Blizzard, Snowglobe, Blanket: Christof Kurzmann on Erstwhile

By Spencer Cawein Pate

0. Introduction

“I love plainness in color, monotony, snow is rather a monotonous tune.  Why should colour not give an impression of singing? White is like a murmur, a whisper, a prayer.”—Robert Walser (quoted in the liner notes to Schnee)

Christof Kurzmann is one of the preeminent shapeshifters of electroacoustic improvisation. If one examines the giants of the field, one finds they are often strongly identified with a particular instrument or practice—Keith Rowe, for example, will always be synonymous with prepared guitar and radio, while Toshimaru Nakamura is equated with the no-input mixing board—but Kurzmann’s identity and presence are considerably more subtle. His contributions as an improvisor and as the founder of the important Charhizma record label are highly valued, but as far as I know, there has not yet been any attempt to write a semi-comprehensive or chronological overview of his career. This essay will be a deep dive into the three Christof Kurzmann / Burkhard Stangl collaborations on Erstwhile RecordsSchnee, Schnee_Live, and Neuschnee—with excursions into two of Kurzmann’s other appearances in that label’s discography: a s o, with Ami Yoshida, and Till My Breath Gives Out, as a member of The Magic I.D. (I’m going to leave aside Kurzmann’s live recordings with Toshimaru Nakamura and with Stangl and Taku Sugimoto as documented on the Amplify 2002: Balance boxset. Both are discreet, intelligent sets, but they are somewhat slight compared with the other works under discussion. Suffice it to say that the former sounds exactly like what one expects a Kurzmann / Nakamura session would sound like–but in a good way–while the latter is interesting for how the mere presence of Sugimoto pushes Schnee into quieter territory.) Ultimately, I believe these five albums form a sequence as fine and distinctive as Jon Abbey’s many classic pairings of Rowe with other improvisors; the cluster of Schnee records in particular are among the most nakedly beautiful entries in the Erstwhile catalogue.

To employ a physics analogy, I think of Kurzmann as being akin to a boson—the elementary particles that are force carriers, such as the gluon that mediates the strong nuclear force—to the fermions (the building blocks of matter, including the quarks that comprise protons and neutrons) of musicians like Burkhard Stangl. In other words, throughout his multifarious work, Kurzmann’s artistry is profoundly connective and cohesive in nature; he holds things together that might otherwise drift apart.

1. Blizzard: Schnee

“The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.”—James Joyce, “The Dead”

Even if Christof Kurzmann and Burkhard Stangl’s project had not been titled Schnee, I’m certain that I would have landed on the metaphor of snow, so evocative is their music of the experience of being ensconced safe and warm and dry at home while a winter storm rages outside one’s windows. (Kevin Drumm’s drone albums—Imperial Distortion, Imperial Horizon, and Tannenbaum—have exactly the same connotations for me.) First, a few words about the musicians. Stangl and Kurzmann both hail from Austria, which was one of the centers of gravity of what became electroacoustic improv in the late nineties / early oughts. Stangl was a member of the crucial collective Polwechsel, which incorporated elements of both improvisation and composition, acoustics and electronics; counted luminaries like Burkhard Beins, Martin Brandlmayr, John Butcher, Werner Dafeldecker, and Michael Moser among its alumni; and collaborated with the master pianist John Tilbury. Stangl’s thoughtful guitar playing is clean and expressive and precise, a pointillist to the emotive impressionism of fellow Vienna resident Christian Fennesz. (The Polwechsel / Fennesz album Wrapped Islands was my gateway into the world of EAI, and I would encourage fellow fans of Fennesz—especially of works like Black Sea, on which he paints with a cooler palette—to check out all of the Schnee records under discussion. Stangl’s duo with clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski [another member of The Magic I.D], Musik – Ein Portrat In Sehnsucht, is highly underrated, and his solo album Unfinished. For William Turner, Painter. is also of considerable appeal.) Kurzmann’s versatility, curiosity, and understated wit make him more of a chameleon in both live and studio settings. His primary instruments are electronics, primarily digital signal processing / synthesis software, but he has also branched out into clarinet and even vocals.

