Jürg Frey - Ephemeral Constructions (EWR 1709)


I have been listening to Jürg Frey’s music intensively in the last few months. I first became aware of  Frey’s works in 2010, around the time when I discovered Wandelweiser composers’ works and became deeply immersed in - first Michael Pisaro’s prolific series of pieces, then more works from Antoine Beuger, Manfred Werder, Radu Malfatti and Jürg Frey.

In the last three years, my taste for music has shifted toward older classical music, often attending concerts performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, as well as listening to numerous older classical music recordings - mostly of Romantic composers. What triggered me to dig into this older classical music was Mitsuko Uchida’s Mozart Piano Sonata CD (1984), which I found in my late father-in-law’s substantial collection of classical music CDs. Deeply touched by Uchida’s delicate, sorrowful, contemplative piano tones in Mozart Sonatas and Rondo in A minor, I further dug into her Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven and Mozart Piano Concertos with the Cleveland Orchestra, then into other orchestras, composers, pianists, and an infinite number of classical music recordings up to the present. I used to eagerly listen to Baroque music in my teens, then early music and Renaissance music (and some Mozart) in my 20’s, but listening to Romantic composers’ works so intensively was a completely new and exhilarating experience.

During this time, I did not listen to current experimental music pieces as much as I used to do, since I found a difficulty in loving these two very different genres and eras of music at the same time. However, Wandelweiser music was in a unique position. It was when I came to listen to Webern after going through the Romantic period, when I sensed a similar texture in Webern’s silence which instantly reminded me of that of Malfatti’s silence and Frey’s silence. Perhaps Webern’s silence was rather closer to Malfatti’s than Frey’s (although the hint of Romanticism was closer to Frey’s), and the moment of the two ‘silences’ overlapping in my mind brought me straight back to Wandelweiser music again. There were of course other composers who explored significant meanings of silence during the two eras, but Webern’s silence - which still had a lingering air of Romanticism - was a revelation to me to connect two separate pieces of the puzzle together - Romantic music and Wandelweiser. It broke down the wall between these two worlds, both of which I have been deeply fascinated during the last eight years. Also, after obsessively listening to old classical music for three years, the music of Wandelweiser composers started to reveal more layers and a depth that I did not notice before. Sometimes I find similar aesthetics and structures in Wandelweiser composers’ works - especially in Frey’s - as those of Renaissance or Romantic composers’ works, although there are of course distinct differences in the concepts and styles. Further listening to Frey’s recent works has deepened the connection between these two separate eras of music. I love the way both Frey’s music and some Renaissance or Romantic composers’ works sound coherent with no conflict to my ears transcending genres and eras, even though the atmosphere and textures of both are quite different.

Occasionally in my life, I have been intensely drawn to some specific music, ending up immersed in the music for quite a long time. It does not happen so often, but when it happens, the irresistible beauty of the music occupies my mind like a storm to the extent that it brings me a heartache or a torment - with words and images welling up in my mind, haunting me all the time with the sounds of the music. The only way to be free from this torment is to write down all those words and images in my text, trying to give verbal shapes to the spell of the music which enthralled me. It happens only once in a while, only when the power of the music is tremendous, and it was very hard when I was very young since I did not know how to get out of the spell of the music then. For instance when I was 13, I fell into a whirl of Pachelbel's Canon in D, and could not get back to the reality (my normal school life) for several months. My brother had a mix tape of Baroque music, and I became to be drawn to the fragments of the music occasionally heard from his room. But he did not let me listen to his music collection when he was home, so I sneaked in his room when he was at school, listening to the mix tape with his headphones while I was alone. There were music of J.S. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Telemann and Pachelbel on the cassette tape, but the music which captivated me most was Pachelbel's Canon in D. It was mesmerizing in spite of its simple structure and short length - three violins and a baseline of basso continuo, simply repeating eight bars of music for 28 times, slowly and gradually growing into more complex developments of the theme over the course of seven minutes or so (the version I was listening to then was Jean-François Paillard’s). I was fascinated by the way a simple phrase slowly and organically develops toward the ending, evoking different landscapes of different colors in my mind. Now when I listen to this piece again, I am surprised with the fact that this is only five or seven minutes piece, since when I was 13, it felt like much longer - like 30 minutes or so.  There was a hypnotic power in the cycles of this music, and I was completely addicted to it. I tried to follow every subtle change in every repetition of the harmonies, to figure out why this music is so touching. I started to skip school just because I wanted to listen to this Canon with my brother’s headphones while he was not at home. It was the first time when I was captivated by the spell of the music so overwhelmingly, to the extent that I could not relate to reality so well - like sinking deep down into the sea without knowing how to float back to the surface. (Eventually, I started to play and sing music myself in a youth choir and a recorder ensemble, and these involvement with musical activities certainly helped me to get connected to the healthy reality again. I do not play music now, but I found that writing helps me in a similar way.)

