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Journey into Jazz

The Nitty Gritty Of The Hurdy Gurdy

By Published: October 23, 2003

The only difference was, bagpipes usually sound like a polyphonic assembly while this sound seems like a lone voice shrewdly culled from such an assembly, singled out, groomed up and presented to us spic and span.

September 6th is going to be etched in my mind, almost as deeply as 9/11 thanks to the Hurdy Gurdy: an instrument I had never seen nor heard, nor dreamt of in my wildest fantasies. Jazz with its ocean-like receptivity has allowed some pretty alien critters to come crawling in from the cold and get a warm applause: but fifty of those oddities could not make one Hurdy Gurdy.

What on earth is a Hurdy Gurdy? Well the classical instrument went out of fashion long ago but Valentin Clastrier has added 27 seven strings to it along with an electronic synthesizer perhaps with a ring modulator to it... He’s done that to make it sound like a 100 piece orchestra compressed into a weird looking instrument barely the size of an average dog. Only it looks more like a shapely, and professionally trimmed version of a fossilized baby seal, held like a guitar with the neck pointing down and pumped from the rear end... Castrier keeps a foot stool to rest his right foot on it, and thus prop up the seemingly heavy instrument in an intimate embrace. His right hand rotates a crank just as Grandpa used to wind up the mechanical gramophone with its huge trumpet. But Grandpa used to leave it at that, Clastrier clings to his, as if attached with an umbilical cord.

Michael Riessler provided competent accompaniment initially on the sopranino saxophone, and later on the bass clarinet to Clastrier who’s sometimes described as Paganini of the Hurdy Gurdy. Well the exotic name, the exoticker look led to exotickest sounds that began to emerge with a lazy initial pumping, letting loose alarmingly unreal sounds like a cluster of protesting chicken in a coop gone on a boys night out, and raising sheer hell when back in the coop.

Clastrier the modern day wizard, strummed, thumped, banged, fingered, pushed stoppers, and God knows what all his frenzied left hand translated into action his private phantasmagoria that flashed on and off with microsecond precision: there was undoubtedly a method in this madness, exhibited by several sounds beginning to emerge like multiple spirits stubbornly haunting a single person, slowly and voluptuously exhibiting themselves. There was a lead, played soothingly, jarringly, even frantically on the wind instrument side of this queer instrument. This sound resembled the bagpipes closely, several others have vouched for my observation. The only difference was, bagpipes usually sound like a polyphonic assembly while this sound seems like a lone voice shrewdly culled from such an assembly, singled out, groomed up and presented to us spic and span. There’s that hauntingly mesmerizing quality to it.

The strumming on strings which seemed invisible, produced some loosely resonating chords, various other smaller sounds bytes like pips, squeaks and squeals frothing up at the same time, seemed all preprogrammed –as if generated by the electronic box behind him: though the overall synergy of the sounds seemed very much under Clastrier’s control, highly organized and impressive enough for a whole lot of newbies around me to nod, foot-tap, thump and yell yeah man ! Not bad at all.

While Michael Riessler slowly sneaked in with his sopranino sax and soon dominated the scene, first in total rhythm with a pair of Tabla [an Indian percussion instrument everyone knows] that had been providing creditable background support to the wild antics of the hurdy gurdy. Within minutes the trio rose in a mystifying crescendo now and then with what appeared like a pre-conceived and meticulously written down composition. The Hurdy Gurdy, once the juddering shock of novelty wears off, begins to sound like a group of frenzied Free Jazz exponents having their say together, an intellectual impossibility –but very much possible here because one musician was playing like a schezophrenoid, let me put it this way, for want of a better word.

Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to routinely arm himself with six or seven instruments and try to bring to the startled audience a mini orchestra under control of one man. He would have loved the Hurdy Gurdy so much, I suspect, he would have loved to request the Surgeon General to do a reverse Siamese Twins operation on him [and it] to make it a part of his existence... An anecdote tells us once he handed over a fifty dollar tip, during the Seventies, to the cab driver in New York who stopped it with a flourish, honking his horn stylishly, telling the driver: ‘Man you just made music...’ Had he heard [ he was blind ] Clastrier he would have certainly fused his own body to this source of a hundred sounds and a thousand possibilities.

Riessler brought on the bass clarinet, for which I was waiting impatiently, and produced some incredibly ugly sounds in its bass register which seemed on the point of being amusical: but that was mercifully a prelude. He soon switched over to an up-tempo beat defined by the Tabla, played by Rajeev Davasthali a musician born in our city of Pune, and now a veritable globetrotter... Riessler played frantic Free Jazz –though thankfully he avoided the atonal and the rhythmless variations throughout. The Hurdy Gurdy produces basically ‘groove’ type rhythms, and hence a Free Jazz exponent trying to keep pace with it has to necessarily conform to whatever group of notes that are emerging from it, strictly in time. This crafty trick makes Free Jazz a lot less difficult to ingest.

In another number Riessler brought out his bass clarinet, and ominously removed its reed, turned the mouthpiece connector around letting it hang loose and positioned the open tube end close to his microphone. We held our breaths wondering what he was up to... and he didn’t disappoint anyone, for his fingers started drumming on the coin like button-keys of the bass clarinet which looks more like a saxophone. The tapping sound came out to us through a percussion instrument, both mellow and yet with a dreamy, haunting quality to it –the rhythm, the complex and intriguing rhythm he tapped out soon got echoed through the masterful imitation on the Tabla, where Devasthali took the lead soon and lent more complexity to it. Presently it turned into a tune, and with the mouthpiece screwed back on Riessler was up to his frenzied playing in no time. The Hurdy Gurdy took a break.

Only to return with more varied sounds, a larger variety of rhythmic patterns and improvisation at the same frantic pace. Clastrier has an enormous sense of balance, for he keeps dancing around on one leg as he plays, and sometimes he thumps the wooden body of the Hurdy Gurdy impatiently clucking his tongue and with a hand gesture that seems to say what the heck... his sense of balance thus makes him suddenly change from a frantic pace to a much smoother, softer tone that he pushes out from the lead section of his imaginary orchestra and plays a soothing melody. But only for a while, as soon as the pumping starts, it’s the same frenzied pace, the same avalanche of truly bewildering sounds.

I will round up this impression by saying that the concert was truly successful in the sense, though some oldies may have been put off by the Free Jazz teetering on the Avant-Garde content-wise, the overall effect on the predominantly younger crowd was electric. The impromptu clapping, the acknowledgement of this special European sense of humor that calls for no mastery over the English language, the instantaneous and involuntary response of listeners to the body language of musicians, and restrained applause at the right time –pointed to the correct assimilation indeed. What's more the predominantly adolescent audience lapped it up so greedily that none of them got up or left even during the intermission. Free Jazz lives !.

Bravo Riessler, Clastrier and Devasthali, a good job! And thanks to Max Muller Bhavan and Goethe Institut, Daimler Chrysler, Poona Music Society and Poona Jazz Club for making it all happen. Great fare indeed.

Cheerio, till next time...


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