Wandelweiser music tends to be lumped together into one big, uniform movement: music with sparse sounds and a large component of silence, featuring extremely quiet performances with the performers’ personalities restrained as much as possible to best assimilate into the environment.
In fact, all of the Wandelweiser composers do share common interests, like recognizing silences and environmental sounds as elements within a sound world alongside the performers’ sounds. However, when focusing on many of the individual composer’s works carefully, you will notice that their ways of approaching the music and their orientations as a composer are often very different.
In this essay, I would like to focus on these points – how each composer is trying to approach the three key elements of ‘silence’, ‘environment (or environmental sounds)’ and ‘performer/s’, and how they seem to attempt to relate these elements to each other in their compositions, by discussing some of the work of five well-known Wandelweiser composers: Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Radu Malfatti, Manfred Werder and Michael Pisaro.
This is not a comprehensive study of each composer’s works, so I will only mention some which seem to me to be related with the theme of this essay. As for the history and the general background of the Wandelweiser movement, I recommend you to read the following extensive piece Wandelweiser at the ErstWords website, written by Michael Pisaro.
Dissolve the borders between the outer world and the inner world with the equality of sound, silence, performer, environment and listener
In order to understand and appreciate Antoine Beuger’s compositions, I strongly recommend you to experience live concerts if possible. One memorable one for me was in 2010, when Ben Owen and Barry Chabala played Beuger’s un lieu pour être deux, and Dominic Lash played calme étendue in a small room of a church in the East Village of Manhattan. I would like to quote a part of my review I wrote afterwards, since it seems to connect with how Beuger’s compositions in general make me feel.
The silence of the performer and his instrument seemed to be the core of the space in this piece. They were like a center which united all the environmental sounds heard in the room with transparent threads to the invisible music, so the rustle of trees, cars passing by, chirps of birds, and stomping noises of people upstairs started to feel like parts of the music which was developing silently. Despite there being no actual performed sounds at this point, there was a tight sense of unity over the whole situation – the performer and the instrument which remained still, the environmental sounds randomly coming from outside, the silent audience listening to the whole situation carefully – with all of them sharing the same time and space.
Dominic Lash’s silence did not cause a cooped-up feeling to reject the environmental sounds at all. Instead, it had an openness to accept all the other noises heard in the room, like breathing the air. The naturalness of his silence made me feel that the performer and the audience equally exist here, just like the wind and trees, rivers and oceans equally exist on earth.” (August 12, 2010)
Antoine Beuger’s compositions seem to welcome any possibility. It is not just music that is created by the sounds of the instruments performed from the score, but also music that accepts all the accidental sounds (and noises) happening in a situation equally. If it is performed in an extremely silent room where the environmental noises are hardly heard, or if it is performed in a room where various environmental noises are jumping in, or if the volumes and the natures of outside noises are different, the same composition may give the audience completely different impressions. By accepting these various elements of eventuality, Beuger seems to show that one single composition could contain infinite possibilities in the ways of experiencing the music.
The equality seems to be the key to Beuger’s music – where all the elements including the performers’ sounds, the silences, the environmental sounds, and the audience are all considered as parts of the music. The silence is as important as the sound, the environmental sounds are as important as the performers’ sounds, and the audience is as important as the performer. These elements, normally recognized as opposite subjects facing or confronting with each other (i.e. sound vs. silence, performer vs. audience) in conventional music, seem to become parallel in Beuger’s pieces to move closely together along the time. This unique signature of Beuger’s pieces can be seen in the following two CDs.
Antoine Beuger’s 2010 release keine fernen mehr is a double CD that consists solely of the sounds of whistling. In this piece, Beuger himself whistles in an extremely quiet manner to give the sounds a very fragile, fleeting, flaky texture. Between the individual whistles, there are almost inaudible faint sounds of Beuger’s breath and the room noises at a quiet white noise level. Rather than sounding like a particular pitched sound, Beuger’s whistle contains several different nuances of tones at the same time. The ambiguity of the tone of his whistles makes me feel as if I were listening to the sounds of the wind rather than human sounds. The translucency of Beuger’s whistling, that give the impression of blowing through the gray area between sound and silence, overlap with the white noise of the environmental sounds (both on the CD and in my room) and dissolve the border between the performed sounds and the environmental sounds – as well as the border between sound and silence. And at the same time, the personal nature of the whistling sounds appeals to the listener’s sense directly as if he/she was hearing the sound of his/her own mind, leading him/her to descend down to a deep, calm contemplation, and dissolves the border between the outer world (performed sounds and environmental sounds) and the listener’s inner world (contemplation).
