Jürg Frey's music

Composer of micro symphony born in the gray area between sound and silence, impressionism and minimalism


Jürg Frey’s compositional approach keeps him at the keen edge of contemporary music while simultaneously maintaining a faint touch of impressionistic aesthetics. These two characteristics usually appear in his pieces, sometimes combined together, sometimes one more dominant. One noteworthy example of his impressionistic aesthetic side is in his 2002 release Klaviermusik (1978-2001), performed by John McAlpine on piano, with soft lyrical touches emphasizing the classical beauty of Frey’s piano pieces. The disc is arranged chronologically, and the pieces composed after 1995 seem to contain much less of this faint impressionism, moving more towards a minimalistic direction.


The year 1995 seems to be a turning point in Jürg Frey’s work. In Frey’s pieces from 1995 on, the emphasis seems to be more on the spaces (or silences) between sounds, or the faint transitions from sound to silence, or the moments when sound and silence overlap. In his 1995/96 piece ohne titel (two violinen) on the CD Nono / Frey, a clear-cut blankness emerges in the moment of two violin sounds vanishing, with no trail of impressionistic color. When the resonance of the note of an instrument decays and disappears into a silence, the presence of that silence is boosted with a quiet tension. This momentary blankness makes the listener feel as if he/she were gazing into mystic depths from a cliff, and causes the listener a surreal feel, like faint dizziness, in time and space. This signature way of Frey’s between sounds and silences makes his music distinctively different from conventional classical music, and is clearly and straightforwardly portrayed in the 2012 release Piano Music performed by R. Andrew Lee.


On Piano Music, Lee approaches Frey’s pieces with his minimalist aesthetics, in a very different way from McAlpine’s, to bring out Frey’s contemporary edge. In the first piece Klavierstück 2, Lee sends his piano sounds into the air as if he was artistically placing stones in a Zen garden, emphasizing the existence of the space and the time between sounds. Lee’s minimalist approach seems to crystallize the beauty of Frey’s compositions, bringing out the purity of the sound and the essence of the original composition via his clear consciousness. The most breathtaking moment starts in the middle part, when a simple same chord of two notes (E and A) is repeated for 468 times at a moderate tempo. The resonance of each stroke seems direct, as if refusing to involve a specific meaning or emotion, or refusing to be associated with anything more than the original nature of the sound itself. The constant repetition of the same chord does not feel mechanical or cold or flat at all – instead it creates a natural feel of breathing in a gentle flow of time.

What attracts my ears when listening to this CD is the way each chord sounds – each chord maintains the individuality of each sound while still standing parallel to each other (evoking in me several white rays of light of different intensity), not as if multiple sounds are melding into one. The unique characteristics of Frey’s compositions are sharply portrayed here in the transitions between sounds, the relations between sounds, and the pauses between sounds. Lee’s performance seems to accentuate these characteristics in a natural organic flow, creating a surreal feel as if time and space were wavering or stretching.

The second composition Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes pour piano (24-35) is divided into 12 pieces. Here, the thickness of the silences when piano sounds decay and disappear captures the listener’s ear. After piece no. 29, the music begins to possess a serene beauty following the restrained monochrome tones of the first half, as if some white rays of faint light were gradually shining into a room. This last section toward the end is another memorable part, evoking in me an image of ascending into the sky slowly and quietly, towards a positive harmony – where Frey’s impressionistic lyricism and Lee’s minimalism are beautifully married. McAlpine’s CD seems to emphasize the faint colors of Frey’s piano pieces, while Lee’s performance seems to emphasize the whiteness of Frey’s piano pieces. These two CDs, released ten years apart, seem to extract the two different aesthetics underlying Frey’s compositions – faint impressionism and minimalism – from completely different angles. These two approaches combine to show us the profoundness of Frey’s world and the broad possibilities within his compositions.


Frey’s focus on the overlap between sound and silence has been even more drastic in some of his recent works. One of the first signs of this direction occurs in his Streichquartett II (1998-2000), the last track on the 2006 release CD String Quartets, as performed by Quatuor Bozzini. In this piece, the string quartet plays simple phrases of continuous tones very quietly in between short silences, creating an ominous yet calm atmosphere which simultaneously contains both a serenity and a subtle fierceness. The enigmatic nature of this piece seems to be attuned to both areas of sound and silence, via its translucency of vibrations. This approach from Frey develops further with the epic and microscopic world of his 2001/02 compositions Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8, a series of eight pieces released as an 8 CDR set in 2010.


Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8 is electronic music composed of extended looped sound materials, including field recordings as well as instruments like percussion, rubbed noises of stones and metal objects. The whole piece is imbued with a solemn atmosphere throughout, developing with extremely subtle changes during the 320 minutes. While listening to this very quiet music which makes slow progress over a great span of time, I notice that the way I hear it gradually changes. On CD 1, the very quiet extended sounds move slowly like the wind blowing through a pipe, while containing a tranquil, slightly ominous tone. While focusing on listening to these wind-like sounds of the first section, the border of performed sounds and environmental sounds becomes vague. This is the moment when one begins to feel as if the sounds on the CD and the noises of the air conditioning in your room were co-performing. The subtle shadings and delicate wavers of sounds make the boundaries between sounds and silences dissolve into each other, creating a mystic feeling of floating in the music.

Once I am attuned to these quiet sounds, I notice the various small changes happening in the piece, like viewing some imperceptible phenomena under a microscope. On the second CD, the ambiguous gray layers of the formless sounds disappear, and l start to hear some faint harmonies of electronic tones that have similar textures to string instruments – now the piece starts to be heard as music with a hint of melody. The faint harmonies shift toward the dark cloud-like low-key tones, and the music is again filled with an ominous atmosphere. While following the slow and gradual changes of the music, my mind recedes from its reality and becomes deeply drawn into the microscopic phenomena in the music, stretching my sense of time in a way that feels surreal. After about 90 minutes consisting of extremely quiet continuous sounds, some stretched out long silences are inserted between sparse sounds, like the silences of tranquil ponds dotted in a deep forest (this is on the third disc). Around the middle part (on the fourth disc), I start to feel that I am hearing some subtle chords or harmonies born from the resonances in the middle of the muffled sounds – the ambiguity of the whole makes it difficult to recognize if these come from field recordings, or the sounds of instruments, or the environmental noises around me. On the seventh disc, the quiet continuous sounds gain some regular pulses that throb calmly but vigorously like a human heart, as if I am watching some formless living organism emerging from a chaotic mud (but nothing fearful, something peaceful).

What makes this piece so fascinating to me is how it differs from the normal passive listening situation, where I just follow the musical development. Throughout the piece, my way of listening to the music actively changes as I hear this seemingly motionless wave of continuous sounds. The initial vague, translucent impression of the music suddenly becomes enlarged and clarified once the listener starts to focus on the details, and the music starts to unfold its beautiful world full of various subtle changes – a micro-symphony born in the gray area between sound and silence.



2006年にリリースされたQuatuor Bozzini演奏の「String Quartet」では、弦の音の響きに印象派的なニュアンスをかすかに漂わせつつも、印象派には陥らないぎりぎりのラインを保って音楽が展開する。このCDの最後の曲は、音と沈黙の中間で鳴っているような静けさと凄みが共存する不思議な弦の響きで、フレイの現代的なエッジをのぞかせている。

2002年にリリースされた「Klavierstücke (1978-2001)」では、ジョン・マックアルパインのソフトなタッチのピアノ演奏が、印象派を思わせる詩的な雰囲気を醸し出し、フレイのピアノ作品に秘められたリリカルで古典的な美しさを際立たせている。このCDでは、1995年以降のフレイの作風から印象派のニュアンスが薄れていき、ミニマルな要素を強めていく変化が聴き取れるのも興味深い。一方、2012年にリリースされたアンドリュー・リーのピアノ演奏による「Piano Music」は、同じ種類のピアノ曲でありながらも、マックアルパインのソフトな演奏スタイルとはがらりと違う、直線的かつミニマリズム的な大胆なアプローチで、フレイ作品のもつ現代的なエッジ、すなわち音と沈黙の間の境界線が曖昧になる瞬間に聴き手を惹き付けるグラデーションの美しさや、音と音の間に生まれる沈黙の存在感を浮き彫りにしている。マックアルパインのピアノがフレイ作品のもつ淡い色彩を際立たせた演奏だとしたら、リーのピアノはフレイ作品のもつ「白い美しさ」を際立たせた演奏だといえよう。10年の時を隔ててリリースされたこの2枚は、フレイの作曲作品に潜在する印象派的な特徴と、ミニマルアートにも通じる現代的な特徴を、相反する方向から引き出した注目すべき演奏作品であり、ユルク・フレイという作曲家のもつ深遠な世界と、その作品がもつ時代を超えた音楽としての可能性を示唆しているように思われる。

ユルク・フレイの現代的あるいはミニマルなエッジが革新的な形で現れた注目作として、2010年にB-Boim Recordsからリリースされた8枚組のCDR作品「Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8」がある。これは8枚のCDRに納められたユルク・フレイの320分間の作曲作品で、フィールド・レコーディング、パーカッション等の楽器の音、石や金属を使って出した音などを録音し、それらの音素材を引き延ばしてループにした電子音楽だ。空気の流れが長大な時間をかけてゆっくりと動いていくように、静かに進行していく音楽だ。