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New Additions to my Christoph Erb MusicBox

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New Additions to my Christoph Erb MusicBox
Christoph Erb expels music from the nuclear heart of a particle accelerator

The celebrated Orson Wells, US radio and film actor, director and celebrated loud-mouth with a wonderful baritone voice once, facetiously [and infamously] suggested that the only thing that the Swiss were famous for was the alarm clock. The fact that he called the damn thing “the alarm clock” and not a wrist watch might suggest that Mr Wells was both out of touch with [pardon the pun] his time as well as the fact that his history was flawed. [For instance: he did not seem to know that the all-powerful Celts, in all probability, first set up camp on Lake Geneva – which, Mr Wells – is in Switzerland]. Also – and this is not really Mr Wells’ fault – he was born too early to listen [in wide-eyed wonder] to be regaled by the artistry of the Swiss.

Many names of consummate artists come to mind: painter-poet Paul Klee [1879-1940], the label founder and producer of numerous seminal recordings on his pathbreaking imprint hatHUT, Werner X. Uehlinger [1935-], musicians Edwin Fischer [1886-1960] Paul Baumgartner [1903-1976], George Gruntz [1932-2013], saxophonist María Grand [1992-] … and, of course, the ineffably irreverent reeds and woodwinds meister Christoph Erb [1973-].

Whether the indomitable Mr Wells was being completely serios about the Swiss or not [somehow, I do suspect he – in a backhanded sort of way – that he was], my admiration for those more generous than Mr Wells.’ Certainly, the reason for my respect [for] Swiss musicians – especially Mr Erb – has much more to do with their make new music out of “mouthfuls of air” [the reference to modernity in poetic form is all due to Mr Ezra Pound I just stole it from him], to being bold rather than being “polite”, and uncommonly forthright of expression rather than “discreet.” [The latter two words appear to have been inspired by someone adapting an outdated edition of Debrett’s. Again, I just stole them.]

Jump-cut to the recent music of Christoph Erb. Hard on the heels of a prolific series of recordings came the cassette release Dinner Music. This marvellous release was sculpted by Mr Erb playing tenor and soprano saxophones, with pianist Magda Mayas and drummer and percussion colourist extraordinaire extracting music from a battery of unnamed objects, Gerry Hemingway. Of course he doesn’t stop there. However, this is where we must begin to view Mr Erb as one of the most restless and creatively questing musicians – quite like that Brasilian tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman – is driven, and therefore prolific.

Christoph Erb’s horns are unique instruments of music. When he plays them – saxophonees or clarinets – they become gilded particle accelerators. Mr Erb is known to gulp down lungs full of air. Then, as he gently – or, often forcefully – expels the air through the moistened reeds he creates his unique, extreme kinetic energy, impelling with atomic force, the agitating musical notes, splitting them by intervallic values as if into protons and neutrons that come together and disperse in elliptical arcs. Thus he makes music that is at once powerful and imaginative.

Christoph Erb captured in an iconic image by Peter Gannushkin

The long crepuscular inventions of Dinner Music were beautifully and audaciously performed – and captured – with exquisite precision. The howl of the wind melds with tape hiss. Air from the gleaming tenor and soprano horns heats up the atmosphere – sometimes in legato – or punctuates the jagged musical lines with barbed utterings. Everywhere through three charts – [whimsically informed A Feast of a Decision, An Agreement of Palettes, and A Reason for Grappa] – the air is redolent of the spectral sounds of piano and percussion. Clearly though this is much more than a performance in [a] dimly lit club, amid the chatter of aficionados and quizzical listeners, it is a journey into the marvellously inebriated and creative world view of three musicians well-informed, yet restless musicians.

This was followed by a more enigmatic recording, a trio performance recorded and named after the performance space Spazio Elle [Veto Records, 2022]. On this performance, captured on vinyl Mr Erb – playing tenor and soprano saxophones – is joined by contrabassist Christian Weber and drummer Emanuel Künzi. The music comes from a forty-minute and fifty-second set. This is extremely catchy music; the architecture comprises main [and sub-] themes with musical gestures [from complementing instruments] providing ornamental gestures.

Cover design Live at Spazio Elle

As always Mr Erb gives a fine account of virtuoso playing, which is exquisitely matched by the contrabassist and drummer. Among the highlights is a delightfully spirited pizzicato-infused variation [on the B side of the album], all instruments playing pianissimo, as is the move to odd-tempi that follows. The finale of the set is climactic in its own right. It’s a really classy live package that comes superbly mastered and pressed and is – as are all of Mr Erb’s outward-bound music – highly recommended.

Cover design of Wabi Sabi

Six recordings later, the reeds and winds specialist proffered two remarkable recordings – both released on vinyl – for my Christoph Erb Musicbox. The second of these under review here is Wabi Sabi [Veto Records, 2023]. This is a deep-dive into a Zen-like koan. Once again the creativity is unquestionably radical. This duo recording comprises Mr Erb playing bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, in a musical collision with Frantz Loriot who alternates between high and lonesome howls and audacious double stops, and ambient noise musical howls and sheets of sound woven into the canvas. Wabi Sabi is based on an interpretation of the koan as explained by the Zen Master Alan Watts, whose description of the mystical journey provides a palimpsest for Mr Erb’s and Mr Loriot’s musical collisions.

The vibrating sound is a fascinating journey – through nine stages of the koan – [on two sides of the vinyl] – from the sound of quietude and solitariness [Sabi] and the plunging of the two musicians’ spirits into the bottomless unknown, the emptiness of which is echoed in the sound of the duo capturing the experience of mystery, the likeness of which describes the opposite realm of the koan, which is wabi. This is one of Mr Erb’s most contemplative works. It is both haunting, and existentially exhilarating. It also takes that existential angst to a pitch at which even composers such as Shostakovich would have given up, and then, miraculously, resolves itself in the stunningly simple apoetheosis: Wabi Sabi.

It’s hard to keep holding onto one’s breath, awaiting what might come next from the reeds of Christoph Erb… and Co.

Based in Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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