Jürg Frey interviewed by Brian Olewnick
BO: I thought I'd begin by simply asking about your background - I know almost nothing! You and I are about the same age (I think you have me beaten by a year), so I was wondering if you could describe your path as a young man that ultimately brought you to creating in this area of music - what you were listening to when growing up, to be sure, but also other things that turned out to have a strong influence on your basic outlook, aesthetic or otherwise.
JF: Yes, we are almost the same age, which allows me to touch pretty quickly on some events, phenomena and music which perhaps we both experienced in a similar way. My main interest as a 17 year-old teenager was in art. Woodstock 1969 was something I “heard about”, one of my favorite LPs was Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Classical music was part of this too, but likewise not very profoundly. I remember one thing from school at the time: I could not make a distinction between Mozart and Vivaldi by ear! But I knew who George Brecht was (Happening & Fluxus was my first art work catalogue in 1970) and free jazz was a model for my own playing on the saxophone. I knew the paintings of Joseph Beuys as well as some of Philip Guston’s paintings. I knew Richard Long’s work from catalogues, as well as the work of Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. I don’t remember any distinction in terms of styles. I was fascinated by Minimal Art and Conceptual Art. I practiced Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps on clarinet; it was too difficult at the time, but nevertheless was a defining experience. When I was 19 I wrote a first piece for two pianos, a graphic notation, and I remember experiments in writing music in charts and columns. It was too complicated to play, you couldn’t find your way through the tables - a mixture of styles and genres - and I had to decide if I was to go more into art or into music. My focus went to classical music and I caught up on my deficits and more, I discovered I had a feeling for harmony, form and all the topics of classical music.
Nevertheless, my training followed two different lines: one was the regular training in a music conservatory to become a classical clarinet player, the other is all the rest, which happened at the time more or less outside of the institutions. Let me speak now about my very first composition. Significantly, it’s difficult to say if this is a piece of music or a piece of art. The title is Stück 1975 (for private or public performance) and it consists of 41 sheets of very different quality in terms of size, material, texts, graphics et al. No staves and no pitches, no instrumentation, no duration, no rules for contexts, but references to relationships with styles, fonts, paper qualities. The score exists as two unique pieces: one is in the library at Northwestern University, the other is in my archive. This piece was like a summary of influences and interests from that time, and also a starting point in making steps toward music in the narrow sense.
And this leads me to the other early piece I want to talk about: Lachen und Lächeln (1978) for soprano, violin, clarinet, horn and piano, on a text by the Swiss poet Robert Walser. I didn’t have a clear awareness when I started writing the piece, but had a strong feeling when I had finished it that yes, composition was something for me to go on with. Looking back on this piece today, I recognise characteristics, already present in the piece, which are important for my later work. It happened somehow in this early piece, and I remember the reason that I wrote this kind of piece was not as an exercise in compositional technique or for aesthetic considerations, but because I wanted to write something I liked to listen to. (And of course, I felt that with this music I would be in opposition to normal contemporary music; this was important too!). The piece has a duration of 18 minutes, consists of 8 pieces, No 1-3 are for soprano and small ensemble, followed by No 4-8, which are all piano pieces. The sounds are mostly consonant (unisons, thirds, sixths, octaves). After a short beginning with the whole ensemble, the lengthy remainder of the work is solo piano music; the audience and the other musicians on stage become listeners and the pianist goes on his path alone.
BO: Some reservations about Wandelweiser music (obviously, this is a gross generalization) have to do with what you might call "easy answers", having a worldview, as expressed in the music, that's overly contemplative or dwelling on aspects of beauty as opposed to dealing with the harsh realities of the world. (Personally, I don't see it as an either/or situation, but I'm sure this general criticism surfaces fairly often). So, I guess my question would be: When you're thinking about a piece or while you're composing it, do you consider extra-musical aspects (for example, things occurring in the political world and how the music relates to it or is shaped by it) or do you think of the music as self-contained, jewel-like if you will, wanting it to be appreciated in isolation? Or both - Morandi's art, which we'll get to a bit later, seems to cover both worlds, the latter (social) implicitly.
JF: Here many different things come together, and the danger is that they are simplified too much. I will try to clarify: “do you consider extra-musical aspects (for example, things occurring in the political world and how the music relates to it or is shaped by it)…” If this means that a composer should react in his work to an earthquake in Nepal or boat people in the Mediterranean, then no. Mostly this would be a clumsy way to attract attention. Neither art nor political processes should be limited in this way.
With respect to general political music, I can't remember any so-called political music making an impact on my life. For instance, Christian Wolff's music: I agree with him in many aspects of his political stance, but his music did not sharpen my mind in this respect. But his work as a composer is inspiring to me, how he works with ensembles, notation, scores, relationships, - and if this can be seen as a ‘political’ aspect in his music, I'm fine to call it political.
In my work, I consider each note as an individual, I respect each note as a sound personality. This may also be one of the reasons why I continue to compose by hand: I can give my attention to every note. I take responsibility for the note, and I also want that every note itself feels good and right in its place and in the context. And with this work ethic follows a similar attitude towards the musicians: I respect each musician as a personality, I count on their skills, their musicianship, and I hope to write music for them that is rewarding, and for which it’s worth taking responsibility. In this way I am seeking personal and social transformations.
I also don't think that a music that is “dealing with the harsh realities of the world” has more to do with life than one that is “contemplative or dwelling on aspects of beauty.” And "easy answers" are possible with any kind of material: a major chord or 12-tone cluster or a field recording or a noisy bang. Or just a simple pitch. But there is a lot of potential in the term "easiness", and of course it’s an important issue: easiness is wonderful, why make things more complicated than necessary? But on the other hand, things are complex, and silly simplification is not easiness but stupidity. But I do not resist an elegant solution.
