A Real Misty Mountain Hop


I’ve been listening to this sehr schöen album called “Schwarzwaldfahrt” repeatedly this week.  It was recorded by two improvisational musicians, Han Bennik (from the Netherlands) and Peter Brötzmann, (from Germany,) in 1977 (I think.)  They loaded up a car full of instruments and recording gear and traveled to record in the middle of the black forest in Germany in the middle of winter.  (Perhaps for that reason, I find it sounds especially good on my car stereo.)  Mind you, when I say “in the middle of the black forest,” I don’t mean in a remote cabin in the wilderness.  I literally mean it was recorded out in the forest itself.  So take that Bon Iver!

Bennik left his drum kit at home and can be heard playing on logs, sticks and various natural ephemera, in addition to playing whistles and clarinets along with Brötzmann, whose main instrument is usually the saxophone.  Brötzmann has said it was hard to get his wind instruments to work properly, because the cold threw them out of whack.  You can hear the musicians complaining about this in German at the start of one the tracks on the record.  One of them says, “it’s much too cold, it’s throwing my clarinet off.”  The other adds, “and it’s raining.”  In response to their complaints, I found myself thinking, “what were you expecting when you went out to record in the Black Forest in the dead of winter?”

For the purposes of this project, the tuning issues don’t really present much of a problem.  The musicians wander around the forest, changing the dynamic of the recordings as they circle towards and away from the microphones.  When you hear things like cricket sounds and bird songs on contemporary records – like one I’ve been working on recently – they’re usually samples.  Here, they’re just stuff the mic picks up out in a forest.  Not all of the background sounds are “natural” ones.  (Pun intended. Sorry.)  You hear a jet plane roaring over head at one point.  From another online review of the reissue, I found the following backstory: “Taking the tactic to an extreme, the final cut of the original album consists almost completely of an impromptu symphony of splashing sounds generated by hands, feet and dropped objects.” (http://www.bagatellen.com/archives/reviews/001075.html)

I originally picked up this record because I though it would be good to make samples from since it is so sparse.  Some of Brötzmann’s best known work is pretty dense to the point of assault – thus the title of his famous ’60’s free jazz session “Machine Gun,” which my saxophone-playing brother described as “the most violent free jazz ever.”  By contrast, I really like the open space that the way this record was made allows for.

It reminds me of a record I used to have of a duet performance by Han Bennik and Cecil Taylor, which was called “Spots, Circles & Fantasy.”  Sometimes the dense and complex style of musicians of this ilk gets through to me more when there are fewer players to clog up the freeway.  For that reason, I really like the playing of the drummer Tony Oxley, who also made a duo  record with Cecil called “Leaf Palm Hand.”  Both of those albums were recorded as part of a 1988 residence Mr. Taylor took up in Berlin called “Total Music Meetings,” in which he performed and recorded with several combinations of European improvisational musicians.  The FMP label released 11 (!) CDs of material from these sessions.

This forest recording reminds me of what I loved about those records, which I listened to constantly in 1996, while having a character all its own.  I can’t wait to start sampling from it!

Ciao, JD

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