WWhat was the feeling of the person who flew all the way to the moon, but was then not allowed to enter it because he had to guard the spaceship for the return flight? This is what happened to Michael Collins in 1969. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took the “big step”, he circled the satellite on board the Columbia and had no eye or radio contact with the earth for 46 minutes and 38 seconds on each orbit.
The concept album “Mondenkind” by jazz pianist Michael Wollny, who is inspired by the anecdote described, is just as long. One might think that after the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing in 2019, which last year also sparked some artistic debate, this record will appear a little late. But if you take a look at Wollny’s work, it appears rather as a logical continuation of a theme that had been recorded long before, perhaps even his basic theme, as it is already encountered in “Weltentraum” (2013) or “Nachtfahrten” (2015).
Like these albums, this one is one of immersion, in which the listener will after a short time cut off all eye or radio contact with the outside world, because the music almost automatically brings about its attitude of reception: It is that of remote stare, be it at the moon or into the void. So after 49 seconds of the dazzling, trilling opening piece “Lunar Landscape” you sit in the ship and hear aliens knocking on the hatch from outside on “Things Behind Walls” in the muted bass lines from Wollny’s “prepared piano”, somehow on the way to Dixieland, but do not find it right, as some very distant chords reveal.
Wollny’s music, often also inspired by other arts, seems to want to set a story by science fiction author Ray Bradbury to music in “The Rain Never Stops on Venus”. In the title track, it even becomes program music when the right piano hand, with a rubbing sound regularly struck on the high keys, imitates the radio signal that is commonly assigned to satellites, but here Collins’ ship circling in moon orbit. “Spacecake” also seems to be programmatic, firing wild (drug-induced?) Rockets into the keys. Wollny then drives out the lunar romance with a “Sonatina” by Hindemith, but at least partially brings it back with some pop music adaptations, for example by Tori Amos.
The Swiss debutant Luzius Schuler seems like a thematic complementary album to Wollnys. It bears the wonderful title “Moon is the Oldest TV”, which in turn is based on neighboring artistic inspiration: That was the name of an installation by media artist Nam June Paik that Schuler saw in Paris. In contrast to Wollny, who presented a studio live recording without overdubs, Schuler’s minimalistic solo piano playing is only the basis for a sound fabric that, according to self-assessment, “brings together synthetic sound, noise, granular synthesis and field recordings”.
Out of the white noise, “Tango Island” appears first. This island is home to a forest of arpeggios that testify that the album was composed “on a battered piano at night”, but then the analog forest is overgrown by digital thickets until the spirit of a melody disappears. On “Nocturno” the pianino is lost in organs, from which, however, when the night has almost seeped out, an amazingly down-to-earth beat arises. Schuler sometimes creates percussiveness through the overdriven recording, as you can hear with “Round Dance”: Not only hitting the keys, but also letting go causes a noise that can be used to create rhythm. The sonic enlargement is a fitting picture for the sensations that sometimes appear greatly enlarged in the irrationality of the night. What one ultimately has to imagine under “The Schwoon” remains obscure, but it is probably no coincidence that the piece reminds of “swoon” (“powerlessness”) and rhymes with “moon”.
This year, of course, the question arises whether solitary observation of the moon represents the symbol of the lockdown mentality. In connection with the recordings of his album, Wollny told how he drove to Berlin on an empty autobahn, spent the night in a hotel without staff and finally went to the sound booth alone. But as aptly as the topic doubles in it, the lockdown is on the other hand the normal reality of every walk into the recording studio, and above all it is not just a punishment on the recipient side, but an opportunity: namely, to create spaces in one’s life, in which nothing penetrates between oneself and the staring moon, which can be a symbol for so much. And Wollny very deliberately quotes in the liner notes to his album that Collins, as the “loneliest person of all time”, felt satisfaction, almost jubilation.