Canon is such a powerful form of music, and although it looks so simple and plain in the structure, the accumulated (silent) power with momentum gained from circling and repetition has almost a magnetic (physical) effect on me. Also, the repetitivity of a canonic form seems to resonate with our familiar cycle of living everyday life, while the seemingly indefinite loop of the music echoes with our desperate wish for the eternal. I find a similar compelling, magnetic power of repetition in Schubert’s sonatas, too. I was just thinking about these things when I was listening to Frey’s Circular Music #7 on 'Ephemeral Constructions' (EWR 1709) the other day, which captivated me with its haunting beauty - like Pachelbel's Canon in D did to me before - but in a more peaceful way.

Frey has been releasing his Circular Music series since 2013 - some of them are titled ‘Extended Circular Music’ - in his four recent albums including this one. He also recorded a composition titled ‘Canones Incerti’ in 2013 and 2014, which is more abstract and less simpler than the later Circular Music pieces, seemingly the early canonic piece in his catalog. Each of his Circular Music pieces have a different structure, texture and duration, and some of them are unforgettably beautiful - like Extended Circular Music No. 2 and 3 performed by Tamriko Kordzaia (piano) and Petra Ackermann (viola) on Frey’s 2014 CD ‘Untitled’ (Musiques Suisses).

Frey talked about his other canonic piece Circular Music #2 and how his interest in composing canons or circular music has grown in his later works in his interview on the ddmmyy site, which is quite interesting to read.

“I started to write the first canons in the late 90s. It was more a coming from outside. A curator in Sweden was asking me for pieces who was interested in counterpoint and canon. I thought ‘I should write something for him which is connected with canon’.”

“Well in this piece (Circular Music No.2), I think it was first the idea of being circular. There is a long story behind this because earlier in my career if someone would have told me that circular things could happen in my music in this way, I would have thought it impossible! I always had the impression that I had to place every chord. I have to take it with my hand… It’s not a circular mechanism. So this was very far away from every idea of mine. My idea is that I have to touch every note, every sound, I have to pick it up and put it in the right place for the right duration. It took a long time before I started to write canons or circular pieces. It was a discovery!”

“My first canons were most of them ‘pauses in canons: little single notes and the rest was silences so that you don’t hear any kind of ‘canon’, because there are such long breaks in between the notes. This was the first step. Then slowly I developed more canonic and circular techniques and at the end of this process I learnt that when you take the right notes and the right silences it’s so lovely because it creates something that I was looking for all the time: it goes by itself! The music goes by itself! I don’t touch every note but I let them go. The idea from Feldman of letting notes go. They go by themselves. It took such a long time before I learnt.” (Jürg Frey)


Ephemeral Constructions

'Ephemeral Constructions’ contains Frey’s three recent pieces from 2015 to 2016, performed in the spring of 2016 by the University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop under the direction of Greg Stuart, and three musicians - Erik Carlson on violin, Jürg Frey on clarinet, and Stuart on vibraphone and percussion. The first 40 minute piece Ephemeral Constructions (2015-16) and the third 24 minute pieces Circular Music #6 (2015) were performed by the three musicians and the Workshop ensemble together. The middle piece Circular Music #7 (2015), a little less than five minutes, was performed by the three musicians - Stuart, Carlson and Frey.

The first track, Ephemeral Constructions, begins with quiet, dispersed sounds of objects performed by the Workshop ensemble. The sounds of objects - something like lightly hitting wooden blocks and glass material - sparsely appear sporadically in a silent room, evoking flickering lights or raindrops falling onto a floor. These sounds of objects come from all directions, near and far, left and right, creating a spacious feel and a clear sense of perspective with great acoustics. At first, these sounds of the ensemble feel like random abstract sounds, but soon I noticed that there is a hint of cyclic rhythms in the way these sounds appear - though very vaguely. Around 6’24”, two single tones of a vibraphone appear softly at a regular interval, evoking faint warm lights emerging in the middle of the empty spatial room. A husky tone of a clarinet appears as well, followed by a violin with a similar quiet tone, both playing thin, prolonged passages. The two layers of the sounds happening in the space - one is the vertical, cool, realistic sounds of the ensemble’s hard objects, and the other is the horizontal, soft sounds of the three instruments - create a stereoscopic soundscape with a unique contrast of the textures, emphasizing the warm, organic feel of the three instruments. The ensemble’s sparse object sounds gradually increase their volume almost imperceptibly, clarifying the air of the room with the cool echos. Around 18’56”, the three instruments (vibraphone, clarinet and violin) play short phrases in minor scale in unison, bringing a hint of tonal music in the vague, abstract soundscape. In the last half of the track, fragments of faint melodies and chords of the three instruments appear and linger like a trail of a cloud, sharing the same meditative stillness as silence - which evokes of the listener’s contemplative mind. Near the end of the track, some short phrases of melodies and harmonies begin to take more obvious forms, though being still half abstract. It is like watching fine particles of a music emerging in the air gradually drawn to each other, almost forming a tonal music.

The second track, Circular Music #7, begins with a unison performed by the three musicians (violin, clarinet, vibraphone/percussion), slowly repeating a canonic cycle in eight bars for six times in a very quiet, prolonged manner. The previously heard sparse fragments of melodies seem to become one to create a seamless flow of music in this piece. The melancholic, blank tones of the violin and clarinet create a gray atmosphere in minor key, while the warm tones of the vibraphone in the last bar sound consoling. The lethargic melody of this five minute canon is unforgettably poignant, though very simple and short.

