Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jürg Frey - l'âme est sans retenue I (ErstClass)

Jürg Frey - Collection Gustave Roud (Another Timbre)

A fine convergence of all things Frey occurred recently--the release of the above two major recordings was remarkable enough but, on a personal level, I had just listened through the virtual entirety of his recorded work, and was therefore more than primed to experience these new additions. (Small caveat: Betsy and I were asked to translate into English the Gustave Roud journal extract used in the piece, 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind', on the Another Timbre recording, which we did with assistance from Jürg.)

The two recordings are from widely separated points in Frey's career and the innocent listener might be hard-pressed to think they were hearing work from the same composer. Frey's electronic/field recording music has been less thoroughly documented over the years, though one of the pieces more or less contemporaneous to the ErstClass release, 'Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit, Räume 1 - 8' was issued on eight discs by Radu Malfatti's b-boim label in 2010 and, indeed, is one of my very favorite releases of the past decade. More directly connected to this recording, b-boim also issued, in 2008, 'l'âme est sans retenue III' which, at 66 minutes, is like a mini-version of the ErstClass (though with notable differences) but if my copy is accurately inscribed, there were only 76 copies printed so it hasn't been widely heard. The original source recordings for these pieces were made from 1997 to 2000 and consist of, at least as far as I can tell, "simple" recordings outside, in public spaces in Berlin, which are then worked on to a greater or lesser degree (I hear more of that in the b-boim than the ErstClass recording, but it might just be a matter of the sources), never enough to cause severe distortion or to render them at all unrecognizable. There's a certain woolliness about them, a haze of atmosphere about which more below.

Though the general sound world is similar between these pieces, the structure is not. In 'Weites Land...', each "room" is presented in a single, uninterrupted 40-minute section. For the listener at home, there's a certain convenience in this arrangement: hearing one room, changing the disc to get to the next. On the new recording, a single work is spread over five discs, totaling six hours. There are no "end points" for each disc but since the piece contains ample sections of silence, that's not much of an issue. The audible portions, as in the b-boim version, are presented in relatively short segments, often lasting 15-20 seconds, alternating with silences the length of which varies quite a bit, from a couple of seconds to, guessing (I haven't measured), over five minutes. One of the things this listener needed to get past was the temptation, difficult to resist, of mentally timing the segments, to see if there was any regularity or pattern in place. A fool's errand. I do wish that somehow it could have been documented in a single-episode format, as the periodic disc changing somewhat interferes with the experience of such an overwhelmingly massive and, in a certain aspect, undifferentiated work. That's one of the points of fascination, in fact, the counterbalancing of general similarity (in the audible portions) with specific, though subtle, differences. I take for granted that there are no actual repetitions of material, though I couldn't swear by it. There are also clear instances of difference, including the sounds of church bells, automotive vehicles and obscure, very vague suggestions of music. [Before the concert in Cambridge of Frey's music, I was able to ask him a few questions about the work and 1) was able to determine, unsurprisingly, that none of the audible material is repeated and 2) that while certain "systems" may have been present in Frey's mind, the application was fairly loose. So, if he had, as an example he used (I may not be remembering exactly) an idea of time spans ranging in the pattern, 2-3-4-3-2, he might do it but not while counting exactly so he'd end up with imprecise sequences. As well, he mentioned that indeed there was music being played in the distances during some of the recordings.]

But enough about the elements, what about the experience of hearing? Well, it's unlike most anything else you're apt to encounter. I often make visual analogies (as does Frey, incidentally, often with regard to some association with landscapes) and here, a have the recurring image of street scenes shot with an old movie camera, maybe circa 1910, scenes where there may or may not be any particular activity occurring. Periodically, the camera's aperture closes, quickly but not so abruptly, remains closed for some seconds or minutes, then reopens on another scene, having moved only slightly or traveled a significant distance. Alternatively, sometimes the visuals are not cities, but clouds, the silences blue sky. Though if clouds, more likely contrails than naturally occurring ones; there's something manmade about the sounds, an urban hum pervades. The air vibrates with echoes of generators, automobiles, electric lights; there's a certain sizzle. Then can shift focus and hear, for instance, ocean water advancing and receding between beach rocks (enhanced when a distant gull call can be discerned). Many ways to hear and all of them, for me, oddly active. One might have guessed that work like this would be somehow relaxing, meditative but I don't find it so at all. I remain hyper-alert, trying to hear as deeply into the sounds, establish relationships with the silences and then, of course, listening to the silences (my environment; the heat coming on this cold day offers a weak approximation of Frey's sounds). No placid dozing off here. It's difficult music, sometimes reminding me of a quasi-similarly hard piece by Frey which I'd just heard performed in Cambridge, '60 Pieces of Sound' which, in turn, reminds me of Gerhard Richter's Color Chart paintings. That Frey piece, though, as well as the Richters, are oriented in regular fashion; in '60 Pieces of Sound' you have sustained tones of about eight seconds followed by silences of about sixteen. In 'l'âme est sans retenue I', it's as though far relatives of those sounds have been released from those strictures, allowed to float up and, while still separate and distinct, enabled the spaces between to expand or contract, buffeted randomly by the wind.

