Click here to [close]

Monday, February 7, 2022

Udo Schindler and Xu Fengxia – WINDundWOLKEN (Arch-Musik, 2021) ****

By Nick Ostrum

As with many musicians, German reedist Udo Schindler had been pushed to his archival material by the pandemic and has released a series of strong performances with a notably diverse cast of musicians ranging from the accordionist Ute Völker to vocalist Rainald Schwarz to Japanese pianist Masako Ohta and many others in between. Count WINDundWolken (Wind and Clouds) among that batch. This release catches the duo of Schindler and Chinese string-master and vocalist Xu Fengxia live in action at the 77.Salon in Krailling, Munich in September 2017.

Xu’s website describes her work with Peter Kowald as a definitive turning point in her musical vision. If one enters this album with that idea too ingrained in their mind, however, they may be quite surprised. Indeed, Xu plays her strings (guzheng, sanxian) in unconventional settings, but, as far as I can tell, with a greater ear toward crisp melody than unorthodox techniques and sounds. WINDundWOLKEN has exceptions, of course, but as much as Xu pushes the limits of her classical training on her strings, her vocal techniques are often at least as striking as her instrumentation. Even here, however, she does not torture her vocal chords to explore the guttural shouts, strained squeaks and decay that many other avant-garde vocalists do. Instead, she dances between East Asian folk melodies, Euro-American acoustic traditions, and experimental music. For what it is worth, Schindler also avoids the extreme ends of unconventionality on his clarinets and this shared focus on melodicism outside of the pop and jazz traditions makes this album work remarkably well.

Especially through Xu’s work, the album hints at interesting connections between American and European folk traditions and those of East Asia. Take, for instance, W&W Solo XF1. This is an absolutely beautiful, pensive folk ballad that, substituting a banjo and English as the instrument and language of choice, could fit as well in Appalachia as I assume it does in the tradition that birthed it. The melody is simple, but moving, and somehow universal. What is more, its plaintive drawl balances the free form excursions surrounding it. These swing from the slow and contemplative, as on W&W #3, which initially evokes a noirish stroll through some nondescript though placid docks (maybe with an eye towards the slowly shifting clouds above) to gustier passages of less inhibited improvisation, including a playful, carnival-esque jaunt through even stranger territories that sets in about halfway through the track. W&W #6 is another example: Xu’s galloping strings and euphonious-to-ululating singing intermingle delightfully with Schindler’s grumbling horns. #6 is also one of the few pieces that showcases Xu’s excursions into the Yamataka Eye/Jaap Blonk tongue-twisting babble. Other pieces, such as the brief W&W Solo and W&W #5 explore tones in a way that the more active and lyrical pieces do not, ranging from drones to high pitched quavering to huffed cadences. W&W #6, the penultimate track, begins with Schindler’s growling contrabass clarinet and Xu joins tentatively on sanxian at first, then on vocals. As the duo finds their footing, they fall into territory that are a more energetic exploration of the folk aesthetics introduced so effectively in W&W Solo XF1. For the final solo, Xu sings “ jetzt geht nichts mehr” (“now it doesn’t work”) and swings into a noisy romp through the guzheng. A fitting ending to a compelling and eccentric release.