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
Schürch and Anthony Coleman had never met before the day of the performance,
but should definitely meet again. They seemed to bring out the best in each other.
Coleman is strongest on the acoustic keyboard anyway, and his playing (both
inside and outside) on the baby grand was inspired. Schürch's two previous sets
in the fest were understated, but here she waxed distracted, drunk, bored,
confused and contemplative, all to positive effect. They took advantage of the
dual pianos, Schürch leaning on one and looking perplexedly at the instrument,
putting her weight on the keyboard as if unaware it would produce a sound.
Coleman responded with his textbook knowledge of piano style, giving her decades
to which she could respond.
|DOROTHEA SCHÜRCH & ANTHONY COLEMAN|
The real storm moved in for the final set,
Wittwer's rough-hewn guitar up against Elliott Sharp's looped sax and slab,
tortured strings and unholy overtones, all drenched in effects. The loudest thing
in the fest so far, though not loud enough. Wittwer matched Sharp's algorithmic
complexities with a raw primitivism. He doesn't shy from feedback and seems to
revel in mishap. While Sharp reeled out algebra, Wittwer waved his guitar in
front of his Marshall stack and slightly twiddled the volume knob, making a wash
of feedback. The space where they met was electric.
Wittwer walked around the back of the room for a good 20 minutes, playing
unamplified guitar to himself while his laptop whirred along, playing a lovely
piece of dark ambience from the stage. The room was dark save for candles
onstage and around the small table where his laptop sat. He sat at the table,
facing the stage with us, and began playing along with the computer-generated
soundtrack. The piece he played was harsh but delicate, like a spun glass doily.
It was the subtlest thing he'd offered during the week, and far from the
intensity I'd expected from his 1990 Intakt release World of Strings, though one can hardly expect an artist not to change over 13 years. The phonemes from his past were present, the metallic scrapes and abrupt interruptions, but it was, well, modern. The attack is the new element. At times the solo piece still sounded like guitar music, but at other points the guitar would submerge entirely into the static pulses shooting from the PA. Directly in front of him at center stage (and also illumed by candles) was his Marshall stack, creating a rich stereo field with the suspended house speakers. The song remained the same, but the density doubled, for the next set, a duet by Wittwer and New York drummer Charles K. Noyes. In tandem, however, Wittwer's ideas didn't seem to congeal so readily.
The lights went up and the sound turned airy for the trio of Müller, Koch and Tomas Korber. Koch must ra nk among the top in individually melding electronic and acoustic sounds. Across the fest, he displayed a prowess for creating his own textures over which to quietly play his soprano sax and bass clarinet. Müller, of course, is a master at listening and at building his own electronic fields.
What's in ter esting about listening to electronic improv, however, is also what's difficultabout writing about it. There's no such thing as saying "the trombonist played a beautiful solo, picking up right where the pianist left off." After Yodel proved a crash course in discerning some distinct European voices, but those voices can still remain elusive in the context of generated sound fields. Korber, heavily processing an electric guitar laid across his lap, found his pocket in a strong whole created by his seniors, but it was only when he slowly picked his 6-string that I heard his restrained voice.
If there was a supergroup to be found in this festival, it was surely the pairing of Müller and Ikue Mori, two watermarks for electronic sound who had never worked together before. The set they played was fast, energetic, exciting after an evening of ambience. They seemed to propel each other forward, putting an electric current in the air.
What they share is a feeling for natural sound, even when they're dealing largely with patches, loops and delays. What they produce is not otherworldly. Rather, they are like an aural microscope: gravel, water and wind at 1000x.
Mori works primarily with processed patches from her drum machines; the organic quality is purely in her hand. Müller, however, relies on two large, handheld microphones to pick up the sounds of struck and bowed metal and soft mallets on a single drum and cymbal, the soft acoustic sounds looped, sped and slowed through a pair of Digitech delays, among other devices. Unlike Mori, he does deal (to an extent) in acoustic sound. It was to Mori's credit that - as in Mephista, her excellent trio with Courvoisier and drummer Susie Ibarra - her computer never sounded like an interloper.
Friday's slate presented an intriguing selection of improvising, electronic musicians that featured some grizzled veterans of the genre along with a few representatives of the younger vanguard.
