and so on; and so forth; etc. Just wanted to say that I love the title.
Well. The music presented here certainly merits being commented upon individually and I'll do so but the whole is worth lingering on as well. The group of composers and musicians operating under the Wandelweiser umbrella has been of just about manageable conceptual size for one to have a nice working mental category, even as one allowed that "enclosure" to bulge and subdivide. Still, it's satisfying to have, however necessarily incomplete, a graspable set like this, showing good range, encompassing better and lesser represented artists. As in any undertaking of this size (almost eight hours worth of material, some 18 composers, over 60 participants), there will be fluctuations in strength but there's more than enough here to achieve a true, deep level of satisfaction. And yeah, a few really, really great works.
So, in order of representation, by composer, taking all of his/her pieces as represented in the box set:
--Sam Sfirri has four pieces, all based on Beckett texts, with nine realizations scattered throughout the set. "natural at last" (2010) is performed three times, twice by a quintet comprised of Neil Davidson (guitar, objects), Rhodri Davies (harp), Jane Dickson (piano), Patrick Farmer (amplified objects, open CD player) and Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga (zither). Here, initially, it's a serene though rustling quiet, a string-like feeling predominant, with gentle crackling colors and the almost humorous tinge from the repeating disc player. The second version edges slightly into a more drone-filled scale, also very satisfying. I wouldn't mind hearing works like Sfirri's interpreted by the same ensemble multiple times, especially when the variations aren't necessarily drastic; very intriguing. The other version of the piece is realized by a septet of Angharad Davies (violin), Phil Durrant (electronics), Jürg Frey (clarinet), Anton Lukoszevieze (cello), Radu Malfatti (trombone), Lee Patterson (amplified objects) and Philip Thomas (piano). It's smoother, emitting something of the character of a single, resonant object with variegated surfaces. Five minutes of subtle, shimmering beauty.
"the undulating land" (2010--with the NMC Chamber ensemble: Jason Brogan, electric guitar); Bill Carson, acoustic guitar; Jared Sinclair, flute; Kim Larson, clarinet; Ron Wiltrout, percussion; Sam Sfirri, melodica) has a Japanese feel, soft stops with flute and clarinet and starts punctuated by gentle, muted metal taps and quiet guitar. Lovely piece, not so "wandelweiser-ish", which is fine. The first of two accountings given "for the choice of directions" (2010) is by the composer (melodica) and Brogan (short wave), isn't too far from what you might expect from a similarly instrumentalized improvisation from Wolff and Rowe: quiet and edgy, content to investigate a limited sound pool, in the process generating mystery and demarcating time in a probing fashion; another really strong piece. When the same quintet as performed on the first
natural at last" cut sets to work on it, they offset thin, tamboura-like drones against string plucks and skittering percussive sounds, creating quite a different sound world, again vaguely Asiatic but also eerie and sinuous; I get an image of walking through a narrow, high-walled garden maze, steamy hot, with creatures flitting about. Excellent!
Finally, his "little by little" (2010) is limned three times, first by an electronics sextet comprised of Stephen Cornford, Robert Curgenven, Ferran Fages, Farmer, Alfredo Costa Monteiro and Lee Patterson, then by a septet of Angharad Davis, Bruno Guastalla (cello), Sarah HUghes (zither), Daniel Jones (electronics), Dominic Lash (bass), Tim Parkinson (piano) and David Stent (guitar) and once by the septet listed above for "natural at last". They're all very hushed, spare and crystalline, in the sense of crystals expanding into space in unexpected, discreet sequences but consistent within themselves. Beautifully realized work all around and, right off the bet, this set is well worth it if only for giving me a decent appreciation of Sfirri's music, of which I'd only heard bits before.
But wait, there's more.
--Antoine Beuger. Returning to the first disc, we encounter one of two pieces by Beuger, "Lieux de Passage" (2008), a work featuring Frey's clarinet (with the other six members of the septet above) and, in my estimation, the high point of the collection. If there's been a tendency, among some Wandelweiser composers, toward a more expansive, lush sound (occasionally, to my ears, too far along those lines), Beuger here balances things perfectly. Not to compare at all, but I found myself thinking, "This is the music Gavin Bryars should be writing now", taking his one-time beautiful melodic sensibility and paring it down, whittling away the flab, to its essence. A kind of concerto, I suppose, Frey playing with exquisite refinement, the piece (which runs a bit over 26 minutes) having the subtlest kind of arc, nothing you can place your finger on but, to my ears, possessing an implied narrative, sustained by the occasional deep piano chord or drone, kind of a continuo that imparts just a tinge of drama, a tiny but perfect amount of spice. A double-step rising pattern toward the end is particularly moving, causing me to think of another work of unearthly beauty, Messiaen's Louange a l'eternite de Jesus". The Beuger is one of my favorite things heard over the last few years.
