“The Shimmering Collective”, Karlsruhe, Germany’s Kammerflimmer Kollektief, has been creating shimmering, scintillating music since the late ‘90s. Their fifth album Absencen furthers their impressive habit of sliding gently between and among genres, eluding easy classification. They work within the shadows of free jazz, of ambient music, of electronic music, of challenging chamber music, of the sort of imaginary film-score music that puzzled music nerds have taken to calling “post-rock”—not any real category or movement, but a reflection of befuddlement at how to talk about genres outside of rock, music that uses “proper” instruments (instruments with centuries of history behind their use) but does not fall into any ready-made category. The Kollektief casually blends many styles of music together, but not in a self-conscious or showy way, more like it’s their natural way of being and creating.
The pieces on Absencen might have been initially birthed from one member’s brain (Thomas Weber in most cases, and Heike Aumuller in a few), but what we’re actually hearing is clearly the work of the group as a whole. The credit for all songs minus three reads like this: “Drones & Songs by Thomas Weber featuring improvised solo and gruppo performances”. And that description is on a basic level what the album sounds like. On each track you can hear a base melody, often one that repeats slowly like a hypnosis tool. But over that there’s textures, solos, bursts of sound surprising and calming. The Kollektief’s six members play, respectively: harmonium, drums and vibraphone, double bass, guitar and electronics, violin and viola, saxophone. That group of instruments includes the building blocks of many different genres; Kammerflimmer Kollektief don’t choose one, but rather weave together pieces of many into their own hard-to-classify sound.
Absencen sounds at various times like: the score for a horror film; a lullaby flecked with noisy saxophone flights-of-fancy that inevitably recall free jazz; an ambient soundscape likely to evoke a word like “stillness”; a relaxed melodic stroll that in a film would be used as a coda, to offer the feeling that things are back to normal even though really everything’s changed; a minimalist, almost empty landscape that’s used as a canvas for each member to separately put his or her distinct mark on; imaginary country music that’s been stretched and warped and messed with; a full-bodied musical portrait of a rising sun, or a falling one.
But to give the impression that the album sounds like the work of a group with multiple personalities or constantly shifting interests, to state that it is “varied” in the sense of “always changing”, would be a lie. Absencen does have one overall aura. It’s warm and inviting, with a tone that is generally hopeful and forward-looking. Kammerflimmer Kollektief fuses genres and styles together in a way that sparks the brain, that gets you paying attention to what they’re doing and how, to how intricate and highly developed the music feels. Yet they do it seamlessly - they offer not a mess of sounds, but one cohesive sound which nontheless contains many colors.
The “absence” of the title is certainly not an absence of ideas, then. Nor is it an absence of sound. Though the music does often fit the description “spare”, does often incorporate elements of silence, and does often float forward gently, without a clear agenda, it is also rich with details and textures, at all times. Absencen also isn’t about an absence of feeling, or absence of meaning. Absencen doesn’t offer the feeling of the end of anything; it’s not an apocalpytic work or one driven by declaring the worthlessness of life. Perhaps then, the absence at work here is the absence of one direct meaning, of one monolithic category to box the music into. Perhaps the absence is more like freedom than nothingness, more about driving from the room the inclination to fit to a certain sound, or to match up with listeners’ expectations. Perhaps it’s an absence of guiding thoughts or fears, an attempt to get into a pure, empty mind-state where you can create something new. Absencen gives the impression that the Kollektief has found such a state of mind, that they’ve learned how to make their music into a living force that’s hard to confine or contain.