One of the most unique acts at this year’s Strictly Mundial/Folk Alliance conference (held in February in Montreal) was an avant-garde Swiss duo named Stimmhorn. Christian Zehnder and Balthasar Streiff held an audience of music-biz veterans rapt with a radical deconstruction of traditional Alpine music that included yodeling, accordions and Alpenhorns, the iconic, Swiss natural horn that’s best known on these shores from Ricola cough-drop commercials.
If the instruments and techniques seem predictable enough, what Stimmhorn did with them was not: Singer/accordionist Zehnder combined yodeling with a battery of unorthodox vocal techniques, from over- and undertone singing to Tuvan-style larynx singing, while Streiff used circular breathing methods on an array of Alpenhorns that looked like they should have been in the hands of a giant-sized Rahsaan Roland Kirk. As bizarre as this all sounds, the duo absolutely rocked.
Stimmhorn was formed in 1996, when Zehnder and Streiff first collaborated on the “visual audio play” Melken, an innovative exploration of the dichotomy between traditional Swiss milkmaids and contemporary industrial milking methods as reflections of the Swiss national character. Heady stuff, yes, but they also explored the sonic possibilities of the industrial milking machine, and have been going strong with similar, bizarrely tongue-in-cheek projects ever since.
Much of Stimmhorn’s work has its basis in experimental theater, and the duo has produced original works such as Verlust der Stille, an exercise in wordless theater, as well as commissioned work for productions of Troilus And Cressida and Faust II. While they’ve garnered recognition and awards for their stage works, their recorded work, such as 1997’s Schnee and 2001’s Inland, has edged Stimmhorn’s sonic palette into even more curious territory.
But their latest release, Igloo (2004, Recrec), is a bit more accessible, thanks to the infusion of danceable beats courtesy of Kold (a.k.a. Tomek Kolczynski). The album takes Stimmhorn’s recontextualization of Swiss tradition another step further, adding 21st century electronic textures into the mix as a means of interrogating the effects of globalization and immigration on the notoriously closed-off nation. Zehnder’s mad, sometimes menacing vocal acrobatics and carnival-esque accordion are offset by the majesty of Streiff’s sonorous Alpenhorns, while Kold pulls it all together with gentle, understated washes of melody and noise. The result is a stunning experience that simply has to be heard to be believed.