The string quartet sounds sometimes like the silence of a square, a room, a wall or a landscape. The music is silent, but not absent. It is not speechless, and it also does not move with virtuosity bordering on silence. The music gets its vitality and its radiance, not from gesture and figuration, but in quiet presence — everything is there: colours, sensations, shadows, durations. The music is silent architecture.
The music has different emotional and architectural sonic spaces. Voluminous and fallow land, lightness and heaviness of materials, intimacy and being lost appear and disappear. And there are lines between which one crosses quietly. This music is created by simple and clear procedures; however, the requirement for the precision increases. Elemental materials and constructions are thereby perceived as a sensation, and mindfulness consists in hanging these sensations in balance before they have arrived at the limitations of expressiveness.
Unhörbare Zeiten (Inaudible Times) are empty volumes in the music. Durations without sounds define their own entity and develop their architectural presence. One should add nothing to these empty volumes, neither in composition nor while listening. They should remain open, light and serene. I am working with audible and inaudible durations that appear partly simultaneously and partly consecutively. They give the piece lucidity and transparency, as well as materiality and solidity. There are sometimes almost spatial or bodily decisions to achieve a balance of the material, of the feeling for the piece, and of the compositional technique, and to create, from an initial idea of something limitless — a music with energy and breath.
Jürg Frey belongs to the Wandelweiser group of composers, who tend to write slow, quiet, sparse music, interspersed with significant silences. Frey’s Third Quartet is to some extent a typical Wandelweiser creation, with dynamic markings that range from pp to ppppp. Less typical is the whispery voluptuousness of the harmony, which sometimes recalls Schreker or early Schoenberg. This is music of enveloping mystery and enigmatic beauty.
C’est un ballet délicat qu’a composé Jürg Frey et qu’interprète ici le Quatuor Bozzini — en 2004, les mêmes musiciens enregistraient, du même compositeur et pour le même label, Strings Quartets — et qui l’oblige même. Est-ce que String Quartet no. 3 (2010-2014), avec cet air qu’il a de respecter les codes, manipule en fait ses interprètes?
Dans un même mouvement, voici les cordes s’exprimant avec précaution puis allant et venant entre deux notes enfin dérivant au point de donner à leur association des couleurs d’harmonium. C’est que le vent emporte les archets et que les cordes, fragilisées par son passage, adoptent une tension dramatique qui n’est pas sans évoquer celle du Titanic de Bryars.
En compagnie des percussionnistes Lee Ferguson et Christian Smith, le quatuor interprète ensuite Unhörbare Zeit, suite de séquences instrumentales interrompues par des silences de plus en plus longs, et donc influents. Le flou artistique que respectent les violons ne leur impose aucun contraste: ils vont ensemble sur un battement sourd ou s’expriment d’un commun accord sur des paliers différents. Et c’est encore en instrument à vent qu’ensemble ils se transforment. Puisque Jürg Frey a changé l’air que les musiciens respirent en soufflantes partitions.
Jürg Frey is inextricably tied to the group of Wandelweiser composers and musicians, and like that group, his music continues to elude easy categorization. The last year has been a particularly fruitful one, revealing extensions to his compositional approach. There was the release of the two-disc set Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014 for small ensemble on the Another Timbre label as well as his residency at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, featuring multiple performances of his pieces. Two other releases, Circles and Landscapes and String Quartet No. 3; Unhörbare Zeit deserve special focus as each represents the continued development of Frey’s compositional sensibilities. (…)
Frey’s string quartets, particularly Striechquartett II, are some of his most absorbing pieces, particularly as performed by Montréal-based Quatuor Bozzini. In these pieces, the composer makes potent use of the microtonal nuances of the string instruments to elicit fragile, almost vocalized voicings of his poised harmonic structures. Where his second string quartet created a diaphanous scrim of sound, on String Quartet No. 3, he opens things up, introducing a spaciousness to the deft voicings. The members of the quartet are completely synched in to Frey’s strategies, fully embodying the tonal structures into a singular sound. Frey writes about this piece, “Elemental materials and constructions are thereby perceived as a sensation, and mindfulness consists in hanging these sensations in balance before they have arrived at the limitations of expressiveness.” And it is the way that the quartet hangs at the edges of expressiveness, letting the sensations of the notes and harmonies play out without investing them with dramatic expression. It is this equanimity and stability that allows the piece to play out in a totally absorbing way.
