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  Swiss Harmony Knife  

Notes from After Yodel: New Swiss Music


By Kurt Gottschalk & Brian Olewnick
Photos by Dominik Huber 2003-04-07

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.

Day 1

Swiss Horns
MYTHA
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 opening night.

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.

They were 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).

Day 2

Jacques Demierre 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.

Jaques Demierre
JAQUES DEMIERRE
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.

An 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.

Day 3

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 beautifully.

Okkyung Lee
OKKYUNG LEE
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 that interesting?

Day 4

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.

Christian Marclay
CHRISTIAN MARCLAY

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 gaps sometimes."

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.

The home 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."

Day 5

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.

Demierre 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).

The 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.

Mesinai's 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 possibility.



continued...




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