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.