This borderless sense (or equal sense) of the outer world and the inner world is also experienced in Beuger’s 1997 composition calme étendue (spinoza). In this piece, the performer is instructed to read the text of Spinoza’s Ethics very attentively and carefully in a very relaxed tempo (one word in every eight seconds), with a very quiet voice. The performer should not try and suggest a specific meaning to the individual words or groups of words, through emphasis or intonation. Spoken sections alternate with sections of silence. In these silent sections, the performer is instructed to sit quietly, doing nothing, with calm concentration. On the CD released from Edition Wandelweiser in 2001, Beuger himself read the text from Ethics.
With this monotonic manner of reading in between complete silences, Spinoza’s words start to be heard in a very interesting way. The genuine phonetic individuality that is inherent within each word (color, brightness, texture, darkness, softness, solidness, thickness, etc.) starts to emerge without being attached to its meaning. Each word contains a slightly different tone from others, creating a slightly different shape of ripple in the silence after, which makes each silence feel differently nuanced. Just like each person has a different individuality, each word contains a different inner world. In this piece, under these extreme sparse circumstances where each word is presented in its simplest form, the world inherent in each word feels as if it has been enlarged and projected into the following silence. Here, the sounds and the silences have an equal impact over the listener. The immanence of each word projected in the silence after, which contains a slightly different tone and impression, echoes the listener’s inner world to combine to truly compose the music. This makes the whole listening experience of this piece feel intensely personal despite the sparseness and the monotone of the sounds, letting the listener experience something similar to a deep contemplation specific to themselves.
Antoine Beuger composes his music with visible tones and invisible tones, opening a path to connect the outer world (performed sounds and the silences) with the listener’s inner world to make a more unified form of music.
Composer of micro symphony born in the gray area between sound and silence, impressionism and minimalism
Jürg Frey’s compositional approach keeps him at the keen edge of contemporary music while simultaneously maintaining a faint touch of impressionistic aesthetics. These two characteristics usually appear in his pieces, sometimes combined together, sometimes one more dominant. One noteworthy example of his impressionistic aesthetic side is in his 2002 release Klaviermusik (1978-2001), performed by John McAlpine on piano, with soft lyrical touches emphasizing the classical beauty of Frey’s piano pieces. The disc is arranged chronologically, and the pieces composed after 1995 seem to contain much less of this faint impressionism, moving more towards a minimalistic direction.
The year 1995 seems to be a turning point in Jürg Frey’s work. In Frey’s pieces from 1995 on, the emphasis seems to be more on the spaces (or silences) between sounds, or the faint transitions from sound to silence, or the moments when sound and silence overlap. In his 1995/96 piece ohne titel (two violinen) on the CD Nono / Frey, a clear-cut blankness emerges in the moment of two violin sounds vanishing, with no trail of impressionistic color. When the resonance of the note of an instrument decays and disappears into a silence, the presence of that silence is boosted with a quiet tension. This momentary blankness makes the listener feel as if he/she were gazing into mystic depths from a cliff, and causes the listener a surreal feel, like faint dizziness, in time and space. This signature way of Frey’s between sounds and silences makes his music distinctively different from conventional classical music, and is clearly and straightforwardly portrayed in the 2012 release Piano Music performed by R. Andrew Lee.
On Piano Music, Lee approaches Frey’s pieces with his minimalist aesthetics, in a very different way from McAlpine’s, to bring out Frey’s contemporary edge. In the first piece Klavierstück 2, Lee sends his piano sounds into the air as if he was artistically placing stones in a Zen garden, emphasizing the existence of the space and the time between sounds. Lee’s minimalist approach seems to crystallize the beauty of Frey’s compositions, bringing out the purity of the sound and the essence of the original composition via his clear consciousness. The most breathtaking moment starts in the middle part, when a simple same chord of two notes (E and A) is repeated for 468 times at a moderate tempo. The resonance of each stroke seems direct, as if refusing to involve a specific meaning or emotion, or refusing to be associated with anything more than the original nature of the sound itself. The constant repetition of the same chord does not feel mechanical or cold or flat at all – instead it creates a natural feel of breathing in a gentle flow of time.
What attracts my ears when listening to this CD is the way each chord sounds – each chord maintains the individuality of each sound while still standing parallel to each other (evoking in me several white rays of light of different intensity), not as if multiple sounds are melding into one. The unique characteristics of Frey’s compositions are sharply portrayed here in the transitions between sounds, the relations between sounds, and the pauses between sounds. Lee’s performance seems to accentuate these characteristics in a natural organic flow, creating a surreal feel as if time and space were wavering or stretching.