For a Midwesterner like me, the first Schnee (2000) bundles up all of the contraries I associate with Ohio weather in winter: the howling of wind, creaking of trees, and rattling of windowpanes that is then replaced by the profound stillness and silence of freshly fallen snow under streetlights; waking up to the relief and promise of freedom of a day off from school or work that a snow day brings, coupled with the dread and strenuous labor of having to clear one’s driveway and sidewalks. In the sympathies and antimonies of their approaches, Stangl and Kurzmann are as perfect a pairing as Rowe and Nakamura on Weather Sky. Stangl’s ghostly guitar hums, shimmers, fibrillates, shivers like a roaring furnace, like glowing lights, like a beating heart, while Kurzmann’s cold electronics are frost on glass, icicles under eaves, breath into steam. On “Nordrand” and “Sans Soleil” they are locked into an entangled state, rising and falling in unison, receding and advancing in concert, as Kurzmann provides the blank canvas for Stangl’s notes, while at points in “Passion” and “In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden,” the session turns adversarial. Kurzmann alights effortlessly on various phase states–condensate, solid, liquid, gas, plasma–interrupting and fragmenting the proceedings whenever Stangl gets a little too melodic and smooth. Meanwhile, Stangl feels as though he is trying to bend and shatter the strictures in which Kurzmann attempts to bind him. This is an album that exists at the stasis point of 0° Celsius: it may appear that nothing is happening on the surface, but at the microscopic level, there is constant molecular movement, a balance between freezing and thawing, deposition and sublimation. Despite the monochromatic aesthetics, Schnee is strangely cinematic (indeed, its four tracks are titled after European films) in its flickering dialectic between light and shadow, figure and background.

1.5 a s o

“One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs of the pine-trees crusted with snow; / And to have been cold a long time / To behold the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough in the distant glitter / Of the January sun; and not to think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind, / In the sound of a few leaves, / Which is the sound of the land / Full of the same wind / That is blowing in the same bare place / For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”—Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

The deeply unconventional vocalist Ami Yoshida has recorded three albums for Erstwhile, but a s o might be my favorite of the de facto trilogy. Tears, from her Cosmos duo with sinewave soloist Sachiko M., is the most stunning in its absolute uncompromising purity and restraint; Soba to Bara, an aleatoric layering of separate recordings by Yoshida and Toshimaru Nakamura, is perhaps the most beautiful; but the long-gestated a s o (2006) is the most inquisitive and sensitive, a marvel of escape artistry and a model of deep listening and engagement. It demands to be listened to as loudly as one can stand.

If Yoshida is a baby bird trying to peck and break her way out of an egg that has dropped from a tree, then Kurzmann is a concerned caretaker trying to hold the shell together in his cupped hands so that he might return the avian to the safety of the nest. His glitchy electronics do a remarkable impression of her mouth sounds; they seem to inhale and exhale along with her, always trying to anticipate and match the gasps / groans / cries / moans and sucking / slurping / squawking / squealing noises she will utter next. Kurzmann’s synthesis capacities are staggering: he ranges from flipping through old books to shuffling a deck of cards to dropping ball bearings down a staircase, from gurgling pipes to ripping fabric, from buzzing alarms to revving engines. And Yoshida has never sounded better, from impersonating a cooing infant to invoking a black metal wraith. The two of them flutter together and knock against one another, and every time one seems to have the other one pinned down under a glass case or locked in a filing cabinet, they manage to wriggle free and slip away. Producer Christoph Amann should really be considered a third and equal creative partner in a s o via his spatialized recording–he cuts and pans between their inputs, dialing in and zooming out to limn a striking depth of field. At points Kurzmann seems to be playing from the bottom of a well, while at others it feels as though Yoshida is breathing in your ear, separated only by a thin gauze. (The sounds of Kurzmann’s frantic clicking as he attempts to keep up with Yoshida are a charming addition.) For all of their eruptions and implosions, Kurzmann and Yoshida mesh together insanely well.

2. Snowglobe: Schnee_Live

“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.”—James Joyce, “The Dead”

Schnee_Live (2005, recorded at the Amplify 2004: Addition festival in Berlin) is a totally unexpected evolution from Schnee, turning that album inside-out; all of the same aesthetics are present, but we have moved from macrocosm to microcosm, from the natural to the artificial. Rather than suggesting a blizzard outside, Schnee_Live is a snowglobe shaken and swirled in one’s hand, a contemplative memento containing both comfort and sorrow, nostalgia and loss.

Schnee_Live introduces lush color and open feeling into what was previously a greyscale world. A mere thirty-three minutes in duration, the album feels twice as long, but this is emphatically not a criticism: one wishes that it were truly as endless as it seems, that it were a miniature universe one could live inside. Stangl’s stirring, spiraling guitar lines seem to trace the edge of a Koch snowflake—a fractal with finite area but infinitely iterated perimeter—and Kurzmann shades between hushed spoken-word and soft singing, cycles between swelling atmospheric haze and cleansing blasts of noise.

