With the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival poised to kick off tomorrow, i’m focusing this new releases roundup on Jürg Frey, composer-in-residence at HCMF 2015, and composers associated with the Wandelweiser—would ‘group’ be the right word? ‘collective’? ‘concept’? ‘conceit’? Just the other day, an esteemed colleague described Wandelweiser to me as a ‘cult’; whatever it is, it seems to have a polarising effect on listeners. My own opinion has, hitherto, been insufficiently thought-through even to qualify as an opinion; i enjoyed Antoine Beuger’s four-hour en una noche oscura, performed at HCMF 2013, very much indeed, but until recently it’s been a lone deep impact among many slight, glancing impressions.
Spending significant amounts of time with the music of Jürg Frey, as i have been doing lately, feels akin to reading a large chunk of the New Testament. There’s very much the sense that one is engaging with not merely the diverse whims of creativity, but multifarious facets of an intricate set of beliefs. It’s often said that composition has more decisions about what not to do than anything else (the same, of course, can be said of religion, with its emphasis on proscription) and in every moment of Frey’s music this is abundantly clear. It’s as clear as it is because in each piece Frey excludes a very great deal, establishing soundworlds within which only a few things can happen. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, articulation, dynamic, development, structure—essentially every aspect of compositional potential is strictly defined and confined, the resultant music playing out within those tight boundaries. In the case of String Quartet No. 3, imminently available on Wandelweiser’s own label, the music unfolds via regularly spaced chords, delivered calmly and flatly, at times dispersing into episodes of overlapping, drawn-out pitches. A triadic sensibility acts like an undercurrent, permeating and conditioning the variety of patterns and behaviours into which the piece settles. Around halfway through, a washed out chorale of sorts briefly emerges, followed immediately by a descending Lydian scale over an F major chord. Not everything has this clarity; the opposite is found in a rather entrancing section later on when all pitch content becomes strained and vague, a process that seems to leave a permanent stain even when normality is restored. The second work on the disc, Unhörbare zeit (‘inaudible time’), delimits the players—the quartet plus two percussionists—still further and is all the more engrossing for it; weak chords and even weaker solitary notes are held (‘dragged’ feels a more appropriate word, considering how they sound), the percussion colouring them with either low rumbles or something akin to a slowly rotating stone lathe. These form the restricted behaviour of the entire 35-minute piece, the only other aspect being periods where to a greater or lesser extent the music is swallowed up in silence. This latter aspect is important to Frey who, with direct reference to the title, refers in his programme note to “working with audible and inaudible durations that appear partly simultaneously and partly consecutively.” Unhörbare zeit is thereby created by juxtaposing these limited sounds and elements, as though they were the only ones that existed in the whole world. New sounds do creep in: granular and wind-like sounds can be heard towards the end, plus—most striking—what appears to be a set of tuning pipes, nicely mingled, but not blended, into some repeating chords (the pipes obtruding due both to their pitch within the triad, an added 6th, and their timbral difference), before the piece closes in a mesmerising kind of microtonally-challenged hocket.
In the face of music as rarefied as this, the urge to seek connections and/or discern what the music is doing emerges unbidden, and with surprising force. Whether this is fair (in general) or even relevant (in particular) is hard to determine, in part due to the fact that in much of Frey’s work, the nature of compositional intent—whether events are deliberate or coincidental—is unclear. On the forthcoming Circles and Landscapes—released next week on Another Timbre—pianist Philip Thomas explores six works that regularly highlight this uncertainty. Take the regular chords of Circular Music No. 5, which don’t so much sound like a progression as the presentation of ideas that are, in the mathematical sense, similar. Having receded into a high register (attractively shaded with damper noise—the close-micing of the recording makes this extremely audible), the music seems to get stuck, as though the pianist was working something out in real time—a feature of a number of Frey’s pieces. The conclusion is nice, living up to the work’s title by circling around an implied tonal centre without actually landing on it. Progression is questionable in Extended Circular Music No. 2 and Extended Circular Music No. 9 also; in the former, the music could stop at almost any point and feel ‘finished’, while the latter meanders in tight oscillations within a severely limited harmonic plane. But this sense of a music feeling its way forward in real time is most strongly projected in Pianist, Alone (2), composed in 2012. A single line, subsequently fleshed out, moves along with aching tentativity, three steps forward, two steps back. It’s not until a third of its half-hour duration has passed before a more assertive manner emerges, creating something with more shape and direction. But it’s shortlived, and in no time the music has retreated back to a single line and a narrow range again, walking a dangerous path between thinking aloud and a terminally uncertain treading water.
