Few works in the operatic canon can match the ambition, excess, and grandeur of Wagner’s hefty Der Ring des Nibelungen (aka Ring Cycle), four iconic operas built upon German myth that have either riveted, angered, awed, or exhausted listeners since the composer completed the cycle in 1874. German percussionist and composer Max Andrzejewski is among those with deeply ambivalent feelings toward the cycle, repulsed by the composer’s anti-Semitism and sexism, to say nothing of the work’s crushing bombast. That critical position partly explains his decision to accept a commission from acclaimed German theater director Ersan Mondtag to create four new overtures for an adaptation of Thomas Köck’s “W̶ ̶A̶ ̶G̶ ̶N̶ ̶E̶ ̶R̶ ̶ ̶ –̶ ̶ ̶D̶ ̶E̶ ̶R̶ ̶ ̶ ̶R̶ ̶I̶ ̶N̶ ̶G̶ ̶ ̶ ̶D̶ ̶E̶ ̶S̶ ̶̶ ̶N̶ ̶ I̶ ̶B̶ ̶E̶ ̶L̶ ̶U̶ ̶N̶ ̶G̶ ̶E̶ ̶N̶ (A PIECE LIKE FRESH CHOPPED ESCHENWOOD),” a wild slice-and-dice recasting of the mythical tropes that saturate the original opera cycle. “It's really sarcastic in a way, so it's really destroying the piece” he explains.
Andrzejewski sparingly and creatively repurposed some of the leitmotifs from the four overtures as a point of departure for his work, and, as he says, even the most devoted Wagner connoisseur would have trouble picking out any trace of the original overtures in Andrzejewski ́s gripping Mythos cycle. His blend of composition and improvisation, as well as acoustic and electronic sounds, stand in stark contrast to Wagner’s aesthetic. Instead he mined his predecessor’s writing for raw material. The operas are left behind, a series of grandiose husks representing smug hatefulness. He’s replanted a handful of musical seeds to generate something completely contemporary and classic at the same time.
Although Andrzejewski’s steady expansion from his jazz and improvised music roots into contemporary music occurred through a series of collaborations with Mondtag beginning in 2013, he felt he had left the theatre world behind. His ambitious work Zauberburg, commissioned by Podium Festival Esslingen and premiered in 2020, signaled his arrival as a serious composer, where his music stood firmly on its own rather than as a component in a theatrical setting. But he says he couldn’t resist Mondtag’s offer, which not only allowed him to comment on Wagner, but to work with a larger group. He was able to put together a 12-member ensemble drawn from both the classical and jazz worlds, neatly bringing together his two primary stylistic threads in a single piece.
His work in the jazz and improvised world has never been conventional, whether he’s embraced an art-song ethos in his long-running ensemble Hütte, which put a unique, lyric gloss on the songs of Robert Wyatt with its 2019 album Hütte & guests play the music of Robert Wyatt, or built compositions from microscopic, unconventional field recordings in his collaborative duo Training, with saxophonist Johannes Schleiermacher featuring John Dieterich from Deerhoof as special guest and producer. Over the last decade he’s worked with an impressive array of improvisers, including old-school firebreather Charles Gayle and acclaimed reedist and composer Anna Webber, who also blends contemporary music and improvisation in her own writing. He’s also been a crucial percussionist in groups led by guitarists Julien Desprez and Kalle Kalima, among others. His superb 2020 project with Austrian keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, light/tied, provided compelling evidence of his developing interest in fusing contemporary music with improvisation, although retrospectively he realized his own investment in composing the music resulted in less time on his own improvised contributions. “I was so preoccupied with writing that I didn't really think so much about my drumming,” he says. “So I didn't feel really fulfilled on both layers. I kind of stepped back from the drumming part, and then I realized in the rehearsals, “Oh shit, I didn't think about what I'm going to play to this music that I wrote”
That ceases to be a problem on Mythos. In fact, the entirety of “Mythos III” was constructed from a solo drum improvisation he played and recorded while listening to the overture from Wagner’s Siegfried on headphones, so while his work shares a tempo with the Wagner original, every other element was brand-new, including the bracing post-Cecil Taylor piano solo by Jörg Hochapfel, generating a tension one might expect in a suspense film. The Wagner reference in “Mythos I” is relegated to compressing and distorting the Rheingold overture into a second-long electronic blast, with strings and winds toggling between aerated and needling passages, tattooed by throbbing, acidic electronic tones before a solemn dialogue of strings, vibraphone, and piano, as bassist James Banner and guitarist Arne Braun improvise colors and tactile gestures that complement the chamber-like elegance. The viola and violin figures in “Mythos II” are borrowed from Wagner’s Die Walküre, but Andrzejewski soon stacks up the motif, surrounded by hypnotic see-sawing passages and juddered by percussive snaps on bass and guitar. The French horn figure is also purloined from Wagner, yet it’s buffeted by the composer’s explosive drumming and a burst of electronic noise that’s also a digital abstraction of the original. Motifs from Götterdämmerung turn up in “Mythos IV,” overlapping into a swarming buzz. “Basically the whole ensemble is kind of improvising with the small Wagner snippets in the beginning, but it's arranged in a way that it sounds composed,” says Andrzejewski. “I conducted it, so there are hard cuts and stuff, but everyone had a lot of freedom in that.”
The musicians he worked with from classical music haven’t much experience improvising, so Andrzejewski guided them along, giving them a set of pitches to create spontaneous lines with. He knows something about learning on the job, because although he was taught arranging skills in school, composing for a classical ensemble was something he absorbed through trial and error. “I didn't imagine writing for stringed instruments,” he says. “I was always like, ’Yeah, let's do free jazz, with loud instruments.’ Then I found out that these instruments are amazing. I got more and more interested in classical instruments. I found out that possibilities are just endless and it's beautiful to dig into that world.”
Mythos doesn’t sound like the product of someone stumbling his way through an alien landscape. Andrzejewski wasn’t cowed by the Wagner legacy, and he boldly disregarded convention in digging out little pearls from which to construct his own music. “I’m working on two strange things at the same time, playing drums and writing chamber music,” he explains. “I always try to bring it together.” The seams between disparate traditions and practices are increasingly invisible in his work, and the possibilities only seem to broaden under his assured, feverish creativity.
Berlin, November, 2021
releases March 4, 2022
Moritz Ter-Nedden, violin
Grégoire Simon, violin
Friedemann Slenczka, viola
Ragnar Jónsson, violoncello
James Banner, double bass
Laure Mourot, flute
Miguel Pérez Iñesta, clarinet / bass clarinet
Isaac Shaw – french horn
Maria Schneider – vibraphone
Arne Braun – guitar
Jörg Hochapfel - keyboard, piano
Max Andrzejewski - composition, drumset, electronics
All music composed by Max Andrzejewski
Recorded by Martin Ruch at Bonello Studio Berlin, march 2021
Recording assisted by Tobias Ober
Mixed and mastered by Martin Ruch at Control Room Berlin