Kappeler/Zumthor: Babylon-Suite (ECM 2363)



Vera Kappeler piano, harmonium, toy piano, voice
Peter Conradin Zumthor drums, toy piano, voice
Recorded June 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

How appropriate that the music of Babylon-Suite, which introduces Vera Kappeler and Peter Conradin Zumthor to a wider world of deserving listeners, should have been premiered in a Swiss hydroelectric power plant: it’s subterranean to the core. Although in the fullest sense recreated here for the studio, it retains every atom, at once surrounded by and transcending the stone enclosure of its origins. And while the backstory of this album’s inception is telling enough, drawing inspiration as it did from the Book of Daniel, Peter Rüedi’s liner note rightly warns us against taking this music descriptively. It was never meant as a Biblical illustration, but a reconfiguration of text into texture. And in an accompanying statement by Giovanni Netzer, who commissioned the piece, we find the suite described as one in a “long tradition of lamentations.”

Babylon Portrait

Although Kappeler is nominally the pianist and Zumthor the drummer of the duo, both switch roles as often as they abide by them, employing bodily voices, too, as moments strike them. This modus operandi is proven in “Das erste Tier,” which opens the suite with a quasi-ritualistic bass drum and barest breath in the piano’s lowest register. But nothing is what it seems in the Kappeler/Zumthor space, for what might elsewhere be a jolt of awakening is now the jolt of slumber: that moment when you realize you’re caught in a dream built on a graveyard of unintelligible syllables. Pianistic strands come forward as lit candles, at once stoic and trembling, reminding us that the cessation is an illusion fed on five-sense realities.

To speak of extended techniques is one thing. To hear those techniques speak for themselves is quite another, and it is in this vein that Kappeler and Zumthor’s instruments—whether novel as a music box or antique as a harmonium—inhabit every transformation of this Babylon. The caged wing beats of “Traumgesicht,” for instance, break down the fourth wall, only to reveal a fifth, so that ultimately desperation seems to be a precondition for all life. Like the two variations of “Bontempi,” they turn on axes of double meanings, lending them where they should exist but don’t. And so, if light means the absence of dark and a lack of substance, dark now means both the absence of light and the abundance of substance.

The album’s divination bones come in the form of four pieces marked “Tor.” Each is a Russian doll of gear systems, its skin tender as balsa, wherein cogs lock teeth in assurance of the future. Clock springs assume the shapes of prayer bowls, while a toy piano manifests the inner thoughts of outer automata. Only in the presence of explicit foundations do such mechanisms melt away, as they do in “Annalisa” and “November.” These respective compositions by Zumthor and Kappeler write themselves into codes of ethereal hieroglyphs and childhood memories. Even the Ukranian traditional “Ne Pidu Ja Do Lesa” punctuates its drunken dance by means of erasure, leaving nothing but the blank ear waiting for fresh inscription.

(To hear samples of Babylon-Suite, click here.)

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