On Grizzana and other pieces 2009–2014, released by Another Timbre earlier this year, the uncertainty suffused in the music is more to do with the aforementioned aspect of intention and coincidence. In the four different duet versions of Petit fragment de paysage (‘small fragment of landscape’) this question hangs constantly like a Sword of Damocles over every musical moment. Are we hearing two players simply performing simultaneously with no regard for each other, rendering any vertical association a happy (or otherwise) accident? When the instruments are timbrally close, as in version three—for violin and viola—the relationship feels more plausible; in the others, certainty is remote. Returning to the issue of apparent real-time thinking/uttering, two works on this album cast further light on its nature and ramifications. In Fragile Balance—the title of which would serve as an apt descriptor of Jürg Frey’s music overall—the six members of the ensemble once again inch along, each note potentially provisional, yet their motivations seem entirely to do with sensitivity to what everyone else is doing and/or has just done. This implies hesitance not based on caution so much as care, sounds being placed as part of a communal effort, weighing up the situation on the fly and contributing accordingly. This is also the case in 2009 work Ombres exactes sans dureté (‘exact shadows without hardness’), a trio of clarinet, viola and cello occupied with slow, low, closely-positioned pitches, resulting in some nice beat action; here, too, the impression of working together is strong, and while the piece drifts a bit later on, it’s saved by a consolidated conclusion. Yet even when, as in these pieces, one discerns some modus operandi of connectivity, Frey’s approach ensures the questions keep begging. Lieues d’ombres (‘leagues of shadows’), for solo piano, seems to have a sense of direction (reinforced with distinct cadential hints) but this is militated against by the instrument becoming locked on certain chords. Tendre enchaînement des valeurs (‘tender chaining of values’) and Area of Three are more problematic in this respect; the latter particularly: here, any relationship between the players is at the cusp of credibility, with only occasional moments where, due to vertical alignment, behavioural similarity or pitch proximity, the idea of a connection could be entertained. As in the Third Quartet, Frey becomes especially interesting when pitch is forceably eroded, heard to impressive effect in Ferne Farben (‘far colours’), where instruments and surprisingly innocuous field recordings feel embedded within each other, faint pitch centres working their way out of the overall amorphous noise cloud. Grizzana, composed last year, is not in the least amorphous, pitch-wise; it begins in a place of homogeneous (and very beautiful) luminosity, but through its subsequent movements the clarity of their materials is qualified by the nagging doubt that they don’t actually amount to very much.
What to make of these conflicting responses? i spoke before of the strong sense of a set of beliefs permeating Jürg Frey’s music. But it’s more than that; it could be argued these pieces are part of an entire ecosystem of faith, containing practices, styles, mannerisms, attitudes and approaches emanating from, and acting in accordance with, certain convictions and common goals. Is this different from any other composer? In some ways, i think it is; while many composers ask an audience to leave preconceptions at the door when they listen to their music, fewer ask them to go further and take up a whole lot of new ones, as Frey seems to be doing. Yet while it may be different from most other composers, it doesn’t appear to be radically distinct from other composers associated with Wandelweiser. Eva-Maria Houben‘s 2013 work for solo horn aus den fliegenden blättern eines fahrenden waldhornisten, available soon from Wandelweiser, similarly encloses its music within sharp confines of action. The horn’s primary motive is to execute long calls, sometimes forming into tangible melodic phrases (somewhat redolent of Messiaen’s ‘Appel interstellaire’ from Des canyons aux étoiles…), sometimes given a kind of ascetic reinforcement through some wonderful deep growling passages. These act like a fundamental, a default position from which the horn begins and to which it regularly returns. The piece suffers to an extent from the law of diminishing returns; over its 60-minute duration, one regularly feels the weight of being constrained within such narrow boundaries. Yet this testifies again to that ecosystem of faith, and in this respect it’s hardly surprising that the piece feels ritualistic, the result not so much of a score as a liturgy.
Marianne Schuppe‘s slow songs, also available shortly from Wandelweiser, establishes its own locus of activity on just two timbres, the human voice and lute strings sustained by e-bows. Schuppe’s voice (sounding remarkably similar to Clodagh Simonds), charts melodic paths in relation to one or two sustained pitches, which act as distinct focal points, like etched grooves in the pitch space. The songs, each bestowed with this element of drone, sound like a cross between liturgical chant and folk song (more the latter than the former), having a transfixed quality that feels authentic while keeping its emotional range under wraps. One song, ‘pretty ride’ is presented twice, both times unaccompanied, and they’re surprisingly dull by contrast. ‘keys’ is also presented twice; the first introduces a fascinating wavering into the lute notes akin to throat singing, while the second renders them almost inaudible, which only makes them more tellingly present. Penultimate song ‘pipes’, a pensive piece including a rather lovely duet with the lute’s undulating tones, is as close as these songs get to emotional in the familiar sense of the word. Overall, slow songs could be the product of some mythical folk psalter, projecting their respective meanings (and subtexts) via the medium of a cool, measured demeanour.
If each and all of these works are indeed, as they seem, expressions and individual outworkings of an inherent, shared ecosystem of faith, then it perhaps suggests that, more than is usually the case, they need to be accepted on trust. Whether there’s a ‘truth’ lying at the heart of them is another matter, and even if there is, perhaps—as far as the composers are concerned—it’s simply enough to pose the question; after all, Douglas Adams had God protesting that “proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”. On the other hand, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Corinthians opined that, should the basis of their faith not be grounded in truth, they were “of all people most to be pitied”. To an extent, i can’t help feeling that, had John Tavener or Arvo Pärt lost their religion, the music they subsequently would have written might well sound very like that of Frey, Houben and Schuppe. As far as Wandelweiser is concerned, one clearly doesn’t need to buy in to their articles of belief in order to engage with the music (any more than one needs to be a Christian to appreciate Messiaen), but i’m left wondering, without some acceptance of those articles, what’s left? My optimistic hope is that the numerous performances during HCMF 2015 will shed more light on this. To be continued.