Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Visual Music of Swiss Director Peter Liechti

Posted By on 11.03.09 at 02:51 PM

Hans Koch
  • Hans Koch
The Umbrella Music Festival officially starts Thursday night with the six-act “European Jazz Meets Chicago” mini fest at the Chicago Cultural Center. But several visiting artists are getting an early jump by playing shows on Wednesday night. The Hideout presents two ad hoc groupings of top-notch European players, among them guitarist David Stackenas, drummer Martin Brandlmayr, and reedist Liudas Mockunas, and Swiss reedist Hans Koch plays a solo set presented by the Renaissance Society at the U. of C.'s Bond Chapel.

(Koch also plays a free solo set Friday at 4 PM at Corbett vs. Dempsey that isn't officially part of the festival.)

Koch is still best known for his longtime participation in an excellent trio with cellist Martin Schütz and percussionist Fredy Studer. But on the recent Synopsis (Altrisuoni), he makes great music with two players I’m unfamiliar with—trombonist Denis Beuret and guitarist Vinz Vonlanthen. Koch concentrates on his rich bass clarinet vocabulary, full of his usual striated whinnies and wails and percussive pops and thwacks, and through the 24 pieces were recorded over a two-month period in nine different locations, the trio is exceptionally coherent, shadowing and complementing one another’s improvised utterances as if they were all planned out in advance.

I recently kicked off a personal DVD-watching marathon with a vibrant documentary of a month-long engagement that Koch, Schütz, and Studer engineered and presented at a warehouse that they’d transformed into a makeshift nightclub. Hardcore Chambermusic—A Club for 30 Days, released on DVD by Intakt Records in 2007, is the work of Swiss director Peter Liechti, who synthesizes a ton of material into a concise 70 minutes, building the density, tension, and drama of the music as the film proceeds. Performance footage is interspersed with abstracted images of the warehouse space and postconcert discussions with the musicians on the nature of improvisation, both as a general practice and as it’s evolved for this particular trio during their time together. Though the talk could’ve ended up boring and dry, by seamlessly illustrating many of the points with actual performances Liechti maintains the film’s organic flow.

Still, compared to some of Liechti’s earlier work, Hardcore Chambermusic is rather conventional. Earlier this year Drag City Records released two of the director’s most compelling and entertaining documentaries on DVD. Kick That Habit was made back in 1989, a kind of experimental portrait of the great Swiss improvising duo Voice Crack that combines grainy black-and-white footage of the group performing in a warehouse space with elliptical landscape shots of remote, wintry Switzerland, in the mountains and on the water. The subtitle of the film is “A Sound Movie,” and indeed, the soundtrack is integral, and sometimes it seems like the images are actually secondary. In one particularly great scene the musicians sit around a table eating and preparing some of the homemade electronic noise-making devices they were famous for, and the sounds of eggs cracking or bread being buttered are just as loud, prevalent, and musical as the output of the low-tech machines. The sound design here is pure genius; Walter Murch would love this one.

Peter Liechti
  • Peter Liechti

Signer’s Suitcase: On the Road With Roman Signer
is from 1995, and in it Liechti follows around the titular Swiss visual artist—he’s responsible for the photograph on the cover of Gastr del Sol’s Upgrade & Afterlife—as he creates various site-specific “temporary sculptures,” which are really more like quasi-scientific experiments that often involve small explosives. It’s not as formally inventive as the Voice Crack film, but thanks partly to the deadpan humor of its subject and the director’s abrupt editing, it’s a blast to watch. Many of Signer’s “pieces” are patently absurd; in one he dons a pair of hip waders and stands about 20 feet beneath an elevated oil drum filled with water. The container is punctured, the water falls in a steady stream, and Signer positions himself so that it fills the waders to the bursting point—at which point he tumbles over. In one piece he shoots long red ribbons over the enormous mouth of the Stromboli volcano, a gesture that sounds grandiose but turns out pathetic in scale, while in another hilarious scene he flies a toy helicopter into the window shutters of an abandoned Swiss hotel. At the completion of each piece Signer turns and walks away, as if it never happened. Sound is important here too, particularly when there’s a crash or an explosion; in its aftermath the sound seems to evaporate instantly, almost mocking the action that preceded it.

Today’s playlist:

Reggie Nicholson Brass Concept, Surreal Feel (Abstract Recordings)
Ralph Alessi and Modular Theatre, Open Season (RKM Music)
Henning Sieverts Symmetry, Blackbird (Pirouet)
Bobby Bradford, Ken Heasley, and Ken Rosser, Varistar (Full Bleed Music)
Burkhard Stangl and Kai Fagaschinkski, Musik: Ein Porträt in Sehnsucht (Erstwhile)

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