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Felix Werder: The Tempest

by Felix Werder
Pogus Production, Chester, NY, 2007
Audio CD, 4 tracks, 78’18"

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


German-born composer, teacher, writer and painter Felix Werder (°1922) spent most of his career in Melbourne, after having fled for the Nazis to the UK and being deported to Australia. He has been working as a critic and producer for public broadcasting alongside his activities with the well-known Australia Felix ensemble. His status in his adopted homeland has been mostly marginal. His work was scorned by critics and audiences but highly regarded by a smallish group of friends and like-minded musicians, that is, until the last decennium, when he has been rewarded and finally acclaimed as a driving force in Australia’s avant-garde.

This CD is a re-release of four works involving electronics and synthesizers. Werder has never limited himself to one type of music. He has written operas, orchestral music, and pieces for small ensemble in diverse styles, from improvisation and graphic scores to aleatorics and serialism. His ‘electronic’ work must be situated in the early seventies, with one exception from 1992 (V/Line). Banker and Oscussion are piece for live synthesizers and small ensemble, and The Tempest is a tape composition. All three have been published (Greg Young Productions), but since the master tapes were lost, they had to be recovered from LP, a painstaking job outstandingly done by his friend Warren Burt who also wrote the liner, with a very interesting introduction to Werder’s works. Banker, The Tempest and Oscussion, though very different, are typical examples of what live or taped electronics from the seventies sounded like, in Europe, the States or anywhere else. Layered volumes of sound, heavily structured but giving the overall impression of being improvised are interspersed with ‘surprise’ statements of the instruments. The Tempest, after Giorgione’s "Tempesta" is mainly an exercise in translation from the visual to the spatial, and Banker even has a ‘plot’ based on Aeschylos’ drama, Agamemnon.

The most interesting piece on the CD, however, is ‘V/Line’, composed by Werder but technically realised by Burt, who also convinced the author to return to electronics for one last time. The title refers to both the Victoria Line of the Melbourne underground and to its compositional structure as a five-voiced polyphonic orchestral piece. From the first moment, one can hear references to the music of Webern and Berg — whom Werder may have known because his father was an acquaintance of Schoenberg. The texture is extremely tight but retains a certain transparency as each separate voice can be easily distinguished: strings, brass and woodwinds (Berg’s clarinet!), percussion, piano and, of course, the synth with bursts of white noise. At times, for a few seconds, one could imagine an ensemble of acoustical instruments performing, but the illusion is quickly dissolved when the sounds are subtly modified or when some instrument races through a passage at an inhumanly fast tempo. The result is a very funny, ironic piece of retro Second Vienna School at the underground and a proof of the outstanding mastery of a composer who is being justly rediscovered.



Updated 1st October 2007

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