Hans Tammen

Endangered Guitar

Hans Tammen /guitar

The sleeve notes mention “stringency”, and there’s something in that word to describe Tammen’s very individual approach on this lovingly-packaged, well-documented solo disc. Tammen, who will be known to many readers from this year’s widely-acclaimed Statements Quintet album, takes an almost monkish approach to his instrument, a precision and asceticism which makes “pure sounds” his goal. What’s surprising, if that’s the case, is how good-natured, entertaining and, yes, how musical it all is.

Nur/Nicht/Nur specialise in “experimental sound productions”, and owner Dieter Schlensog has said that he is unsure whether what he releases on the label is music at all. Tammen certainly doesn’t play tunes, if that’s the sort of thing Schlensog is thinking of. Laying his guitar flat, he “plays” it with an electric fan, violin bows, stones, cymbals and the rest of the now rather familiar repertoire of guitar extentions. That kind of approach is often associated with a search for richness, a kaleidescopic range of timbral effects, employed in the interests of self-expression, which is, however, not what’s happening here.

The very fact that this is a solo disc, with only three (out of twenty) tracks using overdubs, gives away some of the eremitic simplicity of his vision. These sounds don’t create a nice sensual texture or a solo against an accompaniment. No, they stand on their own, as inscrutable as the little piles of stones in a Zen garden. It’s no wonder the sleeve notes also refer to this as a “collection”, a “catalogue” of sounds. But this is no dry technical handbook, no report of Tammen’s sonic discoveries, or at least it’s not simply that.

In order to understand this, one has to accept that there is an aesthetic of the catalogue, the unadorned list, the presentation of objects without narrative. Think of Perec’s “La Vie, Mode d’Emploi”, or the lists which proliferate in “Finnegans Wake”, or think of Damian Hirst’s sculptures like “Against the Tide” which collect objects and present them, as if in a museum, only stripped of any didactic intention or informational content. If there can be a beautiful elegance in the spartan collection and presentation of objects supposedly without style, without finesse, then that aesthetic also extends to Tammen’s “Endangered Guitar”, a lovely simplicity which, like all simplicity, is complexity in disguise.

The pieces themselves — most of which are fairly short — generally take a guitar setup and run with it, producing sounds and developing them in deceptively straightforward ways. The result is bewitching. What sounds as if it’s going to be an okay-in-small-doses record, crammed as it is with fairly nasty scraping, piercing high frequencies and percussive noise, captivates you and won’t let you turn it off. It’s astringent, yes, but the clarity with which Tammen works infuses the whole thing with a lightness which just keeps you listening. In a year which has already seen quite a few really excellent solo guitar releases (Gilbert Isbin and Roger Smith, to name but two very recent ones) “Endangered Guitar” stands comfortably alongside them. Very highly recommended. Richard Cochrane