Jürg Frey: guitarist, alone

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Decades of heavily amplified popular music have ingrained the idea of the guitar as a loud, swaggering vehicle of individualism at its most potent – an image that extends from rock and blues to the unvarnished grit of flamenco and folk singers. The title of Another Timbre’s new album of Jürg Frey’s music, guitarist, alone, carries a similar connotation of outspoken defiance.

It’s easy to forget the reason why the guitar is so often amplified in the first place. Without supporting technology, the guitar is a frail-voiced instrument. The plucked notes decay quickly, the dynamic range struggles to reach past what other musicians would consider mezzo forte, sustain and resonance is limited to a few natural harmonics on the lowest strings. Frey’s writing for guitar takes precisely the opposite route almost every other composer would follow, eschewing continuous flows of notes, strummed chords and secure bass. On these two CDs, he demands the instrument be presented at its weakest, unaccompanied, its technical shortcomings mercilessly exposed.

Frey almost exclusively demands the guitar play single, unsupported notes, only occasionally allowing harmonies to appear. At first, it would seem that we have a situation similar to that of Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IX for solo electric guitarist, discussed here recently: a series of isolated incidents, exquisitely timed. With a classical acoustic guitar, such an approach becomes almost impossible. The sounds are too faint and fleeting to significantly establish their presence.

Unlike some of Frey’s more recent, “figurative” music, guitarist, alone leaves us back in the position of being able only to suddenly listen. relikt, from 1987, works simply by juxtaposing one note against another, in succession. It’s a work of tremendous restraint, both in composition and interpretation, setting sound against silence in a carefully maintained equilibrium.

Cristián Alvear’s playing is a beautiful study in concentration throughout the collection. There are no extended techniques called for here, and so he produces each sound cleanly and clearly, with extraneous noise on the strings, neck or body of the instrument (that “authentic” grit of folk music) almost entirely eliminated even when the music is near silent. At the same time, the playing and recording never sounds so polished as to be sterile. Tiny, inevitable incidents in the sound and the background give the music a physical presence. For wen 23 Alvear stretches the piece out to half an hour, a mere dozen or so notes suspended on a sea of silence. (I’m not Joseph II so I’m not going to count them.)

The most recent work is the title piece, from 2014. It shares a title and a style close to that of his two works titled Pianist, Alone. The title now seems more plaintive than defiant. Contrasted with the piano, the thinness of the guitar’s sound suggests a less certain, more tenuous narrative behind the musical meandering. The guitar is a private, intimate instrument.

The 50 Sächelchen from 1989 take up the entirety of the other disc. These bagatelles, arranged in alphabetical order, imply a playfulness that might seem at odds with Frey’s typically hushed aesthetic. Funnily enough, this is exactly the case. These brief, sometimes very brief, pieces move from closely-studied miniatures to jaunty little stings (Jürg Frey ringtones?) and even snatches of music that are fast and even, as much as it is possible, loud. But only for a little while, now and then.

Postscript to The Curse of Taste: Christian Wolff

Monday 16 May 2016

There was another typically eclectic Kammer Klang night a couple of weeks back (the music of Christian Wolff, Vinko Globokar and… Chicks on Speed?). A new piece by Wolff received its premiere, Wade In The Water for violin and piano.

There’s a common criticism frequently made about Wolff’s later compositions. Simon Cummings neatly summarises this problem, that Wolff’s music is “sufficiently disjointed and internally inconsistent that it simply sounded incompetent.” As someone who enjoyed the performance of Robert last year, I’ve begun to think that Wolff has actually made a sort of aesthetic breakthrough. There is no deep harmonic interest in his music, no contrapuntal interest other than by accident, no sense of teleology, structure or process, rhythm and melody that’s arbitrary and nondescript.

All this negation of musical attributes has been done before and has resulted in types of music that were, at first, new. Drones and types of minimal music come immediately to mind. Pieces like Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving IX, discussed before, also fit this description. Wolff has done something different, retaining just enough of conventional musical expectations to disguise the fact that his music is working on a different level.

It comes back to Wolff’s associates, Cage and Feldman. The idea of “letting sounds be themselves”, outside of serving a functional hierarchy. The focus on sound over pitch. Cage used chance to break up conventional musical logic. Feldman used indeterminacy. Both are alienating devices, both for musician and audience. Late Feldman used repeating motifs and patterns as a vehicle for conveying instrumental timbre and pitch as an end in itself. Wolff’s late music works toward the same end by alienation through banality, removing any interest in the listener for his “material”. He is the anti-Feldman.

