Ah, the pleasures and dangers of translation. The most literal rendering in English of “Nachtstücke”, the title of Stephan Mathieu’s new album for his own imprint Schwebung, would be “Night Pieces”; that adjective “night” immediately conjures up impressions for native English speakers of something dark, sinister, and/or life-threatening. However, it might be more appropriate in this case to consider the German term ‘Nachtmusik’ and its English equivalent ‘serenade’, used to denote calm, light evening music (the latter word coming from the same Latin root as ‘serene’). Think of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, possibly one of the most irritatingly cheerful compositions in the history of the Western tonal tradition. Mathieu’s new work is far from irritating, but for the most part it’s definitely closer to a serenade in mood than to a dirge.
I write “for the most part”, because an album over four hours in duration inevitably ends up covering quite a lot of ground. The first three tracks, which together make up almost half the running length, supply a luminous ambience that holds the attention without gripping it, glowing like hot coals. Every shifting harmonic construct feels precisely shaped and refined, yet sensuous and warm to the touch; Federico Durand’s contributed melodies on “Third Dream” are particularly charming. On the final track (which, if you’ve done the maths, you’ll know is over two hours long) the tone shifts to darker, hazier hues, but this is possibly just an effect of its lower pitch and volume; at any rate it’s still a far cry from some of Mathieu’s more harrowing work, yet somehow also more substantial, less fleeting and ghost-like.
A decent sound system with at least some low-frequency credentials is perhaps required to get the most out of “Nachtstücke“‘s subtle nuances — this isn’t really music well-suited to laptop speakers. Provided such a system is on hand, then at the recommended low volume the rewards are soothing, pleasant, and gently awareness-shifting. Music like this seems to go beyond providing the soundtrack to a calm, relaxing evening in; rather, it forges eveningness as a tangible, sensible thing, pouring from the speakers like an invisible liquid. The black-and-white artwork by Caro Mikalef itself glows darkly yet serenely. Ultimately, “Nachtstücke” does what it says on the tin — at least if you follow a particular way of translating it.