Speed-pod series of 15 minute podcasts focusing on music and culture from around the world
In our ‘speed pod’ mini-series of quick insights into music and culture from around the world, we talk to music industry professionals about the music of their homeland, to give us a view into different music, composers, sounds and instruments which make music both unique and universal.
Today, we will be talking to HarrisonParrott Artist Coordinator Theodor Küng to tell us more about the sounds of Switzerland. Theo tells us about what influences there are on Swiss music, the musical sounds that are associated with the country, unique musical instruments, and introduces us to several Swiss composers. As well as providing listeners with a wealth of musical insights, Theo also gives us his personal recommendations for a Swiss book, album and film, so we can dive deeper into understanding Swiss culture and its contribution to the world.
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Fiona Livingston 00:03
Hello and welcome to The Culture Bar, an arts and culture podcast series brought to you by HarrisonParrott. In our speed podcast mini series of quick insights into music and culture from around the world, we talk to music industry professionals about the music of their homeland, to give us a view into different music, composers, sounds and instruments, which make music both unique and universal. Today we will be talking to a HarrisonParrott artist coordinator, Theo. Theo, please tell us a bit more about yourself.
Theodor Kung 00:31
Hi, my name is Theo or Theodor Kung in full. I’m from St Cergue, a small village in the Jura Mountains mountains overlooking Lake Geneva. I’ve been an artistic coordinator with Harrison parrot for about five months. And previous to that I worked as a concert violinist with orchestras in the UK and across Europe.
Fiona Livingston 00:48
Fantastic. So you are very well placed to talk to us about music and everything Swiss. So it would be great if we could just dive in seeing as this is a speed pod. So in your opinion, what has influenced Swiss music? Is it the landscape, language, location chocolate?
Theodor Kung 01:05
Well, it’s a mix of all I mean Swiss music and Swiss art in general doesn’t get as much attention as it might and maybe as it should, probably because it’s a rather small country whose five neighbours include France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, all nations who have made tremendous contributions to what is widely considered to be the canon of Western music, not to mention painting, architecture, sculpture and all the rest of it. So this means that here in the UK, for instance, even if people know about British creative types who have been inspired by Switzerland like Mary Shelley, or JM Turner, or Freddie Mercury, they are unlikely to have heard of, say the Swiss painter Caspar Wolf who is a wonderful 18th century painter or they might not even know that composers such as Frank Martin and Ernst Bloch are originally Swiss. So when talking about what influences Swiss music, obviously the surrounding countries have exerted an immense cultural pull from the outside. More fundamentally, though, I think that Swiss art and Swiss society in general has, historically speaking, being defined by the topography of the country itself. The reason why Swiss identity is so strong and so unified despite a divided history, I think, as well as different languages and a fragmented geography is that the lives of the people who live there are punctuated by the same seasonal rhythms, whether you live in Zurich, or Veuve, or Bellinzona. Wherever you live across the country, your lifestyle traditionally is defined by the area’s dominating feature, which is mountains. Your life in the passage of time would have been marked by the same events, snow and winter melting and floods in the spring haymaking in the pastoring of cattle in the autumn, and then snow again. So it’s a unifying factor. And so inevitably, traditional depictions of Swiss life in music and art tend towards the pastoral, the rural, the idealised country life, right up until the 1920s, when people like Arthur Honegger started doing all sorts of weird experimentations with sound and so on. Honeggers’s most well known composition is probably Pacific 231, which famously evokes the image of a steam locomotive that gradually builds up speed throughout the piece. Other composers who have mixed genres and experimented include, for instance, the late Hans Kennel, who throughout the latter half of the 20th century mixed jazz with traditional Alpine wind instruments, including the Elkhorn, and if anyone’s curious to know what that sounds like, I’d recommend you go listen to dance five, which is a really good example of how that works. More recently, anyone who’s seen the cult film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, will have heard ‘Oh, yeah’ by Swiss electronic band Yellow, and younger Swiss pop stars like Bastion Baker are very much in the vein of Ed Sheeran and big international performers like him. So that shows a new kind of international influence exerting itself on the Swiss music scene, but also showcases the fact that Switzerland is moving with the times as well. I think. it’s fascinating. I feel like I’ve had an entire history of, of Switzerland in one go. So no, thank you very much. That was very, very descriptive. And I have a really beautiful view of Switzerland actually, in my mind from a cultural perspective, which you don’t always get, you know, like you said, you when I think of Switzerland, I always think of mountains and lakes. I think 90 to 95% of the country is technically uninhabitable because it’s either mountains, lakes or forests.