The second composition Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes pour piano (24-35) is divided into 12 pieces. Here, the thickness of the silences when piano sounds decay and disappear captures the listener’s ear. After piece no. 29, the music begins to possess a serene beauty following the restrained monochrome tones of the first half, as if some white rays of faint light were gradually shining into a room. This last section toward the end is another memorable part, evoking in me an image of ascending into the sky slowly and quietly, towards a positive harmony – where Frey’s impressionistic lyricism and Lee’s minimalism are beautifully married. McAlpine’s CD seems to emphasize the faint colors of Frey’s piano pieces, while Lee’s performance seems to emphasize the whiteness of Frey’s piano pieces. These two CDs, released ten years apart, seem to extract the two different aesthetics underlying Frey’s compositions – faint impressionism and minimalism – from completely different angles. These two approaches combine to show us the profoundness of Frey’s world and the broad possibilities within his compositions.
Frey’s focus on the overlap between sound and silence has been even more drastic in some of his recent works. One of the first signs of this direction occurs in his Streichquartett II (1998-2000), the last track on the 2006 release CD String Quartets, as performed by Quatuor Bozzini. In this piece, the string quartet plays simple phrases of continuous tones very quietly in between short silences, creating an ominous yet calm atmosphere which simultaneously contains both a serenity and a subtle fierceness. The enigmatic nature of this piece seems to be attuned to both areas of sound and silence, via its translucency of vibrations. This approach from Frey develops further with the epic and microscopic world of his 2001/02 compositions Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8, a series of eight pieces released as an 8 CDR set in 2010.
Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8 is electronic music composed of extended looped sound materials, including field recordings as well as instruments like percussion, rubbed noises of stones and metal objects. The whole piece is imbued with a solemn atmosphere throughout, developing with extremely subtle changes during the 320 minutes. While listening to this very quiet music which makes slow progress over a great span of time, I notice that the way I hear it gradually changes. On CD 1, the very quiet extended sounds move slowly like the wind blowing through a pipe, while containing a tranquil, slightly ominous tone. While focusing on listening to these wind-like sounds of the first section, the border of performed sounds and environmental sounds becomes vague. This is the moment when one begins to feel as if the sounds on the CD and the noises of the air conditioning in your room were co-performing. The subtle shadings and delicate wavers of sounds make the boundaries between sounds and silences dissolve into each other, creating a mystic feeling of floating in the music.
Once I am attuned to these quiet sounds, I notice the various small changes happening in the piece, like viewing some imperceptible phenomena under a microscope. On the second CD, the ambiguous gray layers of the formless sounds disappear, and l start to hear some faint harmonies of electronic tones that have similar textures to string instruments – now the piece starts to be heard as music with a hint of melody. The faint harmonies shift toward the dark cloud-like low-key tones, and the music is again filled with an ominous atmosphere. While following the slow and gradual changes of the music, my mind recedes from its reality and becomes deeply drawn into the microscopic phenomena in the music, stretching my sense of time in a way that feels surreal. After about 90 minutes consisting of extremely quiet continuous sounds, some stretched out long silences are inserted between sparse sounds, like the silences of tranquil ponds dotted in a deep forest (this is on the third disc). Around the middle part (on the fourth disc), I start to feel that I am hearing some subtle chords or harmonies born from the resonances in the middle of the muffled sounds – the ambiguity of the whole makes it difficult to recognize if these come from field recordings, or the sounds of instruments, or the environmental noises around me. On the seventh disc, the quiet continuous sounds gain some regular pulses that throb calmly but vigorously like a human heart, as if I am watching some formless living organism emerging from a chaotic mud (but nothing fearful, something peaceful).
What makes this piece so fascinating to me is how it differs from the normal passive listening situation, where I just follow the musical development. Throughout the piece, my way of listening to the music actively changes as I hear this seemingly motionless wave of continuous sounds. The initial vague, translucent impression of the music suddenly becomes enlarged and clarified once the listener starts to focus on the details, and the music starts to unfold its beautiful world full of various subtle changes – a micro-symphony born in the gray area between sound and silence.
The vivid contrast between sound and silence brings out the purest form of sound, affecting the gravity in music
In Radu Malfatti’s compositions, the contrast between sound and silence is sharp. In many of his works, continuous monotonic sounds are repeatedly played, separated by various lengths of silence. The performed sounds are often very simple and blank, without any attachment of emotion or expression. In his 2007 release Hoffinger Nonett and his 2008 release Claude Lorrain 1, Malfatti’s electronic sounds alternate with silences in simple repetitions, sometimes in turn, sometimes overlapping. In these pieces, the contrast between sounds and silences portrays the different texture of each clearly – the vibration, massiveness and thickness of sounds, and the stillness, emptiness and nothingness of silences, are both accentuated.
