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MGB Records (Migros-Genossenschafts-Bund)


Das Alphorn danasch [1:15]
Kaamor [4:56]
Purup [1:16]
Dr’ Schlipfer [4:16]
Rothko Room [3:04]
Flüchting [2:06]
Serpent tacere [4:39]
Adieu O(h) W(eh) [2:17]
Arb [7:08]
Ahjä [3:18]
Flugs [3:27]
Choral [4:54]
Zirp [4:42]
Fun Facile [6:41]
All compositions written and arranged by Hornroh
Recorded in July 2002 at Saalbau Aarau DDD
SUISA MGB CD 6195 [54:01]

It is always a rare, invigorating and wonderful experience to find something that can be considered both wholly new and unexpected while remaining ancient and familiar. When I first looked at this album by Hornhoh, a group consisting of four Alphorns, I was expecting a folk music CD at best, a Ricola commercial at worst. Within seconds I was treated to a truly interesting and innovative fanfare announcing the arrival of a music that was at once thoroughly contemporary as well as ancient and medieval.

In short, I found myself in the midst of something truly special. The pieces themselves use a great amount of modality due to the limitations of the instrument. The alphorn is not designed as a chromatic instrument, and has no keys or slides in order to change key or give much control over pitch. The players of Hornroh compensate through choosing horns that are in different keys and using a medieval technique called "hocketing" whereby two or three players will jump in at different times to produce a single seamless melody. Also, due to the instruments’ limitations, they are often playing modally, creating pitches that some listeners more familiar with the baroque or early romantic eras would consider "wrong." Fans of early music, Brahms, and third stream jazz, however, will be familiar with the Lydian and Mixolydian modes heavily employed here, and will find themselves intrigued by the melding of the ancient and the modern.

In a similar vein, Hornroh uses the limitations of the instrument to their advantage harmonically with the different instruments producing some incredibly modern sounding chords. They often choose dissonances to create tension in ways reminiscent of early Stravinsky or late Stan Kenton. Thus, theoretically, the music remains totally tonal while employing some music theory that was not advanced until the middle part of the 20th century. In the piece "Arb", Hornroh intentionally push their instruments slightly out of tune with each other to create "beats" that are then used rhythmically. The instruments are then pushed to their outer extremes in order to give a more varied texture and interesting melody. The end result is something that somehow feels primal but would be best understood as extremely modern.

As the album continues, the pieces become more experimental. There is one work where the instrumentalists stop playing to vocally imitate their horns. There are several occasions in the final five tracks where the alphorns are pushed to such extreme ranges as to make it seem that the players have fundamentally changed the timbre of their instrument. The net result, however, is to show the alphorn, which seems on the surface to be mostly an instrument for a shepherd to call for help at a distance, to be an instrument capable of creating highly emotive, evocative and experimental music that can challenge the listener intellectually while engaging on the most visceral of levels.

As I write, I find myself increasingly at a loss to describe this album. I can say that without some foreknowledge, I would never have purchased this. Finding this in my stack of recordings to review I decided that I was intellectually interested in seeing what music could be with such a limited instrument. As the album began I found myself intrigued. I was soon awash in wonderment at the variety of sounds and the magic that such virtuosity can bring. If you are a fan of only the most familiar of sounds, you should peruse the Beethoven. However, if you have even the slightest sense of adventure, you will enjoy this magical adventure into the Alps. The weight of millennia mated with the adventure of the most modern is meshed together on this truly fantastic album. If you only buy one recording of new music this year, you wouldn’t go wrong by choosing this one; I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Patrick Gary


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