By the same comparison, I’m finding that Wolff’s pieces are all different in the way that they are all the same. Wade In The Water‘s directionless meandering took on its own mood, with sudden but passing gestures of impatience or urgency that soon dissipated, stronger hints of playfulness and austerity from one moment to the next. A lot of this was due to the playing of Aisha Orazbayeva on violin and Joseph Houston on piano. They preceded the premiere with a realisation of a Wolff score from his earlier, more respectable careeer, the indeterminate For 1, 2 or 3 People. Their performance was exemplary in its subtlety, constrained richness and coherence. It went a long way to informing and illuminating Wade In The Water.

The Curse of Taste: Marchetti, Pisaro

Monday 16 May 2016

From the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries Western aesthetics were founded upon a fraught consensus of taste. The romantic understanding of art that was naturalistic and intuitive became, strangely, a social agreement on what constituted a sufficiently congruent analogy to its subject. This was a question of subjective judgement, which brought with it a greatly increased risk of failure.

Those old romantic notions still pervade contemporary culture, possibly more so in music than any other art form. There are, however, some composers who work in engagement with these ideas – this is different from accepting them or submitting to them. Back in March I heard Reinier van Houdt play two piano pieces: Walter Marchetti’s Per la mano sinistra and Michael Pisaro’s Green Hour, Grey Future. Both works are long and make use of pauses, isolated chords, notes, brief fragments. After a while, you think there may be some repetition or recapitulation at work, probably. The scale of the work and the dynamics recall late Feldman, but there’s none of Feldman’s patterning or obvious sectional movement. In this respect each composer seems to have allowed themselves more freedom to wander, and possibly extended this to the performer, too.

The Marchetti piece meanders purposefully, a soft-spoken but poignant monologue. The Pisaro piece isolates individual piano sounds, using silence as their context. In fact, both works are accompanied: the Pisaro with electronic tones that colour and shadow the piano, the Marchetti by an umbrella, held in the pianist’s left hand throughout, leaving only the right free to play.

When isolated sounds are separated so far by silence, how do you know that it’s music? I’ve been listening to another solo piece by Pisaro, Mind is Moving IX for electric guitarist. This is another recent release on the Intonema label, which I wrote about a little while ago. Recording this piece was a two-year process: “we made several recordings in different spaces, listened and discussed all the details with the composer and the performer” before capturing the final version released on this CD.

Without an independent electronic part, Mind is Moving IX sounds even more sparse and austere, to the point of breaking up any sense of musical continuity. Single, separated notes of various length; towards the end a descending sequence of intervals becomes a major development. Occasionally there is a long tone on bowed guitar or, in contrast, the guitarist whistling, or static from a small radio. There is a clicking of stones at certain points. Each element seems to appear more than once during the piece, suggesting some faint traces of an overall shape.

As suggested above, the piece depends heavily on how it is interpreted and performed. Those “details” that were discussed, on what did they depend? The sense of timing becomes critical. The qualities needed to make the piece succeed are the same that can make it fail: we’re back into the realm of taste. With a reliance on personal judgement, the challenge becomes immense. You can hope that you’re immersing yourself in the nature of the music, away from aesthetic second-guessing, but always have the fear that your interpretation is a more or less accurate approximation of aesthetic decisions previously heard in other music. In this recording, Denis Sorokin’s performance seems as finely nuanced as you could hope for, with a sufficiently dispassionate seriousness.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2016 Terry Wogan Memorial Edition

Thursday 12 May 2016

Circumstances have dictated that I don’t do Eurovision any more, but some thoughtful people have contacted me to say they like the Drinking Game and asked if there are any amendments.

I have never watched the semi-finals and recommend that you should just stick to the final. Eurovision is best played stud, with every entrant in the final coming as a complete surprise.

The voting system has changed again, with a 50/50 weighting between jury votes and phone votes. Looks like there’s no on-screen breakdown of phone votes this year either; a cunning subterfuge to further disguise the influence of local politics. Don’t know how this will play out on the telly but by this stage of the night everyone’s a bit vague anyway, so all drinks are catch-as-catch-can.

(Yes these things have all happened, in case you’re wondering.)


At the first appearance of the presenters, drink to the health of Masha and Pasha.


A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The GreeksRussiansGreeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.


I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…


II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece maxes out its points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

II.6 The Wogan. Any blatant display of favouritism between particular countries in the jury, or a hasty correction by a flustered announcer when reading out results. Keep an eye on Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and anomalies in German votes for Slavic and Balkan countries.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so a liberal interpretation is allowed.

