CD Reviews

Tuesday 11th August

August 12, 2009

image008Hot and sticky this evening, so for a change my evening glass of wine has been replaced with an ice cold beer, and very nice it is too. Actually a civil glass of wine would be more fitting for tonight’s music. I have been listening on and off for the past week to Antoine  Beuger’s new double CD release on Wandelweiser named two . too (for erwin-josef speckmann). I cannot find out much about Speckmann. he appears to be a contemporary artist and writer on philosophical matters, but of relatively obscure stature (Wikipedia fails to recognise his existence!) Accompanying the minimal sleeve notes is an image by Speckmann however that is really quite lovely, and clearly a big inspiration on the music here. The image, painted or drawn (its hard to tell which from the black and white reproduction) in 2006 features just four lines in a box, divided into two groups of two. the simplicity of the image, coupled with its minimal beauty is reflected in the music here.

The first disc is named Two and features just two playing parts, the clarinet of Jürg Frey and the soprano vocal of Irene Kurka. Although Beuger has exprimented with several projects that involve the human voice over recent years this is, (I think) his first CD release to include one. Frey plays single notes for durations of around ten to fifteen seconds every so often. Kurka sings, one word at a time for roughly the same length of time a short text (a haiku in fact) written by the late American poet Kenneth Rexroth;

as the full moon rises
the swan sings
in sleep
on the lake of the mind

Each word is repeated over and over, changing only after a good few minutes. The vocals are steady, monotonous and precisely intoned slowly with great patience and focus. The clarinet goes about its way, one note at a time in a similar manner, sometimes crossing with the vocal, but more often than not standing alone. There is plenty of silence on the recording, but no huge periods of it. A few seconds at most sit between each sound, but the music is so slow and free of frills and unnecessary detail that it oozes space and suggests a lot more emptiness than is really there. In places the room can be heard, most often via external sounds, such as passing airplanes, but for the most part the musical parts are placed carefully into white spaces, like the lines in the painting, running parallel, going in the same direction, but not really crossing. The nearest musical comparison I can think of is late Feldman, the simple, clearly defined parts playing extended notes in spaces around each other, or maybeNeither his Opera setting of Beckett’s words, but knowing that Beuger is not a big fan of late Feldman these comparisons probably do not reflect his influences.

twotooAs you listen for a while, particularly if your attention is not fully on every detail, the clarinet and vocal seem to begin to blur into one. This doesn’t actually happen, but as there is so much similarity between the two parts, if your mind wanders then you begin to just hear tones. The words that are sung never really distract the listener. Besides their obvious beauty I suspect the poem used was selected because of the low number of multi-syllabic words. What matters is the form and shape of the music rather than the narrative that the vocal picks out. The piece lasts a fraction under an hour and maintains its structure throughout, warm and encompassing, yet slightly removed and unyielding.

The second disc, cleverly named Too, is a quartet recording that is I believe (I am guessing) based on the same score, with two duos playing. The subtitles of the two pieces are telling, the first disc is named two, who are at one with another, and the second is called two, who are at one with another (twice). In fact, I am certain that the parts played here by Kurka and Frey are one and the same recording used on the first disc. Their parts are overlaid though by two more instruments, the sho (a Japanese wind instrument that sounds not unlike a mouth organ) played by Ko Ishikawa, and the Irish harp, played by Rhodri Davies. Looking at the recording details lends weight to this theory as while the Frey and Kurka’s recordings were made on one day in Haan, Germany, Ishikawa and Davies’ contributions were recorded three years earlier in Tokyo!, at the same time the duo recorded their Hibari release that included another Beuger realisation. On my first couple of listens I had not spotted this information though, and I have to say that although a little more distant Tokyo traffic sound can be heard on Too,and I had realised I was listening to two overlaid recordings, the four musicians do sound like they are playing together, and I wouldn’t have suspected the distance in time between the two sets of duos.

For the first three minutes of Too we only hear Ishikawa and Davies. The sho is used in a similar manner to the clarinet, emitting soft single tones at semi-regular intervals. The harp is used to pick out single plucked notes every so often, occasionally linking a few together at once. It may well be that the two duos are performing the same score, but there does seem to be a few differences. Davies seems to pick out a wider range of pitches than anyone else, but his presence is slightly less frequent than the others, or at least it feels that way. The wider range of instrumentation here does lean the music away from Feldman’s soundworld, but the structure remains quite similar, maybe even to the lengthy second string quertet. The higher pitches of the sho, coupled with the pin-prick moments from the harp give the music more variety here than on the first disc. It holds the attention easier and the different parts are more easily separated. the music remains very slow though, and quite charmingly beautiful.

In person Antoine Beuger is like his music, very gentle, warm, quiet and welcoming. A large portion of his personality can be heard shining through his assorted compositions, and here, even though he does not play any of the parts in these recordings his character is there, determined but unhurried, concerned with very simple forms of beauty. As I wrote the other day, when I first listened to these pieces and sat down to write about them I struggled to think of what to write. Spending time with them though, allowing them to make their mark on me at their own pace has revealed more to me, and made me think about how they reflect the character and nature of a man that I have only met once, but whose gentle, thoughtful personality left quite a mark on me. Beuger’s personality is written right through this music. There are no fireworks, no drama, and if this music is to be appreciated it demands patience and space, but treated the right way it is very lovely indeed.

EDIT: The following morning after writing this I received a lovely email from Antoine Beuger that contained the following additional information:

“the second disc (“too”) is nothing else than “two” (same recording s on disc 1), combined with “three drops of rain / east wind / ocean” from the hibari recording.
after finishing the recording of “two” it occurred to me, that the two would maybe fit together to form a new piece and when i tried it out, i couldn’t believe, what i heard.
to me, “too” is not a quartet, but really two duos, two “couple” in fantastic accordance.”

Well, there you go…!

Comments (2)

  • Brian Olewnick

    August 12, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Interesting. I just played both discs last night for the first time (before reading the above). I don’t have the hibari release in question (and also hadn’t looked at the date info), so had no reason to have any inkling that something was afoot. While I enjoyed “two”, I loved “too”! Fascinating to find out what I was loving.

    I note that the hibari track clocks in at 20’58”. I think (I’m at work, can’t check) that “too” was 62 minutes+? So is the track played three times during “two”?

  • Hans

    August 12, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Although i am a complete bastard i always feel very ‘clean’, even ‘ a good person’ after having listened to whatever Wandelweiser-release.
    Cherish these treasures…

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