Repetition Perfection

Christian Wolfarth & Jason Kahn
Percussion / Voice
UK CONFRONT CCS 81 CD (2017)

When I saw Christian Wolfarth and Jason Kahn do their thing at a beautiful old-fashioned cinema in St Leonards in Sussex back in September 2017, I was captivated by their sheer maximalist approach to what is really, very minimalist themes and equipment. Wolfarth had a snare drum on a stand and a cymbal loose, with a small selection of sticks and beaters. Kahn used only his voice, unamplified. Out of this they conjured a strikingly beautiful array of quiet improv narratives, the 1913 building lending a minimalist yet distressed-opulent backdrop to their manoeuvrings.

The material on this disc was recorded and mastered by Kahn in Zurich. The packaging cites Jason as “voice” while Christian Wolfarth is credited with “percussion”. On the first piece, initially at least, Wolfarth is sounding a large cymbal, gong or tam tam of some sort, while Kahn exerts his full effort into sounding his voice. Kahn differs from many of the best-known vocal improvisors – such as Maggie Nicols or Phil Minton – in that rather than presenting what often can sound like a fully developed set of techniques, Kahn presents his vocal sound raw and develops it as if for the very first time; unstable on the lip of the precipice and seemingly about to disappear over the edge.

The first of two pieces pairs the snare drum (the snare off) with Kahn’s lip smacking and wheezing very effectively. Kahn sounds like he’s genuinely struggling for breath. What follows is gargling, heaving; Kahn’s approach to his own vocal physiognomy seems to be a lot about the movement of air over the vocal chords over time, rather than wet-mouthed glossolalia. Christian Wolfarth bows his cymbals; what he does could be produced by many different pieces of equipment, particularly likely given the huge family that is contemporary EAI. A bowed cymbal is, after all, a kind of modulated sine wave, but its characteristics depend very much upon whose hands are operating. Wolfarth produces results very different to something John Stevens or Eddie Prevost might. Plus the spectacle is lost with CDs. The sheer joy of watching how the performers make the sounds. In St Leonards, the duo were both seated in front of the red velvet cinema curtain, making very small movements which greatly added to the sense of tension and drama.

On the second piece, things get a bit more dark. Hissing and a softly activated drum head to harvest the low overtones. Six minutes in and Wolfarth is beating a cymbal while Kahn produces agitated groaning but there is a third sound – high pitched whine… As the piece continues, Kahn eventually resembles acoustic wind instruments; bass clarinet came to mind at one point.

I have enjoyed seeing Jason Kahn perform on several other occasions, and the thing that always impresses me is his ability to move forward constantly; changing his approach, his instrumentation, his “voice”. He is a visual artist as well as a musician, and has written a couple of books on listening. In all his creative activities he is prolific.

It is perhaps ironic that Kahn – a hardcore-punk rock drummer in a previous career – has enlisted a high-level percussionist to work with. Christian Wolfarth is a man who clearly spends a lot of time drumming. He teaches percussion when he is not actually touring. His collaboration history reads like a Who’s Who of jazz, improvisation and outsider genres. From Evan Parker, Norbert Möslang and Burkhard Beins to Joke Lanz via Irène Schweizer. Like Seijiro Murayama, he has no qualms about repetition; more than that: he relishes it. Live, his playing is metronomic in the purest way; there is no deviation when he plays a repeated section. At all. Repetition perfection. But when deviation is required, he is a master of subtle modulation.

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