Christof Kurzmann's interest in song form in recent years has brought him to a number of unexpected places. In the duo Schnee with Burkhard Stangl, he has borrowed from Prince and Neil Diamond and as a part of the group The Magic I.D. has crafted some wonderfully hazy duets with singer / guitarist Margareth Kammerer. Whether new compositions or well-known tunes, Kurzmann and company have presented them in beautifully uncentered ways, as if they were vague memories of songs.
Kurzmann takes a similar approach now in what is a very different project and to great results. El Infierno Musical is a setting of six poems by the Argentian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who led an accomplished life before willfully ending it at the age 36 in 1972. A Fulbright Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, Pizarnik lived in Paris (where she worked as an editor for Les Lettres Nouvelles) and left behind eight volumes of poetry (two unpublished during her life).
Pizarnik's words are used here in service of the music, or seem to be at any rate. The phraseeology is so delicate that they tend to sit just behind the music, especially in Kurzmann's plaintive delivery. His scores are played by Ken Vandermdark (reeds), Eva Reiter (viola de gamba, contrabass recorder, dan bao), Clayton Thomas (bass) and Martin Brandlmayr (drums, vibraphone), with Kurzmann supplying saxophone, guitar and electronics. The music varies from seemingly open form improv to quiet, incidental music to easy grooves, with the verses interspersed irregularly, sometimes appearing as if to pull the threads of the music into a piece. If the poetry isn't dominant through all of the record, it seems clear that the moods it imparts are. Pizarnik's hand guides the proceedings even in absentia, to the extent that a fragment of the guitar solo from Janis Joplin's "Summertime" is heard in the distance during her poem "Para Janis Joplin."
It's hard to know how close the texts come to Pizarnik's original words, having been translated by the musicians — an assemblage of Austrians and Americans — themselves. It is of course possible that the translations are quite faithful but even if they aren't it doesn't seem entirely to matter. The album isn't a poetry journal, and ultimately it comes off like a dramatic audio work inspired by the sad beauty of Pizarnik's lines. Near the end, she herself appears, in her native tongue and through the filter of a decades old recording. As she recites her "Ashes II," she sounds somehow comfortable with the goings-on.
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