This tension between sound and silence, evoking the contrast between light and shadow of monochrome photographs, is Malfatti’s signature. The clear-cut blankness between sound and silence, recognized in some of Jürg Frey’s works like ohne titel (two violinen), is even more highlighted and focused in Malfatti’s works. While Antoine Beuger and Jürg Frey try to blur the border between sound and silence, Malfatti tries to make the borders stand out. In Malfatti’s compositions, the various textures of sounds and silences are the major element, unlike the conventional way of composing music with musical sounds. His music often reminds me of a minimal art work – like a plain stone-shaped object placed in the middle of an empty gallery room – which has a quiet yet tremendous power to affect the whole space with its substantial presence, as if it was able to change the force of gravity in the room.
When I was listening to Malfatti’s piece nariyamu (performed by Malfatti and Keith Rowe) in a studio recording session in Vienna in 2010, a short and subtle click sound, which Malfatti made by lightly tapping his trombone with his finger tip after a long period of silence, sounded as if it was the very first sound I heard after I was born. The freshness and the vividness of this click left me with an unforgettable impact, which changed my preconceived ideas regarding sounds completely, enabling me to further open my ears to listen to sound in its purest form.
During the recording sessions in Vienna, Radu Malfatti said something very interesting: In general, people tend to acquire various small habits and tendencies in their daily lives, and in many cases, they do not realize that they are repeating the same behaviors every day. For example, there is a certain order of events when a person brushes their teeth, like which part of the teeth they begin with. Malfatti said, once he realizes that he has some habits or tendencies in his daily life like that, he intentionally tries to change the order from what he used to do normally. In this way, he tries to ‘reset’ his habits and tendencies that were piled up every day without being consciously aware. This idea has a parallel in improvisation. Improvisers choose what to play from an unlimited range of options and possibilities. But over the course of many performances, it is easy to subconsciously acquire some certain habits and tendencies. This can result from a musician’s mindset to try to create the most comfortable situation where he/she can best express his/her ‘voice’ or originality.
The pureness of sounds can be easily clouded by a musician’s individuality, which can overshadow the music with a strong statement or emotion or tendency. When this happens, the world of music is narrowed and limited to the musician’s own small sphere, which can fade as time goes by due to its narrowness. What Malfatti seems to want to achieve is to clear this cloud away. By attempting to minimize the performers’ expressions or tendencies, his goal is to create the clearest air or the environment for the sounds to be born in the purest form. This approach can be seen in his 2012 release darenootodesuka. The CD title darenootodesuka means ‘whose sound is it?’ In fact, the borders between all the performers’ sounds in this piece are very ambiguous. The listener is suggested to play the CD ‘very quietly’ according to the liner notes. Here, the six performers – Antoine Beuger (flute), Jürg Frey (clarinet), Marcus Kaiser (cello), Michael Pisaro (guitar), Burkhard Schlothauer (violin) and Malfatti (trombone), play sounds very quietly and very slowly, as if they were trying to dissolve their individualities into the environment. Their sounds are all unified in a simple, similar tone color – like pale gray, evoking in me a calm wind blowing through an uninhabited landscape. This simplicity, where no performer’s strong individualities are demonstrated, imparts a serene beauty to this piece.
Malfatti’s musical background is quite different from the other Wandelweiser composers who have classical music backgrounds and have been strongly influenced by John Cage. Malfatti’s initial interest was playing jazz. Then his interest shifted to free improvisation and he played in the European free improvisation scene until the early 90’s. Malfatti said in his interview for ErstWords that he had a strong rejection against the idiomatic tendency of improvised music at some point (in 1989 precisely), and started to compose his music to liberate himself from mannerisms. Since then, Malfatti seems to have been pursuing the purity of sound that was often lost in the excessive display of the performers’ individualities in improvised music, presenting the simplest aspect of sound on a white canvas of silence via his compositions.
Malfatti’s focus has mostly been on his composed work for the past two decades, but he still occasionally improvises with a handful of his closest collaborators. As an improviser, Malfatti has an extraordinary keen sensitivity for reading a situation, hearing silences and the environment sharply as well as sounds. A great example of this sensitivity occurred in his duo improvisation set with Taku Unami (ErstLive 012) at AMPLIFY 2011 in New York, incidentally on the same day as the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
The set began in a contemplative silence. Unami lit a candle and stood it on the floor. His clicking sounds of a lighter in the silent room, a human gesture (not a machine noise), felt like an introduction to the intimate world of their duo performance. Unami barely made any sound after that, just casting some little moves of the nuanced shadows on the wall reflected from the light from the small candle. He was mostly hidden behind the cardboard box he built around the candle, so the only thing the audience could see was the shadows and lights reflected on the back wall. After a long silence (while I was fascinated with the subtle, nuanced moves of the shadows and lights Unami reflected on the wall), Malfatti made a very quiet, long, almost inaudible low-key trombone sound. It was a breathtakingly beautiful, solemn moment. Malfatti himself was invisible in the darkened room, and since his trombone sounds were so subtle, the sounds felt as if they were appearing from the darkness, and disappearing into the silence.
