wandelweiser und so weiter
Annoying but necessary caveats out of the way first- I am thanked in the liner notes of this box set, for my logistical and moral support to its curator and publisher Simon Reynell. This support amounts to driving a few musicians and bits of equipment about from time to time and reminding Simon that he’s doing good work. Beyond that, I had no real input into the creation of this set, and if I ever gave my opinions on any of the recordings, a good few of which I was lucky enough to have sat in on, then I am certain that Simon paid little attention to them as he went in search of his vision for what this box became. I also know quite a few of the musicians and composers well. So bear all of that in mind before reading on, but also I ask you to take my word for it that my thoughts on this set wouldn’t be very much different if I had never met anyone involved.
So how the heck are you meant to approach a review of something like this? Sorry, this can only be a long review. One of the most satisfying things about the music of the Wandelweiser collective and those that have followed on in their footsteps is that the composition is so often only the starting point for the music. While the compositional control held by different composers of course varies greatly, there is only a small amount of music in this area that is strictly notated and expected to be played faithfully so. If I was writing here about a box set of Beethoven works for instance, or even a collection of work by the great romantic composers of his time, the assessment of the music would then centre entirely around the actual composition, with only a few accompanying thoughts on how the musicians may have interpreted it. To write properly about any of the thirty-five individual recordings captured on this set would need, in my opinion, a few hundred words on each of them, such is the nature of how the composers involved here choose to engage with the musicians, with engagement being the key term here. The scores vary from the work of Manfred Werder and Sam Sfirri, who in quite different ways offer just sentences borrowed from other areas of the arts as their instructions to the performers, through to the work of Jürg Frey, which may be the closest anyone comes here to traditional notation, with the many other composers here utilising other methodologies that fall at different points along the path between the two. The interesting thing about all of the music here, and in the Wandelweiserian approach to composition in general is how the composer/musician dynamic is challenged and extended in new ways.
Over recent years a fair percentage of the performances of this music have seen musicians usually known for their improvisatory skills involved. The balance between Wandelweiser composer and improvising musician is a perfect one. The composer brings a set of structures that focus the performer, pointing them in directions but not necessarily restraining them, giving the musician new challenges away from the ‘anything goes’ nature of free improvisation. The musician then brings his/her own compositional skills and couples them to the score, often resulting in work quite different to how the composer may have envisioned his piece turning out. Nothing is settled, and the hierarchies inherent in music’s traditions are disrupted, with even the listener then bringing a further post-Cageian approach to the whole affair again. While there are certainly recurring patterns and themes inherent in this area of music that its detractors will doubtlessly point towards, it is this link with the improvisation community that has the most potential to push the music of Wandelweiser into new, interesting areas, and it was also the focus of Simon Reynell in putting this box together. It exists as a wealth of intriguing struggles and harmonies between composers and performers, and every one of those engagements really needs pulling apart and evaluating in their own particular way, but such an appraisal would need weeks of work and an incredibly patient readership. Therefore I must resort to the typically unsatisfactory series of overviews and encourage you to seek out this set and engage with it however you see fit, either with the scores to hand to try and break down the individual balances of each piece, or just to wallow in the beauty of the resulting music.
Disc 1 – Confluences
Each of the six discs is named after a different term usually used to describe parts of river systems. Reynell has chosen to separate the music here into six sets, each of which fit under the suitably vague headings. If a confluence within a river is the point where various different streams come together to form a new whole, then maybe this entire box could fall under such a title, but certainly the first disc here pulls together some fine examples of the various approaches to this area of music. So here we have two versions of the same text-based score by the young American composer Sam Sfirri, a monumental, partly notated clarinet concerto written by Antoine Beuger, a realisation of one of Manfred Werder’s very much open to interpretation text pieces, a James Saunders miniature for coffee cups and a nearly entirely notated Radu Malfatti work. The wealth of different approaches, and the widespread direction from where all of the composers and musicians are coming is highlighted very nicely here.
