Ramòn Giger: Karma Shadub

Karma Shadub Poster

My first encounter with the music of Paul Giger was on his ECM debut, Chartres. Guided only by the album’s cover, which at first seemed an ancient petroglyph before I knew it to be the map of the eponymous cathedral’s labyrinth, my teenage brain swam with visions of some worldly phantom trekking with his violin across oceans and continents, drawing out music from the living rock. It was only when ECM released a follow-up solo album, Schattenwelt, that I knew Giger to be flesh and blood, as the booklet revealed a photo of him at last. And yet, cloaked in the shadows of his music, it was easy to nourish my young impressions of what and who he was. How rare it is, then, that we get to see the hearts behind the skins of those we think we know through their art. Paul’s son Ramòn enables just such a glimpse in his 2013 documentary, Karma Shadub.

On surface, the film walks us through a mounting of its title piece (which first appeared on Alpstein) at Switzerland’s Abbey of Saint Gall. But this veneer bends the light to reveal a motive of emotional healing and conversation, becoming as it does a catalyst for sometimes-painful excavations of childhood, abandonment, and creation. This is not a film about music, but about where music comes from and how its progenitors live and act on either side of their art.

Karma Shadub was written for Ramòn around the time he was born as a celebration of life. In the context of that same child’s documentary statement all these years later, it serves as a looking glass into an uncertain past. The performance itself involves dancers, who under the choreographic direction of Marco Santi realize the corporeality of Paul’s music. The dancers also sing, mirroring the dialogic searching of the son, whose wondering and wandering of what might have been bleeds into the yet to be. Ramòn himself experiences a range of emotions when hearing the piece now: a binary star of pain and passion.

“When he asked me to make a film about this performance and the piece he had written for me,” says the filmmaker early on, “that was the moment I realized that I no longer know who he is.”

Ramòn, who calls Paul by his first name, seeks a relationship with this distant man—one who, much like the artist I’d imagined, takes pride in solitude. Ever his father’s son, Ramòn has taken on an artistic worldview. Yet where his father paints in sound, as director Ramòn does so in light. Before this he made made two documentaries as cameraman, the first being the portrait of a young autistic man and his relationship with the social worker who has become something of a father figure. A sign of things to come.

As both creator and a subject of the present film, Ramòn must confront a unique sort of exhaustion. Accustomed to teasing out the inner lives of his subjects, he was less prepared than he realized to do the same for himself. “I felt somewhat cruel, always demanding and taking from other lives, using them as the foundation of my work,” he humbly admits to me in an interview. “It’s different from music, where you have to dig inside yourself to create something.”

And dig Paul certainly did throughout Ramòn’s formative years, during which the father was often away for private excavations, though not without sending tapes from his travels. One of these, recorded at Chartres and including violin and ambient sounds of the garden, depicts a father reaching for proximity in defiance of physical separation. A beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but one that sits complexly with its recipient. As a leitmotif of the film, the tape is at once an expression of paternal love and obfuscation of its lucidity. The process seems emblematic of Paul: speaking volumes by not being there, and leaving just as much open to interpretation when present. It’s a dynamic mirrored in Ramòn’s attempts to elicit information from his father about the unknowns of his upbringing, which tend to reveal themselves more through silence than obvious articulation.

Karma 1Karma 2

Where Ramòn wants this to be an honest and personal project, Paul fears being used for something that he cannot stand up to. In their constant state of negotiation, the two manage to tap out a fairly reflective surface from unrefined metal as they forge an alloy of their own. Just as the violin is at once a part of Paul and its own entity, so too does Ramòn resound through their interactions. The son feels he is not being understood by his father—left out, so to speak, of the latter’s creative equation—even as he becomes more aware than ever about his own character by way of not being acknowledged. None of which is to suggest that the film is a challenge or accusation. It raises uncertainties out of genuine hope for their resolution.

Because his conversations with Paul are touch and go, Ramòn turns to his biological mother for solace (Paul is remarried). Despite the separation, she recalls those early years with a certain fondness, and the smile that holds her face indicates the steadfastness of a mature heart that has no time to dwell on ifs. But her son, like the viewer, is still grappling with images versus realities.

Of both, the camera offers plenty by directing strict aesthetic attention to surroundings. Indeed, the film is not only about people, but also about places. Ramòn recalls a rural, almost utopian, upbringing, as confirmed by a visit to his childhood home. Such snippets of nature add to the feeling that both father and son have walked their own paths and are now seeking intersections.

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Camerawork and editing are significant enough to warrant symbolic interpretation. We get many shots, for instance, of Paul’s back, as if Ramòn were always trying to catch up to the man he follows. This yields another parallel, when Paul says, characterizing his struggles with the violin, “Where you try to undertake something real, that’s where life is happening.”

