Jürg Frey: Circles and Landscapes

Tuesday 26 January 2016

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.

Joseph Kudirka: Beauty and Industry

Thursday 21 January 2016


Other than hearing a performance of his piece wyoming snow on the radio last year, I really knew nothing about Joseph Kudirka before receiving this new CD in the mail.

That performance of wyoming snow was for multitracked cello, played by Anton Lukoszevieze. The same piece appears twice again on the Beauty and Industry CD, but played by different ensembles. Lukoszevieze is the founder of the ensemble Apartment House, which has done so much lately to present new and neglected music. This disc dedicated to Kudirka’s music is probably the latest.

As previously implied, Kudirka writes pieces open to interpretation and several of them are played two or three times during the course of the disc. An informative interview on the Another Timbre site reveals that, although his scores are typically “open”, Kudirka is leery of the term “text score” and his musical education was grounded in playing and instrument before composition became a major concern. (“I’m great at playing music that I hate.”) He’s another one of the generation of composers taught by James Tenney and Michael Pisaro at CalArts, although he did not appear on the rather wonderful and surprising West Coast Soundings album I reviewed in 2014.

The scores for the pieces played here range from introspective variations on George Brecht’s terse Fluxus scores, to general instructions determining the form, structure and materials for the piece, to music notation that leaves unspoken questions of interpretation, instrumentation and intonation. They can also be seen on the Another Timbre web site, with audio excerpts.

The music reflects Kudirka’s background as a performer. The text scores allow a music structure and character to emerge through the musicians’ choices. In that respect they ingeniously operate in a manner similar to early Feldman or late Cage, but in a looser and more generalised way. It can’t be entirely a coincidence that this music shares a similarly slow and soft atmosphere.

When I think of other text scores (good ones) they seem to concentrate on setting into motion an overall process governed by a set of conditions, either internal like Aus den sieben Tagen or external, like Cardew’s Paragraph 7 or pieces by James Saunders. Kudirka’s seem unusual in that they focus on defining and arranging details. There’s an elegance to their simplicity, and the music emerges fully defined and subtle. The repeated takes on this disc shows that each piece has depth beyond an interest in compositional technique.

Repeated listenings reveal an unexpected variety. It’s a nicely-balanced selection of works: 14 tracks in a little over 50 minutes. Enough to be absorbed by without getting entirely lost. Some pieces are barely 30 seconds; the longest reaches beyond 8 minutes. The small scale allows attention to details and gestures. Pieces like Grey and an orchestral fantasy have a sombre formality compared to the sustained tones of Beauty and Industry or the more polychromatic wyoming snow.

A large part of this is down to Apartment House musicians, who play with great sensitivity and fidelity to the score. On each track they present interpretations which are distinctive without needing to resort to extremes, setting a consistent mood that still shifts in shading from one piece to the next.

Unfinished Business: Ezra Pound’s Music

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Been listening a lot to two new CDs on Another Timbre: a new album of Jürg Frey’s piano music played by Philip Thomas, and a collection of pieces by Joseph Kudirka played by Apartment House. I need to talk about these soon but I’ve got left over business from the London Contemporary Music Festival last month. It was an incredible programme that mixed old and new, familiar and obscure in a way that took risks simply by being such an eclectic jumble of different practices and backgrounds: a true portrait of the state of “contemporary music” at the start of a century that still hasn’t a defined identity.

A long blog post by Lawrence Dunn gives an excellent analysis of many events from the LCMF, as well as the La Monte Young and other gigs at Huddersfield. (Dunn also discusses Philip Thomas playing Frey’s piano music live.) The latter part of his post goes into detail about the LCMF night “To a new definition of opera”, which still strikes me as the stand-out event in the programme. The first half of Tim Parkinson’s Time With People, which I’ve talked about before, re-appeared and its stage detritus persisted amongst the audience throughout the whole programme.

The evening ended with Stockhausen’s Pietà finally getting played in this country – a prime example of his later music being quite mad and quite wonderful. It began by plunging the audience into the verbal and visual assault of Ryan Trecartin’s video Center Jenny. Dunn’s blog links to the video and makes the excellent observation that this work connects to the legacy of Robert Ashley’s operas, in a deep and disturbing way. I can’t really agree with Dunn’s feeling that it’s the work of “the worst sort of antifeminist”. It seemed more to me that the video is about misogyny than of it, or worse, that it dispassionately picks up one unsavoury aspect of current social anxieties which, salvaged as a remnant in a post-apocalyptic future, is arbitrarily selected as the model for a future society. It could have been racism, but that’s too heavy now. The gender and social roles depicted in US sorority life are still presented as cheerfully benign, and exist in a curious cultural vacuum: through movies and TV they are familiar to everyone around the world, but unlike McDonald’s or basketball they remain utterly alien to even the most pro-American Anglophone. The average age of the audience on this night was noticeably older, and they generally seemed to find Center Jenny amusing.

I presume the older people were an equal mix of Stockhausen fans and Pound fans. The night was my chance to hear Ezra Pound’s music played live, with a potted version of his opera Le Testament de Villon played for the first time in the UK in its “un-revised” phrasing. Pound’s music is seldom heard and even when scholars of Pound the poet bring it up there’s much lip service and little critical discussion. It tends to get pigeonholed as a passing phase, one of the less harmful of his many eccentricities. On paper, it has often been dismissed as crude and amateurish: irregular meters and phrasing, no pauses, introductions or conclusions, any polyphony usually an accompanying instrument moving in parallel with the voice. It’s clear he set Villon’s words line by line to melody, determined by the intonation of a speaking voice. Pound himself suggested that the opera was instigated by the impossibility of satisfactorily translating Villon into English.

