HCMF 2015: Ensemble Grizzana, Philip Thomas

Two concerts yesterday, on what had punningly come to be known as “Frey-day”, afforded the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the music of Jürg Frey. i’ve been wrangling with how the word ‘ascetic’ sits with respect to Frey’s music. It’s not, i believe, music wearing a hairshirt, but the more i’ve heard of it this week, the more i’ve felt as though i am—which in turn has to make one question seriously what is happening and to what end. This feeling was particularly acute at the midday concert of four of Frey’s compositions, given by Ensemble Grizzana—a new group comprising soloists Mira Benjamin, Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Philip Thomas and Anton Lukoszevieze along with Frey himself. Returning to my String Quartet No. 2 trekking metaphor—forever progressing at a consistent, unstoppable speed—their performance of Fragile Balance resembled a group of walkers taking it in turns to suggest where their communal next step should be taken, followed by everybody taking it. And so on. Guided by a score consisting of “lists of single sounds and little motifs”, aurally this was not a work where a sense of journey was important—after all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this particular journey would likely take a thousand years—but rather the act of travelling. While this sounds like a concrete reading of what was happening, it should be clear from the description that everything about it was not merely slow but extremely tentative—and this character, which has been present in many of Frey’s works heard this week, marks a major line of divergence in live performance from how they come across in recordings. In my recent CD review, i described the hesitance in Fragile Balance as seeming “not based on caution so much as care”, yet hearing—and, just as importantly, watching—it happen in front of me, caution seemed to be everywhere, implying a tacit anxiety lurking beneath. This extended further to the world première of Grizzana, the continual movement away from its opening luminosity seemingly bespeaking a loss of nerve in the face of terminal timidity. Area of Three, for clarinet, cello and piano, did nothing to bolster the pervading timorous air that by now filled Phipps Hall; my impression here was of trying to have a conversation with an interlocutor permanently on the cusp of nodding off. Again, the more neutral sensibility retained in the recording had become bruised and painful in the space. It’s a curious shift, one that will no doubt send me back again to the recordings for further comparison. The one exception in Ensemble Grizzana’s concert was Ferne Farben, the performance of which proved even more telling live than on disc. What it lost in audible certainty it gained in a heightened atmosphere that came to resemble a séance, each player a medium channelling things from the field recording background beyond.

Philip Thomas‘ recital of three of Frey’s more recent works (all included on the newly-released Another Timbre CD) was very much closer to its recorded counterparts. Extended Circular Music No. 2 and Extended Circular Music No. 9 proved once again to be obtuse if one is looking for a sense of direction beyond that indicated in the title. Each work’s circularity resides not so much in large-scale repetition as in the way every chord sounds simultaneously final—the music could stop at almost any point and it would constitute a plausible end—yet provisional, Frey undermining the otherwise demonstrative cadential moments with an added 6th (in No. 2) and a descending extra line leading to a group of contextually unusual chords (in No. 9). At five minutes, the duration of No. 2 works well, whereas the extension to 20 minutes in No. 9 feels formidably frustrating, a kind of disinterested teasing that eventually, arbitrarily, gets bored and simply stops. Pianist, alone No. 2 begs the question of continuity better, at both the micro level—single lines vs. triads—and also the macro, with respect to its structural cohesion, but the sense of treading water at the expense of trusting forward motion, again spoke from a place of vacillating equivocation. These aren’t in any way complex pieces—more than most, they are what they are—yet the concomitant dependance of these pieces on a superficial listener engagement would seem to render the rewards from doing so extremely limited. These performances suggested that the greatest rewards lie in actually performing them; watching the members of Ensemble Grizzana interact both with each other as well as with the emergent material (some of which is indeterminate, and thereby involves unexpected eventualities) strongly reinforced this idea.

Both in concert and on CD, though, i think I’m concluding at this stage that Jürg Frey’s music is simply a foreign country: they do things differently there. And while it has its interests for a time and perhaps a season, as it has during HCMF, there really is no place like home.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières
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2 Responses to HCMF 2015: Ensemble Grizzana, Philip Thomas

  1. Simon Reynell

    If Jurg Frey’s music is indeed ‘from another country’, that makes me a refugee. My biggest learn from this year’s excellent festival was how distant I now feel from much of the music in the tradition of the postwar avant-garde. Composers whose work I loved 10/15 years ago (Sciarrino, Billone and others, some of whom you’ve praised highly) now sound tired and stale to my ears.
    At the beginning of the week you referred to cults and religion in relation to Jurg Frey’s music. At the end you’ve moved on to hairshirts and asceticism. All of this seems way off target. For me Jurg’s music is pure hedonism; it’s about taking pleasure in the sensual caresses of its fragile beauty as canons and melodic lines unfold slowly across time and space.
    When I saw you after the Grizzana Ensemble concert you were perturbed and said that you were ‘all at sea’. If you’d allowed yourself to drift a little longer, you might have reached the shore of another country, one from which much of the music of the homeland feels noisy and hyperactive, over-academic and too keen to impress, rather than being a simple conduit to pleasure. But then I suspect that you will always remain a native son.

    • 5:4

      Thanks for the comments Simon. Putting to one side your inherent bias—representing a label selling Frey’s music—i find your latter remarks not only rather patronising, but actually not too far from the kind of snooty “you’re listening to it wrong” comments that one used to hear (thankfully not very much any more) associated with precisely the kind of postwar avant-garde music you now find so tired and stale. “Way off target”? Subjectivity’s a wonderful thing, is it not? i heard what i heard, and i didn’t detect anything about it that approximated to even the barest hint of hedonism or sensuality. It was fragile, yes, but that doesn’t automatically imply beauty of course, and to me it wasn’t remotely beautiful—which is not to say i found it unpleasant, not at all, but its reduced frame of reference became, over time, rather tiresome and ultimately weak. And i think this aspect, the ‘over time’ aspect, is important. i don’t believe, for me at least, that to engage with a lot of Frey’s work within a relatively small period of time is a particularly advantageous way to do it (i’m wondering if the same is true of Jakob Ullmann too, although we didn’t hear that much of his work last week). i’ve come away suspecting that certain pieces, which i felt were problematic during the week, may well speak better when heard on their own in a context that allows them to be when not in the midst of other pieces (by Frey or anyone else). Incidentally, my remark to you was that the music (not i) felt “all at sea”; the Grizzana concert was actually the point where my feelings about his work finally attained focus, which i think is clear in the way i wrote about it. But as we said during the week, it’s all part of an ongoing journey, one that may well yield new insights in future…

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