Jürg Frey

THE ARCHITECTURE OF SILENCE

 

There is a music in which the time-space of sound and the time-space of silence appear in their own particular realms. Even when the sounds are often very soft, the music is not about falling into silence. The sounds are clear, direct and precise. Because they have left musical rhetoric behind, there is instead a sensitivity for the presence of sound and for the physicality of silence. There are long time spans for the presence of sound, and long time spans for the absence of sound. The two together form the "time present" of the piece.

In the silence a space is opened which can only be opened with the disappearance of sound. The silence which is then experienced, derives its power from the absence of the sounds we have just heard. Thus the time-space of silence comes into being, and then comes the physicality of silence.

Permeability, which is the physicality of silence itself, consists of the impossibility of saying anything about its content. Sounds can approach this permeability, but cannot achieve it. Sounds always occur as a formation or a shaping. They come into being by crossing a border which divides them from all others. At this border, everything formed becomes particular. Silence does not know this border. There is no silence through production. Silence is just there, where no sound is.

There are pieces in which the absence of sound has become a fundamental feature. The silence is not uninfluenced by the sounds which were previously heard. These sounds make the silence possible by their ceasing and give it a glimmer of content. As the space of silence stretches itself out, the sounds weaken in our memory. Thus is the long breath between the time of sound and the space of silence created. Silence can also be present in the sounds. In order to have silence in sounds, one must let go of everything which gets in the way of this silence. This sound is a sound without the idea of what it can mean or how it should be used. This sound achieves a hint of permeability, which otherwise belongs only to silence. This sound is the Da-sein (being there) of sound. Its presence and charisma make themselves felt in the composition. Silence requires one decision: sound or no sound. Sound requires a great many more decisions. These shape the sound and give it its quality, feeling and its content. Thus silence, in its comprehensive, monolithic presence always stands as one against an infinite number of sounds or sound forms. Both stamp time and space, in that they come into appearance, in an existential sense. Together they comprise the entire complexity of life.


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Jürg Frey

FIELDS, TRACES, CLOUDS


Last summer I took a picture of a meadow. 
The grass is cut, slight hints of traces, little flowers, the light is normal, unspectacular. 
It’s not wilderness. It’s also not cultivated in the sense of agriculture. It’s near to fallow land. 
When I was working on Fields, Traces, Clouds I recognized in the picture sometimes a mental neighborhood to my work I’m going to finish. Even if I don’t make a link to my composition craft, the picture gives a atmosphere of sensibility, colours, patterns and connections. It’s a space of intensity and calm density.  As a form of expression it looks good, but it does not give the impression of creativity. 

I’m a listener. 
I lay out the material, and therein I may discover my music. 
When I find parts of my music, it becomes a necessity to write it down and to work it out. Now the words “Fields, Traces, Clouds” are not simply the title of a piece, but also a hint to my working method. Fallow land is the place where my work begins, as a listener, as a discoverer. Creativity is disturbing here, this word is too loud in this context. I like more the idea of inspiration, it comes quietly, inaudibly, fast.
Music is not a given language with a accepted vocabulary, it’s the other way around: I need much time to elicit a musical meaning from a sound, a chord, a combination of two elements.
The basic of this work are precision, attention, care – and not at least the feeling how easily the musical meaning can be de­stroyed by unsuitable manipulations. It’s the work on the sur­face of a piece to discover the sense in the underground of the music. 
“Fields, Traces, Clouds” is a piece that consists as a matter of fact of two superimposed pieces. One is a sparse melody and goes within 25 minutes through the whole ensemble. It starts with violin, goes on to cello, clarinet, keyboard and ends with guitar. And the other piece is a list of sounds for each instru­ment, played from top to bottom in the given order but in an open timeline. Both pieces interlock one into the other and are played simultaneously. 
In the sense of technic, it’s a loose counterpoint of two. The two interact during the performance in a unexpected, for many de­tails surprising manner. It gives an atmosphere of carefulness but clearness in decisions, it’s a slightly hanging around in the piece, but with responsibility. As a form of expression, it sounds good, but it does not give the impression of creativity. 
“Fields, Traces, Clouds” is not program music and it’s not a piece about the meadow on the photography. The picture of the field is more like an image or a visual poem, a second level room in the background for the countless decisions that have to be made when I work in the sketchbook.
“Fields, Traces, Clouds” may help me to understand the space of a composition, the weight and the lightness of material, the sound graininess, the volume, and the sense of so-called high and poor quality of sounds and timbres. 
It’s metaphorical and it may give intuition a direction. 
The real thing when I write music is the material. This is not in the background, but the sounds I take and work on. It’s on my working desk. The musical material is the ground for the music. The musical material is transformed to an artwork. 
With the words of William Carlos Williams: The same thing exists, but in a different condition when energized by imagination. 
The things which exists for a composer are not a photography, but musical material like g#, d-flat, the instrument, the duration, the break. 
The composition Fields, Traces, Clouds is not just the two superimposed pieces, but it’s also on the threshold of melody and sound field. Sometimes it’s more a tune, sometimes it’s more a state of mind. It may move to this or that direction and keeps the other always in mind. 
I consider the position on the threshold not as a weakness for decisions. This position reflects in sounds the complexity of different decisions and feelings and avoids a black-and-white act. 
It’s an equilibrium in movement, a shimmer of melody and harmony in floating categories. A slight vibration that creates the delicate energy for the piece. 