One critic has sniffed that the opera is “less a foray into modernism and more a half-baked retreat into pre-operatic archaism” and so misses the point. It’s of a piece with much of Pound’s poetry to that time, of reclaiming and revitalising old cultural forms, “making it new”. “Early music” as it is appreciated now was barely known in 1920s and Pound had advocated for it before (going as far as to buy a clavichord from Arnold Dolmetsch in 1915, despite not knowing how to play it) and after (microfilming unpublished Vivaldi manuscripts in the 1930s).

Those strange, meandering vocal lines of irregular length are now familiar to audiences through the resemblance to plainchant, albeit with a minimal accompaniment (often just solo violin) and a strange, not-quite-modal intonation. The baritone Robert Gildon and mezzo Lore Lixenberg sang without the vibrato that would have been hard to expunge in Pound’s lifetime. The piece begins with an overture on solo cornet de dessus (think a valveless trumpet the size of an alphorn), the interludes are brief, spare taps on a kettle drum. When Virgil Thomson heard it he presciently noted that “it bore family resemblances unmistakable to the Socrate of Satie” – another overlooked masterwork by a composer yet to be appreciated. The pared-down simplicity of the opera recalls John Cage’s reduction of Socrate, but his Cheap Imitation was written over 40 years later. The haunting motet at the end of the opera carries the same blurring of familiar and strange, in the same manner of Cage’s arrangements of 18th Century American hymns – achieved, again, by erasing. Cage’s last operas also reduce the elements of opera to the barest essentials. I haven’t read anything that suggests Cage was knowledgeable about Pound as a composer.

The LCMF programme specifically links the Pound and the Stockhausen Pietà as “two neglected masterpieces of modernism”. When Stockhausen died I connected him to Pound in terms of how much their work remains misunderstood and will probably stay that way. The LCMF concert felt like a first step for treating Pound’s music as more than a curiosity.

Pierre Boulez

Wednesday 6 January 2016

[I originally posted this in October 2011, after going to Royal Festival Hall to hear Boulez conduct Pli Selon Pli with Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble InterContemporain and the ensemble of the Lucerne Festival Academy. Almost didn’t get a ticket, thinking that Boulez’ temperament and taste had changed too much over the intervening decades to do justice to the work’s intransigent ferocity. The concert experience that night made me feel a little ashamed for having doubted.]

I take back everything mean I said about Pierre Boulez.

On Sunday night I sat transfixed through the entirety of Pli selon pli. I’ll let someone else gush over the details for me.

I couldn’t lose focus on the thing for a second. What the music had lost in vehemence was now regained in a controlled, hour-long explosion of energy that could alternately freeze or boil without ever resorting to histrionics or becoming self-absorbed in details. It’s linear, it’s dramatic, it’s big; it fulfils the contradictory wish for a radical gesture that signals a renewal of tradition. This was the future that would look much like the past.

For trying to kill Schoenberg, Boulez’s fate has been to become Schoenberg: an artist trapped by the past, his achievement obscured by his hard-won reputation. In a trait peculiar to French artists, too much of Boulez’s attention seems to have been caught up in pontification and politics. It’s surprisingly hard to hear the music for what it is, and not what it has come to represent. I now suspect that this, in a different way, is a problem that Boulez has had to grapple with too, and that Sunday’s Pli selon pli could be a type of triumph that had eluded him for so many years of revisions and re-recordings.

That second Improvisation is damn lovely. And I’m never taking Stravinsky’s quip seriously again. I wonder which other Boulez works are better than they sound?

Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor.

Monday 4 January 2016

There’s a lot of stuff I need to write about but first I need to get this out of the way. I started re-reading Wyndham Lewis’ last novel, The Red Priest. I think Lewis is one of the great writers of the last century and, even though there are still two I haven’t read, The Red Priest must be the worst of his novels.

So why am I re-reading it, instead of something better? Because I don’t remember it. This in itself isn’t a problem for me: I’m not good at remembering details of books I like, either – especially the endings. The point is that I don’t remember why this particular book is bad, compared to his others.

Good art, music, writing, is too easily found: years, centuries of critical consensus offers them up, presses them upon you. Bad art is a personal discovery. Even when warned of its badness, like a Wet Paint sign, there is always the temptation to test for oneself. Meanwhile, we’ll take others’ word for it that Milton is a great poet and think we never need to hear another note of Mozart again.

Good art can also be a personal discovery, of course, but I always worry that I’m looking for something different, at the expense of finding something good. For years, my record library had large holes in it. Rummaging through second-hand vinyl I’d routinely pass up the chance to get, say, In C because I’d found an obscure album of Curtis Curtis-Smith. It’s all very well to buck the canon, but I found myself lost in marginalia.

Finding the good in the perhaps justly overlooked brings a fresh thrill to the mind, even if the discovery turns out to be grounded in ignorance and vanity. As T.S. Eliot sort-of said of Hamlet, people will claim it’s fascinating because it’s beautiful, when in fact they find it beautiful because it fascinates them. Eliot’s attitude seems the exact inverse of critical approach in this time of new-found abundance of information, when everything is ripe for rediscovery and reassessment.

An up-to-date critic would immediately point out that Eliot himself was an iconoclast, describing Hamlet as an artistic failure. What beauty isn’t flawed in some way? Lewis’ prose style can be grotesque, yet Fitzgerald’s stilted dialogue is given a pass. Fans of Fr. Rolfe will excuse his absurdities, but are those absurdities any worse than those accepted in D.H. Lawrence?

Perhaps the entire history of criticism is less concerned with finding the good than with finding the better than you think.