In this film, life is happening everywhere. In the music, both on and off the screen. In the solace of cathedral’s, both literal and metaphorical. And in the gift of seeing a world-class artist as a human being, knowing he is subject to the same complications as the rest of us.

Karma Shadub is available to watch on Vimeo demand here. Read on below for the rest of my interview with the director.

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Tyran Grillo: One of the greatest values of watching Karma Shadub was how it made me think of myself as a parent. It was a reminder to treat my son’s childhood with even greater importance.

Ramòn Giger: People have experienced this film in very personal ways. Despite being just a very small story between me and my father, the feedback I’ve gotten has been massively varied. Some perceive it as you do, while others feel offended by it, but it always connects to the personal experiences of viewers in one way or another.

TG: The first scene, featuring you and a reticent Paul at the kitchen table, sticks out in my mind. The tension is real and relatable.

RG: He was very scared at first. Just as you had an experience of Paul’s music before you had a picture, his profession and what he does feed off a strong, mystical image. I now understand what he was afraid of. Having dedicated his entire life to achieving a perfect sound on this little instrument, he felt threatened by the mistakes I might expose.

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TG: What was it like watching the film together?

RG: We watched a rough cut at some point. He also attended a few premieres with me. It was quite an emotional re-confrontation, which wasn’t easy for us.

TG: Have things changed in any significant way since the film?

RG: The changes weren’t as I expected them to be. I had more expectations of revealing secrets or having this total opening of my father toward me. After 50 hours of just talking about things in front of a camera, I realized in the end that I was the one creating distance in the relationship. I needed to act but not expect him to do something about it.

TG: You still have those cassette tapes he made for you. Do you remember how you felt at the time when you received them?

RG: I know that I loved them, and that I listened to them a lot. I can’t really tell how I felt back then; only as I perceive them today. I feel a lot of effort from his side, a need of being close to me and trying to give me a piece of himself while being away, but also a strangeness in how he talks to me. I also have the feeling that he doesn’t really take me seriously. So I guess, just as with the music, it’s different things at the same time. Being a father myself now, I’m more relaxed about it, because I know it’s okay to make mistakes and not be perfect about everything. My experience with Paul was not that he was away, but that he couldn’t admit that not everything was perfect, which used to confuse me as a child. I’ve grown up believing it’s important to make mistakes as a parent.

TG: Do you feel more empathy for Paul, now that you are a father yourself?

RG: It was my decision to leave this point open in the film, but in life we certainly got to a point where we feel much closer to each other than before.

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Ramòn concludes our interview by telling me that Paul is someone who “lives fully in this world,” but we can also see the world living fully in him—which is to say, as an internal storm of contradictions. And maybe that’s all human beings, even at their best, can be.

Karma Shadub is available to either rent or download on Vimeo here.

Paul Giger/Marie-Louise Dähler: Towards Silence (ECM New Series 2014)

 

Paul Giger
Marie-Louise Dähler
Towards Silence

Paul Giger violin, violino d’amore
Marie-Louise Dähler harpsichord
Recorded October 2006 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For his sixth album for ECM, violinist Paul Giger joins harpsichordist Marie-Louise Dähler for a centuries-spanning program of improvisations, complemented by arrangements of Bach and Giger’s own passionate music.

The title of the opening improvisation, From Silence to Silence, would seem to be a meta-statement for ECM, the ultimate asymptotic relationship between the musical utterance and its inevitable cessation. The opening bass note of the harpsichord speaks with the quiet force of the earth as Giger’s violin skips above it. Such growls from the harpsichord are typically relegated to continuo status, anchor rather than all-consuming statement. But here they emerge with a grand narrative all their own. The lovingly rendered Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations that follows is yet another grand narrative, the urtext over which all variations are laid. This flow by contrasts continues throughout the album, juxtaposing the extended techniques of Cemb a quattro (which sounds like the soundtrack to a Brothers Quay film) and the crystalline highs of Halfwhole with the Vivace from Bach’s Sonata V in F minor for violin and obligato harpsichord, BWV 1018.

The brilliance of this program is that its Baroque touches come across as the more esoteric against the status quo established by Giger and Dähler’s enticing musical language, such that the Allegro from the selfsame sonata seems almost avant-garde in the wake of Dorian Horizon. Giger’s solo pieces also nourish, as does the overtonal nectar of Gliss a uno, which is played in that mystic liminal range where the string gives up its inner secrets. Two further movements from the Bach sonata frame Bombay II, which expands beautifully on Giger’s original as it appeared on Schattenwelt. Spurred along by his footbells, it mourns with the cry of a bird in whose talons the final thread is taken, pulled from our hearts until it breaks into the silence toward which the album professes to travel.

