Hans Reichel
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 chapter" 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 magazine Musiche.

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 portrait" 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... Plus

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 the Shades").

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 bring "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?

Giuseppe 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 future: "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 played "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, okay?).

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 whatever.

... 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 my point.)

Giuseppe Colli, 1998

© Beppe Colli 2011

CloudsandClocks.net | Dec. 8, 2011