Real Music from the Rhine – Snowkrash

Yes, this is the Bonn music site 3SONGSBONN and yes the lady on the left is making music.  Actually, it’s the most traditional of all musical sounds in Bonn – the sound of the River Rhine itself.  John Harrison explains how Barry Roshto and Ursel Quint under the name Snowkrash, are setting Father Rhine to music…

Born, unwittingly into a nation which celebrates eccentricity with not just ritual tolerance, but one-eye-twinkling, raised eyebrow, expectant glee, and counts “bog snorkeling” as an acceptable, and totally normal pastime, I have to admit it was still with a little trepidation that I ascended the stairs in the magnificent old building which is just one part of Bonn City’s noble outposts for teaching young adults “what music is all about”.

“What is music all about clever clogs?” I feel some of you thinking, and the feeling and the questioning is quite correct, in fact, totally in order and, as with all questioning, to be heartily encouraged, especially in younger ones.

Well, this was quite an extraordinary evening in celebration of water in general and the river Rhine in particular, with a  musical sound element embracing traditional, contemporary and futuristic genres. It was, however, an evening of much more than “mere” music.

Bonn, Saturday 12th November 2011   “Hydrophonix”

“SnowKrash”, named after Neal Stephenson’s novel, “Snow Crash”, is an entity created by two prime protagonists, Barry L Roshto and Ursel Quint, both highly qualified musicians in their own right, whose prime intent as media artists seems to be “ to shake up a little” of what the rest of us consider to be “normal” in the world we co-inhabit.  In a world where knowledge on a global “macro” scale is becoming increasingly more accessible, on a local “micro” scale it is, at the same time, curiously, becoming much more compartmentalised, than even in the Middle Ages, and no more so, than in our very centres of contemporary “learning”.   The great polymaths of old like Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, well knew how to combine science with the arts in a single harmonious unity, which is ultimately, as it should be, the celebration of the love of life and increasing our collective understanding of both.  Today, when it becomes ever more difficult, to even contemplate “thinking outside the box” such an evening is not merely a visual audio refreshment, but a balsam, for the soul.I have always maintained that one should, wherever possible, try to respect tradition, and yet, where it is also possible, to celebrate creativity. To achieve that combination musically in a seamless way is quite magical. Tonight was not going to be effortlessly seamless, there would be visible and audible rivets showing at times, but the edge of the envelope was certainly being pushed out here in many different directions simultaneously.

First to the science:

For more than a year now SnowKrash have been monitoring  underwater sounds, especially of the river Rhine. (They also experimented with recordings in the river Maas, but the underwater acoustics there were not so good.) Initially using expensive commercial underwater microphones, they quickly discovered that Rhine barges emit very different frequencies than those of the whales and dolphins for which these microphones were specifically conceived. They were simply not fit for purpose. The solution was to build their own underwater microphones which were, by their very nature, aptly suited, for purpose, and often enclosed inside recycled tuna fish tins or peanut tins. The results of these tailor made, bespoke ones, were eminently listenable to.  As ever “pain”, stalking “empirical research.”  More detail about the project, as well as sound bites of the underwater recordings, can be found here on the SnowKrash web site :

Secondly to the Arts:

The evening’s light entertainment could best be described as extremely well situated theatre, not so much in the round, but more vertically in the stairwell.  Before we were all standing comfortably, Ursel dressed merely in a wet suit and flippers and goggles, left the building with an empty metal bucket and traversed the minor road outside of the “Mehlemische Haus” to seek out the largest, widest, commercial thoroughfare, not only in town, but probably in Europe, the river Rhine.