This one-of-a-kind session is a most fortuitous meeting point, one sure to yield wonders with every listen. I’ve always felt that Giger is best heard alone, but of the collaborations on record this one ranks with Alpstein as being among the most intuitive.

Paul Giger: Vindonissa (ECM 1836)

 

Paul Giger
Vindonissa

Paul Giger violin, violino d’amore, viola d’amore, footbells
Robert Dick c-flute, glissando flute, bass flute in c, bass flute in f, contrabass flute
Satoshi Takeishi percussion
Recorded June 1998 and 2000

Modern-day gypsy, musical traveler, melodic nomad: call him what you will, but Paul Giger has created some of the most haunting music to ever grace your ears. Adding yet another branch to the bold tree that began with Chartres and which was expanded in three subsequent projects, the Swiss violinist/composer beguiles us yet again with this more whimsical, though no less trenchant, collaboration. On Vindonissa, he is joined by two outstanding musicians. Robert Dick is a truly revolutionary American flutist and composer who has taken his instrument to new heights. A pioneer in extended techniques, design, and improvisation, he is a welcome presence on ECM. Percussionist Satoshi Takeishi is a kindred itinerant spirit, and has worked with a wide range of musicians, including Anthony Braxton and Joe Zeytoonian. A skilled improviser in his own right, his openness to the musical moment is a no-brainer for inclusion here.

Giger bookends this yawning chasm of life with a meditation on solo violin from which the album gets its name, distilling from the chromatic banality of open strings a potent tincture of dissonance and transcendence. Such lone signposts dot the album with moments of pause, as in the lilting Introitus and Kyrie. The group tracks contrast with open spaces and colorful mysticism. Starting with the pointillism of Oogoogajoo and ending on the likeminded An Ear On Buddha’s Belly, these intersections of time and circumstance seem to grow organically, as if in waves. Dick and Takeishi walk comfortably alongside Giger, bringing vital human energy to the untouchable center of Lava Coils and even greater earthly care to Fractal Joy, the most profound triangle therein. Gloria et Tarantella, in which Giger rocks the viola d’amore to the beat of his own foot bells, is the album’s masterpiece and builds to a frenzy of Tartini-like exuberance. With every note, it burns a root and follows its smoke ever skyward.

Giger is easily one of the greatest violinists of our time, not only because of his technical prowess, but more importantly for his ability to grab hold of a melodic handle and never let go until it asks him too. Such talent can take some getting used to, especially in the presence of other musicians, but I think this is an album in which one can rest assured that a meeting of three bodies, minds, and worldviews can indeed find harmony through sound’s untold alchemies.

Paul Giger: Ignis (ECM New Series 1681)

 

 

Paul Giger
Ignis

Paul Giger violin, violono d’amore
Marius Ungureanu viola
Beat Schneider cello
Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded June 1998, Niguliste Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Mado Maadik
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This recording documents a melodious piece of happenstance. Having begun on rather different planes of ECM’s mortal coil, the roving Swiss violinist and the much-in-demand Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir gradually met at the center of a most sonically revelatory circle. The resulting Ignis is a hypnotic experience that reveals new secrets with every listen. For his first label project in seven years since 1992’s Schattenwelt, Giger reworks antique motivic fragments into larger wholes. As such, they become fully formed entities looking inward through the lens of an unparalleled violinism.

Organum,for string trio, inducts us into the album’s haunting universe. Bathed in a luxurious reverb and medieval sentiment, it plunges us deep into the nexus of what’s to come. Karma Shadub, the only original composition here, finds itself resurrected from its appearance on Alpstein to superb choral effect. The EPCC touches every layer with expert care, capturing the arpeggiated flair of the earlier version with a more nuanced legato style. Giger plays like a man possessed of something beyond physical description, filling as much space as the entire choir, if not more.

The following two pieces are drawn from 10th-century Benedictine plainchant. Tropus inverts the spectrum with the violin occupying the central axis around which the other voices reveal themselves. The choir fluffs its feathers, rising from the depths with ascendant violin improvisations, adding harmonic light to an already bursting image. Alleluja is a succinct instrumental statement of utter beauty, and boasts Giger’s skills on the viola d’amore. Last is the astonishing O Ignis. Structured around the selfsame piece by Hildegard von Bingen, it can also be heard on the Hilliard Ensemble/Jan Garbarek’s Mnemosyne. Presently, it is anchored by a gently lilting ostinato in the cello that soon flowers into a supernova of musical activity, carefully controlled by the binding threads of its voices.