The third track, Circular Music #6, is performed by the Workshop ensemble in a similarly sparse, abstract soundscape as the first track, again evoking a large empty room. The sounds of three instruments (clarinet, violin, vibraphone/percussion) emerge softly and vaguely in the stereoscopic raindrops of various object sounds, trailing like a translucent cloud in the meditative silence. The dreamy tones of the three instruments evoke in me a shadow or a mirage of the previously heard short canon (Circular Music #7), floating in the room like a hologram image. The sounds of the three instruments move in a cyclic pattern, slowly increasing their presence as they repeat for several times, then diminishing into silence almost imperceptibly in a prolonged way.

I like to listen to these three pieces as one long composition - the first piece as a prelude in which a special 'room' is set up for small fragments of a canon to emerge, the second piece as the heart of this album: a short-life canon (Circular Music #7), and the last piece as a room where a shadow of the canon lingers like a hologram. The open feel of the space created by the great acoustics can be likened to the listener’s mind (or subconscious), too, where Frey’s canon is organically formed and heard, leaving the residual image in. The simple, quiet presence of Circular Music #7 contains the hypnotic power of a canon, but does not shake my emotions overwhelmingly like Pachelbel's Canon in D did to me long ago.

When I was captivated by Pachelbel's Canon in D when I was a kid, the beauty of the music filled my mind with tremendous joy, but also brought me a pain with a sense of loss afterwards, making it hard for me to reconnect to the reality again. I had a similar experience recently, when I saw John Eliot Gardiner conducting Monteverdi’s trilogy of operas: L'Orfeo, The Return of Ulysses and The Coronation of Poppea in NYC in three nights in October. It was one of the most divine, marvelous, powerful, soul touching live music experiences I have ever had. Gardiner’s straightforward, simple approach highlighted the pureness of Monteverdi’s music, delivering the essence of human emotions with restrained elegance and humbleness. I was deeply moved by the perfectly nuanced, poignant, rich musical expressions, which brought out the epiphanic beauty of the early 17th century librettos vividly. The period instruments of the English Baroque Soloists delivered the subtlety of each phrase with rich, warm, translucent overtones that filled the hall with the celestial beauty. The dynamic range of the sounds from pianissimo to fortissimo was delicately nuanced with precisely timed rhythms and perfectly pitched harmonies. The ceaseless flow of Monteverdi’s music wrapped me in intense emotions over the three days, blowing my mind like Pachelbel’s Canon did to me when I was a kid. But when the three nights of sublime music were done, I felt somewhat lost and depressed - like facing a dead end - seized by deep sorrow with a sense that I may not be able to experience such celestial beauty again for the rest of my life. Some tremendous beauty was experienced, shaking the deepest part of my soul, but when it was gone, the door was closed. The open space, which I used to cherish in mind, felt somewhat to be lost. It was like the ‘perfectness’ of the live performances of Monteverdi’s operas dominated my mind with its stormy power and irresistible beauty, putting my mind to a halt as it receded.

Music from Renaissance and Baroque periods often has this overwhelming power over me, mesmerizing me while the music is on, then closing the door when it is over. Unlike that, Frey’s canon - or circular music - does not draw me into a closed place, though moving me deeply with a similar essential beauty to that of Renaissance or Baroque music, yet in a much calmer way. To me, Frey’s canon ‘Circular Music #7’ is more magnetic and haunting than Pachelbel's Canon in D, because it has an elemental power and because it has an openness for the listener. Both canons are similarly short - about five minutes - but the atmosphere and the effect on the listener of each piece is quite different. Not like pulling the listener into the closed world of music by the force of composition, Frey’s canon lets the listener be synchronized with the music naturally, and lets him/her stay in the music without giving a sense of loss afterwards. I can feel the quiet presence of his Circular Music #7 in my mind even after the music ends, knowing that the door is still open, my mind half overlapping with the reality where I live in.

I often feel that Frey’s music has two layers - one is Frey’s composition performed by the musicians, the other is an open space (often found in silence or in a quiet, sparse soundscape) where the listener’s mind can assimilate into without losing touch with reality. The beauty of this album ‘Ephemeral Constructions’ lies here, in this double layer of ‘construction’ of sounds and silence - one layer is actually heard from the CD, the other layer is formed in my memory. This uncertainty - or a half-formed ambiguity - imprints a long-lasting image in my mind, perhaps since it involves my own imagination to be a part of constructing this music.

Each of Frey’s Circular Music works has a uniqueness in its atmosphere, colors and duration, leaving a different impression behind while sharing a similarly simple, cyclic pattern. It also reminds me of the ways people meet people, being apart after sharing some moments together for a while in a dreamlike half reality - some are peaceful and calm, some are sorrowful and poignant - but all moving in repetition in the transient moments of life. These moments are fleeting and diminishing like a short-life canon, to be destined to disappear into silence, but are so beautiful and unforgettable - since they are ephemeral, since we are living it - not like observing from outside.