Cyrill Schläpfer with Bart Plantenga

Photo by Cyrill Schlapfer.

Cyrill Schläpfer is one of those possessed artists, a bent ethnomusicologist veteran of many journeys into the Alpine countryside. He has produced an incredible catalog of “Swiss” cds that avoids all of the touristic and kitschy clichés and includes both contemporary and roots yodeling as well as under-regarded Swiss pop. But his most interesting forays are his acoustic portraits, or soundscapes, which document the life of a mountainside meadow where cows, goats, and sheep graze and clank their bells.

His interest is not only in the honest portrayal of nature, but also in that dynamic instant when human beings stumble into the picture. So you hear cows mooing and winds rustling, but also the elaborate (even mystical) cowbells, yodeling cowherds, church bells, or a plane overhead. You sense Schläpfer’s dismay at man’s intrusion upon nature at every level, and yet he finds this dialogue (between, say, cowbell and wind) utterly fascinating—a conversation that is by turns contentious, thrilling, disheartening, and yet, ultimately, inspiring. This is Alan Lomax squared times ten.

The arrival of the four-cd, three-dvd Die Waldstätte box (csr/Truetone) was much anticipated because I’d been hearing about this eleven-year project for about six years. But the anticipation could not overshadow my sense of awe at the finished project. The box is a poetic and yet almost scientific attempt through classification of sounds to unravel the hypnotic attraction of the sounds and motions of Swiss steamboats.

Bart Plantenga (Rail): I called Die Waldstätte “the secret audio lives of steamships and paddle steamers.” And the reviews?

Cyrill Schläpfer: I had some quite enthusiastic reviews in the press for being a “maniac” and having created a monster product. I really cannot complain about decent articles, but that “thing” has not yet proved to be something people want to buy. But we have to face reality: Nobody spends money anymore to buy “sound carriers”; this was a custom from the previous century…

Rail: And the visuals for this four-cd, three-dvd box set, plus photos and liner notes?!

Schläpfer: Adding pictures to the soundtrack was my desperate attempt to make the “thing” a little bit more accessible to an audience. So I was surprised and very pleased at being invited to present Die Waldstätte last January as an “experimental music film” that opened the Swiss Filmfestival in Solothurn. The festival audience mostly left the theatre [during the film]. But in a review in the flagship nzzs [a prominent Swiss news site], the senior film critic applauded it as “the outstanding artistic contribution to the festival.”

Rail: People—general cinemagoers, etc.—are always grumbling about the critics hating everything. But actually, it is often the critics who are more open to a new (non-Hollywood) film than general audiences who have taken on the identity of consumers, consumers of viewing product. And thus they view films as is expected of them as consumers.

Schläpfer: As part of a music film evening last week, I showed [Die Waldstätte] as a single screening in three cinemas in Bern, Zurich, and Luzern. The Zurich and Luzern shows were sold out. So I haven’t lost all my confidence in the future yet. I, indeed, underestimated the pure heaviness of the film [dvds] and how much it demands of its listener/viewer. I get feedback from viewers such as “overwhelming,” “deep-sea meditation,” “Swiss Darkness Video,” “pure shamanismus,” “psychedelic water ballet,” “unnecessary,” “too long,” “knocking out,” “left speechless,” etc.

Rail: Well, this is a massive project, a labor of love—devoted to the steamboats and paddleboats that cross Lake Luzern filled with commuters and tourists, hikers, skiers, and nature lovers. What possessed you to do this project of documenting the boats, the sounds they make?

Schläpfer: At the beginning, it was simply the horns, the ship-pipes, which I love to hear; especially from far away, embedded in the natural echoes of the mountains, the sounds travelling on the smooth surface of the water. These are among the familiar sounds of my environment for me like my mother tongue: church bells, cowbells, insects, birds, etc. It’s horrible to even think of not being able to hear these sounds anymore or [of their] being concealed by the generic noise of our pornographic civilization. That’s why I recorded those sounds without the commuters and tourists, hikers, skiiers, and nature lovers—because they mask or even eliminate its magic.

