CD Reviews

Wednesday 13th October

October 13, 2011

‘m not even remotely tired tonight. Which is good, because it made listening to tonight’s rather lovely CD an all the more enjoyable experience. The CD in question is a new release on the Wandelweiser label, a collection of six pieces written by the American composer Craig Shepard and performed by a variety of names taken from the Wandelweiser spectrum. In July 2005, Shepard undertook a project named On Foot, in which he walked 250 miles from one side of Switzerland to the other in a month. If this isn’t a remarkable and enviable achievement in itself, he wrote a short composition each day, and then performed each of them outdoors, in a public place, be it atop of a mountain or stood at a busy urban intersection. The compositions were intended to “frame the everyday sounds of the place in which they are heard”.

For this release, Shepard gave six of the compositions to some extremely talented musicians, who each played the composition in their own personal work spaces. No attempt has been made to keep external sounds out, and so while the instrumental sounds are the primary element of each of the recordings, they all also feature the slightest murmurs, the buzz of distant traffic, church bells etc.. Then as we play the CD at home, we then add the sounds of our own environments into the mix. A simple extension of Cagean ideals then, but why not.

As it happens today I received the latest issue of The Wire magazine in the post, which includes a rather good interview with Radu Malfatti. In it, he describes one of the key interests of the Wandelweiser collective of composers as being more interested in the structure of music than the material that makes it up. On Foot I would say, certainly focusses firmly on the structure- I imagine that at least some of the compositions written by Shepard could be played on any selection of instruments, but the material is important here as well, both the beautiful sounds played by the musicians and the incidental sounds creeping in from the environment. Shepard’s role then seems to be to create that structure that, in his words, frames the everyday external sounds. The composer builds the structure that allows the material to flood in and around it. This, in a nutshell is a feature of much of the Wandelweiser catalogue, but the simplicity of these pieces, coupled with the variety of different backgrounds set behind each of the recordings particularly brings it home here.

It would be wrong to assume that all of these works are just minimal frameworks to wrap around “silences” however. The opening brief track, Cret de la Neuve, le 20 Juillet 2005 is a three minute long work realised here by Christian Wolff, playing melodica. Maybe its just the choice of instrumentation, but the track has a feeling of folk music to it, consisting of a short melody made up of little stabbing notes, not exactly full on harmony but certainly a distinct melody, somewhere between Three Blind Mice and the Drunken Sailor.  The following piece, performed solo by the clarinettist Katie Porter is a similar work, just as brief, a little more mournful maybe, but like Wolff’s rendition a little vignette of simple but affecting music. I have been listening to this album on and off for a few days now, and this morning, without thinking I found myself humming the little tune from the opening piece while getting my hair cut, much to the interest of my barber, with whom I often have conversations about music. The third piece here lasts about twice as long and is performed by a remarkable quartet of Antoine Beuger, (flute) Jürg Frey, (clarinet) Markus Kaiser (cello) and Tobias Liebezeit (percussion). Here the sounds are slowed down, and extended out into longer stretches, and yet still a very simple melody may be there, just pulled taut until it is barely recognisable as such. All four musicians seem to play together, so combining their sounds into one highly textured instrument where only one had been during the first two pieces. The sounds are beautifully tuned to work together, and a casual listen would lead you to mistake the quartet for one instrument. The flute and clarinet fill out most of the sound, but the thin grey veil of the cello and perfectly timed strikes of the percussion are there once the ears are brought fully to bear.

The fourth piece sees Frey play a solo four minute work that is as beautiful as it is simple, more little half-melodies played slowly and with a sense of mournful gravitas. As the piece ends, after a few moments of near silence, it is met by another silence, this time coming from Antoine Beuger’s home as his solo for flute arrives, and this time the silence is busier, cloudier, full of activity- voices and traffic, the wind whipping around buildings. The volume of this silence barely ever rises above the near inaudible, but coming after the hush of Frey’s recording it seems to leap out at you. Shepard’s piece for Beuger, played here on solo flute seems to strip things down further to repeated short low notes, the melody just about lost.

Then the album ends with the much longer Dornach, den 2 August 2005 performed by Kaiser and Liebezeit. This piece is quite stunning as it is remarkably simple. We hear long silences across the twenty-seven minute work- mostly very hushed silences, perhaps with the slightest hum of air conditioning or heating systems to be heard, but its hard to tell. Every so often, and it isn’t that often, there is a bold metallic strike that slowly decays, not a gong, maybe a series of large singing bowls perhaps, but the chime is loud and sudden, bursting out of the silence maybe every so often, their pitches altering every so often, the silences between them stretching from thirty seconds or so to much longer. As each strike appears, Kaiser immediately plays a quiet note matched as closely as possible to the ringing metal, almost always getting the pitch so accurate that the presence of the cello is barely noticeable at all. Listening closely reveals the vibrating strings buried in the decaying bell tones, darkening the chime with a richer texture, adding the most subtle of touches. Listening to this piece is a deeply immersive experience. The chimes lift you up every so often, the slightly altering pitches shifting the plane on which you search for sounds between each event. Listen closely and faint distant rumbles are there, and the chatter of crows outside, quieter here than the birds outside in my own garden.

The final track here is a wonderful meditation on listening- both to the subtleties of the sounds made by the musicians, the ‘hidden’ cello and the way the sounds decay into the charged silence, which again has so much to reveal if you allow yourself to listen as closely and as calmly as possible. The entire album is lovely though, a gentle blend of differing musical structures that each impact upon you slightly differently. This is the first collection of Shepard’s work I have heard, performed here by some hugely talented people that understand it well. I very much look forward to hearing many more.

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