His "t'aus 'etwas (lied)" (1995) is performed by two vocalists (Parkinson and James Saunders) though "mouthists" might be a more appropriate term. They make small percussive sounds (the sound of the letter 't'), attempting to be in unison though not looking at one another so always ending up a bit off, reminding me of water drips. The slight variance in actual sounds and even slighter one in placement are enough to carry the work, to make it just as fascinating as listening to water drops, which is to say, very.
--Manfred Werder, represented thrice, two actualizations by Annett Németh ("2011(4)" and "2008(6)") one by the Parkinson/Sanders duo ("2 ausführende (seiden 357-360)" (1999-)), this time on organ pipes. I've had my share of qualms about Werder's work, not the ideas but the recorded documentations of them, questioning their necessity (as opposed to doing it oneself), but I have to say that Németh's are wonderful combining field recordings with other sounds (I take it realized in-studio) and fashioning solid evocations of place, layered in intrigue. The duo is an odd bird, not sure I'm totally sold on it. The single pipes, possible breath-activated (?), play two pitches, presumably one per person, with substantial and varying lengths of spaces between, during which one can just pick up some ambient sounds, including (I think) birds. The tones are sounded virtually identically--I take it that was the intention, allowing the silences to account for much of the variation. All well and good but, aside form achieving a peaceful stasis, it lacks the tensile aspect that I want to hear. Perhaps a shade too accepting of things for my taste.
--James Saunders. Two pieces, the first a very brief number, "various distinct spatial or temporal locations" (2011) which finds producer Simon Reynell investigating certain properties inherent in a coffee carton, entirely pleasant if more an entr'acte than anything else. "with the same material or still, to vary the material (2011) uses the Davdison/Davies/Dickosn/Farmer/Lazaridou-Chatziigoga quintet on bowed objects. No ringing tones here, mostly dry, scratchy ones, the objects seemingly chosen for their limited resonant capacity. A nice enough track, though not so distinguishable form any number of improvisatory ventures in similar areas over the last 10-15 years.
--Radu Malfatti "Heikou" (2011), performed by the same septet as heard earlier, the one with Angharad, augmented by bassist Joseph Kudirka. The piece calls for tutti sections followed by isolated sounds, all notes chosen by the instrumentalists, resulting in a respiring quality, like some large creature, sitting, contemplating, breathing. There's something, perhaps by coincidence, of Feldman's ensemble works in the air; very "of a piece", not susceptible to minute-by-minute analysis or appreciation. Lovely sound, fine feel, good work.
Two composiitions by John Cage, in large part the inspiration for Wandelweiser, are included, the 1991 work, "Three2" and "Piece for Meditation" from 1944. The former, here played by three percussionists (Simon Allen, Chris Burn and Lee Patterson) is relatively vociferous by Wandelweiser standards, a slurry of metallically sliding sounds of various depths and timbres, very rich and unpredictable. The latter is a prepared piano work, played by Philip Thomas, soft, gentle and, as almost anything by Cage from that period, ridiculously gorgeous, all 73 seconds of it.
"Etchings", a 20-minute track by Pierre Borel (alto saxophone), Johnny Chang (viola) and Derek Shirley (bass), though structured in a manner not uncommon to the Wandelweiser collective, sounds more like a fairly typical quite improvisation one might have heard any time in recent years. It's fairly steady state, the viola staying high, the bass low, the saxophone, often (nicely) difficult to pick out, occupying the mid-range. Solid enough work.
Phil Durrant's "Sowari" (1997) seeks to replicate computer and glitch sounds with, largely, acoustic instruments (here, Durrant on electronics, Patterson on amplified objects and processes and Thomas on piano). It's quite effective, darkly droning, with rough, skittering sounds and looming groans, imparting an underground feel, or perhaps a large craft interior with stressed, torqued metal. Strong piece.
