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Christof Kurzmann / Burkhard Stangl - Neuschnee

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Artist: Christof Kurzmann / Burkhard Stangl

Album: Neuschnee

Label: Erstwhile

Review date: Apr. 28, 2009

Neuschnee marks the culmination of a decade of evolution for Christof Kurzmann and Burkhard Stangl. The two first came together as Schnee in 1999. The combination of Stangl’s delicate acoustic guitar and Kurzmann’s electronics, as represented on their 2000 debut Erstwhile album, created a sparse soundscape that proved influential on electro-acoustic improvisation.

Subsequently, the duo integrated vocals and songs into their repertoire, leading to the shocking inclusion of elements of Prince’s “Sometimes It Snows In April” in their performance at AMPLIFY 2004 in Berlin, released commercially on schnee_live. Despite the addition of vocals and songs that year, the duo maintained their approach to improvisation, and the synthesis proved a happy one. As Stangl explains, “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.”

Since 2003, in locales around South Africa, Peru, Chile, Holland and Austria Kurzmann and Stangl have worked on refining this bizarre approach. The five tracks on Neuschnee integrates those recordings with post-production improvisations to create a suite that ends up a reflection on song itself. The opening track, entitled “Las hijas de nieve,” is short and not promising. It features an acapella version of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” recorded in a crowded talkative bar in Lima; its ambience reminiscent of that Beach Boys party album where we hear more of the party than the music. Anyway, it is over in thirty-nine seconds.

From then on, things become far more rewarding. The next three tracks are a blend of vocals and improvisation that should more than satisfy lovers of either. They eloquently demonstrate how eclectic the duo has been in its trawl for songs, featuring Phil Ochs’ “No More Songs,” Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” (yes, I’d forgotten that one had lyrics) and “Taking A Chance On Love” by Vernon Duke, John Latouche, and Ted Fetter – maybe best known in the version by Sinatra. Taken together, the three songs are meloncholy, from the opening “Hello, hello, hello is there anybody home? / I only called to say I’m sorry”. Their atmosphere is perfectly suited to Kurzmann’s voice, detached and largely devoid of emotion. The versions often take license with the original melodies, and Kurzmann’s delivery of their lyrics is equal parts recitation and singing over a bed that could best be called impressionistic.

The album peaks with the studio-recorded “Song songs.” After an engaging introductory improvisation deploying electronics, acoustic guitar, clarinet and percussion, Kurzmann launches into the songs. In line with the title of the piece, he quotes from nearly a dozen songs, each including the word “song” in its lyrics. Some of the quotes are fleeting, others more extended; Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Public Image Ltd, Neil Diamond, Melanie and Roberta Flack. The track and album conclude with the soaring voice of an unnamed, sampled female singer. It’s a beautiful conclusion to a well-crafted album, and for those who don’t generally appreciate improvisation, it makes for a nifty “name that tune” contest, too.

By John Eyles

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