How one listens to a work of this length and seemingly tenuous construction is left up to the listener to determine. I've listened with concentration, distractedly, from two rooms away while reading and, despite my assertion above, dozing off. The music works in different ways, depending, and I've by no means exhausted the possibilities.

Frey's composition, 'Ferne Farben' appeared on an earlier Another Timbre release, 'Grizzana', and was also performed in Cambridge on November 8 by the ensemble Ordinary Affects (Morgan Evans-Weiler, Luke Martin, Laura Cetilia and J.P.A. Falzone) along with Frey. It's an extremely quiet work and the acoustic sounds are supplemented by taped ones, also at extreme low volume, more than enough so that it was next to impossible to determine whether what one heard emanated from the speakers or outside the venue. A fantastic work, I was thinking while listening that it could serve as a kind of bridge between the music heard on 'l'âme est sans retenue I' and that which appears on 'Collection Gustave Roud'.

Along with the general notion of "landscape", the words of Gustave Roud (1897 - 1976), a Swiss/French writer/poet, have served as a longstanding source of inspiration for Frey. This is a superbly curated selection of such works, maybe the finest single grouping of later Frey pieces I've heard. Three are somewhat short in length (about 8 - 15 minutes) and are written for similar trios: clarinet/cello/piano, violin/clarinet/piano and violin/cello/piano. These bracket to much longer pieces, 'La présence, les silences' for solo piano and 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind' for soprano, trumpet, cello and percussion.

A favorite aspect of Frey's music, for me, is his total lack of fear to deal with material that might be called conventionally beautiful, short melodies and sequences that "pull at the heartstrings". 'Paysage pour Gustave Roud' (Frey, clarinet; Stefan Thut, cello; Dante Boon, piano) is a particularly moving example of this, the two, three and four note passages just breathing with both melancholy and serene acceptance. As in a landscape, and in common with much of Frey's music in this area, there's a perfect balance of the expected--the way you expect a meadow to continue over a hillside--and the unexpected, as when a path disappears or a rock formation looms into view after an innocent turn. He often sets up small patterns of rhythm or melody, lasting just long enough for the listener to get comfortable, think, "Ah, I know where this is going" then, always gently, he shifts things, extends the duration of a beat, inserts the slightest bit of sourness into a sweet series of notes. This always strikes me as so true to life, always causes shivers of delight and recognition. The set of descending two-note patterns near the conclusion is just devastating. Such a fine work, hard to stop listening.

'Haut-Jorat' (Andrew Mcintosh, violin; Frey, clarinet; Boon, piano) is a suite of five brief passages. It's a bit more somber, more astringent than the previous work, the five sections interrupting any sense of languidness though each is slow, quiet and doesn't feel rushed. More like a set of glimpses through a window out into a cold and lovely landscape, a fleeting thought captured. In a way it reminds me of a tiny re-orchestrated, sliver of 'l'âme est sans retenue I', a similar feeling of the opening and closing of an aperture. Very lovely. 'Ombre si fragile' (Mcintosh, Thut and Boon' closes the two-disc set but echoes the first two pieces in general demeanor. Though sparer and more episodic, the sense of melodicism remains, the strings often playing together in grainy harmonics, the piano offsetting with darker commentary. There's a dusk-like feeling imparted and the piece ends with a lovely lack of resolution, simply evanescing.