BO: Do you think of the music as self-contained, jewel-like if you will, wanting it to be appreciated in isolation?”
JF: No. Again I feel it as a limitation to think of my music in a certain context. But on the other hand, my music is something to listen to. It works well when the listener focuses. My music is for the ears and for the eardrum. The eardrum is a gateway to the body, the mind and the soul, and I respect the eardrum as a very sensitive thing. (And for other characteristics than just the sound itself - form, duration and other things more connected to mind and feelings - my music can be edged and rough). “Is there an overarching idea or "goal" with a given piece, somewhere you are looking to reach, some idea you're looking to express, or do you let the notes determine what is reached or constructed?” I understand art in general, and my music too, as an intensification of life. It makes existence more intense, makes the individual being richer and the understanding of what life could be, more colourful. In my music, it can be done by silence and stillness, by precisely selected pitches, by sensations of shape and transitions, by hesitation or movement....
BO: Maybe we can begin to talk about the recording, Grizzana, at the same time being able to go back to some of these issues. First, having used his hometown as the title of the collection, would you like to talk about Morandi and his meaning for you?
Second, I'm curious if the pieces here were intended as a group, related in a general or specific way. One of the first things that came to mind after having recently listened (frequently) to your album on the Musiques Suisses label was how relatively astringent these works are. Perhaps only because of knowledge about the Morandi connection, I find myself "tracing" Morandi-like still lifes with those sandy string lines, for instance, sketching the shapes in, as it were, with the sounds, a very enjoyable preoccupation! I think you describe this music as "drier" or "less lush"; astrigency, technically, has to do with something that makes your lips pucker, like lemon! Maybe "chalky" (which might also lead to Morandi....)
JF: The work of Morandi has been part of my own work for many years, and for a long time I was looking for a possibility to express my respect to the painter. When Simon Reynell asked me for the details of a programme for this CD, I saw the opportunity to write a new piece to concretise my admiration for Morandi.
Morandi’s painting is figurative painting, but at the same time, he works with aspects of abstract painting. So you can see him also as an abstract painter who works with objects. To make a link to music (and sorry, I have to simplify it now, but in the daily process of my work, this reflection develops the whole richness of complexity), I can understand a melody as like a figurative part of a painting. Similarly to how you can remember melody as a “thing“, as a motif in music, you can see on the canvas a bottle, a house (and some painters speak about “working on the motif”). So on the other hand, in music the sound (just the sound) can be seen as an equivalent to abstract colour.
With this image in the background, you can listen to many of my pieces from the past. Sometimes it goes more to the abstract side, sometimes more to the figurative, but in general it takes a clear position between the two. It happened unconsciously in the earlier pieces, and later I discovered this image of abstract / figurative to find words to speak about the music. And the piece Grizzana maybe uses this more consciously in the focus of the composition.
But let me finish these reflections on Morandi with a quote. Sean Scully wrote in his essay about Giorgio Morandi: “His brushstroke is in complete philosophical agreement with the subject, the scale and the colour of his painting. It is expressive, though it is modest, and not so expressionistic as to disturb the sense of meditative silence that inhabits all his works.”
The pieces on the Grizzana album are not connected as one complete group (except they were all composed in the last few years and therefore they often revolve around similar content and compositional questions), but some of them are connected and composed in parts and subgroups.
Some of the pieces have more than just a musical background, and two personalities are important in this context: one is Morandi, the other is the Swiss poet Gustave Roud (for the pieces with French titles). Both artists have similar biographies. Morandi lived all his life in Bologna (except when he visited his summer house in Grizzana), Gustave Roud’s life was centred on the small landscape around the village of Carrouge, north of Lake Geneva. And in their work, both concentrate on a few topics to discover essential dimensions of human life. Morandi’s work focuses on still lifes with bottles, and landscapes, which are also important for me. Gustave Roud recognised the existential dimensions in the daily life of his friends, in the finest nuances of the weather and changes of the atmosphere of the landscape, and he made these perceptions the basis of his literary work.
The other works on the CD are composed for different occasions: A Memory of Perfection was a suggestion of violinist Erik Carlson (the title is a quote of Agnes Martin and the piece refers to my 2nd string quartet). Area of Three and Ferne Farben were first performed during Wandelweiser weeks in Neufelden (Austria), and Fragile Balance was written for Nomi Epstein and the ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic.
I agree with you about the characterisation of the music as “drier“. Here the music is less lush compared to the Musiques Suisses recordings. What you call "astringency" is clearly audible in the aspect of canons and counterpoint in several pieces. Sometimes, as in Lieues d'ombres, it refers to all the rigour of canon writing, but mostly it opens onto a more vague idea of canon and counterpoint. This is a paradox, because the canon is one of the most severe forms of composition. But I deal with this paradox, because I’m seeking a certain kind of expression. It happens during the performance, when the musicians are balancing between the given score and the notion/idea of the playing of the other musicians. The atmosphere, the base colour and the shape are similar in every performance, but the details are different. Sensitive reactions to different tempi and unpredictable cues from other musicians create this vague path between risk and surprise and keep it in a "fragile balance".
“Maybe "chalky" (kreidig) (which might also lead to Morandi....)” I like this remark. I never thought about "chalky" when I wrote Grizzana, though of course I had Morandi's work as a whole present in my mind. It is a good example of how a strong flow in the background can have an impact on a work. I think the colours in the piece are pretty near to Morandi's chalky blue, purples, brown and yellow shades.