The Sfirri pieces that are scattered throughout the box are all taken from his series of 2010 works named The Beckett Pieces. For each, he takes a single line from a work by Beckett, and sets it against a simple, equally brief set of instructions instruction. Natural at last, which appears twice on this disc merely asks a group of musicians to prepare quiet sounds, and then begin to overlap them, one after another until the sounds are exhausted, a break in the continuum naturally occurs and so the piece ends. No indication is given as to instrumentation, number of players or the duration of each chosen sound. The structure is incredibly simple, and will obviously lead to a linear form of music, so taking the musicians away from worrying about the shape of the music and towards a focus on the quality of each sound, and how, when two are overlapped, they interlock to form something new again. The first of the two versions here is by a quintet of largely speaking, improvising musicians- Neil Davidson, Rhodri Davies, Jane Dickson, Patrick Farmer and Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga. Instrumentation varying from piano and harp to zither and guitar via amplified objects and opened portable CD players are used. The second version is by a wonderful septet convened in Huddersfield last year responsible for some of the finest music on this release. They were Angharad Davies, (violin) Phil Durrant, (electronics) Jürg Frey, (clarinet) Anton Lukoszevieze, (cello) Radu Malfatti, (trombone) Lee Patterson (amplified objects) and Philip Thomas (piano). Of this second group, three of the musicians are not often found in traditional improvisation settings. Interestingly, the only real differences that one can concern when comparing the two realisations concern the types of sounds used. The first version, involving more improvisers has a little more grit, and sounds a little less like traditional chamber music than the second, but ultimately, despite the degree of choice available to the musicians both versions, recorded about a year apart could possibly be spliced together to make one longer continuum. Both are exceptionally beautiful in their simplicity.
This first disc contains what is, for me, the real gem of the set. Antoine Beuger’s clarinet concerto Lieux de Passage was written very much with his fellow Wandelweiser composer and clarinetist Jürg Frey in mind. The piece provides the clarinet with an almost completely notated structure. Exact note lengths are the only thing not really defined, but pitches and attack are given. Frey’s clarinet playing is amongst the most accomplished I have ever heard from any musician on any instrument. His control, his faultless execution, coupled with the incredible feeling of overpowering beauty he packs into each note is just overwhelming to me. The performance here is by the same Huddersfield septet that recorded the Sfirri work- seven musicians of great experience and ability. The score offers the remaining six members of the ensemble freedom of when to play, asking pitch based musicians to pick out elements of the clarinet playing to determine what notes they play, and offering non-pitch based musicians free selection. So the work is a wonderfully sorrowful, yearningly romantic work for clarinet that is coloured in a soft and subtle manner by the group behind. This is just incredibly beautiful music. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint it is as achingly lovely a piece of music as I have ever heard. Frey’s control of the work, from how he effortlessly breathes each soft note to how he orchestrates the entire piece through his timing and balance is stunning, and the musicians sat alongside him get it just right, with nobody grandstanding, and yet everyone contributing something to give the piece its depth. Credit should also be given to Simon Reynell, whose recording and mastering has brought every hidden colour and texture out. Oddly, and very wrongly, the temptation when considering a work like this is to almost forget its composer. Antoine Beuger, though not present on the day of the recording made this work happen. His vision for the piece, his composition of it with Frey in mind, and the beauty of his simple melody that runs slowly through the work is quite remarkable. If any one recording ever held up the key Wandelweiser principles of shared creation to the light it may just be this one.
The disc also includes a realisation of Manfred Werder’s 20114,a work consisting of a single line taken from a text by the philosopher Iain Hamilton Grant. The realisation is made by the mysterious Anett Németh. More than any other composer I have begun to feel that recordings of Werder’s work only really capture a degree of the performance. His scores ask little, but to perform them takes time ingesting his chosen texts before finding a time and place in which to actualise them. Very little happens on this beautiful little recording. Recorded either outside or near an open window, low hums emit from some kind of instrumentation, perhaps a wind instrument as little gusts of wind blow through small gaps, crows occasionally call and the occasional car passes along the street. It feels like it was recorded late at night, and listening carefully to it many times the sensation is one of loneliness, of nights spent in strange hotel rooms alone, of a time for contemplation. Werder’s work asks this of us, to create our own event, our own space when we press play on the CD player, when really we are creating the work all over again. This recording, by the enigmatic Ms Nemeth is a joy in itself, but its only part of the story.
