Kassel Jaeger / Stephan Mathieu / Akira Rabelais: Zauberberg
Shelter Press

Zauberberg isn't, though it's title might imply as much, an affectionate homage by a trio of contemporary sound artists to Wolfgang Voigt's 1997 Gas album and/or the Gas project in general; instead, in an admirably inspired move, Kassel Jaeger, Stephan Mathieu, and Akira Rabelais have drawn inspiration from Thomas Mann's classic 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, arguably the most seminal creation from the German author responsible for Buddenbrooks, Doctor Faustus, and, of course, the novella Death in Venice. Familiarity with the work on which the recording is based definitely enhances one's appreciation for the musical product, but for those who've yet to tackle the novel—as large in scale as its titular mountain—a brief synopsis follows.

Would-be engineer Hans Castorp, the novel's protagonist, visits the Berghof Sanatorium, situated at a high altitude in the Swiss mountains, for an intended three-week rest but ends up staying seven years, during which time he undergoes a marked change in sensibility that reflects the differences between the conventional way of life to which he'd become accustomed and the more reflective one associated with life in the upper realm—elevation in this case not therefore a matter of physical location only. Castorp spends hours in the company of the intellectuals Settembrini and Naphta, pedagogues who argue intensely over philosophical and political issues, and sees his understanding and experience of time evolve during his visit. In fact, time is arguably the novel's primary focal point, and many pages are spent highlighting the phenomenological difference between objective time and one's subjective experience of it. Without a doubt, the tempo of temporal experience slows dramatically for Castorp over the course of his stay.

As part of the production process, Jaeger, Mathieu, and Rabelais traveled to the Schatzalp, Davos location where the story is set to gather field recordings and capture sounds that might have been heard during the time of the novel's story. In addition, excerpts of opera and classical recordings that Castorp and his fellow residents might have listened to in the sanatorium's lounge have been woven into the recording's fifty-minute presentation, the surface noise of the aged vinyl helping to conjure the image of the dusty room within which the gramophone played. It's easy to visualize Castorp and company immersing themselves in arias by Verdi, Bizet, and Gounod and drifting into time-suspending reveries during Debussy's symphonic tone-poem Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Not only is an excerpt of the latter featured in the recording's second part, it's heard twice, the first time at normal speed and the second slowed down as if to parallel the change in Castorp's inner experience (incidentally, a detailed portrait of Castorp's musical selections at the sanatorium emerges within the "Fullness of Harmony" section in the novel's closing chapter).

Zauberberg doesn't mirror the novel's narrative and nor was it meant to; it's more a memory work that evokes the book in allusive form. The three electro-acousticians wisely attempted to capture the spirit of the book in their creation, specifically the sense of meditative drift that permeates every pore of its story. The material flows languorously, with gradual shifts regularly occurring between classical musical samples, field recordings, and instrument sounds; it's not unusual for romantic strings to be followed by outdoor sounds of chirping birds and rushing water, and for the tinkle of a lounge piano and the rumble of fireworks to occur in sequence. For the most part, the material exudes a ghostly quality, similar to how the residents of the sanatorium likewise might be regarded as phantoms destined to haunt its hallways by endlessly postponing their departure.

March 2016