Review: Hans Tammen – Deus Ex Machina

clang042_frontI’m sure you’ve seen those home videos where someone suddenly realises their clothes have caught fire. Initially calm and oblivious, the victim promptly jolts into wide-eyed alarm and enters survival mode, thrashing around to shed the particular layer as quickly as possible, occasionally running in circles in a futile, botched-reflex attempt to escape the blaze. The situation is partly analogous to Deus Ex Machina, with the exception that Hans Tammen knows that his clothes will catch fire – over and over again. Nonetheless, the album still captures those moments of sabotaged consequential certainty; sudden mishaps rupture his progress, forcing him to promptly react to the unexpected intrusion and steer sharply into a different course of action. Listen closely, and one can hear the split-second onset of panic as his own instrument severs the feedback loop of expectation and fulfilment.

I’m talking about the “Endangered Guitar”, which is Tammen’s self-made hybrid between electric guitar and Max/MSP software. Through analytical processing of the instrument’s rhythm and timbre, the computer twists his performance through randomised events, Euclidean rhythm and time-sensitive looping. “Chekov’s Gun” begins like a metal guitarist running through the presets on a multi-FX pedal, before the computer starts to hack up the performance into chattering blocks of distortion and digital pop. It’s possible to pinpoint the moment the computer seizes control: the stereo field becomes ravaged by helicopter tremolo, sending Tammen into a flurry of dissonant improvisation as he ducks and dodges the overdriven debris. “Attack Study” is the amplifier equivalent of a printer jam – a glitch of plectrum attack and low resonance, fed back into itself on rapid fire  – while “Epicyclic Train (Euclidean II)” throttles the guitar until it starts wheezing and choking, creating a strangely propulsive dance of babbling fragments and whistling pitchshift.

It’s easy to forget that, as he states himself, Tammen is the “author of this stage play” – even the most erratic computer impulse is the output of his own processing decisions, which means that he’s never entirely flummoxed or overpowered by the sounds that Max/MSP puts forth. For all the bursts of the unexpected – the moments where guitar swerves to stay on a path that continually melts into disorderly chicanes – there is a very precise overarching choreography at work. Both components are gifted equal amounts of gravitas; neither dominates or utterly obscures the other, and even the strangest mutations of texture contain tiny shards of nylon string and plectrum attack. There’s always enough familiarity for Tammen to orientate himself and eventually correct course, even if the labyrinthine logic of Max/MSP can often shunt him to the brink of absolute obscurity.