Yodelling, devised in Switzerland as a way of singing messages across vast alpine distances, is an inherently strange sound. Add a dollop of classical training, a dash of Tuvan overtone singing, deep familiarity with the Dadaist sound poet Kurt Schwitters, and a truly feral imagination, and you’ve got Christian Zehnder, who sounds exactly like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Calling from his home in Basel by way of a shaky Skype connection, Zehnder admits that even he didn’t see yodelling’s creative potential at first.
“I wasn’t interested, because the yodelling in Switzerland is very occupied by the right-wing political ideas. It’s really fixed into ‘Don’t move. Sing like that. Sing like 100 years before,’ ” he says, briefly assuming a hectoring, dogmatic tone. “So I was really not interested. And the other big problem in Switzerland was that the young musicians were not interested in traditional music. They were ashamed to play traditional folk music here in Switzerland—although in the last 15 years it’s really changing. More and more, young people are searching for connections from modern music to the alpine style.”
Zehnder’s own quest took time. He began as a guitarist but, bored by the instrument’s relative lack of emotional immediacy, opted to switch to voice. Studying jazz singing wasn’t possible in Switzerland, so he headed to the conservatory, where, remarkably, he enrolled as both a baritone and a countertenor. Since his instructors saw him as a young misfit, he was also assigned to avant-garde courses with John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others. And somewhere along the way he also became acquainted with various traditional vocal styles from around the globe, most notably the African yodelling styles of Zimbabwe and the eerie throat singing of Central Asia.
It was only then that he began to develop his concept of New Space Mountain, a lofty metaphorical location where recombinant genres are born into bright sunshine and pure air.
“My work is sort of turning more and more to an abstract connection with the Alps, more into art,” he says. “Yes, there are these connections, but at last it has nothing to do with traditional music. It’s more about thinking about how I feel the mountains. But I needed to go through all these things to come to this new thinking, to be independent of this.
“I’m a little bit of an enfant terrible in Switzerland,” he adds happily. “When I sing in other countries, people say, ‘Oh, you’re so crazy. You have to come from Switzerland.’ And in Switzerland there are a lot of people who say, ‘Where the hell do you come from?’ They think it’s a big mistake. But I’m very Swiss.”
Conceptually, Zehnder’s music sounds heady, and it is. In practice, though, it’s also stunningly visceral. His virtuosity allows him to produce vocal timbres that are otherworldly, even by the standards of overtone singing or yodelling, but there’s a comic theatricality to his work as well; he’ll bounce an accordion on his knees to produce a cracked pulse, or use an electric train set to send small speakers around the room, creating a low-tech, indoor approximation of alpine echoes.
And then sometimes he’ll just yodel. That’s strange enough in itself.
“For musicians,” Zehnder says, “it’s very important to go two steps behind to come one step further.” And in the realm of avant-garde yodelling, no one’s outpaced him yet.
Christian Zehnder plays the Western Front on Saturday (February 9), as part of the VOICE OVER mind Festival.