Michael Pisaro makes the first of two appearances with "fields have ears (3b)" (2010), rendered by Angharad Davies, Farmer, Hughes, Jones and Lash. As with much of Pisaro's music, I have the sense that it's far more complicated than I'm able to hear and I'd love to see the score (this applies to most music from this cadre). It fits in with one trend of his recent work in that a relatively generous amount of sheer aural beauty is allowed to seep in though not so much as to overly sweeten matters. The thin crackle of Farmer's electronics create a huge and wondrous space between it and, say, Lash's deeply bowed bass. The clear, bright piano chords act as a kind of beacon for a while, steering the more erose sounds through the darkness. Eleven minutes in (out of 30), there's a pronounced shift, as though our band of travelers has encountered an even darker, more treacherous area; the piano still rings, but more warily. It's an incredibly fine several minutes here, frightening and resolute. Eventually, after a brief snatch of Josquin des Prez (!), the piano takes on a tolling aspect, the funereal character that had been lurking all along emerging clearly. Beautiful stuff.
His "Descending Series (1)" (2009), for piano (Thomas) and sine waves is simply unearthly. It's highly Romantic, in a way; as "simple" as the chords are, they're highly evocative and bittersweet, but supplied with crucial rigor by the sine tones, which aren't cold, really, but have a kind of "stepped back" impassiveness and understanding. The concerns, as it were, of the piano are acknowledged but placed in a larger context. Heh, I may be applying a far greater programmatic intentionality to this music than is justified, but it's hard to imagine these aching phrases not having such an effect on almost any listener. Again, a fine, fine work.
Stefan Thut's "Vier, 1-12" (2010), performed by Angharad Davies, Julia Eckhardt (viola), Lash and the composer on cello, is something of a tough nut and perhaps exemplifies a certain distinction between much Wandelweiser music and other contemporary work. The structure fits in snugly--the plentiful silences, the small knots of quiet sound. But the language of the strings refers more directly to post-serial tonalities, at least near the beginning. Later on, there's a kind of expansion into a vaguely chromatic area that hints at the subtle, sublimated emotional aspects often found in these here parts. After broaching this aspect, the music recedes, almost hides. Interesting work; sometimes frustrating, other times oddly rewarding.
His "Many, 1-4" (2009), played by the Set Ensemble (Davies, Guastella, Hughes, Jones, Lash, Parkinson, Stent and Paul Whitty on harmonium) begins rather differently, with solid drones underlying crinkly percussion and electronics but also, soon, evanesces into a soft spray of elements. I do get something of the sense of spores being released from a central fount. Good piece and at five minutes, perfectly timed.
"Ensemble" (2010), by Jason Brogan, with the Canadian crew of Crys Cole, Jamie Drouin, Lance Austin Olsen and Mathieu Ruhlmann all wielding electronics. Hard to ascertain the structure; to the ears, it could be an improvisation and, as such, would fit well into what I've heard in recent years from the quartet's members in various configurations. There's a forlorn, distant horn sound dwelling beneath the scrabbly, staticky foreground that inevitably brings to mind that snowy north country...It's the sort of piece one could easily pass over thinking, "OK, I've heard things like this before" but at the cost of missing some finely etched detail (a whispered phoneme at one point, I think) that lends a good amount of mystery to the proceedings.
One improvisation is included in the collection, performed by Davidson, Rhodri Davies, Dickson, Farmer and Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, and to my ears, it's the weakest track here. It's maybe overly ingratiating in this context, not bad but somehow actually sounding more conservative when placed among this music (or, at least, as represented here). One might question it's purpose as well. Apart from acknowledging the Wandelweiser group's effect on contemporary improv, though I can't hear even that with any specificity here.
I'm not very familiar with Taylan Susam's work. "for maaike schoorel" (2009), with the edges ensemble directed by Philip Thomas, is an odd little work, burbles of chamber group playing appearing now and again as though someone's opening and closing a door to a rehearsal studio. "for sesshū tōyō" (2010), rendered by Angharad Davies, Durrant, Kudirka, Lukoszevieze, Patterson and Thomas, isn't too dissimilar, containing discrete, brief episodes, but the language used is, to these ears, more interesting, owing less to the academic classical world than the previous piece. The flow is more supple, the tonal contrasts more delicious.
