Leuk 2013: Celebrating the death of the tune

By Peter Hulm

It's been a long time coming, but Whitsun 2013 at Leuk Castle was as good a time as any, it seems to me, to celebrate the death of the tune.

The burial took place in two concerts, one by a jazz-based Swiss group Le Pot, the other by the Winterthur Theater am Gleis chamber orchestra offering pieces by eight Swiss composers.

The tune may have been the basis of Western popular music since plainsong (maybe), but I can't say its disappearance was sorely missed in Leuk. If anything, tuneful music was beginning to sound like a straitjacket for more interesting sounds trying to find expression.

From the jazz group we got the guitarist Manuel Troller playing everything from the soundboard to the frets above his fingers, both horizontally and flat on his lap. The keyboard player Hanspeter Pfammatter (from Leuk) at one point tossed a ball and a rubbery pestle thingy into the audience when he had finished making music with them. The drummer Lionel Friedli dropped a bracelet of beads onto his drum skins and hovered over his equipment like a superchef delicately adding spices to a dish that was nearly perfect. The trumpeter Manuel Mengis kept a variety of alchemic-looking receptacles on the table in front of him and periodically used them to make unusual sounds.

As for the TaG ensemble, we had violinist Mateusz Szczepkowski bowing above his fingers on the board. Emanuel Rütsche used his cello as a percussive soundboard. Rafael Rütti transformed his piano with some kind of preparation. Flautist Anna-Katharina Graf produced some of the weirder sounds possible through breath control, and a clarinetist who played outside the door, then came in and took off part of her instrument for the next piece and ended up by the window behind the audience. Eight virtuosos who made deliberately difficult pieces sound easy.

What's jazz, what's classical?

One group was classified as jazz, one as classical. But in fact it was difficult to think of them as either. The jazz group leader sat in the audience for the other concert and talked during the interval with a Russian composer who had starred in another of the concerts.

In the circumstances the traditional dividing line between jazz and classical – is it improvised? – didn't make much sense. The oboist's three pieces were announced as improvisations, and nobody complained. If anything, to judge by the applause, the audience of mainly students and festival participants appreciated her virtuosity even more.

If contemporary music from the classical or jazz arena has to have a label, I'd suggest exploratory music. Experimental seems too tame a word. These people know too surely what they are doing, just as Picasso reportedly said: "I do not seek, I find." These are not experiments. They are achieved works.

The gifts of tuneless music

So what does tuneless music give us, in place of songs to hum and whistle in fond memory?

Sound clusters, riffs, rhythms that come organically out of nowhere and vanish as swiftly as comets into silence, the satisfying pleasures of surprise and demonstrations of how the most disparate sounds can go together – these are just a few of the joys that tuneless music offers a receptive listener. No songs, maybe, but certainly patterns.

John Cage led the way, of course, as in so many developments of modern music. But the backbone of his musical practice was always to give his pieces an explicable framework, even if the sounds were random.

As a result, his individual pieces are recognizably the same work, as say Charlie Parker's variations on classic popular ballads are not.

The jazz group played from sheet music, so maybe their pieces would sound essentially the same in other circumstances. But it doesn't matter. The contours may be the same but the variations can be as different as the musicians wish. Maybe Hanspeter doesn't have to hurl his toys at the audience in every concert. Le Pot don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Now for the practice

So much for theory. What about practice? What does their music sound like?

Well, you can hear Le Pot online at Mengis's site.

Mengis, 42, makes sounds that could have come from Miles Davis at his most fruitful period, when he was switching to electronics with Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). Other times I could have sworn I heard Alphorns. Maybe I've been in Switzerland too long.

He's a very distinctive musician, so it's perhaps unfair to point to comparisons. But perhaps Henry Threadgill might be a useful reference, if you can't hear the music on his website.

Troller the guitarist produces some of the most interesting sounds I've heard since David Tronzo in the 1990s.

Friedli the drummer started by playing a straight rhythmic foundation (somewhat to the detriment of his unconventional companions, in the opinion of some) but he then astounded listeners by producing lacy and disconcerting sounds at other times. Four more virtuosos, in fact.

Together they can splice together a concert that ranges from the best of Art Ensemble of Chicago and Zen meditations to thumping electronic pieces, without appearing to be imitating anyone else.

If I had to sum up what tuneless music offers, it's a dialogue between musicians that cannot be repeated, as in all good jazz.

Enough to make Stravinsky proud

Winterthur's ensemble offered eight pieces, inspired by pictorial art or artists' writings. Their originality and intensity of expression could have made Webern or Stravinsky proud.

It is difficult to talk about eight contemporary pieces that people will probably not have heard before written by Swiss composers they probably do not know either. Thanks goodness the festival provides copious notes.

Let me just say that the last piece, based on a letter from Cezanne, had mezzo-soprano Rea Claudia Kost singing the French equivalent of "shitty" (emmerdant) several times in various registers.

The two groups came together, along with a host of others at the Valais Forum of New Music (www.forumvalais.ch). Its site has a full background on all the artists and composers, ranging from "the Valais Björk, resident now in Vienna", to a full mixed Upper Valais folk choir. Don't think the tune is going quietly.

Gherkin Castle

Leuk Castle is a 14th-century building restored with the help of star architect Mario Botta, and capped by a green glass gherkin that has gained some renown locally for its ugliness (but see it from inside).

It has become a charming educational and meeting centre. Botta's contributions seems to have been to ensure that the building keeps its original form and beautiful stone, with no hint (apart from the gherkin), of the extreme functional modernity of its interior.

As a result, it is both practical and relaxing, rather than dark and gormenghastly.

In one sense, it's a pity ForumValais/Wallis is not better known. But apart from the blow to its finances, this is no big deal. Without big audiences, musicians of all kinds can sit together and talk as well as listen to each other without bothering about who is there as performer and who as spectator.

Cholera café

Look at the full programme and I'm sure you will want to put it on your calendar for next year. Though it is organized by poet Javier Hagen and the Association for New Music, it does try to speak to everyone who likes to hear different sounds.

Leuk, halfway between the resorts of Crans-Montana and Zermatt (in a manner of speaking), has a somewhat wayward relationship to music. It is the home of a baladeer named Michel Villa, now owner of a restaurant whose signature dish is called Cholera (a kind of dream version of Cornish pastie with cheese and fruit).

On a CD his customers can buy (it's appropriately entitled Bearsteak) Michel sings a Swiss dialect version of Old MacDonald had a farm. His group also does Abba's Waterloo as Wasserklo (Water Closet) in Upper Valaisan. He was even a contender for the Swiss entry for the Eurovision Song Contest once, somewhat to his embarrassment today.

Whatever. It's all great fun.

A friend of mine objected strongly to my suggestion that perhaps the tune has had its day. He did hint it was my fault for putting the idea to him over breakfast. He writes an entertaining, extremely well-informed blog about classical music, celebrating all kinds of tunes. Find his comments here.