Wandelweiser in Victoria

In the Press

Review

in A Spiral Cage (USA), June 14, 2013

Open Space is pretty much right in the thick of a prime tourist zone Victoria, British Columbia and is a rectangular, bright, acoustically sound space. Really perfect venue for this kind of music in that some sounds drifted in from outside, but it wasn’t all just traffic. A skylight above the performance area let in natural light and the occasional pop’s and groans as it expanded in the sun. Most striking was Wendy Hough‘s Wall Drawing, which stretched across the entire back wall forming a hypnotic backdrop. A semi-cicle of chairs in two long rows was setup for the afternoon concerts and a third row added dynamically as the evening shows filled up. A really good crowd I though and the Open Space music director told me that they averaged around 25 people for most of their new music events. Pretty impressive — when I saw fellow Wandelweiser composer Micheal Pisaro in Seattle, at a venue that is basically the Seattle’s equivalent to Open Space there was only a handful of people in attendance.

The concert series was over two days with an afternoon concert, followed by a Q&A, then an evening concert. If you attended all four concerts, as I did, you were able to hear 12 pieces from 6 different composers. I’ve listened to various Wandelweiser composers for maybe 5-6 years now and just like everything certain things appeals to me more than others. There is also a lot of material from this collective which has been active for more than 15 years now and I’ve hardly heard it all. So for me when discussing composed pieces the historical context, both of the composers own compositional history as well as the lineage in which they are situated is really key. Since I feel that I can only provide limited insight in that vein here I am going to mostly try to sketch out the overall nature of the pieces. I should also add that I don’t feel that a blow-by-blow description of this kind of music is that useful. In the main without actually analyzing the piece I feel that is of limited utility and can actually be misleading. Likewise focusing too much on the environment I think can just be a laundry list and also push understanding of the piece to specifics that undermine the intention. That is to say that these pieces in general are accepting of these sounds, but not reliant on the specifics that you heard. This may seem like I’m leaving little to write about but really I’ll talk about all of these aspects, but just in passing without trying to claim any sort of notion of completeness.

Jürg Frey — Canones incerti (2010)

The piece was all held tones with occasional ascending and descending runs. There was beating tones at times between the flute and clarinet that reminded me a bit of The International Nothing. But with the different tonality of the flute and clarinet as opposed to two clarinets this was richer and more engaging in my opinion. The piece was really nicely paced; not overly spacious but not hurried or at all busy. Overall it was very pretty and it’s softness welcomed the sound of seagulls, the occasional passing pedestrian and motor vehicle. A telephone rang twice in the Open Space office and at the end in the concert venue itself. I’m pretty sure these were unintentional (they occurred the next day) but I thought fitted in nicely with what could be thought of as an overly pretty piece. While that obviously wouldn’t happen at every performance, the equivalent certainly could. This was maybe my favorite piece of the series.

Antoine Beuger — méditations poétiques sur “quelque chose d’autre” (2012)

The piece began with Beuger introducing the piece as being based on text fragments from five philosophers. He then read text fragments that the piece utilizes. One immediately makes note that the quintet includes a muscian as representative for each philosopher. Following the reading each performer then clearly worked though a set of material at their own discretion and with each ending at different times. They mumbled and chant/sang bits of the text which were all in French. This seemed very self conscious to me but I should note is not really generally too my taste. It is certainly in the lineage of all of John Cage’s text pieces which frankly I’m pretty mixed on, but can get into a times. So I don’t write off this entire area but I feel that you have to be completely committed: no one would deny that Cage threw himself wholeheartedly into his text performances. Apart from the text readings the played pitches were nice, mixing a variety of traditional tonal playing along with faint, dusty scraping of strings at times. Each performer stopped after they worked through their material and the performance concluded with just Frey on the clarinet.