BO: You mentioned canons. Why have canons become prominent in much of your recent work?
And would you elaborate a bit more on Gustave Roud and his meaning for you? My French isn't nearly good enough to do justice to the originals but in the few English translations I've found, I can certainly see some affinity with regard to his, as one writer put it, "romantic sublimity and classical restraint".
JF: I wrote my first canons in 2002 and 2003. Before, I had resisted the idea of using canons and had even rejected any connection of my music with canons. My impression about my music at that time was: I have to touch every sound individually and to put it in its place in the timeflow. And in this context the canon was just an automatic mechanism, outside my interests. The first canon I wrote is Glafsered. The title refers to the name of a small village in Sweden, the residence of Björn Nilsson, and this curator's strong interests in canons and counterpoint gave me the impetus. My first canons are strong scholastic works with respect to the technique of composition. But the material and the sounds are flat, bland and non-specific. You cannot hear a canon structure (though you can see it in the score). Or, as in Unhörbare Zeit(1), most of the music is silence with very few sounds; so to speak, silences in a canon. Later I opened up this scholastic approach to a more flexible one. And I told myself, a canon is simple: it's the same or a similar thing, but it happens later, the same activity, and later again, the same and later again. And when I walked through the streets, I saw canon structures everywhere in daily life - it's not just a musical phenomenon. And I started to research the possibilities between openness and strict writing. This gave me the opportunity to write pieces like canones incerti, Vague Canons, Circular Music, and many others whose titles are not directly related to the canon. Most of them are with sounds and music, but a piece like this is also part of my interest in canons:
11:30 Eat a fruit
12:17 Say a word clearly and quietly
12:43 Read silently one page in a book unknown to you
14:21 Play or hum a scale of six tones
14:24 Think of someone you'd like to kiss
14:35 Take a picture with your camera
15:20 A long flat noise, very quiet
This is the first voice of a time and activity structure during a day; a second and a third voice start each 10 minutes later. I have recently written some very strict canons, but I am more interested in insecure canons and counterpoint structures. I see arising a precise musical expression of tenderness, clarity, risk and a groping when musicians act in an open canon structure. And another aspect of the canon I’ve begun to understand: once I have found the right notes, sounds and pauses, I can let the music go on by itself, I don't need to touch them again, I don't have to think about new energies, other directions, I can just listen and it goes on by itself, lovely.
As to Gustave Roud: when I look at my artistic interests as a wide panorama, then at first the Canons and Gustave Roud are far away from each other. A canon is a technique, a structure and "some kind of a music" is already in the background, and I try to make this situation useful for my work. Gustave Roud seems to be the opposite: it's pure sensation, emotion, and my desire is to find a structure, the sounds and a score for all these feelings. Gustave Roud's oeuvre is deeply connected with his living in Carrouge and his walks around a few villages in the neighbourhood of the Haut-Jorat. I consider his work as a kind of "field recording" at a clearly defined place, during a long period of more than 50 years, not with a microphone, but with his sketchbook, and not just for sounds, but also for colours, shades, subtle changes of the fields, trees, flowers, scenes, and details of working or resting farmers, the seasons, and his own thoughts and feelings. And similarly to the way in which a microphone takes in every sound, Gustave Roud reacted to the finest and most delicate impressions in the environment and in his feelings. When he made his walks (and I imagine slow walks, with long stops and time just looking at the landscape), he always had his sketchbook with him to write down his observations and thoughts. These sketchbooks are the basis of his work. Roud’s oeuvre has accompanied me for nearly ten years. This coming-together is maybe more in the background, because on the surface his work also speaks about experiences of just living in the rural countryside. “Romantic sublimity and classical restraint" is for sure part of his work, but inside, in the nucleus, I see a relationship to what I’m doing, outside of a simple assignment to a genre. His texts remain a strong inspiration for me and give me a strong insight into the depth of how to make art. Similar to my work, where I try to translate feelings, notions and intuitions into signs (these are the black and white dots and lines on the five line stave) to create at the end a score, so Roud tries to translate his first unnamable observations into words and sentences to achieve at the end a poetic work. And another thing, maybe more in parenthesis: to read the texts by Gustave Roud is a pleasure for me, precisely because my French is not fluent. It slows down the reading and makes it similar to his walking in the landscape, standing idle, listening, thoughts, walking again....
BO: I didn't know Roud's work at all but, searching around, I see at least one reason why: very little has been translated into English as near as I can determine (and my French is, I'm sure, far worse than yours). I did locate one passage here. I've no idea about the quality of translation, of course, but between this and your description, I can get at least a glimmer of the connection with your music and, sitting here now listening, find myself hearing the work in a slightly different and very rewarding light. It's always fascinating to me how extra-musical knowledge can enhance one's experience of music, either in the moment or even retrospectively. I've been listening through your set with that "slowly walking around" frame of mind, sometimes imagining catching a glimpse of a Morandi through a window--very rewarding, very special. "Lieues d’ombres" works especially beautifully, for me, this way, both the observational and canonic aspects.
JF: Thanks for this remark about the connection between me and Roud and your experience when you listened again to the pieces with the background of the Roud text. Actually, this text, which is part of Air de la solitude, is one of the initial inspirations for my compositions with Roud, and Petit fragment de paysage is a quote from this text, Pouvoir d'une prairie: "A power still more mysterious in the case of an isolated fragment embedded in the larger landscape...” (Pouvoir plus mistérieux encore s'il s'agit d'un petit fragment de paysage qui s'isole à l'interieur de grand...")