Unhörbare Zeit (inaudible times) adds two percussionists to the mix and here the structure opens up even more. The durations of silence are as central to the piece as the sounds of strings and the low rumbles of percussion. Frey states that he is working with “audible and inaudible durations that appear partly simultaneously and partly consecutively. They give the piece lucidity and transparency, as well as materiality and solidity.” While silence as a structural element has been fully absorbed into the vocabulary of contemporary composition, it is the way that Frey gives the silences weight and dimension within this piece that really stands out. The balance of the timbre of strings, low register percussion, the rustle of room sounds and the mercurial pacing of sound and silence is fully entrancing.
It begins, I suppose, with a title. For his third string quartet, Swiss composer Jürg Frey combines elements immediately recognisable to anyone who’s been following his work over the past decade or two with ones that might initially surprise, even if they too seem strangely familiar. So there’s the opening slow homophonic chords separated by long pauses, followed by a very quiet shimmering as the Quatuor Bozzini gently scratch their bows across their strings. So far, so Frey. But the chords sometimes fall into patterns that draw on cadences and sequences so common to Western classical music that they could have been lifted from a piece by Beethoven or Schubert — a tendency perhaps often latent in Frey’s music, but never so explicit (as far as I’ve heard) than here. Then there’s the gorgeous, swooning, long descent by a violin, like a falling ray of light, that gets passed on to the viola. Has the music of the Wandelweiser group’s most Romantic composer ever been more Romantic than this?
That title, though. Can it be possible today to write a string quartet without trying to work through a relationship to the history of the form and, by extension, pretty much the whole of Western orchestral music? Those familiar cadences and patterns strain for weightlessness — the ahistorical presence of light and volume. They don’t quite make it. Yet the shortfall, the gap between the certainty and inevitability they aim for and the precarity they land in, would itself seem part of the work, a negative space in which time runs backwards. I’m thinking of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced house, with the imprint of doors, windows, and fireplaces left visible: architecture gaining historical consciousness. Could a string quartet become similarly self-aware? Listen to those chords: they are not random, certain among them repeat, so obviously that even I can hear it. They recall not just each other, but also a certain way of belonging together in time, a belonging that is itself a reference to another age of possibilities. These sounds remember, even as they strive for instantaneity. They desire both remembering and fading into silence, two times at once. For how much longer will anyone be able to write string quartets, anyway?
The second piece on the Bozzini recording, Unhörbare zeit, adds two percussionists to the ensemble, and emphasises the string quartet’s Romantic leanings with its contrastingly more open and exploratory style. There’s lots of shimmering, rumbling constellations of sound, an indistinct haziness that beguiles the ear. A call-and-response section of sorts is followed by high-pitched, almost screeching chords, then more gently, a sort of tip-toeing around. The work ends with a repeated two-chord dirge followed by a third, tense chord. Compared with the string quartet, Unhörbare zeit doesn’t shower the listener with beautiful melodies or overt Romantic references, nor does it wrestle with its relationship to the ghosts of music past; perhaps this results in a less challenging listen, though nonetheless an absorbing one.
Swiss composer Jürg Frey said recently that all good music should be felt in some part of the body, and that his music is intended to be felt just inside of the ear drum. It’s a neat image from the master of calm instrumental textures — a Wandelweiser group composer who explores silence as much as sound and writes egoless music that feels as though it’s always existed. Montréal’s Bozzini Quartet gave a virtuosically still performance of his Third String Quartet at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music festival, and the group’s recording of the half-hour piece is beautiful for the up-close, quiet, grainy realness of the string timbres, every bow hair and every arm quiver audible. It’s an audaciously fragile performance. Also on the disc is an earlier Frey work, Unhörbare Zeit (Inaudible Times), made of danker chords and even longer open vistas.