Even though the set consisted of extremely sparse sounds, the interaction between Malfatti and Unami stayed incredibly close throughout. The silences and the shadows and the very occasional sounds of Unami’s performance were perfectly matched with Malfatti’s silences and sounds. Malfatti’s trombone reflected the delicate movement of Unami’s visual work with its tones (I could imagine Unami’s play with shadow works just from Malfatti’s trombone), while Unami’s shadow/light reflections on the wall respectfully reflected Malfatti’s playing. The sounds Unami made were the clicking noises of his lighter (occasionally in the middle of Malfatti’s trombone sounds), cutting a cardboard box, building it up around him.
What impressed me deeply about this set was the humbleness of these two musicians who were paying close attention to the sounds and the silences that were born in front of them in this moment. The calm yet intimate interaction between the two musicians gradually filled the room with a solemn, soothing atmosphere. While being humbly meditative, it also sounded like a minimal/abstract sound collage in which small fragments of 9/11 memories (sounds of fire sirens, sounds of footsteps and coughing, crying voice of a baby – all coming from a distance) happened around them by chance. On this night when many people in New York were sharing an intense memory, Malfatti and Unami seemed to spotlight the silence and the environmental sounds from the streets by keeping their performed sounds to the minimum, allowing the audience’s mind to resonate with the vibrations of the city at a deep level – as if they knew that sharing this calm, peaceful tranquility in this moment was what could help to heal the memory of 9/11 most.
Hearing the music in the moment of experiencing the natural and immediate relation to the world
Manfred Werder shows that music exists all around us in our natural environment, and leads the listener to experience this via performers’ realizations of his scores. The music Werder presents has the least involvement of the performer’s individuality of any of the Wandelweiser composers, allowing the natural state of a place to remain as intact as possible. Werder wrote to me, “The music I love most occurs when it happens that, in a moment of confidence I sit somewhere indoors or outdoors and don’t do anything at all. The world and its music unfolds differently in such a moment, and all worries for purposeful content seem so vain, actually destroy this natural and immediate relation to the world.”
In Werder’s scores, both the immensity and the minimal nature of his concepts can be overwhelming. The immensity is illustrated in his compositions ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 1-4000 and stück 1998, two epic projects Werder started in the late 90’s. In ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 1-4000, the performer is instructed to play one action in each time unit of 12 seconds, over several pages from what will eventually be a 4000 page score. The whole piece will in the end result in having 160,000 actions in total, over a duration of 533 hours and 20 minutes. This activity is taken up by different performers at different times in different places – each one picking up where the previous one left off. In contrast, the minimal character of his more recent work can be seen in his composition 2005¹ and other similar subsequent projects, in which only one or a few sentences or words are noted in the score, with the duration and the number of performers indeterminate.
When looking at Werder’s scores, we may try to imagine the possibilities of the music that could be born from a score of 4000 pages performed in 533 hours and 20 minutes, or the music that could be born from a score with only a few words. When we are wondering about these possibilities, we are already peering into the depth of Werder’s infinite world, standing at the entrance of it. Here, I would like to explore his world by discussing two CDs: ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 218 – 226 and 2005¹.
ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 218 – 226 was released by Edition Wandelweiser in 2006, with a realization by Antoine Beuger. The 72 minute recording, which is a small part of Werder’s 533 hours and 20 minutes epic piece ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 1-4000, consists of very quiet single electronic sounds, one at a time, punctuated by short silences. In this piece, the performer is instructed to play one action consisting of six seconds of sound, followed by six seconds of silence. The sound is instructed to be ‘to itself, clear and objective, simple’.
Antoine Beuger’s minimal electronic sound, evoking in me a chirp of a small cricket on a quiet autumn night, contains an absolute purity that seems to reject any kind of excessive noise and discord or human attachment, seemingly purifying the air to create a peaceful, harmonious world. While sustaining this absolute purity, Beuger’s sound never contains obstinacy or insistence, and instead, it contains a humility and flexibility that perfectly integrates with nature. Everything in this room – a low, almost inaudible continuous noise from my CD player, various sounds jumping outside of the window, silences between sounds, and the movement of my mind – are gradually drawn toward the humble gravity of Beuger’s quiet electronic sound that exists in the room as a core.