"for five" (2010), by Dominic Lash, the five being A. Davies, Guastalla, Lash, Parkinson and Stent, seems somewhat akin to the Susam pieces in structure (of course, I've no idea what the respective scores indicate) in that a series of sound blocks are heard, silences between. The texture is quite different, a tendency toward dry scraping long tones here, along with the occasional bandoneon bellow. Perhaps excessively dry to my taste.
Jürg Frey contributes three pieces of his own. "Time Intent Memory" (2012), played by A. Davies, Frey, Hughes, Kostis Kilymis (electronics) Lash and Malfatti, as it happens, also initially adheres to the general structure of the Susam and Lash works above. By virtue of allowing himself more substantial time (26 minutes), however, he enables scalar effects to come into play that don't quite arrive on the others. More likely, it's that combined with the actually sound choices, mostly long-held tones, including the always luscious Malfatti, that generates such an expansive feeling. I can't say it's an exceptional work--it fits in snugly with much I've heard before--but it's nonetheless quite satisfying. (I pause to consider whether "exceptionalism" isn't beside the point here...)
"Circular Music No. 2" (2012) (A. Davies, Durrant, Frey, Lukoszevieze, Malfatti, Patterson, Thomas) is slow and pastoral, having a song-like quality, the piano and clarinet gently ambling along, buffeted by "winds" from the strings and electronics, which sigh with a melancholy air. Very lovely.
"un champ de tendresse parsemé d'adieux (4)" (2011), with the edges ensemble, comes as a refreshing change of pace, dropped objects, generally small (coins? pebbles?) though sometimes more massive, tumbling amidst what seems to be breathily whistled, gently descending wind sounds. I translate the title as "a field with gentle farewells strewn". At 20 minutes, it perhaps lasts a smidgen too long but hard to complain.
Angharad Davies, who plays on many of the pieces contained here, offers a work of her own, "Cofnod Pen Bore/Morning Records" (2011), performed by Davidson, brother Rhodri, Dickson, Farmer and Lazaridou-Chatzigoga. It's another that, to me, is hard to distinguish from an improvisation, which doesn't matter much except, maybe, to stand a bit apart from the essential gist of the collection. It's a solid piece, though, gaining interest when some strong rising tones (Davies' e-bowed harp?) emerge near the ending.
John White's "Drinking and Hooting Machine" (1971) is included here for reasons I can't quite figure out. I've heard the work before (can't recall where) and thought it was kind of of its time even then, more so now. One of those pieces that's (I imagine) much more enjoyable to experience live, where the players take swigs from their bottles, thus changing the pitches, on recording...something's lacking. Maybe it's the inherent knowledge possessed by virtually any listener having blown across the top of many a bottle. Part of the pleasure is the nearness of the vibrations, the physicality of them, which is missing here (the edge ensemble, once again)
In addition to her actualizations of two Werder compositions, Annett Németh contributes one of her own, "eine unbedeutende aussage" (2012).Hardly "a minor descriptive", as rendered by the Set Ensemble, is a ravishingly lovely piece with hushed rustles augmented by gossamer sine-like tones and accented by a sole, deep piano note. Hard to describe why this one works so, so well (again, it sounds almost like it could have been improvised) and others are more...routine. Németh and/or the players manage to capture something very special and encapsulate it with rigor and tenderness. Excellent music,
Finally, and happily, we encounter Eva-Maria Houben, one of my favorite composers in this field. Her "von da nach da" (2005), for violin (Davies), electronics (Durrant) and amplified objects (Patterson) is a marvelously subtle and somber study. That idea of fluctuating detail within a sustained, not-quite-drone is so effective here, evoking more than one expects, the "bits" acquiring fullness and flow. And the sheer aural colors are endlessly, sensually exciting. A great way to end this massive document.
Moreover, the booklet includes an excellent conversation amongst Beuger, Lash, Pisaro, Thomas and Reynell, not that you should require any extra inducement to pick this up post haste. Reynell deserves massive kudos for assembling this set. The music provides a decent, if necessarily incomplete overview of the Wandelweiser folk, is both a superb intro to the newcomer and a very valuable addition to those of us who have been enjoying this area for some time now. There are several first class works here s well as many of generally fine quality, only a handful that I might have omitted.
What are you waiting for? Listen!
[the image atop this page is from one of the interior sleeves, not the box, of which I couldn't locate a sizeable enough image on-line...]