Email interview conducted by Brian Olewnick, spring 2015
Discussion between Venezuelan composer Gil Sansón and Jürg Frey
GS: You’ve talked about the importance of ‘knowing your materials’ when composing. Material can be anything from stones and dry leaves to actual notes and chords. When composing for the piano, which in itself puts some restrictions on the material regarding timbre and duration, is the notion of harmony somehow more prominent? It seems to me that having to work with restricted materials such as single notes, dyads and chords, one can feel the harmonic underpinnings in a way that's both abstract (pitch relationships) and concrete (the possible affects that the harmonic discourse can bring forward) in an unmediated way, using the very instrument on which the whole notion of western harmony is based.
JF: In one sense your question is easy to answer: yes, 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. In a general way it’s still similar to composing for stones or leaves in that the materials just represent noises, but here complex sound textures are more prominent. The other side of your question is more difficult to answer, and it's connected with the notion of harmony – or in your words ‘the whole notion of western harmony’ - which is embodied in the piano itself, and offers itself so easily to the composer. 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. It's a basic, existential trust in such a simple thing as a third or a fifth. It's not given by itself; one has to try to create it for every piece, to compose it and to find a context for it. This is part of the work on the piece; 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.
GS: Listening to ‘Circles and Landscapes’ there's definitely a sense of compositions for the piano, as opposed to piano compositions (the kind that take into account the natural inclinations of the instrument and its sound), in that the pieces seem to articulate their discourse based upon harmony and register, without employing any of the other resources available to the composer when writing for the piano today (as in Eva-Maria Houben's Keyboard Music III, where a four note chord in the low register is held down without sounding for the duration of the piece, subtly colouring the single notes played by the right hand). I often think of Wandelweiser as a sort of leveller. To eliminate virtuosic display, formal complexity and grand statements while existing in real time and the real world, not offering an escape from it, but showing how to exist in it without compromise. In this sense, and coming from this new environment, a feeling for harmony can express itself away from the trappings of past styles and historical practice. Here I think of what you said about how a very important aspect is to ensure that the two notes sounding at one time have the assuredness to be themselves in the continuity. So in this regard I think your music proves there's a rich present for harmony in the post-Cage continuum, both as a continuity of the essential aspects of western harmony and how this notion has become greatly expanded.
My next question deals also with harmony, but in a different order of things: seeing that harmony (even something as simple as, say, a B flat minor triad) in its very essence has the power to elicit a wide range of emotional responses in the listener, do you take into consideration these potentially charged materials for their affective characteristics when you compose, or are the formal necessities of the piece what ultimately determine the end result? Perhaps a combination of both?
JF: To answer this question I have to describe how I start to work on a new piece. This comes even before your question ‘Perhaps a combination of both?’ because at the very beginning of the process of composition I think neither of the power to elicit certain emotional responses, nor do I know anything about formal necessity of the piece. I think both ideas may limit the potential of the working process.
I hear the sounds, the chords, the dyads, the single notes in their own reality, before they start to move towards becoming a part of the composition. Later I write notes with a vague impression of the piece. To give a simple explanation of what is a complex process: I translate these impressions and feelings gradually into notes, durations/seconds, pitches, volumes, colours and not least to a conceptual underground. This process of translation is hazardous, because during the translation the feelings and impressions are also constantly in the process of changing. Then later, yes, decisions for or against a chord or a certain harmony are guided by emotional responses and formal necessities, in respect to emotional responses in myself, and in respect to the formal necessity of the piece, which may at some lucky moments be the same.
I work at my desk, and during this work, the piece gradually becomes alive. I work with my ears, sometimes using and sometimes avoiding learned skills - ideally sometimes far away from any learned skill, using simple procedures underpinned by a fundamental concern with material. I’m the listener, and later, when the piece is performed, the audience takes my place and listen to what I’ve composed for their ears.
GS: So, in a sense, composing is a mental activity that is translated into signs in order to be brought to life? A process of distillation or sublimation in which the ideal and the actual are in a dynamic of compromise and negotiation (say, when the ideal has to adapt to the acoustic realities of the piano, for example)?
JF: It’s so good to have the opportunity to talk about this! In fact it is a two-step thing: it starts with my visions, impressions, and I experience it as a living feeling. Then this vision is translated into signs and notes - and the next step is for the musicians to bring these signs back to life. The challenge for the composer (in addition to the challenge of having a vision, a music inside) is to bring the music to the signs, to the paper, without destroying it. And a strong and irritating experience I had at the beginning of my life as a composer was the experience of things dying on paper. Looking at the notes, I discovered something different from what I had had in my mind. During the process of notation something had happened that had killed the music. Like with collections of butterflies in boxes; they look lovely, but also terrible, because the butterflies are dead. At that time I had the same feelings when I read my first attempts to write scores: lovely, but where is the piece, the life? I had lost the music. How can this process of translation be made at least partly successful? To answer this, I have to think in relative terms about what I wrote above. In fact, it's not so simple: first a vision and then a score. You mentioned 'a dynamic of compromise and negotiation', I prefer the word 'collaboration'. It only can happen in collaboration with what is going to arise. As a composer, I have to listen to what happens as a result of what is written on the paper, maybe this can tell me where the piece will be or where it will go. But before I can listen to it, I have to write down something…something that I think might be good… I'm also a player, and a score is like a gift for a player. Although it appears to consist just of notes, 'dots and lines', in fact the whole life of the piece, the music, is wrapped up in the score. And the process of practicing and rehearsing the piece is one of unpacking the music and bringing it back to life. With some pieces you can do this again and again.