I should mention that should anyone ever ask which five albums I would choose to be stranded with upon a desert island, Jürg Frey’s first volume of string quartets, recorded by Quatuor Bozzini and released on the Wandelweiser label back in 2004 would make the cut. Containing Frey’s first two quartets, written in 1988 and 2000, the music on that disc remains one of a very small handful of Wandelweiser releases I return to repeatedly. The monochrome, minimal beauty of that music has a lasting appeal for me, connecting as it does my personal love for the string quartet form, the almost guiltily hidden romanticism of Frey’s composition and the austere outer curtain that much Wandelweiser music of that period presented us with. This new release then has been, to say the least, much anticipated around here.
There were ten years between the completion of Frey’s second string quartet and his embarkment on the four year period it took him to write his third. In the intervening years the Swiss composer’s prolific output highlights a gradual but evident shift away from the sparse, silence enveloped expanses and muted greys of his earlier work towards a subtly more complex, perhaps more familiarly musical palette. If the analogy of a time-lapse captured pupae opening gradually to reveal its hidden splendour is to be of any use here however it should be noted that Frey’s most recent work is no garishly coloured butterfly, rather the soft colours and quiet fragility of the understated moth perhaps apply as he has stretched his wings to reveal a degree of beautiful subtlety currently unparalleled. The third string quartet, played here again by the Bozzini’s with only one personnel change since that earlier release is perhaps the piece of music that epitomises Frey’s later works perfectly. It is a simply stunning half an hour of music.
Whilst the third string quartet takes in many ways the traditional form of two violins, cello and viola, Frey chooses not to follow the classical approach of splitting the work into four distinct movements, instead following the example of Nono, Lachenmann and others and retaining the piece in one section, lasting thirty-two minutes and taking up the first half of this CD. The third quartet is slow music, as was the second, and much of Frey’s catalogue of work. If the architecture of Jürg Frey’s composition here is built with an acute attention to harmonic layering and the warmth of softly glowing colours shimmering beneath earthy tones then it is through the glacial pace of the music that we as listeners are afforded the chance to take in such details. So as the opening chords, richly formed from carefully chosen dry slithers of gentle tone immaculately in time with one another slide past us they seem to do so with an intense solemnity and a stillness that belies the fact that this could be Frey’s most musical and silence-free work yet. The opening third of the piece is just hauntingly beautiful. The horizontal strokes of the opening gradually give way to a more blurred mass of low register washes which themselves dissolve into a more structured series of bars offering melody sculpted from layered harmonic pitch but still with a sense that it will all just slip out of earshot at any moment. Around the halfway point of the piece a pattern of gradually rising chords begins that form a distinct section within the quartet- lifting the music up from its morose, shadowy, yet highly beautiful opening movements and pouring a soft light into the work that fuels the entwined pitches and allows for the shadow of the breathy near-silences that follow and the more densely coloured swathes of the closing passages.
It is actually really difficult to pin down Jürg Frey’s third string quartet into any simple categories. It serves as the most fully realised recorded example yet of how his music has slowly evolved out of the austere landscape of the early Wandelweiser pigeonhole into something that is literally blossoming, albeit at slow speed, into complex, colourful and yet always incredibly subtle and refined music. Frey’s work has always exuded a strong sense of humility that matches his personality. In his liner notes he explains;
“The music gets its vitality and its radiance, not from gesture and figuration, but in quiet presence — everything is there: colours, sensations, shadows, durations. The music is silent architecture.”
These few words describe the work better than mine ever could. There is indeed everything here, and the quiet and assuming can be peeled back to find an incredible depth of detail and a melodic, even classically romantic warmth presented through music that is quite intoxicatingly beautiful as it hovers close to its own disappearance.