The disc also includes a short vignette of a piece named Various distinct spatial or temporal locations by James Saunders “performed” by Simon Reynell himself. Lasting just a couple of minutes the recording sees Reynell follow Saunders’ instructions and push a paper takeaway coffee cup along a selected surface. Saunders’ work has often had a slightly absurdist feel to it, despite its clear seriousness, and the placement of the piece here, sandwiched between the chamberesque grandeur of the second Sfirri recording and Radu Malfatti’s Heikou only succeeds in underlining this. On a purely sonic level it pales in comparison to the pieces that bookend it, but then perhaps that’s the point on a CD designed to show the different approaches coming together here. The Malfatti composition is one I know well, having been fortunate to have witnessed its performance a few times. Its a glorious work, consisting of passages of timed low notes and soft textures interspersed by short silences. Classic Malfatti performed by a superb group including the man himself.
Disc 2 – Crosscurrents
The second disc opens with a further piece from Sfirri’s Beckett series named The Undulating Land. Similar to Natural at last, the piece involves a stream of sounds following on from one another, so long tones again slip in and out, but as the ensemble playing it, the New Music Collective Chamber Ensemble, a young American group including Sfirri himself are split into two groups the way different sounds cross over one another provides interest. Coming after the performances from disc one the musicianship does sound slightly more rugged, but then disc one is a hard act to follow. There then follows the first of a few curious additions to the box, a recording of Three2 one of Cage’s last Numbers pieces from 1991 by the trio of prepared pianist Chris Burn, percussionist Simon Allen and object amplifier Lee Patterson, though interestingly all three are credited as percussionists to keep in line with the score. Its a great piece- nine minutes of crunchy textures, rustling metal and the occasional sudden arrival of either a piano or something vibrating from Patterson. Its very Cagean, full of the feeling of chance happenings and a ‘whatever will be, will be’ sensation, but its difficult to know how the piece relates to Wandelweiser. Or is it? certainly when you think about it, the way these pieces were written, and the way they have always leant themselves to improvising musicians, not that Cage intended it, isn’t so far from how the rest of the pieces here work. Still, from a purely audio perspective the track stands out a little as being louder and more urgently eventful than everything else here. The third piece, titled Etchings is one I know little about, and is, unusually, credited to the three musicians performing it, Pierre Borel, (alto ax) Johnny Chang (violin) and Derek Shirley (bass). Lasting twenty minutes it contains the extended dry textural notes and sine-like tones we are familiar with in this kind of music, but it somehow feels looser and more immediate than we might normally expect. Was the piece improvised in some way? Was the work composed in an unusual way? I am not sure, but there is a strange sensation of foreboding menace here, perhaps just because of the low growls of Shirley’s bass throughout the piece, but there is definitely something unusual here.
Phil Durrant wrote Sowari for Ensemble way back in 1997, when a recording of it appeared on the fine Chris Burn’s Ensemble album Navigations. So its appearance here might seem another anomaly, but when you think that those heady times in London saw the first lean towards the near silent reductionism that followed, perhaps its link to Wandelweiser isn’t quite so oblique. This recording, made by Phil Durrant, Lee Patterson and Philip Thomas in Huddersfield (while I took the rest of the ensemble off to get lunch!) is another calm, restrained piece that almost seems to thin out as it progresses through its twelve minutes.
Thomas’ piano playing seems to be entirely inside the instrument, and Durrant and Patterson swap gentle whistles and groans in a manner that sounds relatively free. A very nice work that I would love to hear expanded out to a full length album in some way. The closing half-hour long piece on the disc is a realisation of Michael Pisaro’s Fields have ears (3b) by The Set Ensemble, who on this occasion were Angharad Davies, (violin) Patrick Farmer, (electronics) Sarah Hughes, (piano) Daniel Jones (electronics) and Dominic Lash (bass). I’m less fond of this recording than other pieces by this ensemble, but it is still a fine piece, the grit in the sand of the low-grade electronics somehow foregrounded against the looming strings and intermittent piano chimes. If there is a theme to Crosscurrents than can be applied to all of the pieces here its difficult to find it, but certainly of a crosscurrent is body of water moving against another, shifting it slightly from its comfortable course then there are certainly elements of this to be found amongst several of the five pieces here.