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Jürg Frey

WHERE IS THE PIECE ?

 
When we hear a piece of music, we are confronted with different spaces. There are those which are easily spoken about: the space in which the piece is being performed; the space that is designated as in close vicinity to concert site; then there is also the compositional-musical space which is produced through the work of the composer and through the performance of the piece which, more than we know in our interior, are formed through our thoughts, feelings, and conceptions.
 

These spaces are all present in the performance of a piece of music and there is usually a clear situation and hierarchy with respect to these spaces. If a piece of music is heard which consists largely of silences, our attention turns increasingly to sounds and ideas that actually do not belong to the piece. An outer-space gains a presence, which stays locked in another piece, and the piece is permeable for these different sounds.
 
The formulation of the four aforementioned spaces undergoes a re-emphasis - we hear more of the sounds from outside, we take more notice of the space in which the music is played, like the geographical space and the environment, from where we hear various other sounds.
 
Nevertheless, my interest as a composer and listener is turned especially to music with a low sonic density in the musical-compositional space. This space is difficult to name, but my attention is turned to it, and not primarily the unintentional sounds that can take control of my ears, which, while adding their interesting and entertaining character, also contribute to a premature naming and narrowing of the situation. The question of where the piece is can only remain alive if the situation remains open.
 

A hasty clarification and redefinition of the different spatialities: the easy integration of ancillary things like environmental sounds in a context that allows lots of time and space to be filled out indeed makes the situation easier, but it makes it difficult, however, to experience this glimmer of compositional space, what is not already there. The sounds are like markers in the time and space and give the formulation of sounding, hearing, and composition a kind of natural beauty. It is dasein, a slight, yet significant presence without forcefulness.


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Jürg Frey

AND ON IT WENT

 
One possibility of experiencing time is the path. It is what lies ahead at the start of a performance: the composition develops, takes first one direction then another, perhaps doubles back, sets an accent here and there, focuses on certain sonorities or thematic levels. It unfolds continuously, and the more we hear of the piece, the more of a past the piece acquires. This past lays a path in our memories, we remember it as fragments of a sound edifice we have traversed with our ears, or as something more organically grown, evolving its path in time. The questions arising here are in the nature of: How will the piece go on? Why will it go on? What direction will it take? And at what speed?
 
Another possibility of experiencing time is expanse. Music consists of sound; unchanging and unchanged, it expands in space. Attention is not trained on the individual event but wanders in space, laying claim to space just as sound does. Composition and space merge, and both are components of a sonic situation without temporal direction, a situation that may even be unbounded and, through its very presence, determined by sound, space and listeners. Memory is shaped less by the individual details than by a situation in which one has spent a certain period of time.
The questions here are: How do boundaries come to be? Where are those boundaries? How do special qualities come to be? Where is the core of the composition, the core that accords the situation its identity and its energy? What gives sonic and compositional texture to the work as a whole?
 
Let us imagine the composition sketched above: 672 slow quavers, each one notated individually, ranging over staves and pages, played by four performers with eight triangles; then 672 slow quavers, each notated individually, ranging over staves and pages, played by four performers with eight finger cymbals. Later, for minutes, the sound of cymbals, then tam-tam noises and the soft sounds of bowed stones, metal sheets, and then, after a good half hour, the first rests – and in between, long passages marked by the unvarying sounds of the bass drum, played pianissimo, and later the rustling of leaves, the sound of stones and humming.
 
I am on the threshold between these two experiential worlds: the world of the path and the world of expanse. But let me make clear that I am not intent on exploring the whole spectrum between processive composing – an activism focused on ceaseless change – and work with static sounds, or on installational thinking. I am not oscillating imaginatively back and forth in the hope of occupying as many compositional positions as possible. On the contrary, I am on the precise threshold where static sonic thinking almost imperceptibly acquires direction, where static, wholly motionless sounds meet the onset of movement and directionality of the sound material. On this threshold – an airy, mobile threshold that is entirely elusive as a place, but occasionally allows music to be experienced as a place – there is still enough scope, uncharted territory and vitality to inspire the compositional process and pose a challenge. Often differing only in nuance, these two fundamentally divergent patterns of compositional behaviour can meet in both consecutiveness and simultaneity. In the process they create the space and perspective necessary for the composition as sonic space to converge into a single situation with the performance venue as performance space.
 
