Jürg Frey - Collection Gustave Roud (at115x2)    


'Collection Gustave Roud' is a double CD of Jürg Frey's recent works from 2007 to 2016. All five pieces of this album are closely connected with the works of the French-Swiss poet Gustave Roud, who has been a profound influence on Frey’s compositions in the last decade. I have been listening to this album over the last month, deeply immersed in the astounding beauty of all five pieces. Time seems to stand still when listening to this album - being lost in contemplation - but in fact, time begins to move forward and a vast expanse of space starts to unfold in my mind when the music begins. A truly rich, warm, open, imaginative experience of beauty and sensitivities is found inside the stillness of the gray landscape of Frey’s music - beyond this dry reality.

Frey explained the close connection between his music and the works of Roud in his recent interview on the another timbre site. “I first encountered Roud’s work more than 10 years ago, and the impact of his work on my music has been profound. I feel a close relationship to a poet whose mode of operation and sensitivity make a precise resonance in me. It’s a unique poetry that speaks from beginning to end of searching for the essence. I would like to compare his mode of work with that of a painter. Every day he went out, not with an easel, but with his notebook, and he wandered through the landscape as a flaneur, observer, writer, laying the foundations of his work with his notes. For me his work constitutes a kind of ‘field recording’, not with a microphone and sounds, but with his soul and body, recording his environment in the broadest sense. He perceived existential dimensions in the finest nuances of the weather, the landscape and its inhabitants, and made it the basis of his work.”

This album intrigued me to learn more about the life and the works of Roud, and I found this great post on a French blog 'de paysage en paysage', which explained the life of the poet and some of his famous poems and journals, along with the blog author's in-depth discussions. (I read this page via Google translation.)

Roud grew up in a family-owned farm in Carrouge, in the countryside north of Lake Geneva, and lived there with his sister throughout his life - as a poet, not as a farmer. He studied classical literature in high school and in college, maintained numerous friendships with artists, musicians, poets, and other intellectuals. His oeuvre is relatively small, but he left prolific writings in his correspondences and journals which showed his deep commitment to literature and art. His style of writing is rustic, simple and contemplative, tinged with a surreal atmosphere and solitary shadows, profoundly resonating with the stillness of the landscapes in his monochrome photographs. (In recent years, his works as a photographer have also been more and more recognized.) Wikipedia describes, “his poetry was dedicated to the landscapes of the Haut-Jorat where he lived, to reach a perception of an ‘elsewhere’ or of a lost paradise.”

In the above-mentioned blog, I was particularly fascinated with the excerpts from ‘Landscape and French Poetry’, a study on Roud by Michel Collot and Antonio Rodríguez (excerpt is in the next paragraph). Rould dwelled in two worlds paradoxically - ‘the real’ and ‘the spiritual space’ - both of which closely resonate with Frey’s music in this album. The real (or the landscapes Roud saw in his external vision) gave rise to his poetic inspirations, which allowed him to communicate with ‘spirits’ of nature intimately “in a closed and harmonious space where a depth of reality and an ecstasy of the subject take place together”. Although he had lived a solitary, closed life as a “fugitive” from the real world, with his homosexuality being considered to be sinful in the rural area at that time, he did not entirely seclude himself from the reality into his imaginative inner self. Instead, he found his own “closed and harmonious space” where the two worlds meet halfway, which became unique landscapes in his works.

“Sometimes the two moments - rapture and distance - take place almost simultaneously: paradoxically, the real is offered in the singularity of its presence - and moving evidence is needed as it holds us a language, or it plays music - then withdraws into its absolute otherness. Humans, animals, but especially flowers seem to open up to exchange and communion, to reveal their intimate truth, before closing immediately in the silence.” (from ‘Landscape and French Poetry’ by Michel Collot and Antonio Rodríguez)

During his solitary walks, Roud encountered the 'spirits' in nature - which vaguely formed a language or a music in his mind - and he captured the fleeting moment of a rapport with them in his poems and journals.