GS: The theme of harmony keeps flowing back, somehow. This question begs to be framed as an ellipse: when composing (or when reflecting on composing) do you ever feel the gravitational pull of harmony as inherited notion and practice? For example, the pull of certain tendencies in chord progressions that seem to proceed on their own to a certain extent? Maybe it's just me hearing what I want to hear, but am I wrong in detecting an invisible thread that somehow connects your work with, say, the work of Robert Schumann? All of this comes to mind in the context of Wandelweiser, which I think is a singularity of sorts that has allowed music to achieve escape velocity and finally enter this century and leave behind many of the trappings associated with the term ‘contemporary music’. This is why I find this dynamic so wonderful to hear. Harmony and paradox, side by side, which in a way suggests that these two should always go together, and that harmony is only a problem when we start to take things for granted.
JF: Your remarks are touching on important things, especially at the end when you say that "harmony is only a problem when we start to take things for granted". Let me elaborate some thoughts. When I work with certain features of a chord progression, then yes, I understand that you may hear this as a connection to Schumann. But let me put it in a more general way, because in fact a composer is often faced with such problems: you have a similar situation when you are using ‘chance operations’ or ‘extended techniques’, or ‘atonality’, even with ‘counterpoint’ and ‘melody’. In all these instances you find yourself in the context of the past. That happens when you are looking back to the pieces that have already been written by other composers. But what happens when I look forward to my new piece, to the next composition that I am going to write? Let me make a small digression with Schumann. I would say that I don't use the chord progressions of Schumann, but I do hear in his music sometimes, not too often, a flow of chords without any effort of the composer. The music goes on and on, and the whole energy feels like it comes from inside the music, not as a compositional effort made by the composer. Obviously this has a strong impact on my thoughts and feelings. I also hear this 'going on by itself' in works by other composers, particularly in the pre-Baroque era, but with Schumann it's coloured by a more personal handwriting. I don't hear it with much of the expressionist music of the 20th century, and even sometimes not in the music of Schönberg. There a variety of expressionist gestures are used to move the music forward rather than it having this sense of 'going on by itself' with its own internal momentum. This 'going on by itself' is an issue that has concerned me for many, many years. It was even, I think, the initial spark at the beginning of my life as a composer. However, over the years, and not least after many, many discussions with my Wandelweiser friends, I came to a clear awareness of how important it is for me to have stasis and silence as the background for any forward motion in a composition. ‘Moving forward’ is not a given in my music; stasis is the underlying basis from which everything starts. Sometimes there is movement, sometimes there’s a conceptual issue, and sometimes a piece will remain static for its entire duration, or it will return to stasis. In recent years a sense of moving forward, of going from one thing to the next (and this can be melody - pitch by pitch - or chord progression, or formal progression) has moved more to the centre of my work. And I have also learned that this sense of ‘moving forward’ in a piece may work more readily for me when I use clear triads and dyads. But, once again, I want to lead my answer back to the practice of composing, and it's not as simple as I’ve described it. I have discovered another paradox: a chord progression, which includes a sense of movement, may also produce a stasis, like in my ‘Extended Circular Music No. 2’. And vice versa, a stasis, as, for example, when the same note is repeated many times, may lead the piece to a completely new situation. As a composer, I think and feel something, but afterwards the composed music may tell a slightly different story, and one of the most adventurous parts of my work is to listen to and to learn from these unexpected stories.
GS: On a completely different subject: some of your fellow composers in the Wandelweiser milieu have a strong sense of intellectual engagement with the work of key philosophers like Deleuze, Badiou and Spinoza, among others. Some traits, such as Spinoza's critique of negative feelings like melancholy or sadness, seem evident in the music of Antoine Beuger, which somehow shows a neutrality of emotion in its composition (execution is another matter). The notion of field, the notion of the fold, among many others, keep coming up when dealing with or discussing Wandelweiser music. Is your music different in this regard?
JF: I think my music probably is different. I haven't read Badiou, and although I have read selected works by Deleuze, and more by Spinoza, I don't see a conscious relationship to the thoughts of these philosophers. Although, when I read Deleuze or Spinoza, I do feel a closeness...
I’ll take your question in a wider sense, and talk about how important (at least for me) is the engagement with other artists, writers and composers as regards intellectual, poetic and practical aspects. Elsewhere I have mentioned my engagement with Agnes Martin, with Gustave Roud (and the sensitivity of his poetic language), and with Giorgio Morandi (his work being situated between the abstract and the figurative, or, in music, between sound and melody).
In addition to these comprehensive engagements, which have been incorporated into and have transformed my work at a deep level over a long time, there are also other spotlights, which enlighten and make me aware of specific features in my work. Spotlights which work like anchors, and which I go back to from time to time to assure myself. I take a catalogue, a text or a score from my bookcase. This may be Fred Sandback, to understand how a simple line works in space, and in a score. Or Ed Ruscha, to think about words in a score (or, with his gasoline stations, to better understand neutral figuration, neutral melody). Or Sean Scully to learn about the complexity of clear forms. These are the artists. Of the poets, I could mention Edmond Jabès when I try to understand how a piece develops from the depths of an empty sheet. Or finally to come back to music: to understand the paradox in Bruckner’s music, where sometimes a wide expansion happens without any extra subjective or emotional benefit.
GS: Am I correct in inferring from your words that what is truly important is the invisible thread that somehow connects a work of art or literature to a piece of music? Your answer brought to my mind an elliptical thought: Feldman once said that perhaps Cage's greatest achievement was that he proposed that music could in fact be a form of art, not something separated from it.