Fiona Livingston 04:31
Oh, wow. Okay.
Theodor Kung 04:33
…to do your sculpting your music writing.
Fiona Livingston 04:35
Absolutely. And I suppose that makes it all the more important actually doesn’t it to utilise.
Theodor Kung 04:41
But we’re lucky in the sense that our national character has a very strong image in the public mind.
Fiona Livingston 04:45
Yeah, absolutely. And moving from that. So are there any sounds that define Swiss music?
Theodor Kung 04:52
Yeah, well, within this pastoral idea, the first thing that comes to mind is probably what we call Ländler, which is Country music or folk music with the usual bells are porns accordions and ubiquitous yodelling everywhere, of course, that sort of thing. But actually there’s a rich tradition of music that’s much more textured and interesting than the commercial stuff that was formalised in the 19th, early 20th century. In the West, for instance, there’s a strong choral tradition which is epitomised by the work of the abbot Joseph Bovet, who lived in Fribourg, while in the east, you get zithers and violin duets, which sound actually much more Austro Hungarian than you might expect. Incidentally, a huge collection of songs was transcribed in the early part of the 20th century by a woman called Hanny Christen. And some of the earlier traditional songs have some very dark and melancholy undertones, which well as a violinist I’ve always loved traditional Irish and Scottish fiddle music. And a song set to words by Robbie Burns called John Anderson My Jo. I don’t know if you know it?
Fiona Livingston 05:56
I do, yeah.
Theodor Kung 05:56
And I will briefly inflict my voice on your listeners. So it goes (singing…) something like that. And there’s a Swiss song called the Guggisberglied, which goes back at least to the 17th century, possibly earlier, which goes (singing…) which has a very similar character and melancholy and, and minor key and all that sort of stuff. So it’s not all sort of, you know, giggly, joyful.
Fiona Livingston 06:32
Theodor Kung 06:33
Well exactly, although there is that too.
Fiona Livingston 06:35
Theodor Kung 06:36
Oh, yeah, sure. There’s a valley in sheets in one of the cantons called streets where my father’s from, called the width tall, which is stuck at the back of a valley. It’s very inaccessible. And it’s a place where you still get traditional cow herding, and they make the bells by hand and you’re supposed to be able to tell who made the bell by the sound that the bell makes.
Fiona Livingston 06:55
That’s amazing, apparently, and did your father make a cowbell?
Theodor Kung 06:58
Fiona Livingston 07:00
So you don’t have a family cowbell, that’s your unique sound?
Theodor Kung 07:03
No, but we have a goat bell.
Fiona Livingston 07:05
Oh, wow. Okay…
Theodor Kung 07:05
Which my mother would ring, because we lived, this is going to sound a little bit strange, but we lived at the top of a hill at the back of a small village. And we would often be roaming around in the woods. And in order to let us know that it was lunchtime or dinner time, she would just ring the bell very loudly.
Fiona Livingston 07:20
That’s perfect. I love that idea. So that’s your kind of reference to a Swiss sound your your mother’s goat bell, it all started. And so I suppose that segways quite nicely on to Are there any instruments that you can only find in in Switzerland? Or is it mostly taken from the other surrounding countries?
