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Inner Dialogues

img  Tobias Fischer

To Christian Kobi, performing is never just a creative act – it is always a science as well. In 2010, the Swiss saxophonist (and organiser of the prestigious 'zoom in festival') released CANTO, the first in a trilogy of solo albums to document the research into his instrument. The work, published on his own Cubus imprint, wasn't just a programmatic stroke of genius, with the entire record mirrored at the centre - playing the material of the first thirteen minutes backwards in its second half. It was also testimony to a sound philosophy which sought to turn up and sonify the hidden and almost inaudible resonances of the saxophone. On Raw Lines, released in November of last year on Polish imprint BDTA, Kobi is now continuing his explorations. Although the album does not have the same overtly conceptual angle as its predecessor, it is in no way less questioning. On the fourth track, a ten-minute tour de silence simply called "IV", for example, he is operating at the border between the physical and the void, working with ultra-subtle feedback to create a sustained fragile field of hiss, glassy overtones and delicately emerging and decaying breaths. And yet, as much as these pieces push the saxophone's limits further and further North, they are not just analytical for their own sake. Performing is never just science for Christian Kobi, after all. It is always music first.

You’re a live performer, recording artist, label curator and festival organiser. How do these activities slot together?
For me, all these areas complement one another. There are of course moments when one area takes up more time and energy than the other. I usually have four or five creative phases every year that I can use for my own artistic work. The tough part is recognising those moments and making the most of them.

The catalogue of significant solo albums for the saxophone is expansive. Which of these albums were important milestones for you personally?
If we’re talking saxophone albums, it would have to be the late Coltrane albums (which are played out of the collective) or various live recordings of Evan Parker. If I had to name one more, it would be John Butcher’s Bell Trove Spools.

How do you feel about solo performances, especially in comparison with group interactions?
My solo work in 2010 was all about the need to round off a long “period of research”. I have no intention of slotting myself in among sax albums. I just want to express something that’s important to me – that’s it. When I’m soloing I’ve got complete freedom and at the same time none at all. For me, that’s what takes up most of my time, even in everyday life; it forces me to keep questioning all the time. It demands the highest standards of clarity in my own message. In a group, other factors come into play; for me, physicality and the ability to recognise personality have to be contained in both.
In recent years I’ve often been interested in the instrument’s “inner voice”. What happens with a sound for example when it’s produced almost unintentionally; or: how can I achieve other dynamic levels in the ppp range? Here I’m looking for boundaries and literally trying to sound them out. But my objective remains to keep the musical material as simple as possible.

There are moments of breathtaking intensity on your new solo album Raw Lines. Can you tell me about the techniques you used on the album and your personal vocabulary for the saxophone?
There’s no doubt that the very close mike setup in each case contributes to the intensity. It’s a microscopic approach I’m interested in, dipping into something and making it audible, crystal-clear. On the piece for tenor sax and feedback, for example, I wasn’t playing the instrument; instead, I was working with the sax’s natural resonance and dynamics. I played the instrument, virtually without playing it for real. A new and, at the same time, challenging task for me.

What distinguishes the new album from CANTO, would you say?
Initially I had three or four vague ideas for pieces. Some retained their basic structure, others developed further. It’s interesting how a session forces you to really do things; there’s no going back.

Conceptually, CANTO and Raw Lines are two different albums. What binds them together is that I started a trilogy in 2010 and that these albums are meant to show where I am with my solo work – what moves me and where it takes me. What’s important to me is the consistency in the handling of the material. For me, that has to be there in both albums.

What can you tell me about the final instalment of the trilogy?
The albums so far each have a specific technical direction. By that I don’t mean that the music misses out, but I’d be interested in playing even more freely without having to compromise on how radical the approach is. I’d love to work with a particular space once, or a predefined environment. I’m going to the Baltic Sea for a fortnight in the spring and I’ll be doing some field recordings. We’ll see what happens.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Christian Kobi
Homepage: BDTA Recordings