By Beppe Colli
Dec. 8, 2011
I can't really remember
the precise moment, but sometime in the course of the last decade I came
to the decision to always do a Web search, come year's end, in order to get
to know about the financial and artistic well-being of those musicians I
care about the most. Once upon a time I went the personal route, sending
a letter or making a phone call (more recently, of course, via e-mail), but
- times being what they are - at some point in time I started getting the
feeling that my affectionate messages were a sad reminder that "not
a lot's happening now", so I decided to change my ways.
And so, on Tuesday afternoon, I was having
a look at Hans Reichel's Wikipedia page when I noticed something quite
strange: besides his birth date (May 10, 1949), it said he had died, on
November 22, 2011. And so I got to know he had died, about two weeks before.
I didn't know, see, and nobody made the effort to tell me. Gee...
The old phone number I had had been discontinued
(this, having an old phone number, being a common side-effect of modern
communication via e-mail), my having his new street address being of no
help, those very kind but very firm ladies I called at the Wuppertal info
whatever (a phone number I saw totally by chance on Wuppertal's Wikipedia
page) obviously refusing to give me any information, on accounts of privacy.
Ha, they sounded suprised that this man in Wuppertal whose name they had
never heard before was (or, better yet, had been) "somebody".
It was in 1976, I think, that I got to know Hans Reichel, via Bonobo,
his second album, fresh off the presses. So I got his first one, Wichlinghauser
Blues, and I decided to go on listening to this mysterious music, so strange
and unusual, starting with the technical means Reichel the luthier gave
Reichel the musician. A lot of it was for me (technically) obscure, but
the listening experience was really something else, and it remained like
this through the main chapters of the story, which for my ears are The
Death of the Rare Bird Ymir (1979), Bonobo Beach (1981), The Dawn of Dachsman
(1987), Coco Bolo Nights (1988), and Shanghaied on Tor Road: The World's
1st Operetta Performed on Nothing but the Daxophone (1992), with a fantastic "diverse
called The Return of Onkel Boskop (1997).
I asked Reichel for
an interview - it was in 1991, when I had the chance to curate a radio program
where I had total freedom. He kindly accepted, gently made fun of me ("Nobody
calls me Mr. Reichel!", he said), we did the interview, which - when
augmented with a brief profile by yours truly - appeared in 1991 on the Italian
We were no strangers - I used to call him
fairly often - but I was quite surprised when he asked me to write the
liner notes to the CD edition of The Dawn of Dachsman, now with an added...
Plus. He surprised me again when he asked me to write a "critical
for a book of writings, pictures, and photos that was part of a Prize given
to him by a bank in Wuppertal. Both times I refused, well aware of the gap
between what I thought his music needed to be said, and my critical skills,
but he kindly persisted.
Readers will find those texts below.
Liner notes to The Dawn of Dachsman...
It was Les Paul, the American guitarist/inventor,
who said of a fellow musician: "He's very good, but can his mother
tell it's him on the radio?". In the case of Hans Reichel the answer
would be an unqualified "yes" - provided his music was played
on the radio, that is; but this is a different story. (In a perfect world
he'd be wealthy from recording the kind of sleeper hits everyone believes
that only they have bought it.) That his music is easy to recognize has
nothing to do with, say, his records being made by the use of carbon paper;
in fact, almost everything has changed since Reichel first refused to take
for granted what a guitar was supposed to look and sound like - there are
several beautiful examples on FMP. But these are not "special effects" records:
the technical possibilities given by Reichel the luthier to Reichel the
musician have been so maturely explored that if one really listens to the
best among his instant (right, just add water!) compositions one gets an
aural picture of mind-boggling complexity. But what lingers in the mind
is a certain kind of mysterious beauty of near-perfect architectural proportions
- besides a streak of humour which would be a pity to miss, and a very
expressive use of silence and rubato (before anybody can say "Monk" listen
to the enigmatic quality of the last chord of the second version of "Watching
So Reichel deals with wood - and the article
he wrote for the January '89 issue of the American Guitar Player magazine
is still the best explanation I know of the way his instruments work -
but make no mistake: he's no Luddite/technophobe; it's just that putting
a floppy into the Vega 256 or using James Brown licks as raw material are
not his way of doing things. Alas, the kind of virtuosity that's peculiar
to him has been totally lost on the majority of the critics of the post-punk
persuasion who, while rightly condemning the empty gymnastics of, say,
hordes of metallurgists, seem to have become totally unresponsive to any
kind of virtuosity, in any shape and form.
