Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Othertimely - On history and Jürg Frey

The following text was written for a collection of texts in celebration of Jürg Frey's 60th birthday: Jürg Frey, Werkbetreachtungen – Reflexionen – Gespräche, edited by Eva-Maria Houben, published by Edition Howeg in Zürich. The book also includes texts and interviews by Frey himself, by Eva-Maria Houben, Dante Boon, Jack Callahan and others.

When is Jürg Frey's music? Not from when, but at what moment in time does it work? Does it belong to now, whatever the moment 'now' may be, or does it speak from some other time, gone or to come, or is perhaps timeless? These are fundamental questions that can be asked of any music. Like no other art form, music seems to exist 'now', but at the same time it always relates this 'now' to something outside, some virtual other time that gives 'now' its shape in the music, a time of hazy memories or vague expectations. Let’s, for the moment, call this virtual time from which music speaks the othertimely dimension of music. In my experience of the work of Jürg Frey, this dimension of relating now to the othertimely has become particularly uncanny.

Some background, to begin with, on how I encountered this dimension first, which goes back to music education. During the years of my formal training at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, a very large thing called 'music history' was always present. It was the thing that somehow would always condition the now that we were creating in our own works, and in the teachings of The Hague School, consciousness of your relation to this music history was always stressed. Moreover, in that environment, it was clear that there existed a major opposition in how one could deal with ‘music history’, exemplified by Schönberg on the one hand and Stravinsky on the other. The difference could be said to be this: Schönberg was seen as a believer working inside music history and giving it shape and direction, whereas Stravinsky worked with the ironic wisdom of one who can't afford to fully believe any more, and was circling around music history from the outside.

While both were revered, the aesthetic environment of the conservatory made it clear that the more advanced compositional sensibility should include a Stravinskian moment of distance. We were taught to see music history as a repository of models, of styles, forms and techniques, and one defined one's own artistic persona by relating to these models, but always through a distancing function, usually called 'commentary' or ‘irony’. As a composer, the ideal was to become an individual by the way you commented on a model, which was a thing that was available to you through the big medium of music history. You could call this position “post-historical”. The distance was necessary not only to form your own position, but also to guard yourself against getting trapped too much in the believer's position, that of the belief that one could live the actual Truth of music history.

Such a belief was of course Schönbergian. Indeed Schönberg is a historical composer if ever there was one. Maybe he even was the last one, of perhaps very few such composers at all. It remains striking to read a work like the Theory of Harmony, a book that I've often thought of as a “novel about tonality”, meticulously reworking the past at the very moment that the composer's own works were consciously exploring the future. In the book centuries of tonal experience are critiqued, turned upside down, explored, speculated about, even as in the book, Schönberg explicitly refers to his own practice as “ultra-modernist”. Thus the Schönbergian ‘now’ was a point from which one had to look back and forward at the same time to locate oneself at a pivotal moment in music history, and so be fully part of its project. The problem of course is that the project called ‘music history’ is not a general thing. Music history is a construction for understanding music, and its form in classical music was conceived to help the Western bourgeois class explain its own rise to prominence. Hence, music history is a project that only really gets going with, say, Mozart's attempt to work independently (Father Bach’s work still being ‘early music’), and ends with the very gradual decline of the bourgeois project of Bildung and political participation, with the role of the citizen gradually being replaced by that of the consumer. This more or less defines two centuries of work that even today is recognized by us, late-bourgeois consumers, as “classical music”, with Schönberg working at just about the end of it.

Neither model was satisfactory for me as a young composer, though I wasn't quite able to articulate why. I learnt the tricks and tactics of commentary without learning to trust them; I also learnt the forms and techniques of music history without learning to live them as Truth. I think these are conditions that very many artists have been working under for decades, and by now, the majority of working composers have matured in these conditions.

The great influence of John Cage on composers working now may in part be explained by this. His work can make you feel that there are ways around the whole problem of “music history”, as if he found a way to sidestep the conundrum. Morton Feldman in fact used that idea in his polemics against the European avant-garde composers, claiming that Boulez and Stockhausen were still too much within history. By contrast, in Feldman’s beautiful mythology, the New York School could come out of just six weeks in 1951 during which nobody knew what was happening. That’s without doubt an exaggeration, but it does feel like the othertimely dimension of Cage’s work can’t be reduced to “music history” as we know it. Instead, Cage’s work speaks from a different place, closer to the texture of time itself as it is moulded and shaped in his temporal structures, using chance techniques that can be applied to whatever material it encounters, whether historical or not. Sometimes, Cage’s work uses some kind of “music history” (say, in Hymns and Variations, the Europeras or Cheap Imitation); sometimes, it hardly seems to do so (say, in the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra or in Music For...). Cage’s othertimely position is like a diagonal cutting through history; indeed, as Marjorie Perloff has argued, his tradition is a piecemeal personal construction: the “tradition” of Schoenberg, Satie, Joyce, Thoreau, Fuller and Suzuki. Bien étonnés indeed!