“Ok we would certainly consider auctioning the metal bucket for charitable purposes after tonight’s performance, but no, I’m afraid the red saxophone is not for sale and must remain here on the wall of the municipal conservatory”

OK, it was authentic symbolism, or was it symbolic authenticity? Whichever, a gesture very well done. What struck me most was that Rhine water, authentic as I now knew it to be, in small transparent quantities, actually looks so much more potable and drinkable and cleaner than the huge great grey dark massive flow of water body mass that passes by each minute under the Rhine guise.  This water was carefully distributed to eight separate transparent receptacles, each with its own tap underneath, for fine tuning purposes. The receptacles, each suspended on cords, from the roof of the wooden cage contained a piezo microphone, attached to a sound device. This unusual instrument was designed and constructed by Barry and now stood at the very top of the stairwell overlooking a steep flight of stairs, which was rapidly filling with a curious “standing room only” audience.In order to gain sight of the “Hydrophonium” one had to climb the stairs, drawn by the highly pitched hauntingly seductive singing tones of a siren, well known in a narrow rocky section of the Rhine a few miles to the south as the “Lorely”.

A strange siren singing in the windowsill

The Lorely stood precariously placed in a high window bay with her back to the assembling crowd below, dressed in a long regal red robe and with long wavy blond hair of flaxen gold and singing in faultless falsetto, those very same seductive tones which have lured so many ships onto the rocks below in the Rhine.  Early this year this same siren had caused a barge carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid to capsize in the river below. We all know what that means :“Powerful tones indeed!”

Ursel moves on to the Hydrophonium, as the stairwell fills, and with all the dexterity and imagination of Dr Who at the controls of the Tardis, accompanies the Loreley’s dulcet tones and later lyrics and “greenhorn pipe” blowing through a medley of melodies drawing both on traditional German folk songs and the classical works of Schumann and Wagner.  The Hydrophonium proves itself to be a most versatile water propelled and inspired instrument which, according to the controls, can produce a different voiced named tributary of the Rhine, when each of its eight watery udders is squeezed e.g. “Neckar”, “Nah”, “Sieg” and “Mosel”, and sometimes even, ““M”ä”inz””.  A mere click of the switch and the “cords” from which the udders are hanging, within the wooden frame, become in themselves pluckable bass notes and form “chords” of a deep, yet soothingly, intrinsically aquatic nature.  Certainly a candidate for the Patent office Barry!

The old Germanic tribes were quite often, never more happy than being a singular group of separate entities, but when needs must, often combined and bent more than a few Roman noses or two or three.  On these rare Germanic triumphant occasions, the old Germanics would often sit down and sing old songs together about conquering the land of the Angles and soon to be Saxons, and sang in pre-emptive verse,  “Es saßen die alten Germanen”  which roughly translated means, “the old Germanic tribes had met once again and had a very successful reunion, so much so, that they have a fundamental need to sit down, and have a think and a drink, before the next round begins, and the need to stand up again, and co-found new nations, and then have another drink, and a well deserved sit down together.”

Ursel at the 'Hydrophonium'

The live music and entertainment being over, we went, first for refreshments, and then afterwards to the very large, very darkened room, and we were not advised, to “sit” down, but perhaps rather better to “lie” down!  And very good advice it was too.   As the deep secret underwater tones of the river, so powerful, so close, flowed audibly over us for the following thirty minutes. It was the grand sounds of the river bed, rather than the simple tales of the riverbank. A serene surrealism verging almost on the spiritual, as we all lay on the floor in the dark, listening to the inner voices of the mystical father Rhine. Barry had been a little apprehensive at the beginning of what he thought many might judge as a somewhat “difficult listening hour”,

Barry had been a little apprehensive at the beginning of what he thought many might judge as a somewhat “difficult listening hour”, but as it turned out his fears were totally unfounded and ( it ) ” Deep Listening” , as the piece is called, actually metamorphosed into a wonderful kind of therapy session for the listeners.  The only things missing were water beds! Mattresses and cushions were provided, but after half an hour, there was no denying, a hard floor, is a hard floor.

After an interesting philosophical discussion, everyone went home with a slightly different view of this great waterway than they had come in with earlier in the evening.

There are no shortages of ideas in the world, indeed many people have them, some people even have good ideas, but when you think about it, very few people have the ability and the tenacity to put original ideas into practise. That’s when the air starts getting rare and the people start getting scarce.

SnowKrash have made their own ideas materialise dramatically well in “Hydrophonix” in the “True Spirit of Buffalo County” and all thanks to them for persevering and doing so.

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