“... with the elements of the landscape in which he lived: hills, groves, trees, flowers had become for him entities with a certain form of life and spirit with which he could dialogue and to whom he lent human forms and feelings. During his long solitary walks, his exacerbated sensitivity made him constantly listening to them and deeply felt the presence of these spirits in his whole being.“ (from the blog 'de paysage en paysage') 


CD ‘Collection Gustave Roud’

In Roud’s poems and journals, some musical terms often appear - like unison, melody, harmonies, cadence, symphony - to describe what he saw in the landscape, as if he were hearing distant music or the sounds of instruments (brass, percussion, orchestra, piano, etc.) in the nature. This reminds me of how Frey has composed music utilizing field recording materials in his six hour piece ‘l'âme est sans retenue I’ (1997/98), in which small fragments of the field recordings sometimes sound like forming faint echoes of orchestral music. In this Collection Gustave Roud, Frey seemed to embody the ‘inner music’ that Roud might have been hearing in the landscapes he admired, in a more clearly visualized, magnified, tonal way than what he has done in his ‘l'âme est sans retenue I’ - by using actual musical instruments.

The first piece, Paysage pour Gustave Roud, begins with soft tones of piano and clarinet which evoke a transparent presence of the wind, with the image of a vast expanse of the sky and the ground. Everything moves slowly, sometimes unrecognizably quietly, in a surreal flow of time. The landscape in which the music unfolds - a cloudy sky and a rustic, rural landscape - feels like a very personal, quiet solitary place, but there is also a wide openness with which anyone's contemplation can synchronize. The soft tones of the piano throw thin rays of sunlight, with a hint of warm colors, while the dry texture of the cello (Stefan Thut) increases the shadow in the gray landscape. The fragile tones of the clarinet seem to reflect the slightly insecure, contemplative mind of the poet, who was perhaps once standing in the solitary landscape, gazing at a thin ray of hope. When the sounds of the three instruments overlap in unison, the soul of the poet and the landscape blend together in one entity, opening the door to Roud's two worlds - the rural landscape in his external vision and his inner world.

The second piece, Haut-Jorat, is a series of six short pieces for violin, clarinet, and piano. Frey described this piece, "Haut-Jorat is the name of the countryside where Roud lived. The six pieces are like six photographs: sensations of air, light and landscape."

This piece begins with a dry, matte tone of violin, which evokes a monochrome drawing of a rustic landscape. While the sounds of the three instruments are extremely subtle and quiet, each tone has a rich, substantial texture and depth. Listening to this series of short pieces makes me feel like slowly walking on the trails where Roud used to take a solitary walk in contemplation.

The third piece, La présence, les silences, evokes a vast expanse of a monochrome landscape, and simultaneously the unspoiled beauty of the soul of the poet, apart from secular noises. 

The fourth piece is Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind, performed by soprano (Regula Konrad), trumpet (Stephen Altoft), cello (Thut),  percussion (Lee Ferguson), harmonica and piano (Frey), and sound samples from CD. This is another beautiful, compelling piece in this album, one of the greatest compositions among all of Frey's works I have heard.

In this piece, Frey used his German text - a list of words (meaning 'stone', 'shine', 'leaves', 'death', 'happiness', 'wind') - read by soprano voice. Some of these words also appeared in his 2015 release '24 Wörter' (Edition Wandelweiser), sung by the same soprano singer Konrad, and are seemingly the essential keywords of the Roud’s journal which inspired Frey for this piece. (The excerpts of Roud's journal and Frey’s list of words are included in the CD liner notes.)

If Frey's 'Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8' (b-boim) is a silent micro symphony composed of numerous, almost unrecognizable subtle changes and moves of extremely quiet sounds, then this 'Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind' can be called a silent micro opera - unfolding in the listener's mind, not on stage. The transient appearances of soprano voice, trumpet, cello, percussions, piano and harmonica humbly emerge from silence and retreat into silence, with a floating-in-the-air lightness and fragility. The lyrics which the soprano sings with a haunting melody are the French narrative from Roud’s journal, conveying to us the tremors of joy and awe that Roud cherished in his intimate relation with nature. The emotional expressions are minimum and subtle in this Frey’s song piece, not obviously dramatic like conventional operas, but if you listen carefully, magnifying the micro world consisting of subtle shadings and wavers of the trembling voices of soprano and instruments that are sparsely dotted in silence, you can see (hear) the extraordinary beauty arisen from the deepest part of the human heart. The translucent tones of the soprano in this piece also remind me of the celestial beauty of Monteverdi's operas (very quiet scenes), which seep into my heart with the similarly simple, understated manner and straightforward approaches to the essence of pure beauty.

Frey's song piece is not a strong music full of vital energies like Monteverdi's operas, but the quiet presence of the music has a different power (and a different path) to reach the listener's mind. The two are very different or opposite in a way: while Monteverdi's operas are solidly structured with a ceaseless, determined flow of precisely timed sounds with a clear sense of the beginning and end, Frey's music seems to be rather blurred, uncertain, half-formed, indirect, not being anchored in one solid place or time, with almost imperceptible molecular changes of shades and long stretches of silence. The subtleties of the quiet sounds activate the listener's ears to be more sensitive, while the sparsity and uncertainty leave a wide open space for the listener's contemplation, so they can hear the extended stretch of music in the silence  - where poetry forms in music. It reminds me of Romanian pianist Radu Lupu’s semi-transparent pianissimo tones, which must arise from his very personal world a bit far from reality, but also deeply resonate with the listener’s inner world - like a door to another dimension (or contemplation) is opened in the passages of the distant tones.

Supposing that this Frey’s Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind is a silent micro opera, I divided this 48 minutes piece into several scenes as below (mostly based on my imagination evoked from the music).

The inner world of the poet and the outer world he was watching (the landscape) slowly emerge (0:00)

Very subtle, feeble but keen tones of high-frequencies appear quietly, flickering a faint light on the edge of the silence, evoking an extremely sensitive, vulnerable soul of the poet. The soft sound of a trumpet comes in, gradually unfolding the landscape where the poet was immersed in, with its spatial sounding. The soprano voice appears, trembling but in a forthright tone, singing about Roud’s intimate feelings for the nature hauntingly while closely tracing the words of Roud’s journal.

The ethereal tones of the soprano leads the listener to the mystical place between reality and the other world, where the soul of the poet dwells. While the sounds of the soprano and the harmonica appear close, the trumpet appears in the middle, and the bass drum appears  far away, the cello creates a mood of disquiet behind them. The thin edge between discord and accord shows the swings of the poet's sensitivities, who sometimes seeing a faint ray of hope and happiness, but sometimes sinking deep down into a sorrowful, solitary void. The fragile but earnest soprano voice is a prayer of the poet, staying slightly off but not out of balance, reflecting the shadows of the poet’s mind. All the sounds move slowly, revealing the inner world of the poet and the expanse of his outer landscape simultaneously.

The other world, where the poet’s spirit floats in, or his closed life distant from the reality (7:02)

Faint sounds of a piano are heard in the soundscape of the soft, distant tones of a trumpet, hoarse, low sounds of a cello, a percussion (a heavy bell rolling), and weak sounds of a harmonica. These subtle sounds sparsely dotted in the thick silence create a mildly spiritual atmosphere, evoking the world after death. (This section reminds me of the mystical air of the third act of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, when Orfeo sings 'Possente spirto' while crossing the river that divides the mortal world from the world of the dead, in which the obscure sounds of trumpet evokes the other world along with a short phrase of a violin, trumpet or harp following each passage of the song.)

Unison, harmonies, a faint ray of hope into the shadow of the poet’s soul. Brightness of the first spring sunlight shines in, transient moments of happiness knock the poet's heart  (16:16)

After a silence, the soprano and all the instruments sing and play in unison softly but earnestly, with short intervals of silence. Every time they form harmony, a faint light of happiness shines in the dark. The contrast between the high range and the low range of the sounds of instruments evokes the extremes of the poet’s mind, longing for hope on one hand, sinking into a dark melancholy on the other hand.