Michael Pisaro — asleep, river, bells, chords (2009)

The field recordings seemed to be of a bus stop with cars, birds, various voices and the busses pulling in (un) loading and pulling out. The recording was rather loud and included within it various synthetic tones and sine waves. The strings mostly played very quiet long dry strokes. The flute and clarinet petty much blended right in with the field recording but also was long held soft ntes. the peice is interacting tones and incidental sounds. I really enjoyed this piece, especially the balance between the field recording, additional natural sounds from outside the venue, the pre-recorded sounds seamlessly blending in and then the nearly inaudible classical instrumentation. This is clearly in the same family as asleep, street, pipes, tones the recording of which was put out on the Gravity Wave label. In the linked blog post he describes how he put together the recording used for that piece from snippets of pipe organ, vocal pieces, sine waves and field recordings. While we don’t have the specifics for this piece it clearly is in the same style but in my opinion the live performance aspect works better. I especially appreciated the bowed strings here but I also think that the higher tones of the clarinet and flute also worked really well. This piece was right up there among my favorites from this series and was happy this was part of the repertoire as Pisaro was the only Wandelweiser composer not present from whom a work was performed.

Martin Arnold — Waltz Organum (2012)

This was a more standard new music peice for string quartet and clarinet from a Canadian composer not associated with the Wandelweiser collective. The art supporting agencies always require works from Canadians to get grants and this piece I presume was at least present for that reason. That being said it was okay if nothing very remarkable. It was mostly muted strings, playing mostly long tones rather dry, without vibrato. It was all very upper register in the strings and the clarinet also was rather high and quiet. The cello often played percussively by bouncing the bow on the strings. The piece was constructed from several rather disparate, movements giving it a rather episodic feel. They reorganized the performers and their setup for the different combinations: one movement was violin and cello only and IIRC at least one was the quintet and then various trios.

Review

in A Spiral Cage (USA), June 15, 2013

Day 2 was another beautiful sunny day in Victoria which made for very pleasant concert environment with the sounds of the harbor — including some seriously baritone ship horns — and the pleasantly warm sunlight.

The afternoon concert featured two composers that I was completely unfamiliar with Thomas Stiegler from Germany and Daniel Brandes from right here in Victoria B.C.. Daniel, whom I talked to briefly before this concert (and also on Twitter) I would describe as a second generation Wandelweiser composer; a student of Antonie Beuger he definitely seems to be in that lineage. Of course this being the only piece of his I’ve heard can’t expound on his body of work, but from what I heard here I think that to be the case. Thomas Stieger, though his bio is rather brief on the Wandelweiser site, would seem to be an early member of the collective. He’s trained and works as a physician but his CV lists him winning a composition prize in 1997, not too long after the founding of Wandeweiser. It was nice to have an introduction to two new composers especially in a live context which seems to be the best way to experience this music.

Daniel Brandes — a tenuous “we” (2013)

This piece was for the largest ensemble of the series and included the entire Bozzini Quartet along with Stiegler, Beuger and Frey and for his only performance of the weekend Stefan Maier playing electric guitar. Maier played his guitar with eBow generating long, sustained low tones. Likewise for the other instruments, with long drawn out, barely affected tones. There was also a set of text fragments, which were included in the series program, that were read out by the performers. The vocal performances were akin to that of the Beuger piece from yesterday, all murmured and hummed and rather self-consciously performed. Considering that Brandes was a student of Beuger this seems a pretty direct influence here. It also makes me wonder how deliberate that vocal performance style is. As I noted in my thoughts on the Beuger piece I’m not very taken by this type of vocal performances and this held for this piece. Otherwise I found the long, shifting instrumental lines rather pleasant and I found the piece quite accommodating to the sounds of seagulls and several conversations from the mezzanine down below. Especially at the times when the piece was purely instrumental — which as I assume the material of the piece was gone through at the performers desecration was arbitrary — did it seem to almost provide a background “wash” for the compelling exterior sounds.

