Frey; Frey; Frey?

Sunday 19 November 2023

I’m back from vacation and so can’t justify travelling to Huddersfield this year, where a day is being given over to celebrate Jürg Frey’s 70th birthday. Having heard plenty of his music, I still wish I could be there for the day’s worth of concerts as I’m sure it would add further complications to my understanding of an artist whose body of work conceals ever greater complexities beneath its quiet surface. His music has evolved, but in a way that branches out into exploring the many aspects and implications of his overall style, rather than being lead by a single overriding tendency. As he once described in an interview, his interest lies in mixing together competing impulses and resisting any ideal of asethetic purity. From the austerity of his earlier and somewhat notorious works, he has developed his method to combine elements of the lyrical and the severe in a way that avoids muddled ambiguity, evoking both at once to different degrees. The String Trio recently issued by Another Timbre is an exemplar of his recent work: a single movement some 45 minutes in length, composed in 2017 and revised last year, it blends stasis and narrative in its slow but steady progress. The slowness and quietness reminds the listener of similar composers, yet it never, for example, retreats into the claustrophobia of Morton Feldman’s diminished harmonic language or resort to the directness of Howard Skempton’s melodic clarity. Traces of other voices may also come to mind, but the work is unmistakeably unique to Frey. The trio here is from Apartment House (Mira Benjamin, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Anton Lukoszevieze, cello) who bring the journey-like structure to life, making full use of changes in dynamics (another Frey trait, even when restricted to the soft end of the spectrum) and giving character to each scene, particularly when the ensemble changes to focus on solos or duets.

Those references to other composers and names were made intentionally to draw attention to the way that Frey’s recent work has increasingly revealed him to be something of a chameleon. His 2021 suite for fortepiano Les signes passagers has just been recorded by Keiko Shichijo for elsewhere and its seven movements covertly blend the severe and the quirky in a most congenial manner, with near-subliminal hints of other composers flitting past faintly in the background. Frey was drawn to the instability of the fortepiano’s finely delineated timbre across registers and dynamics to make pieces that bring out those subtle variations in colour; the work was composed for Shichijo, who performs it lovingly. Composer and performer work in tandem to produce a suite of keyboard pieces where clarity of materials is tempered by that slight fuzziness around the edges of the instrument’s sound. The interpretive markings for each movement are evocative: “Avec sonorité, mais très doux,” “Lumineux et calme”, delighting in the small contrasts between block chords and pedal tones, or in the individual character of each note in slow, unaccompanied melodies. Again, the atmosphere hovers between the early British school of minimalism and the Rosicrucian Satie, only with neither the naivety nor the piety. In the last two sections, Frey shows how he has learned to give warmth to his earlier austere style, in the lengthy “Tendre et monotone” and the near inaudible “Discrète et loin”.

The uncooperatively-titled Circular Music (Ext​.​n​°​1/-​n​°​2/-​Ext​.​n​°​2) released by Insub is credited to Frey, which is at least a generous acknowledgement of his influence on the musicians involved here. Insub mainstay d’incise is joined by an ensemble of seven musicians to play “adaptations” of three of his compositions: Circular Music No. 2 and Extended Circular Musics Nos. 1 and 2. No sleeve notes here so we’re in the dark as to whether these three tracks are a tribute or a reimagining, but the expansion of Frey’s three pretty brief compositions for solo piano or small ensemble into works involving voices, accordion and theremin, amongst other instruments, makes for an exasperating listening experience. Whatever the conceptual merits may have been, the homogeneity of tone and approach across all three pieces ends up making each one sound kind of the same; more critically, they don’t sound like Frey. If you’re familiar with this stuff, a blind listening would have you guessing half a dozen other composers, all of whom would most likely already have something released on Insub. If you’re not familiar with this stuff, you’d come away thinking Frey’s music was a bit undistinctive and really lugubrious, particularly after the thirty-plus minutes of Circular Music No. 2, a piece which doesn’t normally need half that time. Following that with a fifteen-minute ensemble take on the piano miniature Extended Circular Music No. 2 just makes the entire exercise feel bloated and obnoxious, with listening through the entire album becoming a tedious chore.