Theodor Kung 07:40
No, there are actually I didn’t think I was going to talk about the lunchtime goat bell. But that segues very nicely into what I did want to talk about, because apart from the owl point, which everyone knows there’s something called the Swiss bells, or the Alpine bells, which is not one instrument exactly. It’s more like a big table with a few dozen small bells laid out chromatically in a scale. And you play them by picking them up and juggling them individually. It’s basically someone looked at a Celeste and thought, you know, what would make this even better? Take away all of the helpful mechanics and the keyboard and just multiply the the effort by like 12. And that would be brilliant. I mean, it’s a bit silly, but I think usually it’s only performed as like a showcase piece. I don’t think there are many serious Alpine bills.
Fiona Livingston 08:22
You never know. It could come back. Yeah, exactly. And can you tell us about one or two composers or soloists to exemplify Swiss music?
Theodor Kung 08:32
Yeah, well, we’ve already I’ve already mentioned Ernest Bloch, and the music he wrote, inspired by his own Jewish heritage is very well known, especially perhaps the Baal Shem suite. But there’s also some very interesting secular stuff that I would definitely recommend such as paysage, or landscapes. And ‘dans les montagnes’ in, literally in the mountains, which tie into a lot of the themes that we’ve discussed. And also of interest, I would say, are the symphonies of the not so well known, Joachim Raff, who was a 19th century composer, who wrote some really lovely pieces. I would recommend, for instance, his 11th Symphony, which sounds surprisingly Russian, I think it has a winter theme. And I think there’s a lot of echoes of Tchaikovsky. He was clearly a fan of what was going on in Russia at the time, and I think you’ll hear it.
Fiona Livingston 09:19
Maybe he was inspired by all the mountains and snow?
Theodor Kung 09:23
I think so yes, they were going for some, I mean, it’s, it’s all quite accessible. It’s not experimental in a chromatic sense. And it is very evocative, and it’s clearly written by someone with great skill and achievement, who I think should be better known.
Fiona Livingston 09:36
No, that’s lovely. And it’s really nice to have a recommendation of a less well known composer as well. So we can we can dive into that and experience that music for ourselves. So and we’re just coming to the end of our speed pod recording now, and we’ve asked Theo to come up with a book, an album and a film to delve deeper into Swiss music and culture. So Theo, if you could give Is your book recommendation first.
Theodor Kung 10:02
Right, well, this is not necessarily a straightforward one. So for anyone who’s interested in the fundamental archetypes of story and storytelling, I would recommend Carl Jung’s essays, particularly a collection called Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, which were written in the mid 30s. Full disclosure, I find them very difficult to read. Even in English. I mean, let’s not even talk about the original German. But they contain the most amazing insights into why we as humans need stories, and how mythology and fairy tales and religious texts from all over the world no matter what culture you’re talking about, those original narratives into which the fundamental lessons about good and evil and understanding and sin and redemption and all that are interwoven, how even if they’re merely taken at face value, they can teach you at least partly what it means to be human and to live well. So if you can bear to crack that one open, I think it will be a very rewarding read.
Fiona Livingston 10:57
Absolutely. And your album recommendation.
Theodor Kung 11:00
Album, right. Well, we’ve been talking about winter, and we’re heading towards the winter months. And in the UK, there’s a great choral tradition, which really comes into its own around Christmas time. The one book everyone probably expected me to mention. So the film was made in 1952. And it’s based on the book by Johan Ashbury. And it’s a charming old black and white film. And while it’s not exactly an Oscar winner, shall we say, I mean, it’s done with fairly low budget methods. And it’s in black and white in the 50s. But it’s um, it’s a picture, it’s as much a picture of Switzerland in the 50s, as it is a depiction of the story, which is set in the late 19th century. And it always reminds me of my father, because he was a young boy himself when the film was made, and he would have been very familiar with the landscape and the people and that way of life. So it’s quite close to our own personal history, as well as anything else.
Fiona Livingston 11:47
Thank you very much for telling us all about Swiss music and the culture of Switzerland.
Theodor Kung 11:51
My pleasure. Thank you.
Fiona Livingston 11:54
Thank you for listening to the culture bar speed pod. Theo Kung was interviewed by me, Fiona Livingston. If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please follow us on your preferred podcast player.