Thomas Stiegler

  • Gelbe Birne III (2008) (violin, clarinet, violoncello)
  • Treibgut 1/2 (2011) (violin, violoncello)
  • Gelbe Birne VI (2013) (string quartet, world premiere)
  • Und.Ging.Außen.Vorüber (I) — for 3 voices and 3 radios (2005)

The rest of the afternoon program was pieces by Thomas Stiegler. These were all very short except for the last two. I should note that the program lists these pieces in a different order (the string quartet first) but according to my recollection (and notes) the string quartet, which was the longest of all the pieces was final piece before the piece for 3 voices. My notes weren’t very good for this part of the concert, which I’ll replicate here:

  • The first piece rather pointillistic and very short < 100 notes
  • The second piece made me think of Lachenman with it’s scratchy extended techniques and rather staccato style. Again a short piece only a few minutes.
  • Quartet long, vibrato-less drones that went on for a long time and unraveled at the end with rapid dry bowing and then an abrupt simultaneous end.
  • Frey, Stiegler, Beuger — each reading fragments of words and such in German. Frey seemed to be almost just reading syllables and Beuger repeated single words and in the middle Stiegler The speakers were then joined by the titular 3 radios toward the end, which were playing randomly tuned Victoria stations — mostly pop music. The speakers kept it up in the same fashion they had been reading, though a bit haggard at this point.

I have to admit I wasn’t taken by the short pieces, or by the text piece. I did enjoy the longer string quartet quite a bit. It was rather drone-y with a single note played by the players in an unaffected style. This continued for a long time varied only by subtly beating tones until the last minute or so where they shifted to these rapid shorter attacks and it had the feeling of coming apart at the seems and then suddenly ending. Really interesting piece and one the fit into the space really well.

Antoine Beuger — little more than a whisper (2010)

A primarily soft, gentle piece that structurally seemed rather call and response, that is they seemed to play in reaction to each other. In this it seemed like some Christian Wolff pieces I’m familiar with where the instructions are that your options are informed by what you are hearing from your partners in the performance. The sounds were mostly rather short tones with the occasional scales and a small amount of extended technique — tongue clicks and over-breathing and the like. There was one or two slightly loud bits, that is to say louder than the overall softness, that seemed to be in reaction to something the other had done. There’d be something from say Jürg and you’d see a slightly quizzical expression from Antoine which he’d respond with something that would slip into slightly louder territory. Really engaging and charming piece.

After the concerts I took a peek at the score and it did seem to have the elements of interaction that I sensed there. I took a (bad) cameraphone picture of it which if you squint hard enough you might be able to make out some of. But the instructions are that the performers alternate sounds, they should be uniformly soft and the that alternated sounds should constitute a phrase. I like the instruction that between the phrases there should be “some silence to allowing the previous phrase to resonate in memory“.

Jürg Frey — Streichquartett 3 (2010-12)

The final piece of the concert series was a string quartet from Jürg Frey. Now I should note that in my initial introduction to the Wandelweiser Ensemble one of the recordings I listened to was Frey’s String Quartet Disc on Edition Wandelweiser Records and I didn’t care for it at all. While I have gotten into the works of many other Wandelweiser composers (Pisaro and Beuger especially) I’d really not delved much further into Frey’s works. In this concert series it was his pieces that I enjoyed the most (along with the Pisaro) and was the most revelatory to me. So I was quite interested to hear this String Quartet — would it be how I recalled his earlier ones, or more in line with the piece of his I’d heard the day before? The piece was rather Feldman-like sharing his penchant for beginning and ending abruptly, utilizing lots of unison playing and was of course overall soft but not extremely so. I found this to be a nice piece and found it to be another highlight of the weekend. While not as long as a late Feldman piece — it was around 30 minutes perhaps — it did have several different sections to it. Along with the aforementioned unison play there was some solo violin from Clemens Merkel and some very dry rustling playing from the whole group. There were some sections that had a melancholy melodic feel, reminding me a bit of Mihaly Vig’s Werckmeister Harmonies score. I felt it was of a nice length, deliberately paced throughout with no real dramatic moments. I wouldn’t have complained if it had been a longer even.

And that was that. Another weekend of music done and as with all concert series it had pieces I enjoyed more than others. But it is always welcome to get to hear new pieces from new composers especially in a live situation. Nothing I felt was horrible or hard to sit through or anything like that — some things were just more to my taste than others. With the nature of the entire series even for pieces that didn’t grab me it was was pleasant in context to the surroundings and environmental sounds. It was a lovely weekend in Victoria and it was great to be introduced to Open Space, which I am sure I will be attending concerts at again.