Jürg Frey interviewed by Brian Olewnick

BO: I thought I'd begin by simply asking about your background - I know almost nothing! You and I are about the same age (I think you have me beaten by a year), so I was wondering if you could describe your path as a young man that ultimately brought you to creating in this area of music - what you were listening to when growing up, to be sure, but also other things that turned out to have a strong influence on your basic outlook, aesthetic or otherwise.


JF: Yes, we are almost the same age, which allows me to touch pretty quickly on some events, phenomena and music which perhaps we both experienced in a similar way. My main interest as a 17 year-old teenager was in art. Woodstock 1969 was something I “heard about”, one of my favorite LPs was Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra.  Classical music was part of this too, but likewise not very profoundly. I remember one thing from school at the time: I could not make a distinction between Mozart and Vivaldi by ear!  But I knew who George Brecht was (Happening & Fluxus was my first art work catalogue in 1970) and free jazz was a model for my own playing on the saxophone. I knew the paintings of Joseph Beuys as well as some of Philip Guston’s paintings. I knew Richard Long’s work from catalogues, as well as the work of Dan Flavin and Carl Andre. I don’t remember any distinction in terms of styles. I was fascinated by Minimal Art and Conceptual Art. I practiced Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps on clarinet; it was too difficult at the time, but nevertheless was a defining experience. When I was 19 I wrote a first piece for two pianos, a graphic notation, and I remember experiments in writing music in charts and columns. It was too complicated to play, you couldn’t find your way through the tables - a mixture of styles and genres - and I had to decide if I was to go more into art or into music. My focus went to classical music and I caught up on my deficits and more, I discovered I had a feeling for harmony, form and all the topics of classical music.


Nevertheless, my training followed two different lines: one was the regular training in a music conservatory to become a classical clarinet player, the other is all the rest, which happened at the time more or less outside of the institutions. Let me speak now about my very first composition. Significantly, it’s difficult to say if this is a piece of music or a piece of art.  The title is Stück 1975 (for private or public performance) and it consists of 41 sheets of very different quality in terms of size, material, texts, graphics et al. No staves and no pitches, no instrumentation, no duration, no rules for contexts, but references to relationships with styles, fonts, paper qualities. The score exists as two unique pieces: one is in the library at Northwestern University, the other is in my archive. This piece was like a summary of influences and interests from that time, and also a starting point in making steps toward music in the narrow sense.


And this leads me to the other early piece I want to talk about: Lachen und Lächeln (1978) for soprano, violin, clarinet, horn and piano, on a text by the Swiss poet Robert Walser. I didn’t have a clear awareness when I started writing the piece, but had a strong feeling when I had finished it that yes, composition was something for me to go on with.  Looking back on this piece today, I recognise characteristics, already present in the piece, which are important for my later work. It happened somehow in this early piece, and I remember the reason that I wrote this kind of piece was not as an exercise in compositional technique or for aesthetic considerations, but because I wanted to write something I liked to listen to. (And of course, I felt that with this music I would be in opposition to normal contemporary music; this was important too!). The piece has a duration of 18 minutes, consists of 8 pieces, No 1-3 are for soprano and small ensemble, followed by No 4-8, which are all piano pieces. The sounds are mostly consonant (unisons, thirds, sixths, octaves). After a short beginning with the whole ensemble, the lengthy remainder of the work is solo piano music; the audience and the other musicians on stage become listeners and the pianist goes on his path alone.


BO: Some reservations about Wandelweiser music (obviously, this is a gross generalization) have to do with what you might call "easy answers", having a worldview, as expressed in the music, that's overly contemplative or dwelling on aspects of beauty as opposed to dealing with the harsh realities of the world. (Personally, I don't see it as an either/or situation, but I'm sure this general criticism surfaces fairly often). So, I guess my question would be: When you're thinking about a piece or while you're composing it, do you consider extra-musical aspects (for example, things occurring in the political world and how the music relates to it or is shaped by it) or do you think of the music as self-contained, jewel-like if you will, wanting it to be appreciated in isolation? Or both - Morandi's art, which we'll get to a bit later, seems to cover both worlds, the latter (social) implicitly. 


