“Jürg Frey is inextricably tied to the group of Wandelweiser composers and musicians, and like that group, his music continues to elude easy categorization. The last year has been a particularly fruitful one, revealing extensions to his compositional approach. There was the release of the two-disc set Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014 for small ensemble on the Another Timbre label as well as his residency at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, featuring multiple performances of his pieces. Two other releases, Circles and Landscapes and String Quartet No. 3 / Unhörbare Zeit deserve special focus as each represents the continued development of Frey’s compositional sensibilities.
Circles and Landscapes features a program of solo piano pieces performed by Philip Thomas, one of the preeminent interpreters of contemporary piano compositions as well as an accomplished improviser. Pitch relationships have always been central to Frey’s compositions, and in these pieces, composed over the last five years (with the exception of the opening “In Memorium Cornelius Cardew” from 1993) the harmonic underpinnings are even more pivotal to the structural foundations. In an interview on the Another Timbre site, Frey states, “I'm looking to find a confidence in chords, dyads and single notes, and I hope that accordingly they will resonate with confidence. This applies to every material, whether stones or a piano, but with the piano it seems to be more challenging because of the clarity of the material and how the instrument itself suggests it should be used.” The opening “In Memorium Cornelius Cardew” moves with slow assurance back and forth between low register intervals and a resonant chord, pausing midway to progress to a deliberately paced, falling phrase which pools in darkly voiced chords. Three pieces from the “Circular Music” series, composed a decade later, distill that concentration on intervals and resonance with poised consideration. Here, the notes and harmonies are allowed to sit. It is not about motion or development, but rather about simply letting the sounds unfold across the duration of the piece.
Frey has stated about his music, “A sequence of notes is most composers' starting point. And it's where I stop. Not that I cease to do anything at all; sometimes it takes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. There are so many traps, so many ways of destroying the sequence, because people think it needs a little compositional help ... More important is the relation of the material to elapsing time.” Listen to the half-hour reading of “Pianist, Alone (2),” and one hears these elemental building blocks accrue with a steadfast forbearance. Thomas places each phrase and chord-set evenly across the duration of the piece and the music advances with an unwavering beauty bereft of any standard notion of melody or harmonic progression. “Extended Circular Music No. 9,” composed over 2014 and 2015 layers in even more brooding consonance over its half-hour course. Yet even here, the music proceeds with notes and chords sounding alone with a sense of succession rather than melodic or harmonic progression.
Frey’s string quartets, particularly “Striechquartett II,” are some of his most absorbing pieces, particularly as performed by Montreal-based Quatuor Bozzini. In these pieces, the composer makes potent use of the microtonal nuances of the string instruments to elicit fragile, almost vocalized voicings of his poised harmonic structures. Where his second string quartet created a diaphanous scrim of sound, on “String Quartet No. 3,” he opens things up, introducing a spaciousness to the deft voicings. The members of the quartet are completely synched in to Frey’s strategies, fully embodying the tonal structures into a singular sound. Frey writes about this piece, “Elemental materials and constructions are thereby perceived as a sensation, and mindfulness consists in hanging these sensations in balance before they have arrived at the limitations of expressiveness.” And it is the way that the quartet hangs at the edges of expressiveness, letting the sensations of the notes and harmonies play out without investing them with dramatic expression. It is this equanimity and stability that allows the piece to play out in a totally absorbing way.
“Unhörbare Zeit” (inaudible times) adds two percussionists to the mx and here the structure opens up even more. The durations of silence are as central to the piece as the sounds of strings and the low rumbles of percussion. Frey states that he is working with “audible and inaudible durations that appear partly simultaneously and partly consecutively. They give the piece lucidity and transparency, as well as materiality and solidity.” While silence as a structural element has been fully absorbed into the vocabulary of contemporary composition, it is the way that Frey gives the silences weight and dimension within this piece that really stands out. The balance of the timbre of strings, low register percussion, the rustle of room sounds and the mercurial pacing of sound and silence is fully entrancing.”
–Michael Rosenstein, Point of Departure
“A few months ago I noticed the change in Jürg Frey’s music in recent years, when discussing two contrasting but very fine albums of his earlier and later music. A similar impression was made by the concert of his 2nd and 3rd string quartets by the Quatuor Bozzini in Huddersfield last November: that Frey is moving away from ideas and towards music. Frey has long been associated with the Wandelweiser collective, but his recent music has been compromising the “purity” Wandelweiser’s reverence for silence. With this supposed loss of aesthetic purity, Frey has embraced a purity of sound.
After releasing the quietly beautiful Grizzana album, Another Timbre released a CD of Philip Thomas playing Frey’s recent piano music at the end of last year. I previously wrote of his third string quartet that Frey was joining Morton Feldman as a fellow master of non-functional harmony, adapting some of the more rhetorical elements of classical and romantic music, but piecemeal, on his own terms and his own ends. In this piano music, most of it composed between 2010 and 2014, there is a similar sense of exploration, without any perceived goal, to that found in Feldman’s “middle period” before he discovered the tenuous equilibrium found in repeating patterns.
At that time, Feldman was also moving away from abstraction and responding to the need to create melodies (“big Puccini-like melodies”). An interview on the Another Timbre website shows Frey seeking a common solace in a material understanding of music, and in negotiating the paradoxes that arise when wanting to compose without disturbing the music’s material.
When composing for the piano, the notion of harmony is more prominent – although we know all the (lovely) extended techniques that have been developed for the piano, to make it sound unlike a piano. But yes, the piano remains the instrument to represent harmony…. When I write for piano, I shouldn’t rely on the piano itself, but on the composition. The piano gives single notes, dyads and chords too easily. Also, if I write consonant dyads, it could suddenly sound wrong, ironic, like a quotation rather than the real sound. In this context to compose means to build a basic confidence in the clear and restricted material that you are working with.
The shorter pieces have a meditative quality, alternating between pedal tones and chords. The longer pieces take on a resemblance to a journey through a succession of musical terrains. Sometimes progress is slow, tentative, with long periods stranded in one particular harmony or register, before unexpectedly moving on. It becomes clear that the journey is its own destination. If there is a structure underneath it all, Frey does his best to conceal or disrupt it or render it irrelevant to the listener.
The album begins with a much older piece, the brief In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew from 1993, with a tonal palette that anticipates the later works. Has Frey allowed a space for emotional expression in his new music, however abstracted? It’s interesting that when philosophy is raised in the interview, he demurs but admits that he feels “a closeness” to Deleuze and Spinoza, two Western thinkers who tried to reason without a dichotomy between mind and body.
The piano is close-miked on this CD, focussing on the grain of the instrument’s sounds. Thomas’ playing is softly-spoken but full-voiced – well suited to the quiet but indomitable character marking out a trail through an empty expanse, as in the longest piece on the album. It’s titled Pianist, Alone (2); a title which seems nakedly descriptive at first but takes on a narrative aspect after hearing it. This time, the protagonist is a little more experienced.”
Ben Harper, Boring Like a Drill