Misty Magic and some Music too!


I was back in Lucerne from November 22-26, to continue exploring and “listening” to the city as well as to all kinds of music being made at the Piano Festival (like a great Pollini recital) and elsewhere (including a rehearsal – indescribable – of a local Guggemusik ensemble), to present a workshop for the Eine Sinfornie fûr Luzern project, and to meet a variety of fascinating people to discuss ideas and potential collaboration for this project. For an idyllic, quiet, history-soaked city, it sure is super-busy every time I am in Lucerne, partly due to trying to fit too many activities into my schedule before I return to Boston, but also because Lucerne is simply a hotbed of music, ideas and – well – living. All of these impressions, meetings, discussions and improvisations are shaping my thoughts for this collaborative symphony, and I am encouraged by the growing number of sounds which you are all collecting in and around Lucerne.

For this trip, I started with a few “touristy” attractions which were nonetheless powerful and resonant. The Bourbaki Panorama is a 19th century precursor of 3D cinema and Oculus Rifts, haunting through the quality of painting and poignancy of the story. The Löwen Denkmal is surprising in its size and detail, in the way the massive rock surrounding is itself slashed with geological fissures to match the sculptor’s tools, and for being a quiet oasis with an extraordinary acoustic of almost-still water and respectful chitchat and laughter from an international crowd. And the Gletschergarten was a revelation, confirming my hunch that water is indeed the connecting force in and around Lucerne. It was easy to see how the kilometer-high glacier that covered the whole region hundreds of thousands of years ago shaped hills and valleys and filled lakes and rivers. Most striking was to notice how the enormous hollowed caverns carved by glacier have the exact same form that the Reuss River makes as it careens around the Needle Dam, from higher to lower level. From glacier to today, an interconnected water symphony with movements in vastly different tempi.

That same afternoon, we presented a workshop at the KKL to demonstrate how Eine Sinfornie fûr Luzern is developing. I reminded the audience of the basic premise for the project, demonstrated the new Höre Luzern / Hear Lucerne mobile app that makes it easy to record and share sounds from the city, and played some of my favorite sounds – from cows to yodels to ship horns to fountains – that have been contributed so far. Then we tried an experiment, to see if we could “translate” real sounds from the city into “music.” Since the Piano Festival was in session, I asked that we find three open-minded and creative pianists from different musical backgrounds to participate. We were extremely fortunate to be able to work with Anita Schaufelberger, Michael Mahnig, and Leo Tardin. They couldn’t have been more wonderful to work with. For each of them, I played one of three “sound dreamscapes” I had prepared based on a certain type of sonic material from Lucerne: Water, Bells and Voices respectively. After we – myself, the pianists and the assembled audience – listened to each of the ca. 1-minute collages, I asked one of the pianists to reinterpret the recorded sounds and to create the same sound and feel on the acoustic piano. Very difficult! But each pianist did a spectacular job, showing that musical imagination can make connections between seemingly different sound worlds, and also showing that “noise” and “music” are not so different after all, if prepared and presented carefully and listened to fully. We ended the workshop by listening to one more sonic collage that I prepared based on recordings made in August with the Lucerne Festival Academy Orchestra. Delicate, complex textures interlaced with a delicate melody weaving somewhere in the middle, all of it converging on a single octave (G above-and-below middle-C), as all water in Lucerne flows into or out of the lake. To translate this very unpianistic music, all three pianists converged on the single Steinway, on the keyboard and inside the piano, surprising all of us with an interpretation of great beauty, delicacy, and magic. It is this kind of listening, sharing and experiencing of sound in all its forms that makes this project so exciting and gratifying for me.

The rest of this Lucerne visit was spent meeting and listening. I was able to chat with musicians from various backgrounds, civic and community leaders, and experts in Lucerne history and geography to understand their perspective on the city. And I continued my exploration of water systems in the city, both through consulting two remarkable books – Luzerner Brunnen [Rüesch and Meyer, Reuss Verlag Luzern 1988] and Gestautes Wasser | Regulierter See [Gianni Paravicini, Kantonaler Lehrmittelverlag Luzern 2013] – and by walking through the city and along the Reuss. My favorite times to walk are very early in the morning or late at night, when few others are around and when cars and bicycles are even scarcer than during the day.

On this visit, the city was often shrouded in thick mist so streetlights were diffused, borders of buildings were blurred, and the air was filled with light-but-constant mist that seemed to connect the sky with the river and lake. With my small recording device in hand and small binaural microphones in my ears, I was able to hear the way the river changes pitch, volume and timbre with each tiny step, due to changing flow of water and resonance from streetscape. I also visited as many of Lucerne’s 225 fountains as possible, each with its own sound and personality, history and reason for existing.

Why so many fountains in a small city which already has water everywhere? That is one of the mysteries that I will continue to pursue as I explore Lucerne’s mysteries, become increasingly appreciative of its magic, and search – hopefully with your help – for the music that represents it best.

With warmest regards from chilly Waltham (outside Boston).



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