JF: Here many different things come together, and the danger is that they are simplified too much. I will try to clarify: “do you consider extra-musical aspects (for example, things occurring in the political world and how the music relates to it or is shaped by it)…”  If this means that a composer should react in his work to an earthquake in Nepal or boat people in the Mediterranean, then no. Mostly this would be a clumsy way to attract attention. Neither art nor political processes should be limited in this way.

 With respect to general political music, I can't remember any so-called political music making an impact on my life. For instance, Christian Wolff's music: I agree with him in many aspects of his political stance, but his music did not sharpen my mind in this respect. But his work as a composer is inspiring to me, how he works with ensembles, notation, scores, relationships, - and if this can be seen as a ‘political’ aspect in his music, I'm fine to call it political. 


In my work, I consider each note as an individual, I respect each note as a sound personality. This may also be one of the reasons why I continue to compose by hand: I can give my attention to every note. I take responsibility for the note, and I also want that every note itself feels good and right in its place and in the context. And with this work ethic follows a similar attitude towards the musicians: I respect each musician as a personality, I count on their skills, their musicianship, and I hope to write music for them that is rewarding, and for which it’s worth taking responsibility. In this way I am seeking personal and social transformations.

 I also don't think that a music that is “dealing with the harsh realities of the world” has more to do with life than one that is “contemplative or dwelling on aspects of beauty.” And "easy answers" are possible with any kind of material: a major chord or 12-tone cluster or a field recording or a noisy bang. Or just a simple pitch.  But there is a lot of potential in the term "easiness", and of course it’s an important issue: easiness is wonderful, why make things more complicated than necessary? But on the other hand, things are complex, and silly simplification is not easiness but stupidity. But I do not resist an elegant solution.

 “Do you think of the music as self-contained, jewel-like if you will, wanting it to be appreciated in isolation?” No. Again I feel it as a limitation to think of my music in a certain context. But on the other hand, my music is something to listen to. It works well when the listener focuses.  My music is for the ears and for the eardrum. The eardrum is a gateway to the body, the mind and the soul, and I respect the eardrum as a very sensitive thing. (And for other characteristics than just the sound itself - form, duration and other things more connected to mind and feelings - my music can be edged and rough).  “Is there an overarching idea or "goal" with a given piece, somewhere you are looking to reach, some idea you're looking to express, or do you let the notes determine what is reached or constructed?” I understand art in general, and my music too, as an intensification of life. It makes existence more intense, makes the individual being richer and the understanding of what life could be, more colourful.  In my music, it can be done by silence and stillness, by precisely selected pitches, by sensations of shape and transitions, by hesitation or movement....


BO: Maybe we can begin to talk about the recording, Grizzana, at the same time being able to go back to some of these issues. First, having used his hometown as the title of the collection, would you like to talk about Morandi and his meaning for you?

Second, I'm curious if the pieces here were intended as a group, related in a general or specific way. One of the first things that came to mind after having recently listened (frequently) to your album on the Musiques Suisses label was how relatively astringent these works are. Perhaps only because of knowledge about the Morandi connection, I find myself "tracing" Morandi-like still lifes with those sandy string lines, for instance, sketching the shapes in, as it were, with the sounds, a very enjoyable preoccupation! I think you describe this music as "drier" or "less lush"; astrigency, technically, has to do with something that makes your lips pucker, like lemon! Maybe "chalky" (which might also lead to Morandi....)


JF: The work of Morandi has been part of my own work for many years, and for a long time I was looking for a possibility to express my respect to the painter.  When Simon Reynell asked me for the details of a programme for this CD, I saw the opportunity to write a new piece to concretise my admiration for Morandi.


Morandi’s painting is figurative painting, but at the same time, he works with aspects of abstract painting. So you can see him also as an abstract painter who works with objects. To make a link to music (and sorry, I have to simplify it now, but in the daily process of my work, this reflection develops the whole richness of complexity), I can understand a melody as like a figurative part of a painting. Similarly to how you can remember melody as a “thing“, as a motif in music, you can see on the canvas a bottle, a house (and some painters speak about “working on the motif”). So on the other hand, in music the sound (just the sound) can be seen as an equivalent to abstract colour.


