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Swiss Sushi

img  Tobias

„I'm more than tired – depleted would be more accurate”, Jason Kahn writes in his diary, “It's a challenge to maintain one's nerves.” He is on a tour through Japan with fellow sound artists Günter Müller, Tomas Korber, Norbert Möslang and Christian Weber. Their goal: To work together with different scenes on different locations. Organised by Müller and Kahn, actively curated by Pro Helvetia and supported by a string of other organisations, five figureheads of the Swiss improvisational scene set out to meet their counterparts in Tokyo, Yamaguchi, Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya. When Pro Helvetia asked Kahn and Müller to stage this musical meeting, it all seemed like a fascinating and sympathetic idea. And now it has turned into a logistical extravaganza. A total of 31 musicians are to perform 38 sets in a mere two weeks: A culture clash or an outburst of energy? In the end, a bit of both. A six-part series of CD-releases documents their footsteps.

“It just isn't right. I want more. But it's impossible – that's the nature of touring.” – Jason Kahn

Next to providing a travelogue, The “Signal to Noise” tour also demonstrates the differences between these musical personalities, who are in close contact and whose paths intersect constantly. “From the moment we arrived it was go go go.”, Jason Kahn remembers of his time in Tokyo, “The pace here gets in your blood and one adjusts unconsciously to the tempo, melding to the floor.” Quite a contrast with Tomas Korber’s assessment: “I had a great time, never felt so comfortable on a tour. Very relaxed.”

Maybe this has to do with that Kahn and Müller are burdened with their duties as organisors. But at least from Kahn's perspective, there's a regular lack of communication between the Swiss and the Japanese, preventing them from coming together musically on several occasions. “Insensitive” is an often-used word to describe their dialogues and Guitarist Taku Sugimoto reportedly even decides not to play at all. As Günter Müller points out, this certainly had to do with the concept of the tour: "With these improvisations, there were never any prior agreements. Many times, the organisors would decide on the combinations."

But then again, there are moments of exhilaration, of enthusiasm and euphoria and at least the collegiality within the group holds everything together. After all, these artists effectively constitute the Signal Quintet, an ensemble at the borders of noise, jazz and a third component determined each night by beer, the situational mood and the unpredictable consequences of their interaction – and have therefore grown together over the course of many improvisations.

On March 4th, there's a concert at Kid Ailack. Kahn stays up until four o clock in the morning and predicts: “Tomorrow will be hell.”

“Today is interminably long. Up at ten with Günter and Norbert and over to Tokyo University for recording” – Jason Kahn

March 5th is reserved for a recording session. And here, everything falls into place. “Signal to Noise Vol. 1” captures Kahn, Mösling and Müller in full flow, as they coalesce with Keiichiro Shibuya and his wife Maria. “The music today was probably OK but I can't really say at this point.”, Kahn will note immediately after the jam at Tokyo University is over, but he is honest enough to attribute his blurred judgements to “too many late nights” and “too much alcohol”. With the necessary distance, it is hard to see what made him doubt the quality of the music.

On five medium-length pieces, the trio finds a common sensibility with regards to timbres and associations, each track a decided and yet gentle meditation. This is concentrated music, very much in the moment, tender and handsomely harsh at times. What strikes me most, perhaps, is how each performer is caught completely in his role and yet disappears entirely in the group sound. Did that drone come from Jason Kahn’s analog synthesizer or from Shibuya’s Keyboard? Did that chirping chain of crackles flow from Nobert Möslang’s cracked everyday-electronics or emanate from Maria’s laptop? Nothing’s for sure in their highly abstract and bewilderingly sensous alliances of shifting emphases.

“In retrospective the tour seems a whirlwind of laughter, astonishment and misunderstandings” – Tomas Korber

Two days later. The group is now at the YCAM in Yamaguchi. Tomas Korber plugs in his guitar, Christian Weber grabs his contrabass and Katsura Yamauchi his sax. “I remember it being one of the most focused sessions of the whole tour”, Tomas tells me, “Due to language difficulties we didn't really speak much with Katsura. So it was like "Hi Katsura, how are you. I'm fine, too, thanks. Are you ready? Let's play!" The result on “Signal to Noise Vol. 2” speaks for itself and has quickly grown into the most widely praised of the series until now. Weber is the driving force at first. His warm, inviting bass steps pave the way for Yamauchi’s airy gurglings and throat drones, while Korber follows with soft electronics. Two parts between a twenty minutes and a quarter of an hour long. The first one is an exercise in peacefully standing still, while the second is more aggressive, ebullient and forceful, as if the trio were trying to melt into a single, angry and determined didjeridoo.

“Signal to Noise Vol. 3: Intense, Pulsating Music!” Günter Müller, For4Ears Press Release

The tour marches on, through Kyoto, where the group leaves a devastating impression with a string of sets which leave everyone breathless and solo sets of diverging quality in Osaka. Sadwiched in between, there is also a recording session with Akifumi Nakajima, the man behind Aube. Slowly but surely, the ensemble gets into a groove. Kahn singles out Norbert Möslang several times for his daring performances and his willingness to take risks. Maybe it is him, therefore, who puts his stamp on “Signal to Noise Vol 3”, by far the most noisy of the series and an edgey fellow. This time, it’s down to the trio of Kahn/Möslang/Müller. The edges are sharper, the vocabulary more explicit, the gestures drastic and the dynamics overflowing. Kahn’s love for “rock n roll” comes to the fore, as does Müller’s ability to fuse rhythm and sound into tearproof textures of high viscosity. Filled with racket, humour and quirky structures, it also manifests an ironic twist: The sole Swiss-only volume of the series, it possibly “sounds more Japanese” than any other.

“I packed up my stuff, said my goodbyes and was gone.” – Jason Kahn

The musicians end up playing to packed houses each night, on one occasion they even find a cue of people desperately trying to get in to the club. “Signal to Noise” is therefore not just another musical tour diary, it is living proof that there is a meaningful audience for sound art and that the term in itself is completely meaningless with regards to the sheer variety of styles and approaches. The occasional communicational troubles should also not be regarded as a problem per se. Where different cultures meet, there are bound to be misunderstandings, after all. After completing a short Korean leg, the group heads home again, tired but satisfied.

What makes the discs even more special is that they do not lose their improvisational character over time and repeated listens, but stay fresh and surprising even after several spins. No matter how hard life on tour may have been – these albums prove it was worth it.

By Tobias Fischer

The next two volumes of the "Signal to Noise" series will be released on For4Ears in November.

Homepage: For4Ears Records
Homepage: Günter Müller
Homepage: Jason Kahn

Homepage: Tomas Korber
Homepage: Norbert Möslang
Homepage: Christian Weber
Homepage: Jason Kahn's Tour Diary at Paris Transatlantic

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