Disc 3 – Drifts
I haven’t ever seen the score to Antoine Beuger’s ‘t’ aus ‘etwas (lied), from 1995, but I think its an excerpt from a larger work for vocalists, with this part focussing on the sound made when the letter ‘t’ is spoken. The remarkable recording that opens disc three is pure Parkinson Saunders, full of a kind of dry, matter of fact simplicity that makes it hard to understand how much humour is intended in the work. Tim Parkinson and James Saunders make such performances so much more beautifully than anyone else I can think of. For this nine minute realisation they each just click their tongues gently, so making the ‘t’ sound, to a score. So what we hear is a stream of these quiet little sounds, the result resembling very closely that of water dripping gradually onto a flat surface, but without any strict sense of rhythm. This is what I was hearing by the end of the recording, and on subsequent listens it is what I picture in my head as the music plays. This is a great piece that really needs a lot of discussion about how it questions how composed music is meant to be performed, about how the human voice (if we can call it that) can somehow transcend across a piece of music into something non-human if approached in a certain way, and about how absurdity is considered in serious music. Its also quite unlike very much else here, though it still fits in perfectly, its conception and inclusion in the box a great credit to all involved.
There follows a very beautiful, if perhaps slightly predictable by Wandelweiser standards work for an extremely talented string quartet. Stefan Thut (cello) joins Julia Eckhardt, (viola) Dom Lash (double bass) and Angharad Davies (violin) in a recording of his Vier, 1-12, written in 2010, I think, given that vier translates to four, with this group in mind. Long, dry swoops of strings slide through empty grey spaces, sometimes one instrument at a time, sometimes with two, perhaps three or four gently colliding at once. The sounds are almost noteless, but not quite, each a shade of whispering slightly off-grey, some touching piercing highs, some rumbling at barely perceptible lows, all full of anticipation and an odd, ominous sense of suspense. Its just very beautiful indeed, no doubt as a result of the skill and control of the musicians involved, but the composition itself, dictating pitches but not octaves, order but not precise timings shapes the music into what it is here. Jason Brogan’s Ensemble, performed here by the Canadian electronics quartet of Crys Cole, Jamie Drouin, Lance Austin Olsen and Mathieu Ruhlmann brigs a new palette of sounds to the table. The greyness of silence is there again, this time gradually violated by soft cracking, hissing electronics and alien little disruptions, all very subdued. I don’t know the score, so it is hard to ascertain to what extent this music ‘belongs’ to the musician or the composer, where any lines may be drawn, but it sounds as if the various parts (the musicians are indistinguishable from one another here) are arranged carefully, but that their particular identities are not prescribed. This is a very nice work, highly listenable, with the way the sounds interact almost seamlessly an engaging element.
The textural grain of the Brogan realisation flows nicely into the next piece here, a performance of James Saunders’ with the same material or still, to vary the material. The piece is performed by the quintet of Neil Davidson, Rhodri Davies, Jane Dickson, Patrick Farmer and Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, each credited as bowing objects. As is the case I think with much of Saunders’ composition, the piece seems to explore how simple, traditionally unmusical textures can be arranged to form something new, how simplicity can be used to produce something quite thoughtfully complex. After the opening simplicity of the Beuger work, this disc seems to rise and fall in a crescendo of sounds placed into silence. That first piece saw tiny vocal sounds punctuate the negative space, then we heard the grey bowed scarcity of the string quartet, then the quiet, yet fuller sound of the Brogan, before here, the activity begins to reduce again, and we are presented with just grainy bowed textures that begin relatively densely but then, to my ears at least, thinning out as the piece progresses. I’m sure it may be coincidence, but a simple path seems to follow through Drifts from near silence to more activity to back to emptiness again. The final work here takes this to its imagined conclusion- another Parkinson Sauders realisation, this time of three pages of Manfred Werder’s monumental work ausführende, one of his scores that consist of thousands of pages, with each performance of the piece seeing a few further pages played. So the duo place single organ pipe sounds into empty spaces as they continue this remarkable work. The sounds then are stripped back to the near emptiness that the CD began with. I have written about ausführende before, so won’t rehash my thoughts here, but the inclusion of a section of the ongoing piece here fits nicely with the box set’s translated title, Wandelweiser and so on, capturing the music in its progression, midflow through the stream.
