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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Alvin Curran - Shofar Rags (Tzadik, 2013) ****½

By Stef

"So when Jews first stood upright in the savannah they blew on their shofars, bobbed up and down, dropped stones, and praised lightning and thunder... everybody else ran for cover ... When noise, breath, speech and music were all the same. In those days c. 40,000 years ago, sea shells, human bones, animal horns and bamboo were the instrumentarium of the wind-section of the human big-band. On occasion they would jam in the great Rift Valley, or Nubian desert, in a club on the Nile or the Euphrates rivers or in some asteroid crater in Tajikistan. Roving groups of just a few, or hundreds, would meet by chance in these special locations—take out their beautiful ram, eland, kudu, gazelle, elephant, or argali horns and go for it."

So says Alvin Curran in the liner notes to this fantastic album. Curran, the iconoclast, avant-garde experimenter goes back to Jewish roots in a very distant time, playing nothing less than the ram's horn, the jewish "shofar" in a collated and dubbed interplay with his own electronics and ambient sounds, and pieces of performances with William Winant on large tam tam, Arnold Dreyblatt on accordion and Michael Riessler on soprano clarinet.

The result is absolutely staggering, truly something you've never heard before and for that reason alone already worth the purchase.

The shofar itself as an instrument has only one tone, and the player has to use lip and breath techniques to vary the sounds, and incredibly as it seems, Curran makes this unwieldy instrument come to life in the most gripping and moving way, varying between long laments or low growls, between spiritual meditation and sounds of utter agony.

But Curran goes even further "The challenge I set myself, to morph the shofar’s archaic technology with the very latest software, remains an elusive post-modern dream because this ur-instrument defies intelligence, whether artificial or human, and shows no native interest in partnering with cold digital chips. Both sides have lots of “attitude”—from arrogance to anarchy to autism. There could not be a better setup for mutual annihilation."

Yet he achieves the opposite, as you might expect. The shofar sounds are contrasted, embedded, surrounded, amplified and accompanied by noises from real life or radio or nature or other performances, dubbed and edited and mangled into something unique, the perfect match between prehistory and science fiction.

Yet that's only the technical part. In essence, the album is about roots, about universal feelings, that may have generated awe in olden days, a feeling of belonging and joint suffering and reverence and elation, yet that today are still recognisable and may generate the exact same feelings and esthetic appreciation, regardless of culture or geography or gender or ethnicity ... and yes why not ... regardless of musical preferences.

Watch a video with Curran on shofar