Each recording of improvised music is one of a kind. A unique moment in time. This much we know. It has occasionally degenerated into a cliché, used to justify the release of second or third-class recordings: yes, even these recordings are unique, something very special, so they cannot be altogether bad …
However, the fact that recordings of improvised music are unrepeatable also applies in another, wider sense. There is Improvisation or rather: attitudes towards Improvisation, which breed in countless variations: The musician has found his language and this is – although never identical but essentially similar every time – repeated session after session, concert after concert. In contrast, there are constellations where players meet who played differently previously, who play differently subsequently and who, in that moment of cooperation, of free exchange, play together in such a way as if they couldn’t do anything else – but exactly this. As if there was nothing outside of this. History stands still. And this is really unrepeatable. If the musicians were to try it again, with the best of intentions and in full command of their virtuosity – it wouldn’t work in the same way again (or decidedly different than was intended).
The whole time, the talk is about »Und?«, the second LP of Stephan Wittwer and Radu Malfatti, recorded in February 1977, a bit more than 33 years ago, less than a year after their first LP »Thrumblin’«, which already implied everything that constitutes »Und?«, still, however, in a form of something accidental and obscure. The pieces on »Und?« are characterized by a kind of intimacy, familiarity, an affinity of sound – by a mutual awareness, that is, of how to shape the sounds, to compress and expand them, to split them up and to paste them together, in a way exceptional even for the FMP generation of that time (with the release of such confusingly bewitching recordings of Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl, Martin Theurer, Hans Reichel and Rüdiger Carl, Hugh Davies or Michel Waisvisz).
»Und?« is seen as noise music by the critics. Because a trombone does not sound like a trombone and a guitar does not sound like a guitar. Supposedly, the album sounds somehow ‘electronic’. All this is just not true. Those who listen closely can make out a lot of guitar playing and a lot of distinct trombone articulations. True – the musicians definitely ‘manipulate’ their instruments, Malfatti uses different mouth pieces (including one for double reed instruments), and in the first piece there is a compelling, truly awe-inspiring passage, leaving the listener almost dumb-struck, where Wittwer hits the guitar with another object (maybe a second stringed instrument), again and again. The intention of these ‘manipulations’, however, is not to renounce the original instrument or to mask its sounds (and why should one?). They are actually extensions of sound, materials research. These terms are often resorted to in New Music – but in this case we can actually hear it, at close range, (at close range: that’s right. You have to think of this kind of music as something very quiet and delicate, its breathtaking presence not least developing from the fact that the sound engineer Hanno Ströher succeeded in catching this kind of intimacy in a very immediate manner: We hear Stephan Wittwer murmuring, sighing and whispering, which is otherwise more of a background noise – the Keith-Jarrett-Effect – turning into an integral part of the improvisations).
Also, in case of the ‘manipulations’, it is not about unravelling and blending sounds. The fact that the impression of coherence, of indistinguishability of the individual playing patterns develops while one is listening, explicitly has not to do with sound diffusion, a sort of ‘mash up’ so to speak. It has to do with the improvisation itself, the way the musicians’ playing dovetails, complementing each other, responding to each other or – fully aware and over long passages, bandying side by side. Techniques or ‘manipulation’ of the instruments is secondary.
They played differently before: Radu Malfatti was a fixed star of the London »South African-scene« in the seventies, those Free Jazz players around the small community of exile South African musicians. He played in the Brotherhood of Breath and in the large ensembles of Elton Dean, and his trombone sound was big, powerful, rousing. Stephan Wittwer, from Zurich, ten years younger than Malfatti, but already doing Free-Rock-Sessions at 17, 18 (»Wiebelfetzer live«) sounded much more like Jimi Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock than Derek Bailey (who even thirty years ago had a seminal effect on younger musicians despite his claims of ‘nonidiomatic’). In Switzerland, where the cosmopolitan Malfatti lived for several years at that time, their paths finally crossed, their collaboration lasted for three years, until 1979.
And they played differently afterwards: Malfatti less and less, more and more close lipped, more and more concentrating on single actions within a huge, infinite void. Wittwer louder and louder, Sludge Rock, Grindcore-Jazz and Surfimprov, until the final break: Nowadays he doesn’t play the guitar anymore and, as musician and composer only deals with the Super-Collider-Software.
If there is one thing these two musicians have in common (and this is really only: one) – going back to »Thrumblin’« and, even more so, »Und?« –, it is their radical obstinacy, a recalcitrance against all clichés of the unrepeatable. How this recalcitrance, this power of negation turns into a productive force of fantasy, this is something we experience on »Und?« – again and again, for 33 years and for the next 33 to come.
Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton