Federico Pozzer: Breaths

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Been listening to this repeatedly over the past couple of months but not writing about it; just enjoying it*. Don’t know anything about composer Federico Pozzer, other than what comes with this CD. Breaths is a collection of three pieces for small groups of instruments that take composition into that nebulous world of improvisation, but in a different way from the usual connotations. Pozzer describes his early musical interests as starting with free improv before switching to Feldman, Bunita Marcus and Cage. This gives a superficial idea of what this disc sounds like, particularly the late works of Cage.

There was a short period in his last years when Cage became interested in the idea of a musician’s “internal clock” being a sufficient regulator and coordinating factor of musical time. This notion seemed to fade pretty quickly, briefly flirting with mutual supervision before giving over wholly to the impartiality of the stopwatch. I’m not aware of any “internally timed” performances of Cage’s orchestral piece 1O1 having taken place, but given his history of working with orchestras I suspect he would have been disappointed. Where Cage apparently failed, Pozzer clearly succeeds: the musical material is more or less defined, with the manner of playing determined by the musician’s breathing.

The disc opens with Breath II, a half-hour duet for guitar and piano played by Lucio Tasca and Pozzer, recorded in the composer’s living room in 2017. Each musician plays a single gesture with each inhalation, exhalation, and pause between. The piece is structured, with repeats and an emphasis on ninth intervals that makes the opening resemble the start of Schoenberg’s Opus 11. Each musician, however, plays independently and the sonic palette soon expands into percussive and frictional sounds. In the abstract, the ostensibly regular pulse of breathing would make a recipe for tedium, but the induced self-awareness and the interaction of sounds produces a strange effect on how the musicians breathe. Time slows down. The music ebbs and flows intriguingly, a variegated mosaic of sounds that seems larger than the two instruments.

For the two other pieces, Tasca and Pozzer are joined by Kathryn Williams on flute, Dejana Sekulic on violin and Brice Catherin cello. Noises and Meetings are also regulated by breath, in slightly more involved and interactive ways. Noises requires the musicians to play in an open space, responding to external sounds heard with a given set of possible reactions. In this recording, the ensemble plays in a delicate, serious way that never seems too self-conscious or too “free”, either of which would make the music arch and stiff. It works here, and shares the ambient field recording atmosphere of Breath II that gives these pieces their own subtle colouration.

Meetings also allows extraneous sound into the music, as the musicians are, at times, required to respond to each other’s breathing instead of their own. The simple scales played by the ensemble become blurred by the overlapping interplay of each performer’s bodily rhythms, concentration and intuitive communication. As an act of collective consciousness, it takes the concepts heard behind Christian Wolff’s ‘consensus’ pieces and elaborates them into something simultaneously more corporeal and more ephemeral.

* Last couple of months have been kind of hectic so not enough writing going on. Soon to change.