It begins with Kurzmann’s melancholy recitation of lines from Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows in April”; in a certain sense, one could consider the piece a cover version that dilates the original from an art-pop song into a three-dimensional environment. But there’s no trace of irony here, only a sincere, devotional delivery that is offered up almost as a prayer. Where Stangl and Kurzmann’s relationship on Schnee was sometimes agonistic, they are in close harmony on Schnee_Live, handing off segments of the composition in a fluid dialogue. An insistent pulse runs through it all, lending a sense of driving urgency at even the most languid moments, with Kurzmann’s billowing clouds and enveloping auroral veils giving way to refrains of unadorned jazz guitar and tentative acapella solos. Space contracts and time expands; straight lines are deflected into curves; and the laws of gravity and thermodynamics are temporarily suspended in favor of weightlessness and eternity. For the first time, Schnee brings in guest vocalists—Adeline Rosenstein and Margareth Kammerer, the latter of whom will reappear in The Magic I.D.—whose sighing choruses serve as a lovely human counterpoint to the impersonal programming. The recording concludes, surprisingly and amusingly, with Kurzmann breaking into a German folk song (with some of the lyrics altered to refer to computers instead of drinking) that gifts us with the first glimmers of hope and community in what was a previously a portrait of isolation and longing; it’s as though we’ve left behind a funeral in favor of the wake. The audience laughs, and the sudden musical turn and detourned lyrics are indeed funny, but the overall effect of the piece is magical and moving.

2.5 Till My Breath Gives Out

“I tiptoed downstairs to the T.V. room. It was dark and next door they were shouting…Nobody knew I was there. These moments were just mine. Everything felt secret and enchanted…And there was this toy, this snowstorm ball, with a tiny castle inside, except it was like a whole world; a world inside the ball…It was like a little glass bubble of somewhere else. I lifted it, starting a blizzard. I knew it wasn’t real snow, but I couldn’t understand how it fell so slowly. I figured inside the ball was some different sort of time. Slow time. And then…Fragile…And inside there was only water.”—Alan Moore, Watchmen

In 2009, art-pop singer-songwriter David Sylvian released Manafon, an album of collaborations with many notable Erstwhile-adjacent improvisors. While it has a few great tracks (“Small Metal Gods” is one of my favorite songs ever), it is best judged a noble failure, due largely to the absurd overloud / overbearing mastering that causes Sylvian’s voice to drown out the instrumentation. (Sylvian’s previous album with guitarists Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz, Blemish, is more successful.)

Till My Breath Gives Out (2008), however, more than makes up for the disappointment of Manafon: it’s an unusual, exquisite blending of bedroom pop, vocal jazz, indie electronica, and free improv that has never been equaled or sequeled in any meaningful way. (Although the Ju Sei / Utah Kawasaki albums U as in Utah and Live at Ftarri Festival 2015 make for interesting and potentially fruitful comparisons; the latter even features Magic I.D. member Michael Thieke.) In a better world it would have given rise to legions of imitators, but for now it remains a singular object. (The Magic I.D. did record a follow-up album, I’m So Awake / Sleepless I Feel (2011), for the German label Staubgold. It’s a little more poppy and percussive than its predecessor, a little less novel, but still highly enjoyable.)

The Magic I.D. are a quartet comprised of Margareth Kammerer (vocals and guitar), Christof Kurzmann (electronics and voice), and Kai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke (clarinet–the two also play together as The International Nothing). Kammerer is a singer of great control and poise, and Fagaschinski and Thieke’s playing is relaxed and confident; here, as on their other records, each musician occupies one channel of the stereo recording, lending an immersive and disorienting effect to the mix. “True Holiday” begins with a patient clarinet intro before Kurzmann’s electronics whirr to life and Kammerer strolls onstage, singing and strumming; the juxtaposition between the uncanny and the familiar is otherworldly. “Feet Deep” is all tension and release, an unimaginable hybrid of country-and-western, blues, and chamber music. In “Wintersong,” Kurzmann’s noises are a liquescent burble in the background that seeps into the cracks between the dry, clean sounds of guitar and clarinet, usually flowing and smooth but occasionally harsh and aggressive. The sort-of-title-track, “Martin Fierro,” could almost pass for trip-hop, with its catchy beat, vinyl crackles, and lovely harmonies between Kammerer and Kurzmann. “From the Same Road” verges on lowercase, like a fragmentary burst of music snatched from the detuned aether surrounding radio stations. And “Loopstuck” starts with lengthy, dizzying involutions of slippery clarinet and quiet guitar before Kurzmann and Kammerer finally enter with short snippets of song and chilly drones; the result is both frictionless and uneasy.