The string quartet is accompanied by a further work, the thirty-five minute Unhörbare Zeit, an older work written between 2004 and 2006 performed by the Bozzini Quartet alongside two percussionists, Lee Ferguson and Christian Smith. Unhörbare Zeit has been reworked for different instrumentation a couple of times, the piece seemingly beginning life as a quartet for flute, clarinet, trombone and cello, probably to be performed by members of the Wandelweiser collective, and then morphing into a double quartet for strings and four trombones before finally the version heard here. Its another lovely work, but this time one that nicely bridges the gap between the silence strewn austerity of earlier works and the fluid beauty of the new string quartet. The piece consists of long soft, deep pitches of varying length that mostly never overlap, though each chord in itself is the result of carefully tuned layered composition. The playing here is quite remarkable. Each of the pulses of sound start and finish so smoothly its as if they were digitally adjusted, and the smoothness of each held tone is such that they sound handcrafted in post-production, but to be clear, they aren’t. Here and there the string tones are met by shorter percussive sounds, but everything is very restrained, controlled, with the silences providing the perfect negative space for the moments of immaculate sound to be placed amongst them. Its a study in controlled pacing, faultlessly perfect musicianship and a wonderfully arranged sense of compositional refinement. Unhörbare Zeit provides a more structured form of beauty, the straight lines of the neat lawns placed alongside the glorious rosebeds of the third string quartet’s lyricism. The quartet is the star of the show here, but the choice of piece to pair with it is a discerning one. Overall this is a wonderful release of music from a composer currently producing music that somehow manages to tick every box at once for me. Rarely is music so gorgeously listenable also so explorative, rarely does music with one eye of music’s traditions sound so thoroughly modern. This is out there on its own.
Spending significant amounts of time with the music of Jürg Frey, as i have been doing lately, feels akin to reading a large chunk of the New Testament. There’s very much the sense that one is engaging with not merely the diverse whims of creativity, but multifarious facets of an intricate set of beliefs. It’s often said that composition has more decisions about what not to do than anything else (the same, of course, can be said of religion, with its emphasis on proscription) and in every moment of Frey’s music this is abundantly clear. It’s as clear as it is because in each piece Frey excludes a very great deal, establishing soundworlds within which only a few things can happen. Rhythm, pitch, timbre, articulation, dynamic, development, structure—essentially every aspect of compositional potential is strictly defined and confined, the resultant music playing out within those tight boundaries. In the case of String Quartet No. 3, imminently available on Wandelweiser’s own label, the music unfolds via regularly spaced chords, delivered calmly and flatly, at times dispersing into episodes of overlapping, drawn-out pitches. A triadic sensibility acts like an undercurrent, permeating and conditioning the variety of patterns and behaviours into which the piece settles. Around halfway through, a washed out chorale of sorts briefly emerges, followed immediately by a descending Lydian scale over an F major chord. Not everything has this clarity; the opposite is found in a rather entrancing section later on when all pitch content becomes strained and vague, a process that seems to leave a permanent stain even when normality is restored. The second work on the disc, Unhörbare zeit (‘inaudible time’), delimits the players—the quartet plus two percussionists—still further and is all the more engrossing for it; weak chords and even weaker solitary notes are held (‘dragged’ feels a more appropriate word, considering how they sound), the percussion colouring them with either low rumbles or something akin to a slowly rotating stone lathe. These form the restricted behaviour of the entire 35-minute piece, the only other aspect being periods where to a greater or lesser extent the music is swallowed up in silence. This latter aspect is important to Frey who, with direct reference to the title, refers in his programme note to “working with audible and inaudible durations that appear partly simultaneously and partly consecutively.” Unhörbare zeit is thereby created by juxtaposing these limited sounds and elements, as though they were the only ones that existed in the whole world. New sounds do creep in: granular and wind-like sounds can be heard towards the end, plus — most striking — what appears to be a set of tuning pipes, nicely mingled, but not blended, into some repeating chords (the pipes obtruding due both to their pitch within the triad, an added 6th, and their timbral difference), before the piece closes in a mesmerising kind of microtonally-challenged hocket.