With this image in the background, you can listen to many of my pieces from the past.  Sometimes it goes more to the abstract side, sometimes more to the figurative, but in general it takes a clear position between the two.  It happened unconsciously in the earlier pieces, and later I discovered this image of abstract / figurative to find words to speak about the music. And the piece Grizzana maybe uses this more consciously in the focus of the composition.


But let me finish these reflections on Morandi with a quote. Sean Scully wrote in his essay about Giorgio Morandi: “His brushstroke is in complete philosophical agreement with the subject, the scale and the colour of his painting. It is expressive, though it is modest, and not so expressionistic as to disturb the sense of meditative silence that inhabits all his works.”


The pieces on the Grizzana album are not connected as one complete group (except they were all composed in the last few years and therefore they often revolve around similar content and compositional questions), but some of them are connected and composed in parts and subgroups.


Some of the pieces have more than just a musical background, and two personalities are important in this context: one is Morandi, the other is the Swiss poet Gustave Roud (for the pieces with French titles). Both artists have similar biographies. Morandi lived all his life in Bologna (except when he visited his summer house in Grizzana), Gustave Roud’s life was centred on the small landscape around the village of Carrouge, north of Lake Geneva. And in their work, both concentrate on a few topics to discover essential dimensions of human life. Morandi’s work focuses on still lifes with bottles, and landscapes, which are also important for me. Gustave Roud recognised the existential dimensions in the daily life of his friends, in the finest nuances of the weather and changes of the atmosphere of the landscape, and he made these perceptions the basis of his literary work.


The other works on the CD are composed for different occasions: A Memory of Perfection was a suggestion of violinist Erik Carlson (the title is a quote of Agnes Martin and the piece refers to my 2nd string quartet). Area of Three and Ferne Farben were first performed during Wandelweiser weeks in Neufelden (Austria), and Fragile Balance was written for Nomi Epstein and the ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic.


I agree with you about the characterisation of the music as “drier“. Here the music is less lush compared to the Musiques Suisses recordings.  What you call "astringency" is clearly audible in the aspect of canons and counterpoint in several pieces. Sometimes, as in Lieues d'ombres, it refers to all the rigour of canon writing, but mostly it opens onto a more vague idea of canon and counterpoint. This is a paradox, because the canon is one of the most severe forms of composition. But I deal with this paradox, because I’m seeking a certain kind of expression.  It happens during the performance, when the musicians are balancing between the given score and the notion/idea of the playing of the other musicians.  The atmosphere, the base colour and the shape are similar in every performance, but the details are different. Sensitive reactions to different tempi and unpredictable cues from other musicians create this vague path between risk and surprise and keep it in a "fragile balance".


“Maybe "chalky" (kreidig) (which might also lead to Morandi....)” I like this remark. I never thought about "chalky" when I wrote Grizzana, though of course I had Morandi's work as a whole present in my mind. It is a good example of how a strong flow in the background can have an impact on a work. I think the colours in the piece are pretty near to Morandi's chalky blue, purples, brown and yellow shades.


BO: You mentioned canons. Why have canons become prominent in much of your recent work?

And would you elaborate a bit more on Gustave Roud and his meaning for you? My French isn't nearly good enough to do justice to the originals but in the few English translations I've found, I can certainly see some affinity with regard to his, as one writer put it, "romantic sublimity and classical restraint".


JF: I wrote my first canons in 2002 and 2003. Before, I had resisted the idea of using canons and had even rejected any connection of my music with canons. My impression about my music at that time was: I have to touch every sound individually and to put it in its place in the timeflow. And in this context the canon was just an automatic mechanism, outside my interests. The first canon I wrote is Glafsered. The title refers to the name of a small village in Sweden, the residence of Björn Nilsson, and this curator's strong interests in canons and counterpoint gave me the impetus. My first canons are strong scholastic works with respect to the technique of composition. But the material and the sounds are flat, bland and non-specific. You cannot hear a canon structure (though you can see it in the score). Or, as in Unhörbare Zeit(1), most of the music is silence with very few sounds; so to speak, silences in a canon. Later I opened up this scholastic approach to a more flexible one. And I told myself, a canon is simple: it's the same or a similar thing, but it happens later, the same activity, and later again, the same and later again.  And when I walked through the streets, I saw canon structures everywhere in daily life - it's not just a musical phenomenon. And I started to research the possibilities between openness and strict writing.  This gave me the opportunity to write pieces like canones incerti, Vague Canons, Circular Music, and many others whose titles are not directly related to the canon. Most of them are with sounds and music, but a piece like this is also part of my interest in canons: 