There’s an interesting precedent to Till My Breath Gives Out that critics seem to have overlooked: Mark Hollis’ extraordinary self-titled solo album from 1998. Hollis, the former lead signer of pioneering post-rock band Talk Talk, taught himself to score arrangements for woodwinds, and as a result his radically stripped-down, close-mic’d chamber-folk feels organic and verdant, as though it were a ruined structure being reclaimed by nature. Till My Breath Gives Out has a similarly eerie affect, but it’s less a ramshackle, tumbledown cabin in the woods than it is a forest treehouse built of entwined vines and reclaimed timber.

3. Blanket: Neuschnee

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”—James Joyce, “The Dead”

In Neuschnee (2009), winter gives way to spring and the ice begins to melt, with the first shoots of new green life breaking through the blanket of snow. If Schnee_Live was a deconstructive experiment, then Neuschnee is a project of reconstruction, combining the pop stylings of The Magic I.D. back into the EAI context of Schnee. Stangl’s offered the following artist’s statement by way of explanation: “After a long phase of experimental and avant-garde work, which inscribed itself in our hearts and still grounds any musical activity, the collection of experiences in originally non-western cultures such as Japan, South Africa or Latin America–each with their own fascinating music–played an important role, too, when we started to think about songs again in a new way and started to integrate them slowly into our delicate musical architecture. The songs or even their fragments are meant as reconciliation: a reconciliation of experiment and tradition, of thoughtful silence and expressive celebration of each moment, of worlds of noises and clearly defined harmonies.”

If Stangl’s conciliatory intention is the yardstick by which the album should be measured, then it is a clear and complete success. Neuschnee, the second entry into Erstwhile’s ErstPop series after Till My Breath Gives Out, could actually fit neatly into the tradition of (primarily British) pastoral post-rock that I love dearly: Talk Talk, Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, Hood, These New Puritans, The Lowland Hundred. The very brief intro “Las Hijas de Nieve,” a documentary grab of people conversing and singing together in a loud bar, leads to the gorgeous, glittering constellation of “In the Global Snow of Things,” a revolving orrery of birdsong and tremulous poetic vocals, plinks and plunks of piano and slowcore guitar, ambient soundscapes and metallic electroacoustic noises. It holds together far better than it should, no doubt to Kurzmann’s intuitive structural brilliance. “Gredler,” an instrumental, continues in the same vein but is darker and more troubled. “Homeless Dogs” contrasts buried spoken-word with blurred samples and crushed chamber music, like someone accidentally taping a demo over a partially-erased Polwechsel track. The final track, “Song Songs,” is the highlight. The first half of it is akin to Schnee_Live–a wonky beat, sprays of free improv guitar, anxious off-kilter bursts of electronics. About midway through, however, Kurzmann begins to list the titles of famous hits containing the word “song,” draining them of meaning until it becomes a portrait of an exhausted tradition. It’s all rather deliciously metafictional, with three simultaneous levels of reality collapsing and commingling, rather like Flann O’Brien’s comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds or the clever lyrics to / hysterical music video for Pulp’s “Bad Cover Version.” Finally, like a ray of sunshine, a recognizable melody emerges from the murk–Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue”–which is so direct in its nursery rhyme simplicity that it becomes intensely pleasurable and cathartic. As in the lyrics to the original that is the palimpsest for the piece, Kurzmann and Stangl defeat individual sadness and loneliness through the collective creation of art. The music fades out slowly during the outro, like a gentle lullaby rocking us to sleep, as it is replaced by a dusty, warped, skipping sample of Viennese singer Maly Nagl–a homecoming of sorts for Kurzmann and Stangl.

There’s a hint of social anarchism in Kurzmann’s exploratory praxis, something both humble and horizontalist. As the force carrier in any group setting, Kurzmann never upstages anyone else; he is respectful of his partners, opening up space and intervening sparingly with generosity, smarts, and humor. In his music, improv and pop are placed on an equal playing field and all structures and organizations are treated as provisional, subject to be reconstituted or rebuilt at a moment’s notice. Thus, Schnee and The Magic I.D. are examples of how abstract music can be imbued with great humanity and models of what nonidiomatic, nondogmatic collaboration can look and sound like in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the fact that their innovations have never been properly followed up on or pushed further is both an indictment of the timidity of conventional thinking and a credit to the boldness of Kurzmann’s experimentalism.

Thank you to Jon Abbey for his comments and corrections.

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