II.7 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.8 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.9 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.10 The Master of Suspense. This hasn’t happened for a few years but people might get confused by the new rules: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.


II.11 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all vote for each other, or a former Soviet republic votes for Russia. Do not attempt without medical supervision.


W0: Australia! Any person may lead a toast at any time amongst all drinkers by shouting “Australia!”, “Aussie!”, “Oi!” or any suitably positive Australian word or noise. This can happen any time during the night as many times as wished for no reason whatsoever because OBVIOUSLY NOBODY AT EUROVISION GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES.

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why ItalyTurkey isn’t in it;
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?; or
W1.d Australia?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Greece/Germany, Ukraine/Russia, Armenia/Azerbaijan, Australia.

W3 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year.

W4 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Stefan Thut, un/even and one. Songs, 1 & 2.

Thursday 5 May 2016

I’m getting Wandelweiser from all over. First Sheffield, then Bilbao and now St Petersburg. Intonema sent me a nice little package and it’s taken me too long to write about it. There’s a Michael Pisaro disc I want to discuss a bit later, but my attention was first taken by a new release of Stefan Thut’s music.

Again, pretty much everything I’ve heard by Thut is from the Wandelweiser und so weiter box set Another Timbre released a few years back. un/even and one is a work Thut first performed and recorded with an ensemble in St Petersburg last June. At first, it seems a type of performance art, a theatrical activity whose fugitive sounds have been caught on tape as with the recent recording of Manfred Werder’s 2015/3. Cardboard boxes are being shifted, manipulated. The effect is reminiscent of some of James Saunders’ scores which call for scripted activities with sheets of paper or found objects, a sonic arte povera. The plot thickens as these sounds are coloured with musical instruments: saxophone, violin, cello, bowed guitar. With no visual cues to reveal the theatrical elements, sounds emerge, accumulate and fade as though produced by a slow but powerful force of nature. This sense of organic process, and the feeling of sourcelessness given to the sounds, evoke a feeling reminiscent of John Cage’s last works.

Thut’s piece takes this musical idea into a weird, ambiguous realm with his use of electronics. The cardboard and other sounds are recorded and played back through a small speaker attached to the largest box. The sounds blur between live and recorded, instrument and object, with an attenuated rumble. Any clear sense of activity, cause and effect is lost, leaving us with a mysterious, unknowable music. It’s one of the richer, dirtier examples I’ve heard from the Wandelweiser school and recommended for those who worry about this music getting too precious and ethereal.

The most delightful surprise so far from this package has been the CD credited to Songs, a Berlin-based quartet of composers and musicians. 1 & 2 features two compositions by the Australian trombonist Rishin Singh, who I haven’t heard before. I have heard and enjoyed the composer Catherine Lamb, who plays viola and sings here, so I put the disc on. The first piece, Six Scenes of Boredom, features a trio playing slow, almost quaint chord changes, occasionally enlightened by a female voice singing brief, pithy phrases. There’s an air of eccentric decay that’s quite English in character. I mean it as a compliment when I say it would fit nicely on a 1970s LP released on the Obscure label.

The real revelation here is Three Lives, a work almost half an hour in length for two female voices, bass clarinet and trombone. Long held tones, very little movement in pitch from one breath to the next. It feels like a single reflective moment, frozen in time. Strangely, any development in melody goes almost unnoticed when I listen, as though it were a lesser concern, until one quiet but significant shift. The two voices, each apparently untrained, sing as though a single voice echoed or multiplied. Clarinet and trombone play beautifully together, the latter almost unnoticeable, perceived only as a soft echo. In contrast to this stillness, the recording makes no attempt to conceal blemishes. The recording is obviously live, with faint background sounds audible, locating the music in a place and time. Against this background, four musicians briefly hold time in suspense.

New Sound Work: Speeding and Breaking

Sunday 1 May 2016

This month, I’m pretty excited about giving a public airing to the biggest piece of music I’ve made. A section of my 18-hour piano piece Antisonata will be playing as one of the sound works at the Speeding and Braking exhibition.

Speeding and Braking: Navigating Acceleration is a conference with exhibitions and performances at Goldsmiths College, London, from 12 to 15 May 2016. You can hear Antisonata and other sound works on Saturday 14 May, from 10am to 5pm at G05, St James Hatcham Church on the Goldsmiths campus. Free entry.

Antisonata is the piece that plays all 555 of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas at the same time but very, very slowly; so slowly that they take as long to perform as if played one at a time.