Disc 4- Eddies
This disc opens with another delightfully fragile, subtle piece by Stefan Thut, this time a work titled Many 1-4 played by a further incarnation of The Set Ensemble, consisting this time of Angharad Davies, (violin) Bruno Guastalla, (cello) Sarah Hughes, (zither) Daniel Jones, (electronics) Dominic Lash, (bass) Tim Parkinson (piano) and Paul Whitty (harmonium). The work is very soft, sparse and gentle, but it doesn’t follow any patterns as such, rather, it sounds almost like a reductionist improvisation as it moves through different passages of sounds and slow, slow activity. Its undoubtably no accident then that this piece is followed straight away by the only pure improvisation to be found in the box set, a piece recorded by the Davidson/Dickson/Davies/Farmer/Lazaridou quintet, who reappear yet again to close the disc later. Beyond the fact that the move from the first composed work here to the second freely improvised piece is almost seamless, its a little hard to understand why the improv is actually here amongst thirty or so works that are composed to one degree or another. One thing that has never actually appeared on the Wandelweiser label is free improvisation, and while the composers all seem to flirt with its energies here and there a completely free track here seems a little odd. Its a beautiful piece, and its quiet, unassuming and yet perfectly rounded form is right up my street, but other to perhaps show how the Wandelweiser aesthetic can be subsumed into improvisation its inclusion here seems a little odd.
There then follows one of two realisations here of another of Sam Sfirri’s Beckett pieces, the remarkably simple For the choice of directions. The first version is made by Jason Brogan (shortwave radio) and Sfirri himself (melodica) with the second version being the aforementioned quintet piece that closes the disc. The score simply asks the musicians to choose two sounds with the one instrument, and then “find a path from the one sound to the other” throughout the piece. The Brogan/Sfirri version is acutely refined, with a burbling chatter of shortwave radio gradually changing as a soft melodica tone repeats itself intermittently before shifting pitch very slightly. The quintet version mixes up twinkling zither and bowed sounds with grainy wooden strikes at first, with the music evolving into a completely different, if similarly pitched set of sounds as it progresses across its five minutes. This work is built on such a beautifully simple premise- the everyday shift from one sound to another, and yet through placing such a small gesture under the microscope in this way we find ourselves listening intently to the sounds the musicians make, detecting every slight waver, seeking out the point of change. An unadorned, delicate little score then resulting in quite lovely and engaging results. Much of the essence of Wandelweiser can be found right there.
Elsewhere on the disc Philip Thomas directs Edges, his group of Huddersfield University students in a performance of Taylan Susam’s For Maaike Schoorel, a score I am a little familiar with, having followed a different recording of the work through in the past. The piece consists of a sheet of numbers, grouped into little constellations on an otherwise white sheet of paper. The numbers, printed at different sizes are chosen individually, and arbitrarily by the various musicians, which lead them to make sounds, the number dictating how many times, the printed size of the numeral dictating how loud. When one sound is played by any one musician, the remaining members of the ensemble should immediately join with their sound, so that the piece forms naturally into little clusters of small sounds surrounded by silence. the Edges group play the work very well, with the resulting work sounding a little like the kind of experimental music produced by the New York School of composition in the fifties, all little clicks and pops and chimes at different pitches falling together in little bundles.
A quintet version of The Set Ensemble also perform a score here by one of their member, Dominic Lash named For Five. I don’t know the score itself, so cannot dwell on how the work comes together here, but it is another piece that, on the surface at least, perhaps fits the bill of a “typical” Wandelweiser work- that extended sounds spaced apart by silences form again, with almost painfully pitched melodica tones mixing with bowed strings and gritty sounds throughout. The only other work on the album is one that was written specifically by Jürg Frey for a group I pieced together myself to perform at a concert I organised in Oxford. Time, Intent, Memory is performed by Angharad Davies, (violin) Frey, (clarinet) Sarah Hughes, (zither) Kostis Kilymis, (electronics) Dominic Lash (bass) and Radu Malfatti (trombone). The score was written to encompass the instrumentation of the group- with five of the musicians having their sounds carefully notated by Frey, but the sixth, Kilymis’ non-pitch based electronics left deliberately un-scored beyond entry and exit points. So the music has a simply melody buried amongst its snail-paced beauty, always put on edge by the undercurrent of a white noise based grain.
If an Eddy is a small whirlpool, a moment of disruption in the stream of things, I actually struggle to find references for this here beyond the idea that many of the pieces on this disc do contain one or more sound that feels non-traditional- the rumble of Kilymis’ contributions behind the traditional strings and wind instrumentations being one clear example.