This is a radically different sound for Giger, who seems to reinvent himself with every new effort, and one that should provide many discoveries to come. A gray, expansive, and utterly captivating experience awaits.

Paul Giger: Alpstein (ECM 1426)

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Paul Giger
Alpstein

Paul Giger violin
Jan Garbarek tenor saxophone
Pierre Favre percussion
Musicians from Appenzell (Switzerland) silvesterchlauseschuppel, schellenschötter
Recorded 1990/91 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo; 1990 at Trogen
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The first time I heard Swiss violinist Paul Giger, my soul might well have wept. His is a spiritualism beyond the trappings of human politics, a stage populated by human-animal hybrids, faceless musicians, and dancers of many forms. For this, his follow-up album, Giger is joined by saxophonist Jan Garbarek and percussionist Pierre Favre in a sonic portrait of his homeland. Delving into living folk traditions, this trio gives us as wintry a feeling as possible without ever stepping foot in into the Alps. Yet this is no mere sonic postcard, but a concerted effort to flip the land inside out and expose, as from under the logs we overturned as children, the life teeming within.

Anita's Alpstein
(Photo credit: Anita Brechbühl)

This music came into my life when I still had a violin in my hands. At the time, I was struggling with the idea of expressing my inner voice through an external instrument. Hearing Giger showed me it was possible, and this album’s second piece, Karma Shadub (Dancing Star), is something I played quite often in my ultimately futile attempts to emulate a sound that was beyond me. I even performed it once with an interpretive dancer at a high school assembly. Though the violin soon faded from my grasp, I remain ever in its shadow, a humble and open listener of its masters, of which Giger is a nonpareil example. Every dissolve of Karma reveals new visual combinations, each so rudimentary, so fundamentally alive. Garbarek’s throaty call dovetails with Giger’s in a symbiosis of dance and darkness. Alpsegen introduces the album’s first percussive colors. A caravan of metallic nomads, ranging from tambura to cymbals, processes across an ever-widening sound palette. Cowbells recede like ancestors as Giger leaps in evolutionary pirouettes. On Chuereihe, Garbarek revisits the herding calls that enthralled on Dansere, and climbs the peaks into which the cover photography beckons us. Giger’s violin here is sometimes insectile, sometimes onomatopoetic, but always anchored by Favre’s deepening drums. Chlauseschuppel gives us a taste of the Appenzeller bells, rung at the end of every year to ward off foul spirits as the new one is welcomed.

Silvesterchläuse by Vera Rüttimann
(Photo credit: Vera Rüttimann)

When I first heard Trogener Chilbiläbe, which closes the disc, its backdrop of urban sounds led me to believe it had been recorded in a church with the door flung open. Its inspiring solo cycles of fast runs and soaring meditations end with a slam, as if shutting out the noise of the outside world. Only later did I discover that the door in question belongs to a prison cell, and that the piece was recorded in the jail where Giger must serve out a few days of each year for refusing to pay military tax. As insightful as these biographical minutiae are, it is the Zäuerli, a haunting yodel particular to the Alpstein region making three appearances here, that is the album’s lifeblood. In order to evoke its polyphonic splendor via a single instrument, Giger taps his fingers on open strings, eliciting harmonics from within. These hidden voices are his aesthetic soil. As we come to be wrapped in their atmospheric blankets, we are awakened even as we slumber.

Alpstein is a cosmic alignment. Like all of the violinist’s albums, it is markedly different from the rest but digs just as deeply. Giger may not always look to the same future, but he does draw from the same mythic past. His playing is only one step removed from breath, for every stroke of the bow enriches the universe like air to a lung.

Paul Giger: Schattenwelt (ECM New Series 1487)

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Paul Giger
Schattenwelt

Paul Giger violin
Recorded May 1992, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Greek myth of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth lies at the heart of Schattenwelt (Shadow-world), the Swiss violinist Paul Giger’s third album for ECM and one of the label’s most enduring solo programs. The underlying narrative begins with Minos, son of Zeus and ruler of Crete, who wishes to sacrifice a bull in honor of Poseidon but cannot bring himself to do it once he beholds the glorious white creature given to him for that purpose. He decides to keep it, much to the consternation of his omniscient father, who as punishment imbues the bull with a power so dangerous that only Hercules is able to tame it. Minos’s wife Pasiphae is also struck (though not without an enraged Poseidon’s influence) by the bull’s uncanny beauty and couples with it, thus producing the bull-headed/man-bodied Minotaur. In a fit of jealousy and outrage, Minos imprisons this abomination in the labyrinth of Knossos, where the Minotaur is eventually slain by Theseus, son of Poseidon.

