Monday, April 28, 2014

Wandelweiser book review

This book review first appeared in Tempo magazine, issue #268

JÜRG FREY: WERKBETRACHTUNGEN, REFLEXIONEN, GESPRÄCHE  by Eva-Maria Houben (ed.). Edition Howeg, Zürich 2013

ANTOINE BEUGER: WERKANALYSEN UND HINTERGRÜNDE by Eva-Maria Houben & Burkhardt Schlothauer (ed.). Edition Howeg, Zürich 2013

In recent years, three volumes have appeared – published by Edition Howeg, a small publisher operating out of Zürich – dedicated to the works of the composers of the Wandelweiser group. The first volume, released in 2008, was a collection of short essays by some nine composers, called MusikDenken (‘MusicThought’). This year, two volumes were added, each dedicated to a single composer: one to Antoine Beuger and one to Jürg Frey, both including original texts, reflections and interviews. The texts are mostly in German but the Frey volume contains a few contributions in English.

‘Wandelweiser’ itself is the name of a publishing company and CD label, run by Beuger, and it has become the name of a musical style or tendency that more and more is making its presence felt on the international experimental music scene. Or perhaps, rather, it names a network of musicians, or even, as Beuger likes to say, a certain atmosphere. The network includes the gradually expanding circle of composers that are published by Edition Wandelweiser, but also many friends, performers, concert organisations and sympathetic CD labels, such as the British label ‘another timbre’ which has published a 6-CD box set called Wandelweiser und so weiter.

It is not quite possible to define what Wandelweiser music is about. In summaries, the use of long to very long silences and sparse isolated sounds is often mentioned, but this is in no way a defining characteristic of the music of the composers involved. A good bit of the work these days can in fact be quite lush, dense or melodic. If the composers have anything in common, it is mostly an attitude, which includes a willingness to take silence – and the passage of time itself – seriously as a musical resource. It is not uncommon for them to produce extremely long works that are perceivable as large-scale time architectures. Such works do not usually fit well with the typical requirements of the concert format of new music ensembles. It is hard to imagine a group like Ensemble Modern putting on a concert with a piece like Beuger’s relatively early aus dem garten for two performers, which lasts many hours and has at most one short sound per ten minute frame.

Hence the importance of the network of composers, performers and concert organisers, which is infused with a sort of DIY-mentality. Almost all Wandelweiser composers are active as performers, at least in each other’s music, and many are also concert organisers, working in places all over the world. What is shared is a performance culture, making it possible to work quickly on new shows with anybody who is familiar with the practices and aesthetic of this culture. This has made possible a flexible approach to instrumentation and ensemble organisation; the Wandelweiser catalogue is full of works for unspecified ensembles.

Full disclosure: the author of this review is part of the network, too, having released a CD with the label and contributed one essay to the Frey collection. This may disqualify me as a neutral voice, from looking with a dispassionate critical distance at the work and giving an objective appraisal of its worth, as one would expect from a critic writing on behalf of the public. Yet it is my belief that one of the reasons the Wandelweiser phenomenon is becoming stronger these days is precisely because this kind of neutral, disinterested public position is losing its credibility, as new music is pushed ever further into the margins of public discourse. Today, it’s no use fooling ourselves into thinking that New Music is somehow at the forefront of public culture, as was arguably the case in the immediate post-war decades when Cage could make a splash on national TV and Stockhausen could make it onto the cover of a Beatles record. A novel may still cause public controversy; a new compositional form, hardly. The withdrawal of the composer persona from the public eye does not mean that the energy of the experimental music project has run out, however: it is changing location, now increasingly residing in networks a bit less formal than your average new music festival. Wandelweiser presents one very successful example of how a musical culture can build institutions and tailor them to its own needs.

This also includes organising its own criticism, theorising, and discourse. Characteristically, the Wandelweiser composers are not waiting for some PhD student to come along and write theses about them. Instead, composers Eva-Maria Houben and Burkhardt Schlothauer have taken it upon themselves to collect texts by and about their colleagues, and to begin organising what will be the discourse on Wandelweiser practice. So what of the results?