Now a perfect gift for those still wondering
what the repeat button on their CD player is for, "The Dawn of Dachsman" came
out in its vinyl form in 1987; it is re-released here together with some
unreleased recordings made in the same year. Quite a few titles of the
second batch are new versions of pieces done before - a welcome chance
to hear Reichel elaborate on Reichel. The good points are too many to enumerate:
the multitimbral polyphony of "Waiting" and of
"Smoking"; the expressive arpeggios of "Watching the Shades";
the nuances of "Forgotten" which will make one hold one's breath.
Typical Reichel touches abound: the transparent sounds of
"Thinking"; the contrast between the high melody and the movement
in the bass register in "Return of the Knödler Show" - whistle
it at your peril! -; and the humour of "Unidentified Dancing Object",
where an alien ship crashes a pygmy party (hey, "The Third Stone from
the Sun" twenty years later!). A less frequent dimension of the solo
mode Reichel is represented here by "An Old Friend Passes By":
an astounding track, where we hear somebody (somebody good, that is) passionately
wail in the garage, all cautions thrown in the winds; listen to the bluesy
soul licks which crop up here and there (Curtis Mayfield? Jimi Hendrix? Hans
Reichel!) - and dig the three-foot whammy bar at the end.
Not content with having built several innovative
instruments, Reichel has invented the daxophone, a whatchamacallit if there
ever was one. The tracks included here are baby pictures when compared
to a more refined work like "Shanghaied on Tor Road" (whose booklet
will give the reader a clear explanation of the way this "thing"
works), but they are totally convincing. The original LP featured three daxophone
pieces: the grunts and squeaks of the title-track; "Dachsman in Berlin",
a fascinately grotesque anticipation of "Shanghaied..."; and the
suitable-for-framing "Dachsman Meets the Blues" (now indicated
as version 1), alone worth the price of admission: a track so opium-scented
its consumption should be declared illegal (the resonance one hears are due
to the stick part of the instrument being mounted on an acoustic guitar:
simplicity itself). The unreleased tracks offer several highlights: the
"jungle fanfare" of "Yo"; the operatic melismas which
"Dachsman in Berlin (II)" to its close; the percussive/vocal qualities
of "The Dawn of Dachsman (II)" (and what's that, a
"Spoonful" quote or what?); the dynamic interaction between the
melody and the "modulated white noise" on "Something East".
So it's an embarrassment of riches we have
here. Now, will somebody please get this man's music on the radio?
Colli, October 1993
In Praise of Creativity, Daxophones and
Other Strange Creatures
Was it really 1973 the year the first Hans
Reichel album was released? Gosh! (How time flies when you're having fun...)
Which leads us straight to a (maybe) banal but nevertheless totally appropriate
question: how many of the artists whose work we prized back then are still
active - let alone putting out stuff that not only equals their past achievements
but actually improves upon them? (And, no,
"improve" is not the perfect choice of verb to use when discussing
Reichel's work, but for now it'll do.) When - unhurriedly - a new album by
Hans Reichel appears there are always qualities we can reliably count on
- besides the usual unpredictability of the "form" he has chosen:
intelligence, loving care, clear-eyed passion and - let's not forget about
this, right? - uncompromising honesty (see, Reichel is not "smart":
just for one minute, try thinking about the ways his beautiful instruments
could have been misused in order to make a fast buck. Brrr...); in a word of short
attention spans, cheap thrills and gimmicks Hans Reichel has always given
us quality, and he has done so time and time again.
Reichel's music is rich, deep, mysterious;
full of variety, complex without being
"difficult", beautiful but never "pretty". Sometimes
humorous, sometimes incredibly sad - just like life. Sonically unique, of
course. But, above all, melodic: whatever the sound source, Reichel is one
of the most original (and most recognizable) inventors of melodies, regardless
of the methodology involved - be it "instant", "paper &
pen" or "software-based". His melodies are definitely his
(I can almost see a couple doing their crossword puzzle, sometime in the
"Supreme European melodist, late 20th Century", eleven letters...
