salved with the reassuring solidity of the piano, and somehow it makes sense. Yes, it requires an open approach to music. If you like it pat and simple, this won’t work for you. And maybe it’s not supposed to. The triptych as a whole has been slim on easy access points, but that’s also a hallmark of Mehr’s work–he’s not easy to listen to. He is, however, well worth the effort, and Off is perhaps Mehr at his most stunning.
Available from Hidden Shoal.