While the idea of the path is more strongly associated with essentially melodic thinking – even if melodies, of whatever kind, cannot necessarily be heard in the composition –, spatial thinking has more to do with sound or the idea of the monochrome. Melody and the path have a beginning and an end, but sound and space have a timeless presence.
Musical experience shows that the two aspects so cleanly separated here engage complexly with one another: for instance, when a static electronic sound is suddenly perceived as a very high speed, or when a movement progressing evenly, step by step, gradually tends towards an experience of monochromy. That is when the path gradually transforms into space. On the other hand, a sound can tell a story, or – by virtue of very small, initially imperceptible changes – a seemingly static, monochrome sound gradually allows us to recognise that we are suddenly somewhere totally different. That is when sound in time lays a path. So we find ourselves in complex experiential worlds: as a result of a long duration in time, a path, a way, can become an expanse or a space – and conversely, where attention is turned to detail, to small changes, an expanse or space can be experienced as a path, a way.
Combined, the two revolve around the core of the piece: monochromy as a sense of the overall, narration as a way from one thing to the next.
 
These dual situations present the interpreter with an unaccustomed challenge. When he is confronted with the monochrome existence of sound, it means genuinely vanishing behind the sound and making any hint of theatricality generated by his very presence disappear. This implies, first and foremost, that the sparse, specific material central to this monochrome situation must be left, so to speak, unsullied by the playing. In other words, it must not be given weight and interest through interpretation and the individuality of the reading: that is precisely what these sounds abstain from. Transcending this conventional idea, the interpreter deploys his mastery of the instrument to achieve a virtuosity consisting in producing sounds in such a way that he himself disappears and all that remains is sound in space. Any insecurity, be it instrumental, emotional or physical, immediately shifts the interpreter into the foreground and interferes with the monochrome experience.
 
This is the basis on which the presence or absence of sound and performer can gain thematic importance. At the same time, it is the point of departure from which sounds set off on their path: the composer’s strategies and attitude towards the material frequently need only a slightly different energy to give direction to sounds, introduce a change or leave one section and arrive at another. The faintest stirring is enough abruptly to banish the monochrome space: the focus is turned on the composition and with that on the presence of the player, who, as interpreter, is communicating this compositional change. Attention shifts from an undirected space-time situation to a directed situation in which sounds begin to wander and subtly radiate a direction that causes the situation to appear in a slightly different light. This may happen in order to truly set off on a path, or perhaps to shift quickly and lightly from one sonic situation to another. At all times, the interpreter is expected not to want to hold and shape the sounds, but to let go of them as he plays, enabling the inherent qualities of the sounds to become perceptible and experienceable. Time flows through the performer, and he not so much showcases his own presence as he articulates the presence of the overall space. He reacts with seismographic sensitivity to the slightest change, the subtlest crossing of the threshold between monochromely undirected situations and the shaping of time, which suggests direction and a path.
 
This is where a composer’s formal interest is kindled – an interest that might be described as the composition breathing between the two states of space and path. What can be said for the interpreter applies at least as much to the composer: he decides about the musical and compositional parameters, he approaches the musical material with meticulous precision and is the inventor of these situations. But they can emerge only if, as a composer, his attitude towards his artistic intentions renders him, so to speak, absent. At the same time, however, precisely what he considers right for the respective composition is supposed to happen. This is not a paradox, it is the foundation on which this kind of compositional work builds. The result distinguishes itself from a musical experience centred on listening to an object of art and artifice presented at a performance venue, which I observe from outside in a listening mode. Instead, space, sound and listener create a field of tension informed by the various balanced presences, a field that can become an existential experience of physical and mental existence for the listener.
 
The fragility characteristic of this field of tension derives from the fact that motionlessness and movement, monochromy and narrative are close enough together for them to be able to shift quickly and easily from one to the other. In either state, there is always a sense of the other’s absence: monochromy as the absence of movement and directed material as the absence of monochromy. It is this oscillation that infuses the field of tension with much of its energy and complexity – additionally enhanced if listeners’ experiences are taken into account as well. A monochrome sound world will not always resonate in the listener as a monochrome experience. It may easily be that, at the end of a performance of static music that has remained motionless, the listener is in himself no longer where he started out – just as, conversely, directed, mobile music that lays a path need not always take the listener along on a journey.
 
Jürg Frey

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