Disc 5 – Undertows
The group that performed Antoine Beuger’s clarinet concerto on the first disc open the fifth with an almost as equally lovely realisation of Jürg Frey’s Circular Music No.2. The piece inhabits a similar sound world to the Beuger, given that is was recorded soon after it, but with each of the seven musicians here rising and falling to and from the foreground. It results in a luxurious stream of quite beautiful sound from some incredible musicians. Although I was present at the recording, I don’t remember precisely how the score dictates how the piece evolves, but certainly the musicians follow each other through the work, so creating a continually overlapping fold of sound. Beautiful.
There then follows a five minute realisation of Manfred Werder’s delightfully brief text score 20086 performed, if that’s the right word by Anett Nemeth. The score lists just six words- spider, air, eucalyptus, wasp, petals, rain, as if these were the elements he heard when sat quietly listening one day. Nemeth’s realisation of the score is a quite lovely blend of pattering rain with dull, low tones, perhaps played through pipes of some kind blurred in the background. Its a lovely piece to not try and over-analyse, not try and figure out, and instead just stop and listen closely into.
Philip Thomas’ Edges ensemble then perform a version of Frey’s Un champ de tendresse parsemé d’adieux, a recent, and yet unusual score for Juurg Frey in that it asks musicians to drop pebbles and leaves to the floor and whistle very softly rather than play any instruments. I saw this work performed late last year and it was a fine thing to watch, but here, separated from the refined drama that the visual experience brought it doesn’t evoke any of the same feelings. perhaps one of those pieces that just doesn’t lend itself to recording. The Huddersfield septet that opened the disc return, minus Frey and Malfatti but augmented by Joseph Kudirka’s double bass next for a realisation of Taylan Susam’s For Sesshü Toyo. This piece I don’t really know the structure of, and maybe this is one of the reasons I struggle to connect with it. Little bursts of linear sounds come and go, some a little longer than others, all soft and mostly low-pitched, but following the richness of the Frey piece that opened this CD it feels a little soulless and fractured to me. Perhaps if I understood the score, and how the sounds come together it may do a little more for me, but as it is, its twelve minutes slip past me without leaving much of an impression.
This certainly cannot be said of the closing track- a nearly half-hour long reading of Michael Pisaro’s Descending Series (1) by Philip Thomas for piano and sinewaves. A highlight of the box, this track revels in the sheer simplicty of its form, and draws an incredible beauty from that very uncomplicated structure. Essentially, piano notes are picked out by Thomas that blend into, and out of, a series of sinewaves pre-prepared by Pisaro. The timing is so perfect that the opening sections each begin with a piano note, from behind which a perfectly matched tone seems to magically appear, so that the decay of each piano note is lost in the tone. A very basic, languorous melody is played, with each little section shifting between octaves and repeating the same motifs over and over, with the sinewaves altering in line alongside. I think over the past few months of engrossment in this box set I have fallen asleep at night listening to this particular work maybe four or five times, such is its sense of cocooning softness and steadily gradual pace. It is remarkably pretty in its perfect simplicity. Perhaps one of the few pieces here that may well be entirely composed, with little open to the musician to add, and somehow it does indeed feel slightly more polished and complete as a result, as well as being thoroughly gorgeous.
Disc 6 – Upwellings
Philip Thomas is also the sole performer on the brief opening track of the last disc- a reading of Cage’s Prelude for Meditation for prepared piano that lasts only slightly more than a minute and uses only four notes. A few recorded versions of this delightful little vignette exist, but this might be my favourite. The disc then contains three different realisations of Sam Sfirri’s Little by little, another tiny text score that uses just a few lines to open up many possibilities. He asks musicians to play just one tone each, alone. Long pauses fall between each entrance and exit of a musician, and in these pauses musicians may repeat their tone, but only if they have already played it the once alone. So a simple mechanism results in a complicated situation in which its hard to follow the basic pattern, and even the musicians, on the occasions I have heard the work performed struggle to stay faithful to the score. The three versions here are by Huddersfield “clarinet concerto” septet, a seven-strong Set Ensemble and a quintet of electronic musicians featuring Ferran Fages, Robert Curgenven, Lee Patterson, Alfredo Costa Monteiro and Patrick Farmer squeezed into a tiny room in Oxford. Each of the pieces then comes out quite differently, and trying to follow the pattern, figure out when each of the musicians has played their single sound is incredibly difficult. The music that results though is very nice indeed, always somehow quite tentative and uncertain, as if the music was deliberately written to be fragile, on the edge of falling in on itself as it tries to find its natural conclusion.
