Lost in music: Gunnarsson, Frey redux

Thursday 20 October 2022

I’ve wrestled with Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson’s music before, trying to pin down exactly where it’s coming from (hint: Iceland). This may be the wrong approach, as his music, even as it seems obvious when it hits the ear, becomes elusive when the significance of that sound sinks into your brain. Even the score slips about, as he composes with animated notation, using computer screens to create structures and intonation that never settles into definite place. Landvættirnar fjórar is a cycle of four related works, each in three movements, drawing inspiration from Iceland’s four divine guardian spirits. While the notation is hi-tech, the instrumentation is resolutely homespun and dinky: recorders, ocarinas, whistles, rabbit calls, bottles (blown and struck), melodicas, toy pianos, a guitarlele. I don’t want to say I’m getting used to it, but after the shock of the incongruities of his earlier Sinfónía, the sound-world can be accepted as a given, opening up other questions for contemplation. How do we hear this? As when confronted with an alien culture, we can’t be sure that we perceive an artefact in the same way as it’s creator. (To take the example of the cover art, one can mistake art brut for irreverence.) Gunnarsson explains his method further, about reduction, placing sounds into four categories: “short quick notes, long sustained notes, short percussive sound, unstable glissando sounds — I couldn’t reduce them any further.” With the smaller scale of these pieces, the shaping of events is easier to discern as changes in the textures of instrumental groups, speed and density wax and wane with an organic certainty – diffuse and irregular, but with a definite pattern working somewhere underneath. The ensemble playing here is Steinalda, a group of six Icelandic musicians who each move between three to four groups of instruments to perform the scores.

Recordings of new music are scarce; multiple recordings of it are scarcer still. Jürg Frey has ascended to this rarefied plane, with several highly talented and sympathetic pianists having committed interpretations of his solo music to disc and/or download. Reinier van Houdt has returned to piano playing after several releases of his own, atmospheric compositions, with a three-hour selection of Frey’s piano pieces. Lieues d’ombres is a kind of companion piece to his similarly-sized set of Michael Pisaro’s music, the earth and the sky. The seven Frey pieces date from between 2007 and 2018, with the exception of the very early Sam Lazaro Bros, from 1984. It’s an instructive inclusion; a beguiling piece of simple textures in which melody keeps reverting into chorale. Over the next twenty years he refined his language to the point that risked becoming notorious for immobility and silence, before allowing that feeling for melody to re-emerge under greater self-discipline. van Houdt imbues the piece with quietness and clarity, which becomes a signature of his interpretations throughout. From the remaining pieces, I’ve managed to hear other recordings of La présence, les silences (Dante Boon on Another Timbre), Lieues d’ombres and Extended Circular Music 9 (Philip Thomas, also on Another Timbre), Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes (24-35) (R. Andrew Lee on Irritable Hedgehog) and Pianist, alone (2) (both Thomas and Lee). This means I get to play at being critic and make comparisons. Well, they’re all very fine and the differences are in nuance, with each being part of varying collections of Frey’s works. I’ve previously likened La présence, les silences to a late romantic work, taking musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforming them into something familiar but not yet known. In van Houdt’s performance, it begins almost inaudibly, risking sounding ethereal by eschewing any hint of rhetoric as the piece slowly rises and falls over its 40-minute span. Lee foregrounds the starkness of Frey’s materials, drawing out the inertia of the compositions when they lapse into repetitions or stasis. Thomas adds a hint of deliberation at each step, grounding the longer passages in a sense of inevitability. With slightly more distant and reverberant sound, van Houdt seems to float over these details to present a wider overall picture, giving a bird’s-eye view of recurring phrases and motives that shape each piece, with less direct experience of the terrain at ground level. If you’re not familiar with Frey’s piano work, this set’s a good orientation point.