After Yodel: New Swiss Music|
March 21-29, 2003
Mytha; Norbert Moeslang & Marina Rosenfeld; Dorothea Schürch, Toshio
Kajiwara & Stephan Wittwer; Wittwer, Lee Ranaldo & Alan Licht
Jacques Demierre; Demierre & Min Xiao-Fen; Hans Koch, Fredy Studer,
Schuetz; Koch,Studer, Schuetz & I-Sound
Ralph Steinbruechel & o.blaat; Schuetz & Okkyung Lee; Schürch, Schuetz,
& Wittwer; Schürch & Demierre
Christian Marclay, DJ Olive Norbert Moeslang, Toshio Kajiwara, Gunther
Müller combinations; Marclay, Kajiwara & Shelley Hirsch
Demierre & Sylvie Courvoisier; Studer & Raz Mesinai; Schürch & Anthony
Coleman; Wittwer & Elliott Sharp
Wittwer; Wittwer & Charles K. Noyes; Müller, Koch & Tomas Korber;
Müller & Ikue Mori,
Korber, Müller & Moeslang; Steinbruechel; Steinbruechel, Taylor Deupree
& Richard Chartier
Jim O'Rourke and Mytha; Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris conductions
The first set was a trio with the rock-solid Müller, Moslang and o.blaat. The first of the two pieces got into the sort of rut that's all too common in this field: the establishment of a drone-based bed on top of which is sprinkled a variety of higher pitched a nd more atonal crackles and other noise. The result is an attractive but ultimately bland product that leaves little lasting impression. Toward the end of the improv, more angular blocks of sound were hewn and tossed back and forth among the musicians, making for a livelier, more substantial section. The second piece began with one of Moslang's patented light-activate d sou nd sources, this one triggering a deep bass throb with each bright flash. The improvisation was far more pared down and tightly focused, the initial dark mood morphing into lovely keening tones and eventually subsiding into a quiet tick-tock before closing. Quite nice.
Next up was guitarist/electronicist Korber, a musician of startling imagination still in his early 20's. Beginning with his guitar flat on his lap, he gently tapped the body while adjusting its various knobs and detuning the strings, producing some wonderfully atmospheric but subtly disturbing sounds. After only five or so minutes, he seamlessly moved to a primitive looking electronics set-up and created a series of delicate, smoky washes that sometimes sounded like broom-sweeps picking up errant static pops and clicks. Korber, learning an important lesson early, kept the piece at precisely the proper length (about 20 minutes) and when "it" chose to end, so did he. Clearly someone to keep and eye on.
The same might not be said of Ralph Steinbruchel, who gave a solo laptop performance of meager substance and harrowing length. Working with a basic, tonal drone of no great interest, he overlaid it with the de rigeur crackles and bell tones heard all too often nowadays (a rationing law of some kind might be in order) and went on far, far longer than could possibly be justified.
The best was saved for last, however, as Müller and Moslang joined up with Korber for a trio improv that was much more in the "tradition" of Müller and Moslang's quartet poire_z (with Andy Guhl and Erik M): all ro ugh slabs of noise, garrulous interplay and the emergence of torrents of unexpected sounds, radio captures, feedback, etc. The swirling unpredictability was intoxicatingly pleasurable but when Müller began to draw his violin bow across his padded mics, the resulting siren-like wails made subtle and frightening allusion to current events. This was what good free improv is all abo ut: de pth , surprise, intelligence and sheer creativity.
Despite their unusual instruments, Mytha was by far the most conventional band of the festival. They took the stage again on the last night, crossing their long horns in front of the stage and blowing their deep, courtly arrangements. Electronic hums slowly filtered in, although collaborator Jim O'Rourke was hidden from view (he was perched high in the back of the club, making his offering from the sound board). Mytha were more interesting playing an extended piece than the short arrangements they performed on opening night, and seemed at times to be improvising and working with the acoustics of the room.
The music was still a little tame, perhaps because of the constraints of the instrument, which creates a resonant tone but has a limited scope. When they moved from drone to their jazzy heads, they left no room for O'Rourke's interjections. By the end, O'Rourke was as far removed from the Alpine horn quartet musically as he was physically. There was, however, the only hint of a yodel throughout the week.
In a setting of unusual music, Mytha seemed to need not just collaboration but guidance, which is what they got during the first of two Butch Morris conductions that closed the festival (save for an impromptu set by Demier re, Korber and Andrea Parkins at the end of the night). Morris was just the man to take the group by the hand and walk them through impressionistic music. With an excellent nonet on stage (Koch, Studer, Schütz, Schürch, Müller, Korber, Dermierre, Steinbruchel and Moslang), Morris focused much of his attention on the Alpines, working with the harmonic drones of the instruments and leaving the group' s ja zzy tendencies behind. The rest of the ensemble were aflame, a remarkably responsive ensemble for Morris' real-time scripting.
With four people on various electronics, there was more of a squall than in many of Morris' conductions (at least stateside). But the contrast between the electronics and the necessarily harmonic Alpine horns was striking, and gave Schürch yet another chance to shine. She rarely steps in front of the sound, fitting in more like one of the instruments than any other improvising vocalist I've heard.