Angharad Davies contributes a composition here as well, the intriguingly titled Cofnod Pen Bore / Morning Records, which is played by the Davidson/Rhodri Davies etc… quintet that provided the improvisation on disc four. The work has a slightly menacing edge to it, but its hard to explain why- a stream of gradually building drones wrap over one another at one point, a mix of dark cloying tones and an underlay of rubbing, scraping and hissing sounds elsewhere. Heavy feedback-esque tones, possibly from Angharad’s bother Rhodri’s electric harp sound quite different here to anything elsewhere on the box. I don’t know the score, so again its hard to say how this music developed out of it, but there is a feeling of individuality to this work that sets it apart very slightly from most of the rest of the box. Silence rarely appears, and the music’s interest comes more from the way different textures combine rather than how sounds are placed alongside one another. Nice anyway, more please.
Also here the same group provide another realisation of Sfirri’s Natural at last, which attentive readers will remember from the two realisations on the first disc. Here the piece results in a heaving, cloudy drone underpinned by bits of gritty abstraction as closely miked surfaces are rubbed. This is probably the inevitable way such a piece, which dictates that sounds are layered together, will often go, towards a droning formation until the score forces it to burn itself out. I prefer the two versions on the opening disc simply because the sounds used have a generally nicer feel to them, but getting to hear multiple versions of the same work like this is a rewarding way to listen. Then we have another anomaly- the Edges ensemble’s reading of John White’s Drinking and hooting machine, a 1971 piece that sees musicians blow across the tops of bottles between taking a drink from them. As fun as the work doubtlessly is to perform and watch being performed, it doesn’t translate that well to a recording to my ears. We seem to be left with a mass of similarly hooting owl sounds that, while sounding quite nice together seem to have little other purpose. Then the enigmatic Anett Németh provides us with what seems to be a remix of a recording by The Set Ensemble. Exactly how this piece came about- whether the musicians knew their sounds would be later reworked in this manner to form a new piece again is not clear, and whether a score is being followed or not is equally unknown, but the resulting work is very nice indeed, a carefully mastered labour of love that pitches tones and dry strings against foregrounded scuffs and shuffling.
The final track of the set is a recording of Eva-Maria Houben’s beautiful Von da Nach da composition for a trio, played here by Angharad Davies, (violin) Phil Durrant (electronics) and Lee Patterson (amplified objects and processes). The piece asks the musicians to select sounds, and then, using quite a complex set of instructions orders them together to form music that feels almost orchestral in its structure despite the limited elements involved in creating it. Its a stately, steady work that on this occasion uses a number of shimmering, glowing sounds as Patterson mikes up vibrating springs and Durrant lays soft fizzing and whistles under Davies’ buzzing strings. Its a gentle, if slightly grand way to end the final disc.
I listened to each disc of this box set ten times each before I progressed to the next. Once I had then played all six ten times then I allowed myself to pick out favourite pieces and play them individually when I wanted. I have owned this set for more than three months now and it still doesn’t fail to bring me pleasure. It should obviously be noted that the music of the Wandelweiser composers is naturally close to my heart, and that I have followed the music’s development closely for quite some years now. So the chances of me finding anything but a great amount of pleasure in this monumental release was always slight. What listening here has reminded me though, is that while realisations of these compositions will quite often result in beautiful, quiet, serene music, this is just one element of the music, almost perhaps, a by-product of it. The real interest I find here is in the interaction between composer, musician and even the listener. Do we, as listeners have a hope of understanding how the instructions, or invitations of a scored work may lead musicians to respond if we don’t have the score in front of us as we listen? Does the act of a listener trying to fathom how it all works extend the music again, away from a “finished” product and towards a series of enigmas, some easier to work out than others, some that might have any number of answers. As the improvising musician finds themselves slightly restricted by the limits of a score, so the composer may feel less burdened. Where does the listener fit into this? Should they have to work to make the most of such music or should it just be soaked up for what it is?
These are the questions that this music, and in particular this box set lead me to ask. The choice of scores, the way the discs are put together, the musicians picked to realise the works all lend themselves towards this way of thinking. For many this is just a box of beautiful music. For many that think that way, the box will be too long. For me, I can’t get enough of it. Its mysteries and puzzles inspire me as much as its beauty. As impressive and inspiring a release as I have ever had the pleasure of engaging with.
Richard Pinnell, The Watchful Ear