Today is Julie’s birthday and so much of the day was spent pampering her while in a haze of sleep deprivation induced exhaustion. I grabbed a few hour’s kip tonight though, and since waking have been listening repeatedly to a very beautiful set of five pieces of composed music. The recordings, one piece each by the composers Johnny Herbert, John Lely, Dominic Lash, Stefan Thut and Michael Pisaro, and performed by the quartet of Angharad Davies, (violin) Julia Eckhardt, (violin) Dominic Lash (double bass) and Stefan Thut (cello). Named Four quartets and four soli, this release has been issued as a lossless download on the ever-reliable Compost and Height net label. It can be downloaded, for free, here
Now, I wrote a little recently about an issue that I think will become important in the future- how music will survive and get noticed once it has moved into the realm of digital only distribution. I personally feel that I have not, and probably still do not, give music offered as a download the correct amount of attention. As I have written before, if music is out of sight, it tends to wander out of my mind, and if it doesn’t form part of the toppling mass of shiny discs on the end of my desk then it doesn’t present itself as an important concern. This is of course a poor way to think that pays no attention to the relative qualities of the music, however it is released. It isn’t a conscious thing though, and as recently I have been looking for ways to resolve this issue I hope to do better in the future, but the fact remains- nicely packaged CDs grab the attention and, completely irrationally, feel more important.
One wonders then how the musicians feel about this music. I obviously know some of the musicians/composers involved here quite well, so could ask them directly, and maybe will, but placing myself at a distance from them for a moment, I wonder why the musicians chose digital distribution only for this release? Clearly they thought enough of it to release it, and to release it in lossless format only, so what we are presented with is the data we would normally find on a CD. Did they look for a label to release it? (I don’t think they did) Could the music have found a home on a label? (almost definitely) So was the choice of free download an ethical one to get the music heard for nothing by more people? Perhaps so. What I wonder about, is whether the digital option was taken because the musicians didn’t consider the music worthy of a hard copy release? I hope this isn’t the case, but certainly I am aware of this kind of thing happening, and have even been involved in it to some degree. The music at Compost and Height is issued as a link from a simple blog-type post, a necessity because of the label owners’ lack of time and knowledge with extravagant website design, but while of course it doesn’t matter in the slightest when listening to the music, does this kind of low-key release signify anything? Should the music be seen on the same level as a CD issue or is it just a freebie that the musicians didn’t feel they could ask money for? I know my thoughts on the actual music, and they will follow, but I think this is the interesting set of conundrums for digital distribution in the immediate future. How can a free download (and it does appear that the future of downloads will probably be as free releases) appear as important to all involved as a shiny silver disc?
Anyway. The music. When I first heard that this group of four extremely talented musicians would be working together the first thing that obviously hit me was how close the group would be to a traditional string quartet. Lash’s bass replaces the second violin in that formation then, bringing (obviously) a physical depth to the music that wouldn’t have been possible without him, but perhaps also a significant mental step away from how such a quartet might have performed if the other violin had been present. It is a stunning group anyway, four top musicians and as good, experienced realisers of the Wandelweiserian approach to composition as can be found. Now, of the five pieces performed here, I am only familiar with the workings of one of them, and as the scores are not included with the download (could this be another good way to support a free download of this type?) I can only really make aesthetic and personal judgements about the music. I cannot tell if they really achieve any of the composers’ goals. Like much music in this area though, the connection between it and the listener is often quite a personal one. The opening piece, by Herbert, a composer I know nothing about is namedÂ Piece which is a time line of ideas for a piece – starting at 03:34 on Feb. 9th? , an intriguing title for a work that, when realised here results in a mostly blank canvas, with a few slow lines drawn across it. Long silences prevail, often coloured very faintly by external sounds, far of traffic, the odd knock and crash in nearby rooms etc… This pattern follows across all of the pieces. While I struggle to pick out the individual characteristics of each score, and some are busier than others, some include far less silence, there is a theme running through all five pieces of slow, medium to long length bowed sounds separated by silences, or rather, masses of faint, murmured details where the silence should be. There will doubtlessly be different elements to each piece that sets them apart completely, different approaches to writing a score, different reasons for the placement of sounds, but as a listener separated from both the compositional structure and often an adequate enough understanding of the music’s technical details, my response has to be a more visceral one. These five pieces, four of which are quartets and a fifth, sections from Pisaro’s Mind is Moving series which is I think made up of four solos played simultaneously can almost be heard as one continual piece in five moments, such is the way the performances link together, with only the increased background noise on some of the works a significant change in how they sound.
So in many ways, from a somewhat basic, perhaps crass perspective, these five pieces are beautifully representative of the Wandelweiser aesthetic. Simple, soft sounds engage with silences as they engage with one another. The listener is left to engage with both, considering both a Cagean concern for the off-white canvas and for the way the musicians’ simple contributions are arranged. At the same time there is the inevitable sense of alert restfulness, music that you know will not surprise you but still demands your every attention, music that will not change much but will always present a new situation. I am very tired now as the CD I burned this music to comes to an end for the fourth time in succession and so I will cease to engage with it, but I thoroughly recommend downloading these pieces. Free music, very beautiful free music at that, and music that deserves as much attention as any other presented in other ways.