11:30 Eat a fruit

12:17 Say a word clearly and quietly

12:43 Read silently one page in a book unknown to you

14:21 Play or hum a scale of six tones

14:24 Think of someone you'd like to kiss

14:35 Take a picture with your camera

15:20 A long flat noise, very quiet

 This is the first voice of a time and activity structure during a day; a second and a third voice start each 10 minutes later. I have recently written some very strict canons, but I am more interested in insecure canons and counterpoint structures. I see arising a precise musical expression of tenderness, clarity, risk and a groping when musicians act in an open canon structure.  And another aspect of the canon I’ve begun to understand: once I have found the right notes, sounds and pauses, I can let the music go on by itself, I don't need to touch them again, I don't have to think about new energies, other directions, I can just listen and it goes on by itself, lovely.


As to Gustave Roud: when I look at my artistic interests as a wide panorama, then at first the Canons and Gustave Roud are far away from each other. A canon is a technique, a structure and "some kind of a music" is already in the background, and I try to make this situation useful for my work. Gustave Roud seems to be the opposite: it's pure sensation, emotion, and my desire is to find a structure, the sounds and a score for all these feelings.  Gustave Roud's oeuvre is deeply connected with his living in Carrouge and his walks around a few villages in the neighbourhood of the Haut-Jorat. I consider his work as a kind of "field recording" at a clearly defined place, during a long period of more than 50 years, not with a microphone, but with his sketchbook, and not just for sounds, but also for colours, shades, subtle changes of the fields, trees, flowers, scenes, and details of working or resting farmers, the seasons, and his own thoughts and feelings. And similarly to the way in which a microphone takes in every sound, Gustave Roud reacted to the finest and most delicate impressions in the environment and in his feelings. When he made his walks (and I imagine slow walks, with long stops and time just looking at the landscape), he always had his sketchbook with him to write down his observations and thoughts. These sketchbooks are the basis of his work.  Roud’s oeuvre has accompanied me for nearly ten years.  This coming-together is maybe more in the background, because on the surface his work also speaks about experiences of just living in the rural countryside. “Romantic sublimity and classical restraint" is for sure part of his work, but inside, in the nucleus, I see a relationship to what I’m doing, outside of a simple assignment to a genre. His texts remain a strong inspiration for me and give me a strong insight into the depth of how to make art. Similar to my work, where I try to translate feelings, notions and intuitions into signs (these are the black and white dots and lines on the five line stave) to create at the end a score, so Roud tries to translate his first unnamable observations into words and sentences to achieve at the end a poetic work.  And another thing, maybe more in parenthesis: to read the texts by Gustave Roud is a pleasure for me, precisely because my French is not fluent. It slows down the reading and makes it similar to his walking in the landscape, standing idle, listening, thoughts, walking again....


BO: I didn't know Roud's work at all but, searching around, I see at least one reason why: very little has been translated into English as near as I can determine (and my French is, I'm sure, far worse than yours). I did locate one passage here. I've no idea about the quality of translation, of course, but between this and your description, I can get at least a glimmer of the connection with your music and, sitting here now listening, find myself hearing the work in a slightly different and very rewarding light. It's always fascinating to me how extra-musical knowledge can enhance one's experience of music, either in the moment or even retrospectively. I've been listening through your set with that "slowly walking around" frame of mind, sometimes imagining catching a glimpse of a Morandi through a window--very rewarding, very special. "Lieues d’ombres" works especially beautifully, for me, this way, both the observational and canonic aspects.


JF: Thanks for this remark about the connection between me and Roud and your experience when you listened again to the pieces with the background of the Roud text. Actually, this text, which is part of Air de la solitude, is one of the initial inspirations for my compositions with Roud, and Petit fragment de paysage is a quote from this text,  Pouvoir d'une prairie: "A power still more mysterious in the case of an isolated fragment embedded in the larger landscape...” (Pouvoir plus mistérieux encore s'il s'agit d'un petit fragment de paysage qui s'isole à l'interieur de grand...")


Email interview conducted by Brian Olewnick, spring 2015