The eight-night After Yodel festival, curated by
the Swiss-American turntablist Christian Marclay, was a part of the larger Swiss
Peaks festival, three months of concerts, films and gallery exhibits displaying
the best of Swiss art and architecture at 25 venues across the city. More than
two dozen performers came from Switzerland to perform with New York musicians at
the festival, which ran from March 21- 29 at Tonic in Manhattan's Lower East
Side. The following overview was written by Kurt Gottschalk, with Brian Olewnick
pinch-hitting on Day 7.
If the blowing of
10-foot-long wooden horns isn't a traditional Swiss invocation, it's easy enough
to pretend it is. In any event, it was with this festival and Mytha's first set
My penchant for the front row proved frightening; I was
far closer to the bells of the huge Alpine horns than were the players
themselves. Opening with a pleasant drone, they moved into jazzy arrangements,
then into vaguely baroque settings, then New Orleans march, all within the first
15 minutes. It's easy, foolish and Amerocentric to imagine a group living in a
mountain cabin, farming yaks and ordering World Saxophone Quartet cds from
Amazon, wishing they had saxophones and making do with their granddad's big
horns. Xenophobic, even, and I know it. But hell, this whole Swiss exchange
program already has me imagining cultural mythologies.
In any event,
the Alpine horn is a real instrument and a dynamic one, able to mimic soft
trumpet lines and with a chamber resonant to make for an effective pe rcussion
instrument as well. But it's a pitched instrument, without keys or valves,
which limits the range. Some other use might be more interesting than Mytha's
jazz combo stylings.
Before long, they'll no doubt be putting their horns through Powerbooks. The Alpine horn might be the only instrument left that hasn't been run
through a laptop. I was
excited to see Stephan Wittwer , and am still excited to have seen him, although
why the wango tango of his electric guitar needs to be funneled through a
Powerbook was not clear from his opening night set.
More of a revelation was
Dorothea Schürch, who I'm adding to my shortlist of evocatively avant
vocalists. (That list so includes Jaap Blonk, Shelley Hirsch, Catherine
Jauniaux, Makagami Koichi, Phil Minton and David Moss.) Schürch demands less
attention than those other vocalists, even with the pastryknot of hair atop her head. She
doesn't command the proceedings, but listens and responds intently.
The local participant in the trio set with Schürch and Wittwer was Japanese
expat Toshio Kajiwara. Someone had to hold the house together, and the
turntablist seems to be a stonger improviser every month.
followed by another Wittwer trio, with Alan Licht and Lee Ranaldo. Notable for
Wittwer's volume, Licht's fancy Flying V replica and Ranaldo playing bass
(though perhaps not much else).
opened his solo set in a fascinating fury. If I've ever before described someone
as playing piano like a drum, I knew not of what I spoke. He worked the
instrument over, inside and out, and it didn't fight back. He made sounds from
parts not designed to make sounds. He chewed it up and spit it out.
I didn't get such a feeling of volatility from his duo recording with Sylvie
Courvoisier (Deux Pianos on Intakt). He's capable of beautiful playing,
but during this set I couldn't help feeling he was mad about something, mad at the country he
was in, mad that there were only 15 people in the room, many of whom were also
playing in the festival.
Demierre didn't leave the stage after his
ferocious set. He just invited Min Xiao-Fen to the stage and began their duo
without a break in energy. Xiao-Fen's thin, delicate pipa had a rough time
keeping up with Demmere's intensity until she began, for the first time I've
seen, applying a variety of electronic effects to her instrument.
unstoppable force, after their set came to a conclusion Demierre motioned to
Xiao-Fen for one more, and returned to some of the more delicate passages of the
evening. For an acoustic player, he covers an incredible dynamic range. He's
plays quiet like the wind and mighty like a hurricane.
Koch-Schütz-Studer don't waste their time with music. Instead, the
horn-cello-drum trio is occupied with displays of simpatico. The idea of a solo
would be ludicrous in this music; the stew is too thick for any ingredient to
rise to the top (unusual when there's a horn in the mix - Hans Koch plays
soprano saxophone and bass clarinet). The group isn't afraid of repetition,
syncopation or simplicity. Nor are they above a balls-to-the-wall blowout.
A nicely flowing set of static and tone, pop and chime
from the dual laptops of Ralph Steinbruechel and New York's o.blaat, with the two seated at
small tables in front of the stage, facing each other. One can't help but wonder
if cubicles will b e the next stage setting for electronica improv. If the cycle
of car alarms wasn't so predictable, the noise from outside would have fit in
Following was a cello dual committed by Okkyung Lee and
Martin Schütz. Lee left it to the latter to open, with a scrape, a pop and a
long bowed note, then weighed in with her quick hammering. It took the pair all
of two minutes to explode into a barrage of extended technique and mutual
challenge, like two people playing speed chess without taking turns.
