Fever: Five Songs From A Percussionist

German percussionist Matthias Kaul certainly knows how to be noticed. This CD arrives packaged in a pouch made from painter Wolfgang Kahle’s Silence, an acrylic paint and Chinese ink canvas cut into 1,000 individual pieces for this project.

Not that Kaul really need gimmicks to be noticed. A spectacular percussionist, he creates sound on surfaces you can hardly imagine and produces beats and rhythms way beyond the norm.

Let’s set parameters before going any further though. This may be a solo percussion session, but it won’t appeal to many who think of themselves as drum fanatics. If you’re someone who gets off on the JATP battles between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, someone who hymns Max Roach’s solo work, or takes up cudgels for Elvin Jones, Joey Baron, Han Bennink or even Sunny Murray, you may be in for a shock.

Kaul is the sort of percussionist for those who think of Eddie Prévost, percussionist with British free music band AMM, as a good mainstream, drummer. Usually working on the New music side if the fence, Kaul is a solo specialist who has recorded music written by the likes of aleatory, minimalist and atonal composers such as John Cage, Vinko Globokar and James Tenney.

As the title says, these five tunes are all his own improvisations and honor different figures. They are sequentially: American-Canadian violin improviser Malcolm Goldstein, who has played and recorded with Kaul; Amadeu Antonio Kiowa, an Angolan immigrant who was beaten to death by German skinheads in 1990; poet Ingeborg Bachmann; Elvis Presley, who, as they say, needs no introduction; and author Yoko Tawada.

What you hear on this CD are sounds that are primitive and futuristic at same time. Looking over the laundry list of percussion implements Kaul uses on each track, you’ll see that the elements of a conventional European orchestra are just the beginning. His kit is amplified with ethnic instruments, self-invented percussion and children’s toys. But even that isn’t the whole story. He adapts these ethnic instruments by taking them out of their geographical context. He transmutes the sounds so that they take on a different meaning than they would have in an indigenous culture — and that includes the role percussion plays in the musical culture of Northern Europe.

Furthermore he doesn’t acknowledging the hierarchy that’s supposed to exist between high — European, World ethnic — music and so-called lower forms such as play-party folk, children’s and made-up improvisations. Additionally, like John Cage, as a composer, or Thelonious Monk, as a composer/performer, he doesn’t play his drums and percussion properly, that is according to accepted societal norms. Instead he mixes and matches according to his own ideas and designs.

Longtime followers of The King, for instance, may never be able to reconcile what appears on the title track with their memories of Presley. Let’s just say that even at the beginning of his fabled career neither Presley, nor guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black or (especially) drummer J.D. Fontana ever used drum skins, microphones, mallets or sticks in this way. With the egg timer-like beat of castanets supposedly replicating Presley’s finger snaps, Kaul’s rubbed temple bells, frame drum rolls, shrill whistles and consistent drone keep augmenting to such an extent that after a while he come up with a foot-tapping cadence. Should you wonder how Elvis’s found sounds could have fit together with those of Karlheinz Stockhausen, this provides one clue.

Elsewhere the loud and clearly identifiable pounding on a military-style drum — 50 times — is used to suggest ethnic violence at the beginning of “Amadeu Antonio Kiowa”. The Angolan was attacked by at least 50 Nazi skinheads in Berlin in 1990 while police looked on and did nothing. Later on, the harsh tones of the European instruments are succeeded by a panoply of South American, African and Middle Eastern instruments sounded in different keys, pitches and combinations. Alternating particular pulses and silences, the result not only suggests the sort of Third World dance measures favored by Westerns, even in Germany, but reminds people that musical miscegenation such as this ensures that fascists’ attempts at ethnic cleansing are doomed.

Although the percussionist doesn’t consider this composition, honoring the first victim of racial violence to be murdered after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to be “political in a general sense”, he is altruistically encouraging other percussionists to perform it as well. That’s because all proceeds are pledged to a Berlin foundation bearing the victim’s name, which assists victims of xenophobia and neo-Nazi horrors.

Throughout the almost 55½ minutes of the CD Kaul demonstrates that such primitive or everyday items as a mouth organ, a glass harp, Tibetan temple bells and a toy piano can communicate the same emotions as complex instruments. Vocal tones, both reciting a phrase and slowed down to gibberish can work just as well as any certified orchestral designation.

Thought and inventions behind the arms, hands, muscles and sinew create exceptional performances, Kaul knows, unlike many traditional, academic composer/performers. Despite the packaging of this CD he didn’t have to paint a picture for the listener to appreciate his ideas.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Listen this is for You 2. Amadeu Antonio Kiowa 3. Bachmann 4. Fever 5. Listen this is for You (II)

Personnel: Matthias Kaul ([track 1: hurdy gurdy, 2 small bowed Korean gongs; 1 small bowed Japanese temple bell, voice]; [track 2: snare drum, frame drum, voice, superball on frame drum, Tibetan temple bell, Shona kalimba, bowed Brazilian cuica, Tanzanian lute, Japanese temple bells, South Indian tabla, Indian bowed gopichand]; [track 3: glass harp, voice]; [track 4: small organ pipe, microphones rubbed on drum skins, castanets, drum skins beaten with soft mallet, microphones attached to performer’s wrists, rubbed temple bell, wooden sticks on frame drum, extra large bass drum, lions’ roars]; [track 5: triangles on long wires held in hollow styrofoam balls, bass drum, hurdy gurdy, small wood block, small tin can with 4 strings inside and handle outside, overtone vocals, bowed metal wires of toy piano, electric tooth brush used on bass drum skin, mouth organ, kanjira, 2 gopichands, John Lennon singing “Oh Yoko” backwards and slowed-down])