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 again...you 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.
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.