Discussion between Venezuelan composer Gil Sansón and Jürg Frey

GSYou’ve talked about the importance of ‘knowing your materials’ when composing. Material can be anything from stones and dry leaves to actual notes and chords. When composing for the piano, which in itself puts some restrictions on the material regarding timbre and duration, is the notion of harmony somehow more prominent? It seems to me that having to work with restricted materials such as single notes, dyads and chords, one can feel the harmonic underpinnings in a way that's both abstract (pitch relationships) and concrete (the possible affects that the harmonic discourse can bring forward) in an unmediated way, using the very instrument on which the whole notion of western harmony is based.

 JF: In one sense your question is easy to answer: yes, when composing for the piano, the notion of harmony is more prominent - although we know all the (lovely) extended techniques that have been developed for the piano, to make it sound unlike a piano. But yes, the piano remains the instrument to represent harmony. In a general way it’s still similar to composing for stones or leaves in that the materials just represent noises, but here complex sound textures are more prominent.  The other side of your question is more difficult to answer, and it's connected with the notion of harmony – or in your words ‘the whole notion of western harmony’ - which is embodied in the piano itself, and offers itself so easily to the composer.  When I write for piano, I shouldn’t rely on the piano itself, but on the composition. The piano gives single notes, dyads and chords too easily. Also, if I write consonant dyads, it could suddenly sound wrong, ironic, like a quotation rather than the real sound.

In this context to compose means to build a basic confidence in the clear and restricted material that you are working with. It's a basic, existential trust in such a simple thing as a third or a fifth. It's not given by itself; one has to try to create it for every piece, to compose it and to find a context for it. This is part of the work on the piece; I'm looking to find a confidence in chords, dyads and single notes, and I hope that accordingly they will resonate with confidence.

This applies to every material, whether stones or a piano, but with the piano it seems to be more challenging because of the clarity of the material and how the instrument itself suggests it should be used. 

GS: Listening to ‘Circles and Landscapes’ there's definitely a sense of compositions for the piano, as opposed to piano compositions (the kind that take into account the natural inclinations of the instrument and its sound), in that the pieces seem to articulate their discourse based upon harmony and register, without employing any of the other resources available to the composer when writing for the piano today (as in Eva-Maria Houben's Keyboard Music III, where a four note chord in the low register is held down without sounding for the duration of the piece, subtly colouring the single notes played by the right hand). I often think of Wandelweiser as a sort of leveller. To eliminate virtuosic display, formal complexity and grand statements while existing in real time and the real world, not offering an escape from it, but showing how to exist in it without compromise. In this sense, and coming from this new environment, a feeling for harmony can express itself away from the trappings of past styles and historical practice. Here I think of what you said about how a very important aspect is to ensure that the two notes sounding at one time have the assuredness to be themselves in the continuity. So in this regard I think your music proves there's a rich present for harmony in the post-Cage continuum, both as a continuity of the essential aspects of western harmony and how this notion has become greatly expanded.

My next question deals also with harmony, but in a different order of things: seeing that harmony (even something as simple as, say, a B flat minor triad) in its very essence has the power to elicit a wide range of emotional responses in the listener, do you take into consideration these potentially charged materials for their affective characteristics when you compose, or are the formal necessities of the piece what ultimately determine the end result? Perhaps a combination of both?

 

JF: To answer this question I have to describe how I start to work on a new piece. This comes even before your question ‘Perhaps a combination of both?’ because at the very beginning of the process of composition I think neither of the power to elicit certain emotional responses, nor do I know anything about formal necessity of the piece. I think both ideas may limit the potential of the working process.

I hear the sounds, the chords, the dyads, the single notes in their own reality, before they start to move towards becoming a part of the composition. Later I write notes with a vague impression of the piece. To give a simple explanation of what is a complex process: I translate these impressions and feelings gradually into notes, durations/seconds, pitches, volumes, colours and not least to a conceptual underground.  This process of translation is hazardous, because during the translation the feelings and impressions are also constantly in the process of changing. Then later, yes, decisions for or against a chord or a certain harmony are guided by emotional responses and formal necessities, in respect to emotional responses in myself, and in respect to the formal necessity of the piece, which may at some lucky moments be the same.

I work at my desk, and during this work, the piece gradually becomes alive. I work with my ears, sometimes using and sometimes avoiding learned skills - ideally sometimes far away from any learned skill, using simple procedures underpinned by a fundamental concern with material.  I’m the listener, and later, when the piece is performed, the audience takes my place and listen to what I’ve composed for their ears.

 GS: So, in a sense, composing is a mental activity that is translated into signs in order to be brought to life? A process of distillation or sublimation in which the ideal and the actual are in a dynamic of compromise and negotiation (say, when the ideal has to adapt to the acoustic realities of the piano, for example)? 

JF: It’s so good to have the opportunity to talk about this! In fact it is a two-step thing: it starts with my visions, impressions, and I experience it as a living feeling. Then this vision is translated into signs and notes - and the next step is for the musicians to bring these signs back to life. The challenge for the composer (in addition to the challenge of having a vision, a music inside) is to bring the music to the signs, to the paper, without destroying it. And a strong and irritating experience I had at the beginning of my life as a composer was the experience of things dying on paper. Looking at the notes, I discovered something different from what I had had in my mind. During the process of notation something had happened that had killed the music. Like with collections of butterflies in boxes; they look lovely, but also terrible, because the butterflies are dead. At that time I had the same feelings when I read my first attempts to write scores: lovely, but where is the piece, the life? I had lost the music.  How can this process of translation be made at least partly successful?  To answer this, I have to think in relative terms about what I wrote above. In fact, it's not so simple: first a vision and then a score. You mentioned 'a dynamic of compromise and negotiation', I prefer the word 'collaboration'. It only can happen in collaboration with what is going to arise. As a composer, I have to listen to what happens as a result of what is written on the paper, maybe this can tell me where the piece will be or where it will go. But before I can listen to it, I have to write down something…something that I think might be good… I'm also a player, and a score is like a gift for a player. Although it appears to consist just of notes, 'dots and lines', in fact the whole life of the piece, the music, is wrapped up in the score. And the process of practicing and rehearsing the piece is one of unpacking the music and bringing it back to life. With some pieces you can do this again and again. 

 

GS: The theme of harmony keeps flowing back, somehow. This question begs to be framed as an ellipse: when composing (or when reflecting on composing) do you ever feel the gravitational pull of harmony as inherited notion and practice? For example, the pull of certain tendencies in chord progressions that seem to proceed on their own to a certain extent? Maybe it's just me hearing what I want to hear, but am I wrong in detecting an invisible thread that somehow connects your work with, say, the work of Robert Schumann? All of this comes to mind in the context of Wandelweiser, which I think is a singularity of sorts that has allowed music to achieve escape velocity and finally enter this century and leave behind many of the trappings associated with the term ‘contemporary music’. This is why I find this dynamic so wonderful to hear. Harmony and paradox, side by side, which in a way suggests that these two should always go together, and that harmony is only a problem when we start to take things for granted.

 JF: Your remarks are touching on important things, especially at the end when you say that "harmony is only a problem when we start to take things for granted". Let me elaborate some thoughts.  When I work with certain features of a chord progression, then yes, I understand that you may hear this as a connection to Schumann. But let me put it in a more general way, because in fact a composer is often faced with such problems:  you have a similar situation when you are using ‘chance operations’ or ‘extended techniques’, or ‘atonality’, even with ‘counterpoint’ and ‘melody’. In all these instances you find yourself in the context of the past. That happens when you are looking back to the pieces that have already been written by other composers.  But what happens when I look forward to my new piece, to the next composition that I am going to write?  Let me make a small digression with Schumann. I would say that I don't use the chord progressions of Schumann, but I do hear in his music sometimes, not too often, a flow of chords without any effort of the composer. The music goes on and on, and the whole energy feels like it comes from inside the music, not as a compositional effort made by the composer. Obviously this has a strong impact on my thoughts and feelings. I also hear this 'going on by itself' in works by other composers, particularly in the pre-Baroque era, but with Schumann it's coloured by a more personal handwriting. I don't hear it with much of the expressionist music of the 20th century, and even sometimes not in the music of Schönberg. There a variety of expressionist gestures are used to move the music forward rather than it having this sense of 'going on by itself' with its own internal momentum.  This 'going on by itself' is an issue that has concerned me for many, many years. It was even, I think, the initial spark at the beginning of my life as a composer. However, over the years, and not least after many, many discussions with my Wandelweiser friends, I came to a clear awareness of how important it is for me to have stasis and silence as the background for any forward motion in a composition.  ‘Moving forward’ is not a given in my music; stasis is the underlying basis from which everything starts. Sometimes there is movement, sometimes there’s a conceptual issue, and sometimes a piece will remain static for its entire duration, or it will return to stasis. In recent years a sense of moving forward, of going from one thing to the next (and this can be melody - pitch by pitch - or chord progression, or formal progression) has moved more to the centre of my work.  And I have also learned that this sense of ‘moving forward’ in a piece may work more readily for me when I use clear triads and dyads.  But, once again, I want to lead my answer back to the practice of composing, and it's not as simple as I’ve described it. I have discovered another paradox: a chord progression, which includes a sense of movement, may also produce a stasis, like in my ‘Extended Circular Music No. 2’. And vice versa, a stasis, as, for example, when the same note is repeated many times, may lead the piece to a completely new situation.  As a composer, I think and feel something, but afterwards the composed music may tell a slightly different story, and one of the most adventurous parts of my work is to listen to and to learn from these unexpected stories.  

GS: On a completely different subject: some of your fellow composers in the Wandelweiser milieu have a strong sense of intellectual engagement with the work of key philosophers like Deleuze, Badiou and Spinoza, among others. Some traits, such as Spinoza's critique of negative feelings like melancholy or sadness, seem evident in the music of Antoine Beuger, which somehow shows a neutrality of emotion in its composition (execution is another matter). The notion of field, the notion of the fold, among many others, keep coming up when dealing with or discussing Wandelweiser music. Is your music different in this regard?