The two composer volumes present intriguing portraits of two related, but contrasting, thought-worlds. Both books include a few short texts by the composer, but most of the pages are devoted to analysis of the composer’s work and reflective essays, as well as some interviews. The focus of both books is on work from up to about ten years ago, comprising what we may today see as the ‘classic’ phase of Wandelweiser music.

From the original writings, there emerge two different composer personalities, two different approaches to a shared aesthetic. Frey is much more concerned with musical form as an architecture of time, that allows for the experience of temporal ‘Leervolumen’ (empty spaces). This emptiness is often created through silences, which are themselves articulated by the sounds around them, which in turn have a sort of naked materiality. Those sounds have their own type of ‘silence’ for Frey, after Jabès: a type of ‘unexplored depths of the signs’, when they are most detached from the necessity to carry meanings. Instead, Frey seeks to find sounds that can simply carry the architectures of time in which he is interested. His sounds tend to be simple, more or less ‘found’: a tone, a triad or two, a roll on a drum. In many pieces, the sounds are extended and put together to occupy a length of time, and then brought into balance with silences and other types of sounds, so that spaces emerge with their own atmospheres. The experience of ‘silence’ in which Frey is interested ultimately depends on sonic presences, their contrast with other presences or absences, and their characters. In a wonderful phrase, Frey summarises his approach as “Ich lese [...] Klänge zusammen” – “I read sounds together”. 

This is different from Beuger, whose scores tend to look more recognisably conceptual, and whose inspiration is more explicitly mystical (the Beuger volume ends with translations from the Spanish into German of two cycles of St John of the Cross). Beuger is more interested in uncertainties surrounding the presence or absence of events. For example, the moment in which a sound has disappeared, but its atmosphere still haunts the listener. It is a fascination that Beuger attributes to his being exposed to the work of John Cage, and particularly to 4’33”. The modality of ‘might have been’ is Beuger’s interpretation of Cage’s ‘indeterminacy’. As Beuger puts it in his lecture ‘Es könnte gewesen sein’ (‘It might have been’):

“It might be, that something has happened,
it might have been music,
for I am touched and constantly think back to it.

To what?

I cannot say. I don’t know.”

To recreate such experiences, Beuger’s scores tend towards the careful definition of a performative uncertainty. An early, very radical work, consists of only a single sound lasting ten to forty minutes, followed by a silence of at least twenty and at most eighty minutes. Both the sound and the piece itself are uncertain in their temporal definition, though the form still creates the situation of disappearance and memory with precision.

The most revealing part of the Beuger volume is probably the interview with James Saunders, which was conducted in English originally (and published in the collection The Ashgate Companion to Experimental Music). Saunders elicits comments from Beuger on many individual pieces, addressing the development of his compositional thought as it goes from work to work and touching on many issues that are not so explicit in either the scores or the short texts. The importance of the number of performers is discussed, notably the number two, which for Beuger is connected to love – hence his duos are all about the love relationship, the experience of being together, sharing life, even while being fundamentally different. Likewise, time is discussed, long durations, and how they influence the concert form itself.

Both books contain many other interesting approaches to discussing the music. There is a radio interview with Frey on his use of spoken words as material for some text compositions, using bird names and obscure Swiss place names for their sounds. There is a list, compiled by composer and pianist Dante Boon, of remarkable features of Frey’s music, simply enumerating ideas that have caught his eye (and ear) as he looks at Frey scores. Both books have some beautifully engaged essays by Eva-Maria Houben, meticulously recording the psychological effects of sounds, forms, textures and changes as they occur while listening or playing.

The essays tend not to be very technical – a striking exception is Kathryn Pisaro’s essay on non-standard oboe fingerings in the oboe version of Beuger’s calme, étendue. But mostly, intricate analyses of formal structures and material relationships are absent, as is to be expected from a music that, at first glance, seems so simple as to be almost self-evident. Yet serious music never is self-evident, certainly not when the uncertain is so deep a part of its aesthetic. Such music has complex worlds of thought behind it, of the people thinking them, and the environments within which they work and play. The existing music-theory jargon is not always best suited to discussing all that. Hence the need for books like these, attempts by the community to find its own, appropriate and clear ways of talking.

© Cambridge University Press 2014

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