Suddenly, the positive, crisp sounds of percussion come in, blowing the melancholic air away with the brightness of a sunlight, clarifying the following silence. Again, a faint harmony of soprano, trumpet and cello come back, slowly increasing the brightness of the air. Trembling with hope for transient moments of happiness, the poet sees the first sunlight of the spring which reinvigorates a life in nature, although very transient.

Soprano voice reads Frey's text (a list of words), spring brings inspiration into the poet’s mind via the spirits of nature, softly and warmly (22’20”)

In the middle part of the piece, a soft voice of soprano appears repeatedly between short silences, evoking a voice of a night bird, deepening the air. The soprano voice quietly reads the words of Frey’s text one by one, accompanied by the sounds of heavy bells rolling, the dry tones of a trumpet and a cello in the background.

The sounds of percussion gently knock on the door to the closed mind of the poet. As the thin streams of high-frequencies and a harmonica come in and gradually become stronger, the soprano voice increases its warmth and brightness as if it were pouring in enduring strength to a fragile life. The soul of the poet wakes up in the ethereal tranquility, listening to the words echoing in the air.   

Bright sounds of trumpet and percussions cleared the air, the arrival of spring, awakening the poet’s half-asleep soul, deepening and clarifying the following silence (33’00")

After a long silence, a powerful high-pitched sound of the trumpet comes in out of the blue (you will be blown away), reverberating in the silence like a messenger of the arrival of spring. Intense emotions - joy, surprise, excitement - suddenly fill the poet’s mind, drawing him back to the grand reality from his half-asleep dream. Percussive crisp sounds join with the sound of the trumpet, spreading the bright lights of spring throughout the space. After the following silence - which was deepened and clarified by the absence of the powerful tones of the trumpet, the extremely quiet, trembling voice of the soprano comes back prayerfully, synchronized with a thin stream of a high-frequency sound. Here, the clear contrast with the powerful sounds of the trumpet brought out the semi-transparent, fragile beauty of the soprano voice more strikingly. Grand nature (trumpet) and the poet’s frail mind (soprano) alternately appear, coming back and forth in the state between sleeping and waking, evoking the poet’s mind which swings between joy and grief, reality and the other world.

Immersed in the moment when his two worlds married - the nature and his inner world - in a peaceful silence (37:23)

In a slow repetition of a slightly irregular beat of the percussion, the trumpet sound and soprano voice sparsely and alternately appear, very slowly and gradually, diminishing into the peaceful silence. The two worlds - the nature and the poet’s inner world - are peacefully married in a meditative silence.

The beauty of this song piece is breathtaking -  evoking vague, dreamlike images of the soft sunlight and shadows, reflecting on small pebbles, flowers and leaves in the poet’s view, bringing out faint images of the spirits of nature. The thoughts of the poet, who was once watching the same landscape with awe, are still lingering in the wind quietly blowing through the scene. His sensations of happiness and pain, softly covered by the thin veil of oblivion, come back again transiently in the fragments of the nature scene that Frey was watching. The fleeting spirits that dwelled in nature - which only poets can see - were once captured in Roud’s writings, and now in this piece of Frey’s. With his cloudless inner eye and the extreme delicacy close to the sensitivities of Roud, Frey scooped the trembling, fragile soul of the poet with his careful, warm hands into this incredibly beautiful, embracing song piece - or a silent micro opera.


The last piece of the album is Ombre si fragile, a short piece for violin, cello, and piano. In this piece, very quiet, subtle sounds of violin, cello and piano appear, moving very slowly, then disappearing into silence. Extremely thin, dry textures of a violin and a cello (evoking the rustles of dead leaves) reflect the extremely sensitive, fragile soul of this poet who lived in solitude. Soft tones of a piano come in with the naturalness of the air, like a stream of the faint light momentarily coming into a dark room. The low contrast in the hollow sounds, which is as tranquil and solemn as the silence, creates an uncertain atmosphere in the gray area between the reality and the other world.

At the end, the sounds disappear imperceptibly like an unfinished sentence, assimilated with the last silence. This piece evokes in me a fleeting light that the poet might have seen in his diminishing mind in the very last moment of life - the translucent beauty that he had been desperately holding to - which long remains in the silence after the music ends.