Paul Giger: ars moriendi (ECM New Series 2756)

Paul Giger
ars moriendi

Paul Giger violin, violino d’amore
Marie-Louise Dähler harpsichord, chest organ
Pudi Lehmann gongs, percussion
Franz Vitzthum alto
Carmina Quartett
Matthias Enderle violin
Susanne Frank violin
Wendy Champney viola
Stephan Goerner violoncello
Recorded January 2015
Chiesa Bianca, Maloja
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Guggisberglied was recorded 2021 in Walenstadt
Cover photo: Jan Kricke
An ECM Production
Release date: August 26, 2022

The music of Paul Giger became a part of my blood when I first encountered 1989’s Chartres. Not since J. S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas had I understood just how architecturally robust the violin could be, to say little of 1993’s Schattenwelt, which introduced his violino d’amore, a custom instrument with five main and six sympathetic strings. If those early albums were temples of the spirit, then ars moriendi is a waystation of the flesh—if not vice versa. The ambiguity of such distinctions gives the album a timeless charge. Across the pages of its cavernous imaginings, Giger writes a real-time scripture of inspiration, building on echoes of lives before and since.

His mythologically tinged Guggisberglied, reinterpreting a popular Swiss folk song of unrequited love and the life one gives up in its name, follows a tracking shot of the human form, shifting in varying degrees of inevitability between innocence and decay. Cradled by the hush of flowing water, what we once saw as shadows are now the shadows of shadows. Such subtlety of framing and placement of subjects is possible only in one whose mind works as a camera. Giger looks within from without, the tones of other cultures beating his drum. The violin body is a percussive force, a multitracked orchestra of emotional instruments. Giger also plucks the lower strings in qanun fashion. Currents of molecular awareness caress the riverbank, praying for a peaceful transition into lifelessness.

The latter sentiment connects to the overarching title. “In the late Middle Ages,” explains Giger in a liner note, “a literary genre of devotional books illustrated with woodcuts flourished under the name ‘ars moriendi.’ They gave instructions on how to ‘die well.’ The purpose of this tradition was to attune the soul to the ‘art of dying’ in order to save it for eternity. Music is also an ars moriendi, an exercise in the ‘becoming’ of a note, of ‘being’ in sound and of ‘passing’ into silence—or into an inner reverberation.” These concepts refer to a triptych of Tyrolean painter Giovanni Segantini, subject of the eponymous documentary by Christian Labhart, for which Giger wrote the music. Selections from that soundtrack take up much of the present album, including three stages of Agony. In the company of percussionist Pudi Lehmann (gongs, singing bowls, frame drum, and conch shell), keyboardist Marie-Louise Dähler (harpsichord and chest organ), and the Carmina Quartett, he builds a tower of wonder one layer of stone at a time until time itself is suspended. As ice dissolves into water and further into steam, the violino d’amore opens light to reveal its individual colors, loosening the bonds of the material within the immaterial through the inherent art of refraction. Zäuerli mit Migrationshintergrund is rooted in the Swiss yodel, harking to 1991’s Alpstein, albeit in far subtler clothing.

Transcriptions of Bach carry over from the film, including two for violin and harpsichord (the choral prelude “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and the Largo from the Sonata No. 4 in c minor), angling the mirror of our lives into a cell of collective memory where melodies play on repeat. There is also “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, as sung by alto Franz Vitzthum in a breathtaking arrangement for violin, chest organ, and strings. Vitzthum’s beauties culminate in Giger’s Altus solo II, stitching ground to sky with threads of silver. In the harpsichord’s tactile light, a mournful catharsis takes shape. Like M. C. Escher’s Rind, it suggests a face. Whether forming, unraveling, or holding its own against a patchwork of clouds, its eyes remain fixed on memory.

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