Even when the sound is alternated with silence, there is no feel of suspension. In the silences of this piece, the music is still moving forward. The various textures of the silences gradually unfold, with each of Beuger’s sounds acting as an agent, extracting something out of the subsequent silence – something hidden but normally not perceived. The substantial textures of these silences seem to be as important elements to this composition as the sounds. With Beuger’s electronic sound as the axis, the discretely scattered environmental sounds are now all connected as one to equally become essential parts of the world of Werder’s music. The tranquil, profound and introspective world of the piece seems to indicate some sort of enlightenment that all the phenomena in this universe are connected in some way, directing the listener’s mind toward the infinite external world. After listening to this 72 minutes, the listener may think of the hypothetical music that might make up the rest of the 533 hours and 20 minutes, experiencing the tremendous immensity of Werder’s world.
In this piece, the performer restrains his individuality as much as possible, assimilating his sounds into the naturalness of the environment as best he/she can. The minimal involvement of the performer becomes even more extreme in Werder’s later work 2005¹, in which the performer ideally becomes completely transparent.
2005¹ was realized by Swiss-based composer/performer Jason Kahn and was released from Winds Measure Recordings in 2012. This set of eight CDRs contains 31 tracks, each an 18 minute unedited recording of the ambient sounds of the Zürich central railway station, recorded by Kahn. The recordings were made every morning at 10 AM for a month from March 1-31, 2010. The score of the piece has only three lines of words: place, time, (sounds). In fact, this piece was composed by the minimal conditions of place, time and sounds.
Every place has its own unique vibration. It may not be recognized easily by our ears or other senses, but it is always there regardless of the flow of time, sending out the particular vibration to the air like a human heart. If you are standing or sitting in a place for long hours, you may be able to sense the rhythm of the vibration of the place, as if you found a slight hint of distant sounds from an underground water vein. If you do so, you are now connected to the core of the place.
In the train station where this recording was made, time passes by. And as it does, various phenomena happen there, appearing and disappearing while leaving some small traces behind. Voices and footsteps of various passengers approach and recede, trains arrive and leave, and as they do, the ambient sounds change slightly and gradually. The only thing that remains fully intact is the core (heart) of the place. When I was listening to the ambient sounds of the recordings on the 8 CDRs, I started to feel as if I myself became the Zürich central railway station – or as if I happened to get into the heart of the station. As I feel I became the core of the station, the passage of time and the sounds happening there began to feel more crisp and sharp.
Near the end of the second CDR, I found myself starting to listen to the ambient sounds of the railway station as a kind of music. This is music that was born from casual meetings of the sounds of various passengers and trains and all the phenomena occurring at the same place at the same time, transiently and incidentally creating a mixture of sounds with various pitches (heavy bass tone, bass tone, midrange tone, high-pitch tone, etc.) and various volumes, intertwining with the vibration of the core (heart) of the place. This co-performance of all the ambient sounds gains a vital energy as one entity with a certain rhythm. Each form of music from each morning of the 31 days may sound quite similar to the others, but each track is slightly different if you listen to it carefully.
What attracted me were the unexpectedness and the freshness of the development of the sounds and the subtle changes of the flow, completely free from any human guidance. This music was born from pure contingency, without any mediation from the performers. The performers of the music here were passengers’ footsteps and voices, distant machinery, noises of trains, and so on. Without them knowing, this fascinating music was made, morning after morning. Once I realized the presence of the music in the ambient sound here, I was confronted with the simple fact that the world is full of music with intact sounds.
Something else that struck me while listening to Kahn’s realization was the relation between sounds and silences. Between tracks (each of which lasts exactly 18 minutes) is a short silence cut in rather abruptly. Normally, the silence is considered to be a canvas and the sound is considered to be a subject painted on the canvas, if music is compared to painting. However, after my ears were immersed in the world of the ambient sounds on the recordings for many hours and became completely accustomed to it, this relation started to feel inverted. After listening to 3 or 4 discs, the ambient sounds of the Zürich central railway station started to feel somewhat transparent and naturally existing like the air around me, and the short silence after each track started to feel like an unexpected incident or a subject, like hearing a loud sound. The experience of the inversion of sound and silence was shocking – the ambient sounds of the station I heard initially as the ‘sound’ became the canvas, and the silence I heard initially as a pause between tracks became the subject that vibrated the air around me. In a way, Jason Kahn was performing the silences in this piece.