These three works surround two of substantially greater length, both profound. I'll say outright that 'La présence, les silences', played here by Dante Boon, is one of the finest pieces for solo piano I've heard in years. For my money, it should be part of the contemporary repertoire. Boon, of course, is an amazingly sensitive pianist and, according to Frey, plays the 41-minute work entirely from memory. Describing it is difficult without falling back into landscape tropes. It's not quite "slow" but is exceedingly patient, shifting from lengthily repeated single notes to bright chords and back, again beginning to give a hint of recurring patterns but never quite getting there. (As has happened in other recent, quiet piano pieces, the action of the pedals--or key levers?--is quite audible. This may be a distraction for some but I find it to be like a ghostly echo, a soft response to the notes and don't mind it at all). It's almost like one, slowly unfurling melody, with few signposts (perhaps only those repeated notes) as reference, more like a path leisurely walked upon but closely observed. Musically, I hear some vestiges of Satie's Rosicrucian period, the 'Ogives' and others, but that's very tangential. The music absorbs utterly.

Frey uses extracts from Gustave Roud's journals that cover a long period from 1916 - 1971 as the text for 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind' (Colourless Clouds, Happiness, Wind), as well as a text of his own, in German, performed by Regula Konrad (soprano), Stephen Altoft (trumpet), Stefan Thut (cello) and Lee Ferguson (percussion). The Roud text is an interesting combination of the everyday, very plain spoken/written and the subtly unworldly. In doing the translation, Frey didn't want any poetic license taken, instead asking us to (possibly) unearth the poetry contained in those basic terms. It was an odd venture, sometimes disorienting as when one could in no way get around the phrase, "J'entends une fanfare" ("I hear a flourish of trumpets"). And, at least to some extent, Frey deals with this literalness in the music, as becomes startlingly clear with the above example. It's not an easy . piece, lasting over 48 minutes and having a slightly more sour tonality than the other works on the album, but it's just as rich. Konrad's soprano has a hornlike quality and meshes wonderfully with both cello and (at first) subdued trumpet. I find the music less "pathlike", more stationary, as if the listener is sitting observing the landscape, and the weather, instead of walking through it. The tones are ghostly, foglike, at least for much of the piece. When that flourish of trumpets arrives, with accompanying snares, it has the shock of a thunderclap in blue sky (easily twenty times louder than anything heard previously in Frey's recorded catalog) but serves as a fine tonic, an understanding about the variation in things, even when one has learned, as I feel Frey has, to view matters with more serenity and acceptance. It's a complex, marvelous work, one that has unfolded in many different ways each time I've listened.

Both recordings are inherently outstanding and, too, serve as indicators of the range and vision of this remarkable composer.


Another Timbre

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A few thoughts, nothing so earthshaking, on the performance of Éliane Radigue's music at Issue Project Room on October 20, with Laetitia Sonami, Carol Robinson and Rhodri Davies.

In the liner notes for 'occam ocean' (Shiiin eer1, also picked up at the concert), Radigue writes:

"I do not renounce my electronic work, though I never accomplished anything that completely satisfied me. The end result was always a compromise between what I really wanted to do and what I was technically able to do using the means available. Conversely, with these musicians, I was finally able to hear, for the first time, the music I call my 'sound fantasies'."

The three works presented ranged from electronic (with voice), to live electronic to acoustic and to some extent, not wanting to extrapolate too much from a single evening, bore witness to the accuracy of those remarks.

The first piece was 'Mila's Song in the Rain', an extract from 'Songs of Milarepa', which was originally released in 1983. It's scored for electronics (Radigue) and voices: Tibetan reading and singing by Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Robert Ashley reading an English translation of the text (at the concert, this was simply played over the sound system, not performed live; I assume the same recording as on Side A of the Lovely Music release). Radigue's sounds, as is generally the case, were confined to a relatively narrow area but varied subtly and imaginatively within that band. Still, I found myself wondering if, over the course of its 19 minutes, it would have gripped my attention for the duration were it not for the spoken words. The Tibetan was, to my ears, inherently interesting  both for its strangeness (to me) and the way it was half-spoken, half-sung, very beautifully. Ashley's text, on the other hand, delivered with his typical, wry, midwestern drawl, was amusing and, as Mimi Johnson mentioned in her opening remarks, satisfyingly grounded in the day-to-day. But the electronics, if listened to "separately" (not how the piece was designed, of course) seemed slightly limited, however attractive and well-deployed. Nothing major, but the thought arose.

