Wandelweiser and Improvisation

Over the past few years, as I have become increasingly interested in Wandelweiser music, I have gotten into many discussions about it with various people involved in the scene. Many times, other people have the opinion that Wandelweiser music is more rigid, while improvising music has more flexibility and freedom. Whenever I hear this perspective, I always think to myself, “I don't agree with that.” But I never speak my opinions any further at that time, since I feel that it will likely end up in an endless argument. But over the course of time, my unspoken words which I chose not to let out have been hanging over my head, growing bigger and bigger, so I decided to let them out here with my writing. However, what I am saying here is just my own thoughts, and I do not think either opinion should be right or wrong. I believe that everyone can have a different aesthetic and a different sense of what is valuable, and all should be equally respected, and that we should not judge whose opinion is right or wrong or better or worse. (For this reason, I personally think that an argument between two people who have different aesthetics and different senses of value is just a waste of time.) Improvising music has its own great value and aesthetics that deserve to be appreciated by certain music fans, and Wandelweiser music has its own great value and aesthetics that deserve to be appreciated by certain music fans as well. So in this essay, I would like to just focus on my personal thoughts on the following points - why I don’t feel Wandelweiser music is rigid, and why I am so interested in Wandelweiser music rather than improvising music in general these days, from a single standpoint as a listener, not as a performer.

I think that the rigidness as opposed to the flexibility and the freedom that was described in that conversation must have derived from a perspective as a performer. To play strictly along with the instructions and rules that a composer has noted on the score is, in a way, a condition where the performer’s freedom of expressing his/her own voice becomes almost completely restrained. For improvising musicians who are used to expressing their inner voices with their instruments, this situation could certainly feel ‘rigid’. But then, how is this situation experienced from the audience’s standpoint?

For me as a listener (not a performer), I experience this situation in a completely opposite way. In the last few years, I have started to feel that improvising music is rather rigid, while Wandelweiser music has more potential for experiencing freedom and flexibility. Since I lost interest in improvising music, I became more interested in composed music in general. Then, since I started listening to Wandelweiser music about a year ago, I felt that I have found a clear answer to what I had been seeking. But still, I was not able to understand clearly why I lost interest in improvising music, and why I was interested in Wandelweiser music. It was Taku Sugimoto’s essay “Two Worlds” that showed me the clear explanation. (It was about five years ago when his original essay was printed in a free paper “Santa” in Japan, but I did not read it carefully until recently since the fonts in the paper were extremely small and hard to read. The English translation of the essay is now on erstwords.)

I think that improvising music must fundamentally derive from the performer’s aesthetics, personal ego, taste and orientation. There may be some kind of improvising music that seems to be free from the performer’s personal ego, but there is still his/her inner voice in the deep core of the music (sometimes as his/her attempt to be free from ego.) Some improviser may search for the sounds that are born from his/her very depth of existence, and some improviser may put his/her political statement in the music. There is a complete freedom in what they do in improvisation. Performers will choose the sounds from unlimited potential and will let the sounds out in their performances. And the audience will listen to the sounds as the receivers of the performer’s (sender’s) inner voices or messages.

For a time, I was deeply interested in that kind of ‘sender/receiver’ relationship between improvising music and me as a listener. The reason why I gradually lost interest in the relationship was perhaps because, at some point, listening to improvising music started to feel more like being forced to experience the performer’s personal ego - whether I liked it or not, instead of being allowed to experience the pure state of the ‘sound’ itself. I think there was a period when I found it interesting to experience the performer’s individuality through his/her performances. By listening to an improvising performance that was born from the performer’s self-searching approach in which he/she dug deep into his/her own existence, sometimes I felt as if I were experiencing something crucially connected to the truths of human beings or nature. However, at some point, I started to feel that the performer’s individual ‘voice’ or statement or orientation began to cloud the pure state of the sound itself, as a tie that was attached to the sound and restricted its potential. I think that was the main reason why I started to feel that improvising music was rigid. Personally as a listener, I am not interested in a performer's specific history, self-searching process, trauma or political beliefs. What I am interested in is the pure state of the sound itself, what kind of experiences I may receive from that sound, or how my perception of the world may change because of the influence of the sound. For me, it was Wandelweiser music that deeply satisfied these interests of mine.

The reason why I cannot help objecting to the above-mentioned opinion that “Wandelweiser music is rigid” is, because for me, it was Wandelweiser music that retrieved the freedom and the flexibility that ‘sounds’ must originally have had, from the rather rigid nature of improvised music. ‘The freedom and the flexibility of the sounds’ I mention here can also be, at the same time, the freedom and the flexibility for what an audience could possibly experience.

For example, when I listened to Antoine Beuger’s piece 'calme étendue' at a live concert (performed by Dominic Lash) for the first time, I had an unforgettable experience. In spite of it being an extremely quiet music, consisting of only a few sounds and long silences, what I experienced was something tremendous - it was a revelation that everything including the performer’s sounds, the environmental sounds, the silences, and the audience who were listening to the situation carefully, were all equally existing in this moment by sharing the same time and space, even some unseen or unknown happenings that might be occurring somewhere far away. The sense of equality I felt from the performance was so shockingly realistic that it felt like it changed the way I related to the world. This is a little off the subject, but when someone says, “I don’t get Antoine Beuger’s music at all”, I think it sometimes is because the person is just focusing on the performed sounds themselves with their full concentration while shutting out their antenna toward other factors in the situation (something common among many so-called onkyo listeners). If a person tries to experience whatever his/her sense organs (not only his/her auditory sense) can catch via an open mind, not only the performed sounds but also the silences and environmental sounds (and every phenomenon that is existing in the time and space at the same time), I think it becomes easier to appreciate the music of the Wandelweiser composers.

Meanwhile, when I listened to Radu Malfatti’s piece 'nariyamu' (performed by Malfatti and Keith Rowe) in a studio recording session in Vienna last month, a short and subtle click sound, which Malfatti made by lightly tapping his trombone with his finger tip after a certain period of silence, sounded like some vivid sound that jumped in my ear, like the first sound I heard after I was born. The freshness and the vividness of this click left me with an unforgettable impact. And when I have listened to many of Michael Pisaro's pieces, I have experienced the purest forms of harmonies, born from extremely subtle relationships between plural sounds. Through experiencing these mysterious (and almost magical) phenomena of harmonies which are presented in the simplest forms in Pisaro’s music, my ears were opened for harmonies that could be heard even outside of music, naturally composed by the environmental sounds.

I think the reason why I was able to experience these wonders of sounds was because the sounds and the harmonies were presented in pure forms, completely free from the composers’ or performers’ personal egos. All the preconceived notions and performer’s individual attachment, that I used to naturally accept when I listened to improvising music in the past, were all eliminated from the above-mentioned composers’ works. In a way, those Wandelweiser composers enabled me (or opened my ears) to listen to ‘sound’ in its purest form, while it was almost impossible (for me) to do so in improvising music.

When I was in Vienna last month, I heard Radu Malfatti say a very interesting thing. People tend to acquire various small habits and tendencies without knowing in their daily lives, and in many cases, they do not realize that they are repeating the same behaviors everyday. For example, there is a certain order when a person brushes his teeth, like which part of the teeth he started to brush. Radu said, once he realizes that he has some habits or tendencies in his daily life, he intentionally tries to change the order from what he used to do normally. He said that in this way, he has been trying to reset his habits and tendencies that were piled up every day without being consciously aware.

Perhaps this can be said in the case of improvising music as well. Improvisers choose what to play (e.g., sounds, silences, styles) from an unlimited range of options of what to do. But over the course of many performances, they may subconsciously acquire some certain habits and tendencies that may become attached to their performed sounds. Perhaps it is a result from the musician’s mindset to try to create the most comfortable situation where he/she can best express his/her ‘voice’ or originality at most. Although the improvisers themselves may not fully realize the fact that their habits and tendencies have become attached to the sounds, careful listeners may notice them. In my case, when I am listening to some improvising music at live concerts, I often sense mannerisms or familiar phrases (not only in actual sounds but also in moments of silence) that I have experienced from the same musician before as his/her signature ‘voice’, which tend to be a turnoff for me to be interested in the music.

Even though the Wandelweiser composers try to present ‘sounds’ in their purest forms, there are still of course those composer’s originalities or individualities in their works. But their originalities are found in their ways or styles of presenting the sounds, and are not found in the sounds themselves like habits or tendencies closely attached to the sounds of improvising musicians. In Wandelweiser music, I sense no personal ego or orientation or political statement of the performers. Their sounds have been liberated from the performers’ existence, and float in the air with no strings attached. (When I am listening to the music of Wandelweiser composers, I often feel as if I were watching a sound as an invisible object floating in the middle of the air, like watching a 3D image.) Perhaps ‘sound’ may have returned to its original potential and freedom, when Wandelweiser composers handed the leading role of the music back to the sound itself from the performer.

I think, in a concert of Wandelweiser music, each member of the audience may have a very different experience. Some listeners may just feel bored and not get any special experience. Some listeners may experience some tremendous time like getting a revelation that may change their later life, from a simple sound or silences. Or some listeners, who may just feel bored at the time, may have a completely different experience from the same music when they listen to another concert five years later. There seems to be almost unlimited possibilities and flexibilities in what an individual listener may experience from the same music, even for the same person. This is why I believe that Wandelweiser music is not rigid at all, but contains freedom and flexibility in the deepest sense.