In field recordings, sometimes the performer’s mediation (or intention or control) gives sounds more meanings or colors than the original sounds innately possess. In this way, the presented sound often becomes the performer’s ‘voice’ or his/her tool of self-expression. However, if the recorded sound can remain free from human mediation as much as possible, it can keep its original nature close to intact and the natural musical flow of the environment can be preserved. In Manfred Werder’s 2005¹, the only part that reflects the performer (recorder)’s aesthetics or individuality is the framing: how to choose the place to record, when to record, how long the duration should be, and how to arrange the recordings on the CD, while keeping Werder’s score (consisting of particular words or poetry) in his/her mind. Meanwhile, in terms of the content or the development of the field recordings, the recorder’s intention or manipulation is not involved at all. Here, the recorder’s role is just to prepare the frame under the influence of Werder’s words on the score, and the music happening in the frame is an ensemble of the casual sounds born from the world with pure contingency. In a way, the ‘place’ plays the music itself, independent from anyone’s intention, within the frame prepared by the recorder (performer).
This recording of Manfred Werder’s piece showed me that the ambient sounds of a daily event could be heard as music – music genuinely composed with incidental elements without the performer’s intention, by being cut out from the world and put in a frame. In Werder’s music, the composer himself is silent, via the lack of explicit instructions in the scores, which are like open fields where performers can realize the work with a free spirit without precise restrictions. When I imagine that this same score could be realized by various artists in various places in the world, as various different recordings of ambient sounds, which could be heard as various forms of music, and that this ultimate minimal score with only three lines of words has a possibility of inspiring an innumerable number of works of music, I am overwhelmed with the vastness of the tremendous scale of Werder’s world.
Personalization of nature and environment via harmonious, intimate co-performance of performer and environment
Michael Pisaro hears music in our natural environment just as Manfred Werder does. But where Werder generally attempts to leave the environmental sound as intact as possible, Pisaro is actively involved with each environment, letting the performers participate in the development of the music unfolding in nature. If Werder’s approach is for the performer’s assimilation with the environment towards a stillness, Pisaro’s approach is vitalization of the environment towards motion via active involvement of the performers.
In many of Pisaro’s works, harmonic effects and co-performance between performers and environmental sounds (field recordings) are significant focuses. These seemed to first emerge in two of his 2007 releases Harmony Series 11-16 and Transparent City (Volumes 1-4).
Harmony Series 11 – 16 (2004-2006) is a realization of nine pieces from Pisaro’s entire series of 34, performed by seven musicians including Pisaro. The scores to the pieces on this CD contain poems from six poets (Paul Celan, Robert Lax, Gertrude Stein, Robert Creeley, Wallace Stevens and George Oppen), followed by Pisaro’s short instructions for the performers. The volume of each sound, described as a “very soft, very pure tone”, and the characteristic of each pause, defined as a “peaceful and thoughtful silence”, are integral factors here.
In this series, Pisaro focuses on the structure of harmony – particularly on how the resonances of harmonic overtones create ‘fluctuation’, a mysterious subtle wave which affects the overall music. When one sound is played with other sounds simultaneously, or when one sound disappears from a harmony, how does this appearance or disappearance affect the other sounds and the overall harmony? How does the timing of adding sounds and combining sounds with different natures (like instruments vs. electronic sounds) change the influence? This series seems to aim at experimenting and presenting these wonders of harmonic overtones from both mathematical and artistic perspectives through various combinations of instruments.
When listening to the music on this CD, you will also notice that a consistent tranquility penetrates through all of the music. There is a unique impression that all of the sounds and silences are closely connected with each other in a linear manner, with none of them breaking out or making gaps. This must be deeply related to Pisaro’s two crucial instructions regarding sounds and silences in the score – ‘all tones are very soft, very pure’ and ‘pauses are silences: peaceful and thoughtful’.
On this CD, very small events are happening in every nook and cranny of the music, and these subtle changes give magical effects to the music. This is in fact not magic at all – all the events are due to the mathematical structure of the music, but the way Pisaro incorporates them into his compositions is so subtle and natural, that the whole impression of his music becomes poetic and organic. Subtle fluctuations of sounds born from resonances of harmonic overtones give gentle waves to the music, like tiny stones thrown into tranquil water, echoing with the transparent, introspective stillness and the universal beauty of each poem included in the score.