Lee is a great player, and Schütz pushed her as hard as anyone has. If this were
a match (and it might have been), smart money would have been on Schütz, if only
for his greater years of experience. But the duo met head-on, on equal footing,
varying dynamics but never easing up. Lee's bow was threadbare and had to be
replaced after the first 20 minutes.
Somehow it was with the trio of
Schürch, Schütz and Wittwer that I finally felt deep in the heart of Zurich.
While it's understandable that musicians coming to play in town want to play
with New Yorkers, it can be disappointing to so rarely see visitors able to
explore familiar ground. These three clearly know each other, and their
familarity showed. Shards of sound fell in place, they didn't interrupt. Like a
good basketball team, they knew where each other were and where they were headed
without having to check. Wittwer's splinter metallics, the blasts from Schütz'
electrified and effect-plied cello and Schürch's dramatic, understated
vocalizing continually wove around each other without tying each other in knots.
Attendance was the lowest yet tonight. Are the Academy Award s really
An evening of improv resulted
from some originally booked electro players not coming to town in protest of US
actions in Iraq, resulting in the most total music meeting of the fest so far.
Electronic duos and trios with Steinbruechel, Norbert
Moslang (of the now defunct Voice Crack),
Günter Müller and New York turntablists Christian Marclay and Toshio Kajiwara.
Marclay and Müller started the night with a melding of sounds, as opposed
to the previous nights meeting (and clashing) of styles. If Schürch, Schütz and
Wittwer were an immersion into the Swiss aesthetic, Marclay and Müller were a
melting of regionalism.
Electronics and turntables, perhaps, lend
themselves to that loss of ego. The mechanized production of sound and the
inability to always tell who's playing what blur distinctions of culture,
predilection, instrument. It's a very different kind of free improv, like a
string quartet jamming underwater, with a storm passing overhead.
The night, in a sense, replaced the "open combinations" midnight sets which had been advertised but canceled, and the short sets had the feeling of a suite, one group picking up where the last left off. Müller was surprisingly loud (though of
course still not loud) with Marclay, a dizzying mesh of grind, scratch, stutter
and musical utterance. Marclay hadn't been scheduled to perform, but sat in for
the missing Swiss.
Spoke with Schürch after the show, who said
That the musicians who didn't come out of protest shouldn't be replaced, that their
protest should be respected with gaps in the program. Besi des, she said, "I like
Following Marclay and Müller's great duet was a NY
trio, breaking the festival theme or perhaps just the hole in the cheese. Maybe
it was homefield advantage, but Marclay, Kajiwara and Shelley Hirsc h l aid down
one of the most powerful, charismatic sets of the night.
team took the next inning as well, with Marclay, Kajiwara and DJ Olive
delivering a strong five-minute burst before bringing Steinbruechel and Müller
up to join them and finish the night, Marclay playing plastic and ceramic cups
on his turntable.
Confronted at the end of the night by Schütz. "I
looked at your Web site today. There is nothing about this?" You've got to give
me a little time to write, I said. I'll do one piece when it's all over. "You
should do it immediately, get it up there," he said. "That's important. Like us,
we are naked when we're up there."
176 keys and
176 strings. Four hands, ten fingers. Half the stage filled with piano, two baby
grands like two giant onyx tortoises sleeping side by side.
and Sylvie Courvoisier woke them, gently tickling and prodding them,
surprisingly gently for two such physical players. They opened with a brief,
pastoral piece before moving into extension, caressing the Baldwins' innards.
Pretty, really, like Chopin is pretty (only, of course, not).
percussive pianist duo was followed by a purely percussion duet, with Raz
Mesinai on hand drums and Fredy Studer on kit, interesting because they're both
such syncopated players but both strayed so far from steady rhythm during the
set. Studer played with his hands, matching Mesinai's delicate taps. Studer
played muted high-hat runs while Mesinai sang into his drum. Mesinai played hand
bells to Studer's fast snare rolls. They held at low volume, listening intently
to each other, allowing for constant shifts in sonority.
drums are generally quiet, but he creates a fairly massive feedback machine by
placing a microphone inside his instrument. Studer clearly enjoys volume, and
together they conjured a tumultuous storm in the second part of the set, p e rhap s
not meshing well (Mesinai's feedback drum has been used in other setting to
better effect), but Studer still rose to the occasion, banging a large, heavy
cymbal to meet Mesinai's attack. If a drum duet sounds like something only a
drummer would love, Mesinai and Studer proved the setting to be rife with