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Markus Reuter Times Three: Oculus, Shapeshifters & Sun Trance

Mark Sullivan By

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Markus Reuter wears many hats: touch guitarist; composer; improviser; soundscaper; and producer. This trio of simultaneous MoonJune Records releases (one technically a reissue) offer an opportunity to sample his music in all of those aspects.

Markus Reuter Oculus
Nothing is Sacred
MoonJune Records
2020

"Oculus" is the name Reuter gave to the unique pitch diagrams used in composing this music: each grid presents 16 musical pitches, arrayed in a form that resembles an eyeball (there is a blank representation of the grid in the liner notes). The approach is something like the indeterminate notation of minimalist music like Terry Riley's classic "In C," in which performers are given a series of musical figures to be played through (and repeated) freely. The Oculus presents alternate paths through a series of related notes, but does not specify rhythms.

Reuter ruefully acknowledges the irony of gathering a group of world class improvisers, then hobbling them with limited pitch choices. The situation is further complicated by having the core group of Reuter, bassist Fabio Trentini, Fender Rhodes & electric violinist David Cross and drummer/percussionist Asaf Sirkis play through the piece twice—followed by additional overdubs by frequent Reuter collaborators electric guitarist Mark Wingfield and keyboardist Robert Rich (credited with textures).

Yet everyone seems to have risen to the challenge. The end result sounds like these musicians playing freely. Fans will hear their voices, not the compositional framework they were working in. "Nothing is Sacred (Dice II)" begins with a kind of fusion groove, skittering cymbals, roaring guitars and a funky bass line that Trentini finds in the pattern. Things just get heavier from there, with Sirkis driving hard: he even gets a solo feature. "The Occult (Dice I)" has a similar feel, but ends in a wall of crunchy guitars.

"Bubble Bubble Bubble Bath (Wink)" is a huge contrast. A gentle rubato landscape, which Reuter says is closer to what he was expecting at the outset of the project. It does build into a rhythmic conclusion. "Solve et Coagula (Ghost I)" returns to the rhythmic feel, and multiple overlapping lines. "Bubble Bubble Bubble Song (Sighs)" ends the album with another (mostly) rubato soundscape, concluding with Cross's electric violin.

Reuter Motzer Grohowsky
Shapeshifters
MoonJune Records
2020

Shapeshifters presents Reuter's playing in pure improvisational mode, as he joins guitarist Tim Motzer (who also painted the cover art) and drummer Kenny Grohowski to produce a series of "instant compositions." Reuter has worked this way on numerous occasions, notably on The Stone House (MoonJune Records, 2017) and Lighthouse (MoonJune Records, 2017). Motzer has a long background in this as well, as in the bands Bandit65 (with fellow guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel) and Orion Tango, plus many other collaborations recorded for his 1k Recordings label. Grohowski does not have a comparable discography, but clearly holds up his end in this equal partnership.

After an extended atmospheric soundscape introduction "Dark Sparks" opens the set with Motzer on bass, echoing the approach taken on Reuter's album Truce (MoonJune Records, 2020): a power trio with Reuter in the guitar role. Not that it stays there for long: running over 22 minutes, it includes several other shifts in sound and mood. "Transmutation" starts out similarly impressionistic, a rubato wash of sound. Grohowski is especially inventive with percussive atmospheres, eventually launching into more beat-oriented playing. The piece maintains a collective sound most of the way, with Reuter finally erupting into a blazing solo.

"Cyphers" is marked by lots of echoing guitar. At one point Reuter takes a thoughtful solo, accompanied by Motzer's bass register. The driving rhythm that emerges about halfway through is a marked contrast, as is the high-energy conclusion (with a nice little soundscape coda). "Burn to Aether" builds on a steady rhythm right from the start, with repeated Motzer riffs that turn into backing for Reuter's high-energy solo. The band keeps that feeling, charging right through to the end of the album.

Markus Reuter
Sun Trance
MoonJune Records
2020

Sun Trance was commissioned by Prof. Dennis Kuhn on behalf of Mannheimer Schlagwerk (a percussion ensemble based in Mannheim, Germany). This album presents a recording of the 2017 premiere performance, performed by six percussionists plus six additional players on bass clarinet, electric guitar, electric bass, synthesizer, drums, and the composer's touch guitar and soundscapes. Reuter's guitar part was largely improvised, but has since been transcribed and put into the score, making it easier to perform without his involvement in the future. Previously available strictly as a download, in this reissue the enhanced CD edition includes the video of the performance, which is also available on YouTube.

Despite Reuter's contribution as soloist, this is definitely not a guitar concerto. It is a slowly evolving piece (justifying the word "trance" in the title) centering around tuned percussion. The pattern repetition and use of percussion both call American composer Steve Reich to mind. The gentle percussion is augmented by bass clarinet first, playing a bass ostinato with the drum kit. This happens about six minutes into the 36-minute duration, beginning to move the sound in an art rock direction.

The texture backs off to percussion and synthesizer pad/soundscapes again before Reuter makes his guitar entry just before the midpoint, accompanied by percussion and the whole rhythm section. It is fascinating to hear him improvise in this setting, with a compositional construct and large group different from his other recorded work. At one point the bass clarinet motif is doubled by electric bass: a lovely (and heavy) bass sound.The harmonic structure is marked by both long periods of static harmony and abrupt shifts, which take on additional drama in this context. The end of Reuter's long solo takes the sound back to percussion and electronics. Maria Wunder's bass clarinet joins in for the haunting conclusion.

Tracks and Personnel

Nothing is Sacred

Tracks: Nothing is Sacred (Dice II); The Occult (Dice I); Bubble Bubble Bubble Bath (Wink); Solve et Coagula (Ghost I); Bubble Bubble Bubble Song (Sighs).

Personnel: Markus Reuter: Touch Guitars® AU8, soundscapes, keyboards; David Cross: Fender Rhodes, electric violin; Fabio Trentini: bass; Asaf Sirkis: drums, percussion; Mark Wingfield: electric guitar; Robert Rich: textures.

Shapeshifters

Tracks: Dark Sparks; Transmutation; Cyphers; Burn to Aether.

Personnel: Markus Reuter: touch guitar, electronics; Tim Motzer: guitars, bass, electronics; Kenny Grahowski: drums.

Sun Trance

Tracks: Sun Trance (Live).

Personnel: Dennis Kuhn: vibraphone; Ti-Hsien Lai: vibraphone; Luis Andrés Chavarría Báez: glockenspiel; Lukas Heckmann: glockenspiel, shaker; Marius Fink: crotales, shaker; Oğuz Akbaş: crotales, shaker; Maria Wunder: bass clarinet; Patrick Baumann: electric guitar; Johannes Engelhardt: electric bass; Hye-Rim Ma: synthesizer; Linda-Philomène Tsoungui: drums; Markus Reuter: Touch Guitars® AU8, soundscapes.

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