JF: The question of whether music is a form of art has periodically haunted me at my composer’s desk since I first read Feldman’s statement, I think in the late 1980’s. If I understand this remark in the context of the art world of 1960’s New York, then it could be saying that music which doesn't tell a story but is just abstract sounds - a quasi ‘all over music’ - is nearer to art, similar to a painting where your first impression is also an all over impression. Of course music unfolds in time, starts at some point and ends at another, but some pieces by Cage at least are thought of as an all over structure. This is simple enough, but the difficulties start when the music has any kind of rhetorical facet, be it in relation to ‘melody’ (a ‘phrase’) or ‘form’, both of which are facets of non-abstract figuration and connected to a kind of rhetoric, the rhetoric of figuration and the rhetoric of form. I don't want to discuss all the pitfalls, whereby a rhetorical virtuosity can take over a composition on the surface (and the performer is willing to follow or extend this), and the thing degenerates into a circus act. But there is also a virtuosity in composition. The delicate questions of rhetoric have become a more important part of my music in the last few years. So has my music moved away from art? For sure, an earlier work such as the WEN cycle of 59 solo pieces is nearer to the form of art that Cage evoked; WEN can be understood as a set of single drawings, an alphabet of the vocabulary of the composer, to mention a description I read once about the small 1960s pencil and ink drawings by Agnes Martin. Is a poem nearer to being a form of art than a novel? It's clear that a story affects the clean character of abstract art. When I mention “story” I’m not talking about programme music or intellectual ideas. My focus is on the immanent musical thinking and its possible teleological aspects, when a piece has an energy of moving forward and a direction, and when it makes sense that certain things happen earlier and others later. In my music a fundamental question is how to leave something and how to proceed, then I have to grapple with the question of form and its rhetorical aspects. And a rhetorical aspect means speaking to somebody, while an abstract piece doesn't speak to anyone, it's just there. (And by the way, for me this is such an exciting observation and experience in relation to my pieces Pianist, alone No.1, and Pianist, alone No.2. No. 1 doesn't speak to anybody, it's just there over 90 minutes, maybe with an audience beside it. But No.2 does speak to the audience. The piece says: listen, how this and that happens. And how the music goes on and doesn’t return). I think that any kind of rhetorical process only makes sense when you find that at the end the piece is at another level or in a new dimension. The art and the rhetorical process are balanced, and at the very end the piece may become an art work. But it’s difficult for me to speak about this; it becomes blurred, and at the same time it's lifeless and theoretical. So let me go back to what I know better, the process of composing: not speaking about it, but doing it, and I feel that suddenly these kind of problems disappear, and instead the difficulties of the actual work emerge and are what is significant: to make something happen in the score, to let it arise on the paper. This is about more than just finding the sounds, but transforming them into an art work. I think Paul Cézanne spoke about this when he mentioned "la réalisation", a lifelong struggle in his work, and William Carlos Williams said simply: "The same thing exists, but in a different condition when energised with imagination".
So here again are the invisible threads that you mentioned above. Yes, there's a connection - sometimes deep and intense, sometimes light at certain precise points - to artists, poets, composers (of the past, and friends of the present). These threads are important to me and keep my work at the composer's desk agile and open. Composing is a lonely activity, but these threads make the work less solitary.
Jürg Frey interviewed by Jack Sheen
JS: In between rehearsals of his new piece Shadow and Echo and Jade written for EXAUDI as part of the Principal Sound Festival, Jürg Frey spoke to Jack Sheen in the St John's Smith Square Crypt about Circular Music no.2, abstraction, and the pleasure of 'playing it again'. They began by discussing Frey's sound installation work.
JF: I hesitate a bit to call them ‘installations’, because they are more ‘compositions for loudspeakers of a long duration’. What happens with the audience is that they come in and half a minute later they walk out, or people who stay longer usually stay for half an hour or twenty minutes. But because it’s more like a composition, certain things you will only hear after 20 minutes, they won’t have happened before.
JS: Do you hesitate to call them installations because they are still very linear pieces?
JF: The pieces meander between installation and composition. They are linear, they start at a point and go on and on. But at certain points, it stops, a silence or a slightly different section starts. It’s a balance between linear and form.
JS: What do you mean by form in this context?
JF: Sections. It’s when something changes, you are a certain time with this music, and then the music leaves you and there is another. Or you have loops. You have short loops, but also, if you have a loop of 40 minutes and at the end of this loop you have, let’s say, a melody played by trumpets, you will only learn about this after 40 minutes: ‘I have been here now for 40 minutes and I have never heard this melody played by the trumpets before…’
But you start to realise that things seldom happen in these installations. It’s not a pattern, where you’ve got a pattern after five minutes and if you come in later and you hear the same pattern. It’s not this, it’s that certain things happen very seldom.
JS: I was at a performance of Circular Music no.2 last year and it felt like I was in an installation rather than watching a concert piece. Whenever I hear your music I do feel like it’s been ‘installed’ in the performance space for 10 or 15 or 30 minutes, and as a listener you’re in it. It’s around you and you spot connections between the sounds like points on a physical object. And then when the sounds stop, the 'installation' has been taken down.
JF: Yes, that’s right! Not all of them, but the way you describe the Circular Music pieces as installations, in a similar way I can describe my installations as compositions. You hear a piece, but it’s like an installation and you hear an installation where you think ‘… no it’s not an installation, it’s a piece!’
JS: That’s really interesting. An aspect of installation is that they last a long time so as to really situate itself within a space, whilst concert pieces like Circular Music no.2 often last between 10-15 minutes. How is the length of a piece important to you? How do you decide how long a piece and/or composition is?