Next, Laetitia Sonami performed 'OCCAM IX', a 30-minute work, on her self-designed Spring Spyre, pictured below:

This was the first time I've seen Sonami play. I don't know the details of her instrument but clearly, her strokes, plucks and taps on the seemingly rather elastic strings, all but inaudible "acoustically", were greatly amplified by the connected devices, generating a gentle humming that fluctuated and lightly throbbed. Again, great subtlety and touch were in force and for a while, about 15 minutes, I was reasonably captivated. But...eventually it felt as though I had gleaned what there was to be gleaned, that I had heard the instrument's limitations (at least as used on this evening), that there were only so many plies to be penetrated. I don't think this impression had anything to do with Sonami's abilities, more a limitation of the instrument. Obviously, even if this is the case, other instruments might offer far greater depth but again, the thought nagged at me. I've no idea how Radigue determines the approximate length of her work; this piece was about 30 minutes. Always an issue with music like this, here I thought it could stand some reduction.

The second half of the concert  was 'OCCAM RIVER XVI", performed by Robinson and Davies. The latter played a standard concert harp, bowed, using both one and two bows. Robinson wielded a birbyné, an open-holed, Lithuanian reed instrument with a wooden body and cow horn bell from which she had removed the reed. [note: Carol informs me that although the reed is detachable, she does indeed utilize it in performance]

In the notes to 'occam ocean', Robinson states that its sound is "unstable" and it's delightfully so. I've no idea of its loudness potential, but played softly as was the case here, it has a wonderful, breathy, ghostly tone--think of, perhaps, a woodier sounding clarinet. While the piece was, as with most (if not all) of Radigue's in the OCCAM series, centered around one pitch, the vagaries of the acoustic practice, intentionally or otherwise, allowed for an enormous amount of variation. Perhaps it has to do with how much one's ears (my ears, in any case) can differentiate between pitches, timbres, etc., and it could also have to do with the specific instruments involved but whereas in the Sonami-played work, I thought the range exhausted after a certain point, with the harp and birbyné, I felt as though I could have listened for twice its 50-minute length and still not have begun to plumb its depths and complexities. The grain, the was like looking at a stone or piece of wood and always seeing more no matter how deeply you penetrated. While in Paris, I was fortunate to witness a performance of Radigue's 'Naldjorlak I, II and III', with Charles Curtis, Robinson and Bruno Martinez, one of the most powerful concerts I've ever experienced. Some of the effect was surely enhanced by virtue of sitting about six feet directly in front of the trio, especially Curtis. During the first section, in which he performed solo for about an hour, I was utterly absorbed into his instrument, thrown into an apparently infinite whirlpool of sound, with structures emerging and disappearing in seconds, an astonishing range of colors and more--all in the context of more or less a single, wooly pitch, a wolf tone as I was to learn, something I'm told cellists are trained early on to avoid. Here at Issue Project, if not to quite as strong a degree, something similar took hold, especially with regard to the variations each musician injected. Davies, "simply" drawing the bow(s) back and forth over one or two strings, between micro-alterations in pitch and fluctuations in dynamics, elicited a vast and clear soundscape within this ostensibly narrow constriction. Robinson, either due to the birbyné's inherent instability or her own intuition (both, I imagine), shifted the base pitch ever so slightly, but in context significantly and sometimes let a given series of phrases trail off in ghostly vapors, small, light filagrees of tone, immensely moving. She would also vary the sound even more subtly by raising or lowering the instrument. Between the two sound sources, each remarkably complex in themselves, the listener has a virtual abundance of sonic riches in which to delve. To these ears, the rewards of Rdigue's music are substantially greater with the acoustic instruments than with the electronic ones, at least in my experience. I don't know that this would necessarily be the case, that sufficiently complex programming shouldn't allow for degrees of detail well beyond what human ears can distinguish, but something comes through Curtis' cello, Robinson's birbyné and Davies' harp, some level of aesthesia, that I haven't experienced in other forms.

I should add that on first listen to the Shiiin release (which in addition to Robinson and Davies, features violist Julia Eckhardt), the above still holds true for me, even though when filtered via CD, an essential physicality is necessarily lost.