One of the things then that one might get from Cage is the sense that art need not speak from, or about, music history in order to have interesting or important things to say. Or perhaps even that it’s possible to redesign the othertimely place from which the music speaks. A looser relation to music history helps open artistic awareness to other possibilities, to help us realize that there is in fact an irreducible plurality not just of musical styles, but of temporalities themselves. Many can be discovered. Music can speak from the other time of social organization and class struggle (Wolff, Cardew), from awareness to sound itself (Oliveros’ Deep Listening) or its physical structure (Lucier), from the timeless realms of mathematics (Johnson, Tenney) or even from outside of time (as Ashley called his collected writings).

This, then was my situation when I first heard Jürg Frey’s music: I had become familiar with the idea that music could speak from within music history (as did Schönberg), or from a deliberate distance to music history (the Stravinskianism that was taught in The Hague), or from places that are somehow entirely tangential to it, even outside of time. But in Frey, I heard again a voice speaking from history - but not as I knew it. Here, history was neither an intensely lived actuality, nor a distant repository of objects and materials. History itself seemed to be a place outside of time.

This is probably not a situation unique to Jürg Frey’s work, but thinking of what I heard in some of his pieces made me more aware of this possibility than anything else. Perhaps you can hear a composer like Satie in a similar way - Satie, a composer who was dreaming of the middle ages as he lived the life of the bars of exciting metropolitan Paris. His early works sound like a dreamed reconstruction of some very old music, as if he was trying to dream Gregorian chant and the middle ages back into our time (even up to inventing entire holy knighthood orders for his personal church). Likewise, Xenakis, in key moments in his work, dreamed of a music that would speak from ancient Greece. But with Jürg Frey, the dream is harder to grasp. It’s not even clear if it’s a dream at all.

The clearest example I can think of is the use of triads in pieces like Sam Lazaro Bros and the 2nd String Quartet. In neither of these pieces do the triads “refer” to historical material, as a triad would do in a piece out of the post-historical commentary line. But neither are the triads ahistorical things, pure objects, as they might have been in a James Tenney piece. What happens instead is a consistent evocation of history, though I’m never quite sure what history is being evoked exactly. The piano piece has something Satie-like, but at times one feels a turn could almost be from the 16th century. Or is it Schubert, or rather the place from which Schubert’s work speaks as well, that we are hearing? Then again, our piano is a modern instrument, and the piece might also just be modern music. Between all these possibilities, Sam Lazaro Bros. (with its bluntly noncommittal title) never quite settles into a specific one. It seems to skirt the boundaries between historical identities as it ambles along in its own time, just as its own phrase never settles, never quite cadences, drawing us along with it, constantly passing many othertimely times that virtually dance around it in the background.

In the quartet similar effects happen through different means. Here, we’re not drawn along by an ambling line; instead, the sounds are separate, but each new sound again sucks us into an inner world that itself sounds like a vast superposition of other-times. This time, it’s not the turns of phrase that suggest these, but there are many voices submerged into the sound itself. The insistent atmosphere might remind you of Schubert, the sonic complexity, of Scelsi; but if you listen deeply, you can sometimes hear what sounds like entire orchestras and choirs in the sound, playing symphonies that sound from an unknown place. Each chord itself could belong to many eras at once. Again, it is as if they are all virtually present, shaping our now without disclosing their own location.

These pieces speak from an uncharted virtual world that is hidden within music history. The music does actively seek out that world and so it does engage history, but without fixing it. Instead, it encounters material that is historically loaded, but the material is immediately being returned to virtuality. I hear a minor triad, but I don’t know from what place it came, like a piece of driftwood washing ashore which clearly must have had a history. I’m in fact not sure if I know the triad or not. Perhaps it needs to be heard again. And so we realize we should listen once more to the things that seemed known, perhaps to discover that they are, in fact, starting points for things we did not know we knew.

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