JF: In these Circular Music pieces everything is repeated and the form is not given. Of course everyone can decide what they want, but this is my opinion:
I feel that after certain durations, let’s say if Circular Music no.2 were to go on for over 30 minutes, I would start to think as a performer how to bring it back to a piece. So if I have a group to play with and we decide to do it for one hour, I would get us to think about maybe having a certain point in this hour where we play just noises, without the melodic part. So let’s say, after 20 minutes we start to move to this place where we just use noises, and then we stay there for 15 minutes, and then everybody can go back, or whatever.
I would say I need a reason to play this piece for an hour, and this could be a reason. So I would maybe discuss this with the performers to make something.
JS: Another idea that surrounds installations and performances is obviously the space itself. We’ve just heard EXAUDI rehearse your new piece Shadow and Echo and Jade in St John’s Smith Square, where the acoustic gives this big glow to the sound. Do you think visually or sonically about where your concert pieces will be performed and does in influence your writing?
JF: Not so much. I know about this space from a picture, I did now know it before. Also, in this piece - which is choral - where does the sound come from? Does it come from here, or here? [Points at areas of a table implying a stage]. This is part of it. When I’m writing I have this idea that it does not come from one point. It comes from different points.
JS: The sound?
JF: Different musicians. You have different seats onstage. It comes from different places.
JS: So you really think about particular points on the stage as opposed to a collective sound from the stage?
JF: It’s both. Of course in a piece like Circular Music no.2 I do not know exactly from where or how many points there would be. But when I have a score, like in this EXAUDI piece, I have a picture. It’s not just the score, it’s where the sound is.
JS: That really came across in that piece, where at times the music pans from one side of the ensemble to the other.
JF: That’s more me thinking about space. I think I don’t have pieces which really work in the space. Like in ancient music, like Gabrieli, but inside the composition it’s an important part for me to know. Maybe it’s just because when I am working I have the sound in front of me.
JS: And also you’re a performer yourself, you’re used to feeling like an individual making your sound surrounded by others who are doing the same. How else does your practice as a performer influence your composition?
JF: [Long pause] Well I have a lot of things to say!
I have the impression that my music has some sort of conceptual background. Conceptualism is in the background, but because I am a player it doesn’t stay there. It comes to the sound. Conceptualism in the 1960s meant that it was just written and then it happens in the mind of the listener. But because I am in practice of the instrument, it always comes to the sound. It comes to practical music making.
There is one danger for musicians who are composers: it sounds like an instrumentalist who writes music. You know this music? Usually it’s very stupid! It shows everything you can do with the instrument, like a study. But I am a composer who also plays the clarinet, so there’s this conceptual background, but it is always composition.
A very strong experience for me is if the sound of the composition looks very abstract, when I play it on the clarinet things change. Everything changes. I never play my music in an abstract way. You heard Shadow and Echo and Jade in the rehearsal just now, and the performers were not always sure the first time whether this is a single abstract note, or if it is a phrase. They are phrases, you have to make phrases, not just single abstract notes. I think that’s my experience as a performer: to bring it all the time to music.
JS: I think that’s how I would describe your music, and the music of a lot of other Wandelweiser composers - that it has a strong conceptual basis but it always boils down to producing really beautiful sounds. Your String Quartet no.2 is a favourite piece of mine because it’s such a bold concept - you could just describe that piece to someone and they could react emotionally to it - but in your realisation of that concept the sound is so peculiar, visceral and thought out that it totally transcends the concept. How do you arrive at these sounds?
JF: As you know, the string quartets are all minor chords, but the string instruments are bowed in a special way to produce this colour, with these crazy kind of harmonics.
I heard it for the first time in my Violin Duo, where they always play the same thing in unison. But I learnt that you can somehow make two pitches audible on one string. I took a violin, and I tried it out! And I learnt that yes, it’s possible to do, but sometimes it’s very fragile and sometimes you can’t keep it. I bought this experience to the String Quartet no.2 chords and of course it was crazy when I heard for the first time. I thought ‘this special sound, four times together, it should be something very crazy, it should be great’.
JS: And it was!
JF: It was!
JS: With Circular Music no.2, what came first? Sounds or concepts?
JF: Well in this piece I think it was first the idea of being circular. There is a long story behind this because earlier in my career if someone would have told me that circular things could happen in my music in this way, I would have thought it impossible!
I always had the impression that I had to place every chord. I have to take it with my hand… It’s not a circular mechanism. So this was very far away from every idea of mine. My idea is that I have to touch every note, every sound, I have to pick it up and put it in the right place for the right duration. It took a long time before I started to write canons or circular pieces. It was a discovery!
JS: How did you discover it, if it was so opposed to what you were doing before?
JF: Well I started to write the first canons in the late 90s. It was more a coming from outside. A curator in Sweden was asking me for pieces who was interested in counterpoint and canon. I thought ‘I should write something for him which is connected with canon’.
My first canons were most of them ‘pauses in canons: little single notes and the rest was silences so that you don’t hear any kind of ‘canon’, because there are such long breaks in between the notes. This was the first step.
Then slowly I developed more canonic and circular techniques and at the end of this process I learnt that when you take the right notes and the right silences it’s so lovely because it creates something that I was looking for all the time: it goes by itself! The music goes by itself!
I don’t touch every note but I let them go. The idea from Feldman of letting notes go. They go by themselves. It took such a long time before I learnt.
JS: With Circular Music no.2 you maintain a sense of delicacy because even though you - the composer - aren’t placing every note down in time, the material is so exposed that the performers absolutely place everything. They delicately place every single sound and that’s what makes the piece so beautiful. Again I can’t help but feel like this is connected to your experience as a player!
JF: It has to be a pleasure to play!
