Jürg Frey ephemeral constructions Erik Carlson, violin; Jürg Frey, clarinet; Greg Stuart, percussion; University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop Edition Wandelweiser; CD
(U.S. distribution: ErstDist)
The less I say this time, the better – partly because I have so very, very little information available from which to cobble up some authoritative statement on the whys and wherefores of the three recent compositions from 2015 and 2016 by Jürg Frey included on this new CD, and partly because the music doesn’t really lend itself to analysis so much as inhabitation.
That being the case, now that you know this disc exists, you’re welcome to click the link for Edition Wandelweiser above and just listen to the 15-minute sample available there. Since you’re most likely reading this in the U.S., you can open another browser tab for ErstDist, the label’s New Jersey-based stateside distributor.
Still here? A few facts, then. Frey, born in 1953 in Aarau, Switzerland, is among the more visible and familiar members of the Wandelweiser Collective, a global confederation of composers loosely knit by their shared notions concerning space, silence, duration, timbre, authority, and other related concerns. John Cage is a spiritual godfather to the collective, with Christian Wolff a stimulus closer to hand. Composer Michael Pisaro’s 2009 essay “Wandelweiser” remains a crucial guide for those who wish to understand the group and its motivations.
That Frey has begun to emerge as the collective’s breakout star probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, since a fair amount of his work hews more closely to conventional notions of tonality and structure than does that of colleagues like Pisaro, Antoine Beuger, and Eva-Maria Houben – all of whose works also richly reward exploration.
Traditional performing-arts presenters in the U.S. have been characteristically glacial in catching up with Frey and his Wandelweiser fellow travelers. Happily, though, a handful of artists and ensembles have taken the lead in spreading the word, including pianist R. Andrew Lee, violinist Erik Carlson, and, recently, the International Contemporary Ensemble.
Now, here’s the debut recording from another burgeoning force working on behalf of this new aesthetic: the University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop, whose leader, the percussionist Greg Stuart, is without question among the foremost catalysts for Wandelweiser activity here in the States. Effectively the David Tudor to Pisaro’s Cage, and then some, Stuart has been not just an able interpreter but also an eager participant – an engaged performer whose own inventions and interpolations amount to a unique kind of authority.
Active at the University of South Carolina since 2009, Stuart enlisted performers from the South Carolina Honors College, the USC School of Music, and the Columbia, SC, music and arts community for his ensemble. Recordings on Stuart’s SoundCloud page, featuring works by Pisaro, Wolff, La Monte Young, and Sarah Hennies, among others, attest to how quickly and astutely Stuart’s players picked up on the challenges he laid before them. (Stuart discusses the ensemble and its working process here.)
The disc at hand offers two more examples of the Workshop in action, in Frey’s ephemeral constructions (2015-16) and circular music #6 (2015). Those two pieces – the former more than 40 minutes in length, the latter just shy of 24 – frame a much smaller work of not quite five minutes’ duration, circular music #7, played by Frey on clarinet, Carlson on violin, and Stuart on percussion.
That trio musters a rich, supple sound for Frey’s simple, melancholy lullaby sequence of tones and chords. The music moves slowly and continually, yet never actually progresses. It’s a velvety expanse in which to escape, to spend a while in pleasant contemplation, or to allow frayed nerves to mend. (I’ve employed it for all three of those reasons in just the past week.)
Those three players remain distinct and evident when absorbed into a larger body of players on circular music #6. Here, the effect is less tranquility and reverie than inquisition and subtle, continual change. The composition’s form is less evident than in the trio piece due to its longer duration and thicker instrumentation, including numerous varieties of percussive noisemakers. Intentionally or not, the resulting din resembles that of a nature walk, a gently anarchic concatenation of chitters, whispers, rustles, and hoots, such as one might hear during a woodland meander.
Similar terms could be used to describe the sound world of ephemeral constructions, which for its initial long minutes might be mistaken for a percussion-only piece, so prominent are sounds of wooden and metallic impact. Some six minutes into the work, Stuart’s vibraphone rises through the din with a two-note pattern played slowly and repeatedly: C-sharp, B. C-sharp, B. C-sharp, B. Carlson’s violin emerges, engages, takes over; when Stuart’s vibraphone returns, it is reinforced by other instruments, producing rich intervals and chords. Later, the violin will have its turn with anxiously repeated minimal gestures, while percussive sounds rustle and percolate all around.
What formal structure underlies the composition is a mystery that doesn’t especially demand to be solved. A quotation from Frey’s Sketchbook (2007), printed inside the otherwise characteristically spartan Edition Wandelweiser package, seems perfectly apt:
the persuasive, coercing power immanent to structure must be avoided. structure then becomes fragile and permeable, allowing the ephemeral to unfold its presence, and, in this presence, to evoke a gleam of permanence. a substantial part of my work takes place in this intermediate zone.
As in all forms of minimalism, absorption is its own reward. Allow yourself to grow attuned to the work’s tiny noises and seemingly random occurrences for some 18 minutes, and the chords that arrive without warning at minute 19 feel like oversize epiphanies. With ears re-calibrated by those larger gestures, you can’t help but notice all the smaller sounds – breaths, rustles, other tactile frictions – hovering just at audibility’s limits.
Neither a rigidly bound construct in which the passage of time is palpable, nor a sound-installation concept to which time is extrinsic, ephemeral constructions strikes me as something in between. Frey delineates a bordered parcel of time, more or less, and fills it up, more or less: not with a strict sequence of motifs and progressions, but with fleeting impressions and sensations like those of an amble taken with no particular cause or course.
“[T]here are days in which it is enough to walk through a stony pasture,” Frey’s liner note offers. Indeed – but if no stony pasture is at hand, ephemeral constructions might suffice equally well.
On June 12, National Sawdust hosted the culminating event of its inaugural Hildegard Competition, which seeks to encourage inclusivity in the arts through the mentorship of women and non-binary composers.