Yuko: A New Daxophone Operetta
a l l 003

Narcissus Drowning
Persephone 003

Primitivism and futurism have coexisted within improvised music for many years — consider the oeuvre of Sun Ra among others — and this singular dichotomy continues into the 21st century. That’s the attraction of these two solo CDs by inventive string players.

On his disc, Holland’s Jozef van Wissem subverts the pre-Renaissance sound of the lute with a program of original work based on palindromes, that is verses that sound the same backwards and forwards. He also plays a special 10 course lute designed by a Toronto craftsman. Conversely, Germany’s Hans Reichel has recorded an entire operetta, where all vocal and instrumental parts are created on the daxophone, a stringed instrument of his own invention. Connoisseurs of the unique will be fascinated by both discs.

An artisan in the traditional sense, Hagen-born Reichel is a typeface designer, composer, inventor and luthier. He claims to have invented the daxophone after hearing an LP of animal sounds and being impressed with the badger’s great sonic range. In German the animal is called a dachs, but Reichel insists on spelling his invention “dax” when he tired of explaining its genesis. The Daxophone is a narrow flat strip of wood anchored at one end and which can be bowed, scraped, tapped or otherwise vibrated and whose frequency of vibration can be varied by the application of a mobile wooden block anywhere along the length. Approximately 330 mm long, 30 mm wide and 5mm deep, the strips are shaped from different woods and with different contours to provide a variety of sounds from falsetto soprano to basso profundo.

YUKO evolved from a commission Reichel received to write and record new music for a production of William Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”. While many of the selections are definitely theatrically rooted, they’re certainly not stage bound. As a matter of fact, the harmonies produced by the ebony, rosewood and cedar vocalists on these tracks often appear to be transmutations of classic vocal group techniques, as well as the work of other songsters. Sometimes the daxophone, which can be extended with junk percussion and sampling, will come up with a tone that sounds like a wild boar accompanied by a chorus of sopranos, or alternately, a German beer hall band and a doo wop singing group mixing it up in a touristy café. Don’t forget the plectrumist’s ability to use what he calls his “pick-behind-the-bridge” guitar technique to create what could almost be real cathedral or chapel bells tolling.

Other tracks suggest massed children’s and adult choirs; congas and Latin percussion mixed with electronic dance rhythms and interrupted by an oom-pah-pah band; a Roma wedding; reverberating outer space voices harmonizing on nursery rhymes; the bubbling tempo of an assembly line; and cheesy roller rink pipe organs giving way to the sound of a “gee-tar” strummed by a lonesome cowpoke on the range.

On “The South Coast Route”, for instance, the solo dax sounds like one of those Las Vegas performers such as Al Martino doing a wordless version of his lounge lizard routine. Then there’s “Street Song” where the soprano and baritone harmony makes it appear as if one of those classic girl groups like The Ronettes had met The all-male Drifters somewhere in Germany.

“Bubu and his Friends”, which Reichel imagined as his version of Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road, Jack” instead sounds as if the soloist is warbling through his nose, while chipmunks Alvin, Theodore and Simon disguise themselves as the Raelets and burble and gurgle in the background. Most impressive is the reharmonized “Le Bal (new version)”, where it initially appears as if the bass-baritone from “Porgy and Bess” is projecting while frogs and toads burp in unison. Later it appears as if a jug band is backing up one of those multi-part harmony singing groups like The Four Freshman or The Nylons as clearly in-sync voices pass the lead back and forth.

YUXO is both a tour-de-force and a triumph.

Moving from the cast of (imaginary) characters that seem to populate the other disc to NARCISSUS DROWNING, is solo van Wissem on his specially designed lute. He himself adds drum and electronics to a few tracks, while New York downtowner Gary Lucas sits in on three playing steel-string dobro.

Deadpan Jack Benny to Reichel’s frantic Robin Williams, the lutenist is much more restrained, though more obviously experimental than on RETROGRADE (Persphone 002), his earlier CD, 28 minutes of backwards rendition of original lute pieces from the 1600s. During the course of this disc’s eight tracks in 37 minutes, van Wissem claims to be dealing with a musical metaphor for mirror stage theory. This is an infant’s first encounter with sexuality and the beginning of aggressive behavior, reflected in the Greek myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with own reflected image and drowned trying to reach it.

Definitely not so-called folk or period music, when the electronics and drums are taken into account, some of the lutenist’s pieces resemble extensions of guitarist Sandy Bull’s discs of the early 1960s, where that American guitarist mixed roots themes, middle eastern influences and Billy Higgins’ jazz drumming. Other times it sounds as if van Wissem had somehow managed to transfer the chords-heavy, scalar attack of Travis-style picking to his lute, while adding the primitive foot-percussion of songsters like Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller. However there are also times, as on the title track, where the jiggling electronics and body percussion of the tune’s penultimate minutes hardly makes up for the nearly eight minutes of moderate tempo arpeggios, glissandos and finger picking that proceed it.

Putting his downtown trendiness aside, Lucas can be quite effective when his Appalachian dobro provides the echoing voice to van Wissem’s Elizabethan-oriented lute. On “Diplopia”, Lucas’ bottleneck style almost makes it appears that the Mississippi delta is next to the Dutch flatlands.

A former Captain Beefheart sideman, Lucas also know how to mutate rock music. So when he and the lutenist perform their version of Kraftwerk’s “Hall of Mirrors” the simple repetitive dance melody is given added heft. Between van Wissem’s faux drums and Lucas’ metal-bodied slide-guitar approach, intensity not found in the original is added.

Should an interest in skewing and advancing an ancient sound through new instrumentation and new methods be in your bailiwick, then this CD will undoubtedly attract you.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Yuko: 1. The Duke of Syracuse 2. A life without Lychees 3.You can dance with me 4.Bubu and his friends 5. Oway oway 6. Out of Namakemono 7. Death procession 8.Street song 9.My haunted house 10. Le Bal (new version) 11. Sometimes at night 12.The South Coast route 14. Eros vs. education

Personnel: Yuko: Hans Reichel (daxophone, guitar, processing)

Track Listing: Narcissus: 1. Of Voluntary Departure 2. Tijuana Round 3. Brethren of the Free Spirit* 4. Diplopia 5. Elian Gonzalez* 6. The Mirror Stage 7. Narcissus Drowning*

Personnel: Narcissus: Jozef van Wissem (lute, electronics, beats); Gary Lucas (dobro*)