Wednesday 11th NovemberNovember 12, 2009
Its been great to see wider exposure of the music on the Wandelweiser label recently. As well as a full page review of the last round of releases in The Wire they seem to have been picked up by a few more distributors and their music discussed quite frequently around online discussion boards. While this is all great news there also seems to be an underlying subtext to much of the writing that suggests the releases on Wandelweiser are all very quiet indeed, somehow just a set of responses to Cage’s 4’33”. While of course there is some degree of truth in this when applied to some of the label’s releases there is plenty more going on on the label’s releases from the last five years besides. I certainly do not always expect near silence when I play a new release.
However, I guess I didn’t expect what I got when I put on the most recent addition to Wandelweiser’s catalogue, a split CD named Duos featuring (unsurprisingly) duo pieces written separately by JÃ¼rg Frey and Antoine Beuger, performed by duo Contour, the pairing of English trumpeter Stephen Altoft and American percussionist Lee Forrest Ferguson. the disc opens with 22 sÃ¤chelchen, a set of twenty two brief pieces played one after the other composed by Frey. I’m not certain what the meaning of the word sÃ¤chelchen is precisely, maybe a Swiss/German speaking reader can help, but given that Frey’s excellent String Quartets disc included two very short tracks also named sÃ¤chelchen I am guessing it means short piece in some way or other. The pieces are each individually named, with titles like A Melody for William Street, Cadillac, der photograph, Rue de Petit Music and Union Station. I can’t ascertain any pattern or link between the titles. So the album opens with a soft two-note trumpet call followed by a silence and then another, slightly different and slightly more insistent with just the faintest of rumbles here and there in the background. This continues for the length of the beautiful little ninety second track, and I settled down for another disc of fragile Wandelweiser subtlety. There is no real gap between the tracks on the CD, they are programmed to run straight into one another, so I will admit to spraying the room with camomile tea last week when I first heard the second track (A Melody for William Street) kick in. It is thirty seconds long and involves eight descending trumpet notes played sharply and loudly six times over while a brisk drum roll picked out on a snare drum rattles behind them, just like a school marching band might. The piece is a complete shock to the system and ends as fast as it arrives, leaping straight into a vaguely jazzy trumpet solo backed up by just the faintest whisper of drums. Then there follows a longer (two minutes counts as long here) track of soft trembling bass drum caresses and then a minute of tiny staccato metallic strikes separated by longish silences and nothing else. In short, these twenty-two pieces come in all shapes and sizes, pieces for vibraphone, jazzlike melodies, mournful little soliloquies, rousing marches and near silences. Forget sounding just like a Wandelweiser release, Frey’s music here doesn’t sound like any one thing at all. there is a sense of austerity throughout, a clarity in how the music is played, how the instruments stand clear of each other and are sounded with a sense of precision, but otherwise it is hard to see how these brief pieces fit together.
The thing is, they do fit together, or rather, they have been placed together here to create one longer Â thirty three minute work. I have to admit to being somewhat confused by JÃ¼rg Frey’s composition here, but also somehow excited. The sense of experimentation, of uncertainty and confusion is for me true to the spirit of Wandelweiser. Exploration of Â extreme musical forms was always at the heart of the label’s aesthetic, and although many of the brief pieces here are perhaps less extreme than we might expect, their juxtaposition alongside other tracks, and furthermore their presentation as a whole is about as unusual and surprising as it gets. I’ve had this CD here for about a week now, and have listened to it a good few times, and although I now know what is coming, and rather enjoy the music’s odd structure I am still no clearer at all on what it is all about. I aim to try and find out, but in the meantime, well this isn’t just a reworking of Cage in any way whatsoever!
Frey’s piece is paired with dedekind duos, a thirty four minute work written by Antoine Beuger. This piece does indeed fit into the musical area we have come to expect from Wandelweiser, and is really very beautiful, and the perfect partner for Frey’s esoteric bricolage. As Beuger’s sleevenotes tell us, Dekind was a nineteenth century mathematician who developed ideas of continuity of life through infinite sets of numbers. I am no mathematician, but I am guessing that dedekind’s work inspired the structure and timings of Beuger’s piece here. It is truly very gorgeous indeed, made up of extended tones, played by either bowed or vibrated percussion and softly played trumpet. The notes are all very softly played and often do just enough to colour the air but no more. They sit separated by silences, but often these are not long at all, and quite frequently there are overlaps between sounds. Listening on headphones with the volume turned up the distant hum of suburbia can be heard, the bark of a dog at one point, the intake of breath before a long trumpet note, the slightest brush of clothes against a seat. Yes here we have quiet music, but not silent music, and the interest is generated by the placement of these ever so soft notes around each other.
Like most of Beuger’s work dedekind duos is quite beautiful. It is music that stops you still, keeps you from doing anything extraneous, freezes the air in the room in which you are listening. Maybe there is nothing in this piece that we have not heard in similar forms before. Maybe there is none of the surprise of Frey’s piece here, but this work sits as the perfect oppositional accompaniment to it, a hushed sense of beautiful certainty fills this music. The composition is immaculately performed, precise, clear and clean. I haven’t seen the score so I am not sure how sounds are selected or dictated, whether they are fixed in advance or open to any degree of musician-lead processes. However the music is formed it is played with great tenderness and no small amount of skill however. This is amongst the very best of the music I have heard composed by Antoine Beuger, such is the sense of beautiful stillness here. The calm after the storm perhaps. Its a shame this little piece is likely to get lost in the discussion that may develop around the Frey composition. Â Another lovely and thoroughly interesting Wandelweiser release.