JF: I think my music probably is different. I haven't read Badiou, and although I have read selected works by Deleuze, and more by Spinoza, I don't see a conscious relationship to the thoughts of these philosophers. Although, when I read Deleuze or Spinoza, I do feel a closeness...

I’ll take your question in a wider sense, and talk about how important (at least for me) is the engagement with other artists, writers and composers as regards intellectual, poetic and practical aspects. Elsewhere I have mentioned my engagement with Agnes Martin, with Gustave Roud (and the sensitivity of his poetic language), and with Giorgio Morandi (his work being situated between the abstract and the figurative, or, in music, between sound and melody). 

 

In addition to these comprehensive engagements, which have been incorporated into and have transformed my work at a deep level over a long time, there are also other spotlights, which enlighten and make me aware of specific features in my work. Spotlights which work like anchors, and which I go back to from time to time to assure myself. I take a catalogue, a text or a score from my bookcase. This may be Fred Sandback, to understand how a simple line works in space, and in a score. Or Ed Ruscha, to think about words in a score (or, with his gasoline stations, to better understand neutral figuration, neutral melody). Or Sean Scully to learn about the complexity of clear forms. These are the artists. Of the poets, I could mention Edmond Jabès when I try to understand how a piece develops from the depths of an empty sheet. Or finally to come back to music: to understand the paradox in Bruckner’s music, where sometimes a wide expansion happens without any extra subjective or emotional benefit.

 

GS: Am I correct in inferring from your words that what is truly important is the invisible thread that somehow connects a work of art or literature to a piece of music? Your answer brought to my mind an elliptical thought: Feldman once said that perhaps Cage's greatest achievement was that he proposed that music could in fact be a form of art, not something separated from it.

 

JF: The question of whether music is a form of art has periodically haunted me at my composer’s desk since I first read Feldman’s statement, I think in the late 1980’s. If I understand this remark in the context of the art world of 1960’s New York, then it could be saying that music which doesn't tell a story but is just abstract sounds - a quasi ‘all over music’ - is nearer to art, similar to a painting where your first impression is also an all over impression. Of course music unfolds in time, starts at some point and ends at another, but some pieces by Cage at least are thought of as an all over structure. This is simple enough, but the difficulties start when the music has any kind of rhetorical facet, be it in relation to ‘melody’ (a ‘phrase’) or ‘form’, both of which are facets of non-abstract figuration and connected to a kind of rhetoric, the rhetoric of figuration and the rhetoric of form.  I don't want to discuss all the pitfalls, whereby a rhetorical virtuosity can take over a composition on the surface (and the performer is willing to follow or extend this), and the thing degenerates into a circus act.  But there is also a virtuosity in composition. The delicate questions of rhetoric have become a more important part of my music in the last few years.  So has my music moved away from art? For sure, an earlier work such as the WEN cycle of 59 solo pieces is nearer to the form of art that Cage evoked; WEN can be understood as a set of single drawings, an alphabet of the vocabulary of the composer, to mention a description I read once about the small 1960s pencil and ink drawings by Agnes Martin.  Is a poem nearer to being a form of art than a novel? It's clear that a story affects the clean character of abstract art. When I mention “story” I’m not talking about programme music or intellectual ideas. My focus is on the immanent musical thinking and its possible teleological aspects, when a piece has an energy of moving forward and a direction, and when it makes sense that certain things happen earlier and others later.  In my music a fundamental question is how to leave something and how to proceed, then I have to grapple with the question of form and its rhetorical aspects. And a rhetorical aspect means speaking to somebody, while an abstract piece doesn't speak to anyone, it's just there. (And by the way, for me this is such an exciting observation and experience in relation to my pieces Pianist, alone No.1, and Pianist, alone No.2. No. 1 doesn't speak to anybody, it's just there over 90 minutes, maybe with an audience beside it. But No.2 does speak to the audience. The piece says:  listen, how this and that happens. And how the music goes on and doesn’t return).  I think that any kind of rhetorical process only makes sense when you find that at the end the piece is at another level or in a new dimension.  The art and the rhetorical process are balanced, and at the very end the piece may become an art work.  But it’s difficult for me to speak about this; it becomes blurred, and at the same time it's lifeless and theoretical.  So let me go back to what I know better, the process of composing: not speaking about it, but doing it, and I feel that suddenly these kind of problems disappear, and instead the difficulties of the actual work emerge and are what is significant: to make something happen in the score, to let it arise on the paper.  This is about more than just finding the sounds, but transforming them into an art work.  I think Paul Cézanne spoke about this when he mentioned "la réalisation", a lifelong struggle in his work, and William Carlos Williams said simply: "The same thing exists, but in a different condition when energised with imagination". 

 So here again are the invisible threads that you mentioned above.  Yes, there's a connection - sometimes deep and intense, sometimes light at certain precise points - to artists, poets, composers (of the past, and friends of the present). These threads are important to me and keep my work at the composer's desk agile and open. Composing is a lonely activity, but these threads make the work less solitary.