who's s/he?" "But of course, it's Hans Reichel, dear"). But
though his melodies are without a doubt highly personal they feed on a very
rich past: echoes of folk music, waltzes, gamelan music, the blues, Hendrix
sense of sonic adventure (but not his "licks"!) and a stunning
use of silence and rubato which reminds me of the essence of Monk (there
is more Monk in a few bars of Reichel than in a ton of record of Monk's music
"by the numbers"). Already clearly audible on Reichel's second
album, Bonobo ('75), his melodic explorations were fully formed by the time
of his first indisputable masterpiece: The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir ('79);
recorded on an acoustic "full-fret" guitar, this album demonstrates,
among other things, Reichel's unwillingness to be boxed in and his determination
to follow his own muse, even if his improvisations, which did not exclude
motivic explorations, must have sounded strangely "traditional" and,
I suspect, must have not been fully understood or appreciated, given the
general climate of the improvising scene of the times (just a wild guess,
Hans Reichel's guitar sounds are complex
and subtle, and so they need the proper aural space to breath and develop;
logically enough, they tend to disappear in the sonic mass of the big line-ups.
But those who think that his solo work - being rich with silence and meditative
qualities - shares some musical traits with New Age music haven't really
listened to "real" New Age - nor they have bothered to check
the full spectrum of what Reichel can do: whenever it strikes his fancy
he's perfectly able to wail, howl and melt your brain - check his solo
on Old Bones, the opening track from The Return of Onkel Boskopp ('97).
Just how versatile Reichel is becomes apparent when one considers the musical
encounters he's had with people like Tom Cora, Wädi Gysi, Fred Frith, Uchihashi
Kazuhisa and René Lussier, to name a few - a more diverse bunch of characters
I can't really imagine.
By now we all know about Reichel the luthier
and inventor of guitars; how in the early 70s he took apart a cheap plywood
guitar a friend of his had left at his home; and how things gradually developed
from there. Placing himself in the rich tradition of people like Les Paul
and Leo Fender, Hans Reichel has gone against the grain of climate prevalent
in instrument design, which favoured the smoothing out of the guitar's
idiosyncrasies in order to manufacture an instrument which was highly predictable
in its response to touch, and so easier to play. What's even more important
is the fact that he has built guitars that - in their peculiarity - allow
the player's identity to come out intact, without the imposed limitations
of the various guitar-synth systems which seemed to be the new wave in
sound production twenty years ago.
With the partial exception of the daxophone
- and even about this I'm not exactly sure - I think that tracing the evolution
of Reichel's music in terms of a
"development" paralleling that of his creations is patently wrong.
What I mean is that - though his guitars have changed over the years, always
offering new possibilities - Reichel has explored the options unique to each
particular instrument, creating a music vocabulary which was potentially
available in its sonic qualities. And that's the reason why I said before
that the verb "improve" was not the perfect choice when discussing
Reichel's work. Listen to some in-print titles such as Bonobo Beach ('81),
The Dawn of Dachsman ('87), Coco Bolo Nights ('88), Lower Lurum ('94): each
of these work possesses its unique charms, retaining a freshness which strangely
seems to be unaffected by time.
A few months ago two young men in their 20s,
totally in love with "modern" kinds of music, paid me a visit.
I played them one of my favourite Reichel pieces, Dachsman Meets the Blues, "a
track so opium-scented" as I wrote elsewhere "that its consumption
should be declared illegal". First reaction: "What the heck is
this?". Then: "How come I haven't heard of him before?" (and
here I could write a big book, but let's save a couple of trees, agreed?).
Final consideration: "He plays what he wants, he doesn't give a...".
My personal moral: it's exactly because he cares that he doesn't give a
... which brings us to the daxophone, the
watchamacallit supreme; there are some beautiful daxophone pieces on various
Reichel releases, but the crowning achievement is undoubtably Shanghaied
on Tor Road ('92), a devilishly funny work that totally avoids gimmickry
while at the same time bringing to the surface a side of Reichel's aesthetics
- notably his sense of humour - which was less easier to spot on previous
releases (and maybe it's just my imagination, but the "doo-wop" episodes
reminded me of Frank Zappa, circa Cruising with Ruben & the Jets).
In a perfect world Shanghaied on Tor Road would be under anybody's Christmas
tree, so inundating the composer with financial largesse; as it is, it's "only" a
luminous pearl in the crown of one of modern music's most original innovators.
(While writing this piece, I remembered an
old story about home-made bread and sliced bread. Home-made bread is difficult
to prepare, the results are not always those expected, and so on. Sliced
bread (the one that's sold at the supermarket) is reliable, practical,
even nourishing. Given the availability and price of sliced bread, why
should one bother to make his own? "If you've ever tasted home-made
bread", the story went, "you know why". And that's exactly
© Beppe Colli 2011
| Dec. 8, 2011