Giger approaches these events from the top down in his Seven Scenes from Labyrinthos, starting in the cosmos and ending in the underworld, effectively traveling in the opposite direction indicated by a rather different labyrinth in his ECM debut, Chartres. The architecture of “Dancing With The Stars” indicates a coalescence of matter out of nothingness. “Crane,” however, pulls us from its meditation into penetrating light. Notes ululate and waver like that titular bird, long associated with ancient labyrinths such as the one at Knossos. Thus do we get “Creating The Labyrinth,” a procession of rising sirens delineating an impossible path. “Birth Of The Bull” and “Fourteen Virgins” form a balanced pair. Where one is a celebration of life, the other represents the novennial sacrifice made to the Minotaur. “Death” is a chain of brooding arpeggios that beats faster toward a harmonic resolution before bleeding over into “Dancing In The World Of Shadows,” forging a seamless connection between consciousness and unconsciousness in a whirlwind of scraping stick-to-string contact.

Two refractions of the same light, Bay and Bombay (Good Night), circumscribe the program’s darkness like a compass. Where the first is airborne, its bow drawing out inner life from strings like human breath until it is but a rasp in the throat of Time, the latter expands that unseen dimension into spiritual quest. Across them all, Giger draws a careful brush.

The music of Schattenwelt possesses the kind of harmony one associates with an old stone sanctuary, its glassless windows allowing every word sung or spoken full disclosure into the world(s) beyond. His technique is outstanding yet subtle, as in a beautiful passage of Bombay during which he sustains a lead melodic line on one string while bouncing his bow for a rhythmic accompaniment on another. The result is a self-contained universe that is constantly looking in on itself, for it knows no other way. After all, what is a shadow-world but a realm in which individuals have sacrificed the light in favor of blameless creation?

Paul Giger: Chartres (ECM New Series 1386)

1386

Paul Giger
Chartres

Paul Giger violin
Recorded at summer solstice 1988 inside the crypt and upper church of the cathedral of Chartres
Engineer: Peter Drefahl
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Describing the music of Paul Giger is like trying to draw with one’s eyes closed: one can only go so far before the shapes begin to break down. Of the violin Giger possesses an unparalleled understanding, which he brings to every interaction with it. Melodically these pieces are mature, singing and shouting and praying their way through a virtuosic lifetime of exhalation. Giger paints a veritable image of the cathedral, hollowing from the inside out with the edge of his bow, respecting the space that gives the music life.

Each section of this chiefly improvised work was recorded in respective titular areas of the cathedral at Chartres. “Crypt I+II” arises from a breath, played sul ponticello at the threshold of clarity. Occasionally these whispers vocalize into declarations of a chromatic and hymnic theme, the overtones of which Giger molds with great skill. After this introduction the violin trembles as Giger grazes the strings with his fingertip, coaxing multiphonic echoes from their solace. In “Crypt III” he presents the theme more straightforwardly and with pronounced regularity. A touch of vibrato and a hint of vulnerability add color to this sacred song. Giger lays down a sort of bass line to his melodizing as the atmosphere takes a liturgical turn. This is followed by “Labyrinth,” a superbly played dance akin to Irish fiddling that lapses just as quickly into a keening lamentation. This bipolarism continues as Giger puts his extended technique to work midway through the piece, playing the violin percussively on the fingerboard while tapping the strings with his bow for a harmonic overlay. This passage requires careful attention to appreciate the “micromusic” being performed. In “Crossing” we encounter the same material that began the album in ascendant reformation. Giger runs his fingers through the octaves, halting at regular intervals to relate the theme underlying them at every turn. Each pass travels higher, stretching the possibilities of the violin’s harmonic register. Additional voices offer dense harmonies that seem to depend from the cathedral’s lofty rafters for as long as they can in order to convey the ecstasy of their desire. Strings pull at one another, one wishing to rise and the other to remain earthbound, so much beauty is there to tempt them in either direction. Ultimately we are left in a space neither terrestrial nor empyreal. The theme returns, a bird circling overhead, eyes always on the ground below, locking on us, the lowly observers. This crosses over into aching reverie. The final movement, “Holy Center,” is also the most mysterious. Locking into the cathedral’s “key note,” its resonance is self-nourishing, and builds in vocal density through soul and body.

As gorgeous as it is, we can never forget that such sounds exist solely in the realm of the human, and that perhaps only mean something to those who inhabit it. This is also what imbues it with spiritual significance. Here is music created for its own sake, if not forsaken for its own creation.

Paul Giger at Chartres (photo courtesy of Giger’s homepage)