On January 13, 2017, Cal Arts presented The Path and the Expanse, a concert of music by Jürg Frey, a member of the Wandelweiser collective. A modest crowd braved Friday the 13th traffic to gather at The Wild Beast for an evening of intense concentration and state of the art experimental music. Five different pieces by Jürg Frey were performed by 15 alert musicians, including a world premiere.
Circular Music No. 7 (2015/16) was first and this began with soft, sustained chords in the violin and bowed vibraphone that produced a distant, solemn feeling. A series of hushed beats from the bass drum added to the mystical atmosphere. The violin of Erik Carlson carried the piece forward, accompanied by a bassoon and extensive percussion section that contributed a variety of subdued sounds. The occasional tutti passage raised the volume slightly, and added some nice coloring while a bowed cymbal and a light xylophone passage completed the pattern. A high, thin pitch from the violin marked of each set of phrases as the piece tiptoed forward to a quiet finish. Circular Music No. 7 is both peaceful and reserved, like the dawn of a foggy morning.
The second work, WEN 58 (2007), was a solo trumpet piece played by Ethan Marks. This opened with a long silence followed by two short, muted notes – and then more silence. Longer tones followed, quietly subdued, ending with a questioning feel. This pattern of brief notes and silence continued, the intermediate silences lasting a full 15 seconds or so. The overall effect was to create a sense of space and openness as the piece unfolded. Ambient sounds occasionally crept into the performance space from outside, but this only added to the expansive feel. Mr. Marks displayed admirable poise and good control of his intonation even as the dynamics of the piece never rose much above piano, and the many entrances were, of course, very exposed. WEN 58, as it is a solo trumpet piece, works against the listener’s expectation of a loud, brassy outburst and acts to focus attention on the interactions of silence and the more subtle sounds produced by this unlikely instrument.
In Memoriam Cornelius Cardew (1993) followed and this was a short solo piano remembrance performed by Nicole Ying. Two low notes heard as a chord in the lower register opened the piece, and these were played with great sensitivity and expressiveness. More quiet chords followed, introspective and subdued, and these had a sad, bluesy feeling, although never melancholy. Only a few minutes long, In Memoriam is an economical and ultimately elegant commemoration, played with warm empathy by Ms. Ying.
Although the oldest work on the program, the world premiere of Vielleicht bin ich wirklich veloren (1980, rev. 1993) was next, and the ensemble included flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano, violin and cello along with soprano Stephanie Aston. This began with a short, high-pitched dissonant tutti chord – followed by silence. This had an unsettling feel, especially when a single quiet piano note was heard and a soft violin tone steadied the atmospherics. Another tutti sforzando chord sounded, this time followed by a quietly sustained soprano note that lent an airy, ethereal quality to the aftermath. This pattern of a sharply loud chords, gently sustained tones and silence continued throughout, with the various instruments taking turns holding the longer pitches. The timing of each sforzando chord was needle-sharp, thanks to vigilant playing and the careful direction of conductor Nicholas Deyoe. The dynamic contrast and bright dissonance of the tutti chords acted to heighten their perception by the listener against the background of the quieter stretches – they seemed to explode out of the ensemble and into the audience. Vielleicht bin ich wirklich veloren comes from an earlier stage of exploration by Frey into the relationship of sound, dynamics and silence, and this piece is instructive to his later works.
Jennie Gottschalk, in her book “Experimental Music Since 1970” describes the music of Jürg Frey this way: “In his work, the sense of place is metaphorical. The listener moves around within the space created by his sounds and silences in a way that has more to do with thought than with acoustics, physical placement, or the passage of time.”
All of this was nicely realized in the final work of the program: Ephemeral Constructions (2015/16) for violin, percussion and ensemble. This began with an extended silence, and it was only after a few minutes that barely audible sounds were detected coming from the ensemble. Soft clicking, a quiet tap, the snap of a guitar string, the sound of air going through a trumpet and other such sounds could barely be perceived and blended seamlessly into the ambient background. For once The Wild Beast – normally a model of balanced acoustics – was not up to the task of maintaining a performance space quiet enough to frame this extremely subtle work. The presence of soft ambient sounds mixing with the ensemble, however, served to embed the piece within the venue, giving Ephemeral Constructions a sense of spatial architecture.
As the piece proceeded the ephemeral sounds from the ensemble grew in density and volume, but were always quiet enough to elicit great concentration from the audience. At about the midway point a few soft musical tones were heard from the vibraphone, and these seemed absolutely luminous after the preceding minutes of focused listening. Other short musical phrases were heard from the violin, viola and guitar – with a similarly perceived richness – before the clicks, taps and scratches of the ensemble returned to dominate the texture. The extended length of the work – and the re-connection of the ensemble sounds to the ambient space – gave a sense of traveling more than listening as the piece drew to a close. Ephemeral Constructions is an intense listening exercise, but one that introduces the listener to entirely new areas of perception and performance experience.
Musicians performing in this concert were:
Erik Carlson, violin
Greg Stuart, percussion
Cody Putman, bassoon
Sam Friedland, percussion
Katie Eikam, percussion
Kevin Good, percussion
Ethan Marks, trumpet
Nicole Ying, piano
Stephanie Aston, soprano
Nicholas Deyoe, guitar
Rafael Luna, flute
Kimberly Dunning, clarinet
Andrew McIntosh, violin
Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, cello
Josh Westerman, viola