Perfect Sound Forever

Hans Reichel

HR Solo, Jazzatelier, Ulrichsberg, December 6, 2009
Photo by Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET

By Gary Gomes
(October 2012)

As a sign of my inattention to the world, I only recently noticed that Hans Reichel, a talented musician, passed away last November in Wuppertal, Germany.

Reichel was one of the small cadre of avant garde guitarists that seemed to explode in the early and mid-1970's, influenced by Hendrix (of course) and Clapton's use of feedback--free players like Sony Sharrock's emulation of the free jazz saxophone, Derek Bailey's pointillistic explorations and somewhat later explorers like Robert Fripp's appropriation of tape loops, Paolo Tofani's work with synthesizers, and Fred Frith's general exploration of different ways to modify and play the guitar. Reichel seemed to have a different bent. Reichel wanted to make new types of guitars that would make everything he played seem unique and almost impossible to mimic.

People have been fiddling around with guitars since before Adolph Rickenbacher, Les Paul and Leo Fender make solid body electrics plausible (Paul, infamously, had his ideas rejected by Gibson until Fender had success with his first electric). And, of course, world famous guitarists like Brian May, and later, Eddie Van Halen had created their own guitars, producing unique sounds which later became associated with them personally.

However, Reichel did not create his guitars for commercial purposes. These were one of a kind creations that were intended to produce new sounds for Reichel; sounds that, I speculate, he had not already imagined. Reichel invented several variations of electric and acoustic guitars and basses often with multiple necks, and a peculiar instrument called the daxophone , a peculiar instrument which looked like a woodworking project, but produced sounds that were a cross between free jazz saxophones and the wilder efforts of double bass players like Alan Silva, Barre Phillips, or David Izenson.

Reichel was also a talented graphic designer who developed several popular font types in his career in graphic design

To get an idea of what Reichel did initially--it was a pretty simple concept--he would take two electric guitars, eliminate the bodies, and join two necks together. What this did was to give him an extended string range and an extended overtone range. Overtone ranges are responsible for the overall identifying sound of any instrument. He essentially developed a brand new instrument from guitar parts. However, it was not a thought-out extended range string instrument like a Chapman Stick; it was intended to draw new sounds from guitar pieces, and Reichel was a top notch improviser. It is unclear why Reichel developed the instruments he did. He started off (similar to Terje Rypdal) with an interest in rock music like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, then progressed in his musical preference to other popular musicians of the time, like Frank Zappa, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Given the improvisational emphasis of all of these groups at that time, this may have sparked Reichel's interest in improvisation. The modification of sound through electronic devices was also practiced by all of these groups. However, after working in several rock groups in the late 1960's, he abandoned this for a short period to pursue a career in graphic design.

He was not out of music for long though. In the early 1970's, he sent a tape of his playing to the jury of the German Jazz Festival in Frankfurt, and was given a concert slot for newcomers. He released his first solo album in 1973, after negotiations with Jost Gebers of FMP records (an article on this amazing label is forthcoming), the first of 40-plus album appearances through the years.

Due to limited distribution in the United States (and from what I could see, an unwillingness in the mid to late seventies among certain critical circles to give any credence to any European free music--press coverage, except in small circulation magazines like Cadence and Canada's Coda, was virtually non-existent--Reichel's music had very limited distribution in the U.S., and usually had to be special-ordered through certain outlets.

The first exposure, if any, most in the United States and England had to Reichel's music, was through Fred Frith's Guitar Solos 2 record on Caroline, Virgin Records' avant garde outlet, which was available in the U.S. through outlets that carried English imports. The album featured densely layered tracks from Fred Frith, and G.F. Fitzgerald (whatever happened to him?), and the pointillistic fun of the late Derek Bailey. Reichel's playing on this release (and most of his early FMP releases) was playful, almost like what one would hear much later in Terry Riley's The Harp of New Albion.

Reichel just featured straight-ahead playing, using more or less conventional licks (although not rock star cliché licks by any means), but it was like listening to someone pull on a huge spring rather than guitar strings. He was featured in a book by Bart Hopkin's called Gravikords, Whirlies & Pyrophones, and in some ways, his guitar designs and playing mirrored what we would find in a gravikord. A gravikord is an instrument in which the strings or other sound producing devices (like the bars on a kalimba, or African thumb piano) are plucked, but the sound is produced by the interaction between the board resonating device and the string surface (In some ways all guitars are gravikords), but have a standard design that makes a guitar. Reichel stepped out of this standard design. Reichel, with tonal playing choices, expanded the vocabulary available to the guitar by expanding the overtone series guitars produce by using odd pickup placements, additional bridges and other modifications directly to the instrument; he did not need to adopt the kind of total serialization of pitch, time, and harmony that Bailey seemed bent on achieving, or to the indeterminacy Frith developed later. To oversimplify, Bailey was moving in the direction of Webern and some of Stockhausen's work; Frith was moving towards Cage; and Reichel was moving towards Harry Partch and Terry Riley territory.

Reichel also performed in many group settings, sometimes with former band mate, the late Achim Knispel, another FMP solo guitarist, sometimes with Rudiger Carl, an accordionist (among other instruments played) and as the years progressed, in larger ensembles that included individuals as diverse as drummer Sven-Ake Johansen, cellist Tom Cora, Fred Frith, drummer Paul Lovens, Keith Tippett, and highly regarded composer/conductor Butch Morris.

As time progressed, Reichel also invested a considerable amount of attention to his unique invention, the daxophone. This instrument was featured most prominently in Yuxo: A New Daxophone Operetta (2002, A/L/L 003) and in The Dawn of Dachsman (1987, FMP CD 60_. The music of the daxophone is typically more strident than Reichel's guitar work, but shares Reichel's interest in developing instruments capable of odd overtone sequences. In the final result, his intentions are not that different from Glenn Branca's or those of Sonic Youth, but the way he used these devices was to enhance freedom and generate an exuberance or revelry in generating new sounds.

It is the difference between free music and rock and roll. Rock and roll certainly has its merits, but it often beats new sounds to death to get your attention; fundamental sonic changes are rare in rock, and they often become paradigmatic if accepted (Hendrix' innovations exemplify this). Free music jumps around and constantly looks for new explorations and interactions, often seeming to casual audiences that it has no attention span, but it is built on a constant exchange of ideas in an uncontrolled environment--the foundation is a thought, that one pursues freedom and structure will eventually assert itself. Free music is dominated by certain personalities--Derek Bailey and Cecil Taylor are excellent examples--but anyone who pays attention to the idiom knows that both musicians constitute a small array of the sonic possibilities free players employ. The lack of adherence to regular rhythm, songs or changes seems to some to be a weakness in free music; that same flexibility is, in my humble opinion, its greatest strength.

Reichel's gift, I think, like Harry Partch's. was in creating instruments that could create new ways of hearing. The idea that one could alter one's instrument of choice (with certain exceptions like the electro-acoustic drum kits developed by players like Paul Lytton and the earlier prepared piano work of John Cage, and the guitar world has had other pioneers in addition to Reichel (Elliott Sharp comes to mind as an under-recognized American genius of the guitar) is still too rarely pursued as a devotional path to discovery in music. Reichel's work is an example of devotion to innovation that should inspire us all.

Hans Reichel's Webpage:

A place to start on You Tube:

Albums to start with:
Bonobo (1975, FMP 0280)
The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir (1979, FMP 0640/FMP CD 54)

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