Much music consists of puzzles. The ricercare of Bach, the total serialism of Boulez, the Grosse Fugue of Beethoven all require solutions, ways to untangle mathematical complexity and seek out artistic truth. Every few years, a scholar “solves” The Rite of Spring, coming up with a new theory to explain Stravinsky’s audacious rhythmic patterns. We seek out this music because it defies our expectations and, in delving deeper into it, we try to find out why.
But other music is puzzling. We aren’t sure how to solve the problem, because it’s not clear if there’s a problem to be solved. How does one account for Erik Satie’s Vexations, with its 840 repetitions of a two-minute inanity? How does one take in John Cage’s four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence? To explain this music away as a trick or joke is not just unrevealing, but unsatisfying – shouldn’t there be more under the surface? To take it seriously challenges many of the notions we have of what music is, and asks a greater task of an audience than simply trying to find a solution to a problem. We must listen with new ears and new minds.
Jürg Frey’s music is puzzling. A member of the experimental music collective Wandelweiser – think of a more philosophical Bang on a Can, with much quieter marathons – Frey creates art that baffles in its constant equivocation between softness and silence. This is a typical approach of Wandelweiser, if Wandelweiser could ever be thought of as typical. Co-founded by composers Burkhard Schlothauer and Antoine Beuger in 1992, the loose community today publishes the work of 16 composers from 7 countries (Frey joined in 1993). Christian Wolff, himself an important precursor for the group’s experiments, has summed up the project elegantly: “They play very quietly, with huge silences.”
In his essay “And On It Went,” Frey situates his music between two extremes: the path and the expanse. The path is our typical Western musical structure, with its teleological narratives going from one place to another and sometimes coming back again. The expanse is static music, unchanging over time—more object than journey. Frey finds the uncomfortable, and sometimes maddening, ground in the middle, where the path flows into the expanse. “I am on the precise threshold where static sonic thinking almost imperceptibly acquires direction, where static, wholly motionless sounds meet the onset of movement and directionality of the sound material,” he writes.
And so it is in the two works on this album, Frey’s Klavierstück 2 and Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes pour piano (24-35), which defy our notions of musical logic and create a new sound world where motion meets immobility.
At the center of the Klavierstück is a perfect fourth. This magical interval – an E and an A – sounds a total of 468 times. For other composers, that number might have some mystical or scientific significance, but for Frey that seems unlikely. This is the not blissful, meditative repetition of minimalism or the quasi-serenity of Morton Feldman; it’s hard to gauge what, exactly, the emotional response should be when confronted with this sound over the course of its approximately 7.4 minutes. The repetition is itself a kind of silence: a refusal to press onward with composition and create more notes in space. It becomes white noise. One wonders about the significance of the fourth (perhaps a commentary on the interval’s historic resonances, first a dissonance and later a consonance?) but the speculation seems beside the point.
The music surrounding the fourth is less mysterious, but no less audacious. A single chord sounds four times, each iteration followed by twice its weight in silence. A series of thirds progress upwards, at the excruciatingly slow tempo of quarter note = 12 (these are literally thirty second notes), before the intervals widen outwards. Following the fourths, scattered two-note chord alternate with single held notes, with an extended silence in the middle. Most abstrusely, after the final notes sound, Frey writes eight beats of rest, and then Fine. How do we experience these rests? There is silence, and then the end of the piece, and then presumably, more silence. When does the music stop and the silence begin?
Contemplating these questions, without necessarily posing specific answers, is one of Wandelweiser’s objectives. To understand the importance of silence, especially in today’s noisy world, is paramount. “Almost all the music which mercilessly surrounds us today has the same underlying structure: never-ending gabbiness,” said Radu Malfatti, one of the collective’s members, in 2004. “What’s needed is not faster, higher, stronger, louder—I want to know about the lull in the storm.”
But there is also an aesthetic property to this music beyond its philosophical implications, a certain beauty that arises from the still world it creates. One hears in those endless fourths the sheer variety of the timbres of the piano—the chime of the strings, the creaks of the hammers, the indescribable and nigh-imperceptible sound of the fingers making contact with the keys. An array of colors, all byproducts of the physical reality of music-making, arise.
Les tréfonds is a much more vast work, with many mysteries instead of one big question. It concludes a series of works written for eclectic instrumentations over the course of two years (hence the 24-35 subtitle). Here we have a series of twelve musical vignettes – not quite individual movements, but not quite continuous – which each unfurl in different ways. The title translates as “The Unexplored Depths of Signs,” and one wonders if Frey refers here to the most conventional of signs in music: notation. His austere, handwritten manuscripts of the most basic of musical elements – the first of the Tréfonds contains fourteen notes and two rests, with no dynamics (none of the pieces has any articulation markings) – can produce unforeseen abysses, chasms of musical space. Frey also quite literally explores depths, reaching to the very bottom of the piano to unleash subterranean acoustic effects.
There is no real development over the course of Les tréfonds’s forty-five minute span. Patterns exist only in the moment – a series of chords repeat and never appear again, a jarring dissonance occurs 52 times and vanishes. In No. 4, a descent in the left-hand seems to give a steady sense of progression, but we are soon left unsatisfied; it gets stuck on a low G, repeating it incessantly before disappearing entirely. A single-note, unaccompanied melody in No. 8 unravels with the languor of Bellini, but of course without any Italianate opulence – a thread dangling in emptiness. In the final section, five-note clusters, played in octaves in each hand, produce luminous washes of color, the closest Frey ever comes to an apotheosis.
Silence reigns throughout. Between each miniature, silence; between many notes, rests which provide musical voids. The sheer duration, the whiteness of the music – it is impossible to hear any stack of notes as actual harmony – crystallizes the silence of the music itself. On recording, the silence is deafening. So sit down with a set of good headphones and maybe a glass of whisky, and puzzle at the roar of nothing.
--William Robin, 2012