Any texture, when you look at it closely enough, becomes a pattern, starts to move. It’s a subtle transformation: Opening with a swelling, hard-to-place sound that’s billowy and comforting, the sampled, time-stretched loop ebbs and flows ceaselessly back into itself. There’s something vaguely heroic and slightly threatening lurking here. It’s hard to tell what the sound was originally, before being time-stretched and sublimated. There’s a low, raspy tone that could be cello and a higher, held note that sounds like a human voice, but they’re completely alienated from their original context. It feels creepy and majestic, too close for comfort and yet icily remote.
Wolfgang Voigt’s music under his best-known alias, GAS, stands on many fault lines. The track I’ve described above (the first, untitled track from his 1996 debut LP, GAS) contains every surface contradiction that Voigt would go on to develop under that moniker over the following four years, which saw three subsequent albums: Zauberberg, Köningsforst, and Pop. Nah und Fern (Near and Far) compiles this monumental quartet -- originally released on Mille Plateaux and now reissued via Kompakt, a label Voigt co-owns -- and goes for around $40. As anyone who has attempted to track down GAS albums over the last several years knows, this amount is on the low end of you might pay for a single CD on an online auction site.
But even apart from issues of availability, the timing of this boxed set is apt: GAS has developed a fervent following in the eight years following the release of Pop and Voigt’s concurrent decision to devote his time to running Kompakt rather than making music. The crossover success of the Field’s From Here We Go Sublime (2007) pointed back to Voigt’s master work, whose heightened visibility prompted think pieces and an exuberant I Love Music thread.
While all of these are measures of critical, not popular, success, Voigt -- typically pigeonholed as a minimal house producer -- conceived of the GAS project as an attempt to create a uniquely German form of pop music. Voigt's method involved subjecting samples sourced from composers like Schoenberg and Wagner, a unique Northern European form of pop music known as Schlager, and brass bands, to what he describes as techniques of "loop, zoom, and alienation."
The attempt to create a musical language that embodies historically diverse aspects of German national character -- some of which predate the country's nationhood -- seems destined to languish in the no-man's land reserved for the overambitious and middlebrow, like the many misguided attempts to make classical music appealing by grafting it onto an arbitrarily chosen genre of contemporary pop . And focusing thematically on Germany's forests -- in the albums' artwork and titles, and also in Voigt's oft-related anecdote tracing the GAS project to an LSD-enhanced hike he took as a teen -- is a dicey proposition for political reasons. But ultimately Nah und Fern is too much a work of paradoxes, and too forcefully realized a concept to fall into either trap.
The first paragraph's description of GAS's sound holds true over the length and breadth of this boxed set; Voigt found his aesthetic early on and ran with it. Although the sense of development between albums is minor -- there's plenty within each track, as layers of amorphous loops and throbbing, wandering kick drum wander seemingly independent of each other -- there's no sense of exhaustion. The simplicity of Voigt's style as GAS is what endures. It might be dismissed as high-brow but ultimately facile ambient, but in the yawning expanses of these tracks, Voigt plays havoc with the listener's ability to pin him or his subject matter down. The aural thicket he conjures only allows dappled patterns of light to shine through the foliage. They catch him at odd moments, and at odd angles, making him appear at one moment to be a romantic, the next a modernist, and the next a pagan.
But like Scritti Politti's Green Gartside, whose music Voigt admires, Voigt's a pro when it comes to revealing the subversive pleasure of theory and the rewarding rigor of pop. Nah und Fern is challenging and overwhelming, and it's easily a masterpiece. Your kids will be covering this stuff.