JS: I said this to a friend when we saw this piece together. It’s such joyful music, it relishes giving sounds to performers and them taking care of the sounds and placing the music around, listening to other people and building something. It’s very joyful.
JF: That’s great. That’s really great to hear from you because that’s what is so important for me.
JF: Joy is maybe too foreground. It’s an inner joy, somehow. It’s not jolly, ‘oh let’s have fun!’.
JS: It’s not party music.
JF: No. But you have to like it. Like to play it.
And another thing! Oh, this is also interesting. Another experience I want to speak about is my experience of the music of the English composer Howard Skempton. I’ve know him since the maybe 80s and he has these short piano pieces which I play. And at the end I think ‘Oh! It’s so lovely, I’ll play it again’.
And it’s an experience which I have, for instance, when I play Schubert’s Tänze, which only last one or half a page. I play one and think ‘oh yeah, I’ll play it again!’. It’s kind of circular! ‘Why turn the page? … I’ll just play it again.’ And that’s why I like to play, it’s so joyful to play it again! I’m not a brilliant piano player, I play it slowly and I have to wait sometimes, but then I start again.
That’s one of the experiences which had an influence on my idea of circular music. If you have written the line, as a composer you have to find the reason why the player wants to start again. I don’t want a feeling of mechanical repetition: ‘he writes five times, I have to do it again’. No, at the ends it’s: ‘ah, good, it’s good that it starts again’. That’s important. It’s some kind of energy in the score.
JS: Well of course your scores look so beautiful and minimal and your handwriting is very distinctive. I suppose, one of the reason you still handwrite is to control that more, literally to put everything on a page.
JF: Absolutely right!
JS: It’s interesting that you mentioned Feldman as this new EXUADI piece is being premiered in a Feldman festival. Could you talk about your relationship with his music?
JF: Well I have to go back to my beginnings. In the early 1970s when I had my first experiences with Feldman’s music which I remember as a very important thing. I was maybe 19 or 20 when I heard my first Feldman piece and I was absolutely interested in what he did.
Because I did not have regular composition training, at some point in my life as a composer I got the impression that I really had to analyse pieces to find out about composition. I went back to Feldman, in the 1980s, and I engaged with his music as a composer, a player, an analyst and as a conductor so I knew very well his music. You can hear it in my music of the late 1980s.
It helped me to find my way back to composing because before I could not see any possible way of how to go on as I did not feel I had any craft. Although I never met him, Feldman helped me to start to think about what other composers were doing.
JS: I think I was 16 or 17 when I first heard Feldman’s music and it really taught me the importance of silence in a piece of music. That’s a connection I can see between both of your work.
JF: I think the thing that is more important to me than silence is how Feldman deals with form. I remember this solo soprano piece Only (sung by Juliet Fraiser) and I remember that this was one of the most important things that I am thrilled by in his music: it’s this melody and at the end it stays on only two notes. You do this, then you just have these two notes going forth and back. That’s interesting!
JS: The restriction?
JF: Just this kind of idea. This quality of idea. It’s an idea of a composer. It’s so obvious that the composer did this, and if you hear it. When I hear it, I’m so happy that he did it! That’s what I liked so much in his music. With Feldman it’s an open book and you can read everything that he decided. It’s so clear. That’s what I was attracted to because I was trying to do something like that.
One of my first pieces is a song cycle, Lachen und Lächeln (1978), for singer, pianist, horn, violin and clarinet, which is about 15 minutes. The first part is three songs for the whole ensemble and then the last 12 minutes is just piano, five pieces for piano. The other musicians and the singer are of course on stage, they are listening to the pianist like the audience. This is not a Feldman idea, but he made similar things. These crazy decisions, but which work when you hear them!
JS: Are there any other sources of inspiration which don’t come from music, particularly with regards to form?
JF: Yes, this is important because in my case there are some. There are painters. It’s not so much an obvious influence, but at certain points in my work I need to take a catalogue and look at it and think. For a very long time it was Agnes Martin and later the Italian painter Giorgio Morandi.
There are landscapes and mostly still lives, it’s mostly these bottles like this. When I think in my music in terms of the quality of sound and melody I go back to Morandi. I have to make it simple: I think that a melody is like figurative painting. A melody says something, like if you see a tree or a house, and on the other side you have just sound, like a Rothko. Often my music has both.
With Morandi it seems clear what it is. It is figurative painting, but the way he is using it, it’s like some sort of abstract painting. Morandi did not do this abstraction, but he doesn't tell stories and you can imagine that it’s a little step to get to just sound, just colour.
JS: To get to a Rothko.
JF: Or De Kooning sometimes, or Franz Kline, they are also not so far.
For me it’s somehow a point of inspiration for balancing between abstract sounds and a more figurative quality. Sometimes we don’t all the time know what we are doing - most of the time we do not! When I’m a bit confused whilst working on a new piece I take distance from it and go back to these paintings and think ‘oh yeah, that’s what Morandi did’.
I make this line [draws a line on the table with his finger]. Sometimes a piece goes more to the abstract on this side, and sometimes a piece goes more to the figurative on that side. In Circular Music no.2, you can bring it to the absolute abstraction if you loose all of the melodic lines so it’s more of an abstract piece, but you can also bring some melody to it and then it becomes more figurative music. In this piece it’s more a decision of the performers.
When I write a score which is fixed… well it’s difficult to say it’s a decision ‘of mine’, but I feel where it goes. Sometimes more in this direction and sometimes more in another direction. So I’m not always so aware about how I make a decision to put it more on this side or that side of the line.
JS: It happens.
JF: In the end I am not doing it, but it happens!
Interview, London 2017)