Rail: I know your family has a summer house there along Lake Luzern. Does the project have something to do with your memories as a child? Did the sounds enter your consciousness over the years?

Schläpfer: Sure, it is one of those important geographical places where these sounds have been burned into my brain forever.

Rail: It took you a long time to realize this project—nine years? What was the process for you? How did it get started? With field recordings?

Schläpfer: Eleven years! I started in 1996. I never planned it as some gigantic Moby-Dick project. The initial idea was quite simple: a field recording, along the shore, when the last regular daily cruise ends on October 31, the last hour before the ships go to sleep for the winter in the docks. Sometimes the captains do an unofficial horn-jam session (a little farewell concerto with steamboat whistles). The following years, I got more interested and decided to board when they went out for technical test cruises without passengers. That was when I got in deep and surgical with my microphones and I discovered the industrial beauty of the sound of old machines, machines that are still working after a hundred years.

Rail: After you gathered a number of field recordings of the sounds of the boats, what did you think about it? Did you notice the different sounds that each boat makes? That they have their own personalities?

Schläpfer: Indeed, every ship has its characteristic acoustic fingerprint, its own character. My personal discovery of doing this work was: material with a history has a soul. That was the point I decided to make, by composing a musical piece, since I thought it was worth presenting to someone.

Rail: I notice that one cd is comprised of what you call “symphonies,” and they do sound like compositions. How much did you manipulate the actual sound, the sampling/repetition of sound or enhancement, or alter them with effects?

Schläpfer: For the symphony, I used exclusively sounds from the ships (whistles, horns, metal, machines), and water and natural ambience (birds, winds, thunder, rain, etc.). I only pitched the sounds lower, trying to harmonize or find the harmony in correlation with what was going on before or after. Besides that, I did a lot of cutting and editing and I reversed some of the sound. But there is absolutely no addition of electronic synthesizer sound, or effects like reverb, filtering or any of those sound-producer gadgets or enhancers.

Rail: The second cd seems to be a document of one trip, all of the sonic, audio, and visual details. How does that differ from cd 1 in composition? Is it more integral and less composed?

Schläpfer: Exactly. cd 2 is composed only of natural sounds, no acoustic morphing applied here. Still, I consider it a “composition” since you will not find such pure and unadultered sound in nature. By which I mean: there is always acoustic pollution like planes, cars, tourists, cash-machines, farts, crunching french fries, microwave ovens, cellular phones. No audio frauds here, all authentic, not a single frequency from another ship mixed together.

Rail: cd 4 you call “Lexicon,” and it reminds me of (especially bbc) sound-effects records. Here we have the individual traits and aspects of each of the boats presented, like a personality chart. Why did you feel this was necessary?

Schläpfer: Here my thought was: this specific cd is going to be my financial safety-vest. I had the abstruse idea that all the steamboat freaks, the ship model builders, the museums would buy a cd with a listed sound/samples archive of their favorite ships. This is an error on my part: I cannot sell this cd either.

Rail: I understand that as an artist or maker of documentaries you would like to capture all of this on a personal level. But on a historical/environmental level, is it because these sounds are disappearing, because these boats are being replaced? What do you hope to accomplish with this set?

Schläpfer: This is exactly the question which burns painfully in my consciousness and unconscious thoughts: Why? Goddamn it, why? I have no answer here. This leaves me somehow disillusioned and depressed. [I ask myself] “By what devil have I been ridden…?” I will read Melville’s Moby Dick again to find out. At any rate, I will not consult a shrink. Generally speaking, I originally became a musician because of the girls [ironic laughter].

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Bart Plantenga

Bart Plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, and Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge); he also compiled the CD Rough Guide to Yodel. He is currently working on Yodel in HiFi, a documentary on yodeling, and two new yodel compilations.