Meanwhile, in his Transparent City (Volumes 1-4), the environmental sounds (field recordings) take on the central role, and the performer (Pisaro’s sine tones) becomes a part of the soundscape, bringing translucent chords and a harmony to the entire piece at nearly imperceptible levels. The key of this series is delicately woven sine tones that interact with the field recording sounds. This carefully balanced integration of environment and sine tones makes the entire series sound like harmonic music, like breathtakingly well-matched co-performances by extremely attentive musicians. Through the composer’s entire process – standing in different places at different times, recording the sounds happening then, and carefully composing each piece by later mixing these recordings with the perfect choice of sine tones, Pisaro created a large-scale ambient music with a sense of ‘every place is somewhat connected together’, using the invisible strings of the sine tones to connect all the places together. This sense of unity ties not just all the recording locations together, but also each listener’s environment to the music as well.
These two concepts of harmony and the performer’s close interaction with environment are explored in an innovative way in the 2007 composition ricefall (2). In this piece, percussionist Greg Stuart, Pisaro’s frequent collaborator, recorded 64 tracks using the sounds of steady streams of rice falling on the surfaces of various materials at various speeds. The 72-minute piece which results, is solely comprised of the sounds of rice hitting the surfaces of various materials. This rice fall sometimes sounds like sparse raindrops gently hitting the roof, sometimes a much more intense squall. It evokes in me a pure white light that keeps changing its brightness and softness over the course of time – sometimes as a dazzlingly powerful sunlight, sometimes as soft flickers of light.
What fascinates me about this piece is the way the resonances of the rice impacts start to form subtle, almost inaudible harmonies behind the falling sounds – just like a faint rainbow can take ghostly form on the surface of a waterfall. The faint harmonies arisen from the rice impacts leave their traces in the silences following. The changes in the density and the sparseness of the falling rice are thoughtfully arranged minute by minute, which gives the whole piece a perfect balance without falling into a chaotic mess. With a skillful execution by Stuart in controlling the dropping rice, Pisaro realized a bold attempt of creating a new form of music, performed by an orchestra of rice and many different surfaces of materials via a close collaboration between the performer and gravity – a human and a powerful natural phenomenon in our environment.
These approaches utilized by Pisaro in composing Transparent City, Harmony Series 11 – 16 and ricefall (2) were later dramatically combined in his 2009 composition July Mountain, released in 2010, in a more complex, elaborate and developed way. July Mountain consists of 20 mono field recordings (each 10 minutes long) that Pisaro made mainly in the mountain area near Los Angeles from 2006 to 2009, along with percussion sounds performed and recorded by Greg Stuart. These sounds are mixed with a cross-fading method into one 21-minute piece. Wallace Stevens’ poem July Mountain is the inspiration for this score. Ten kinds of percussion sounds, including friction noises made on a drum, bowed wood blocks, a bowed snare drum, bells, recorded sine tones projected onto resonant surfaces, a stream of rice or seeds falling on the surface of a bass drum and on a high-pitched bar (glockenspiel), etc., are used here. (From the score, there are 143 sounds with different tones or frequencies in 10 groups of percussion sounds.) The timing when each percussion sound is supposed to be played and stopped, the duration of each sound, and how often the sound is played, are all precisely notated in the score. The timing, the duration and the chords of the piano have also been set by Pisaro. Over the course of the piece, ten of the twenty field recordings are always overlapping, beginning and ending at different points.
In this piece, the quiet sounds of the percussion, initially hidden under the thick layers of the complex sounds of field recordings, gradually start to emerge on the surface of the music as time passes, affecting the way the field recordings are heard little by little. What happens here is beyond just a well-balanced co-performance between environmental sounds and performed sounds – it is more like the percussion sounds have awakened the life of nature and amplified the inherent voice in it, vitalizing it, which is actually affecting the listener’s way of hearing how the field recordings sound. The fluctuations born from a myriad of resonances of harmonic overtones of sounds start to rock the music like a swelling wave rocks a giant ship, and the soundscape of field recordings seems to take on vitality as if it were a living organism.
The perspective of the world of the Wallace Stevens poem – “We live in a constellation / Of patches and of pitches, / Not in a single world” is perfectly reflected in this music. The 21 minutes feel like a very long time to me – as if different senses of time of different places as well as the long history of humans and nature are all condensed into 21 minutes. The theme of perfectly matched co-performance between performers and the environment, which Pisaro explored earlier in his Transparent City series, here has been raised to a higher, more dynamic level, achieving a magnificent symphony of percussion and the environment.
Pisaro develops this theme in his later works, with a deeper, more inner approach. In his 2011 release asleep, street, pipes, tones, two instruments (a bass clarinet and a guitar), sine tones, fragments of field recordings, samples, silences are all equally used as components of the piece. Here, the harmonic overtones and resonances arising from instrumental sounds, the slow cross-fade of plural field recordings (sounds of the wind blowing through a pipe, sounds of cars passing by on the street, etc.), samples, and the wavers of quiet sine tones seem to overlap with the subtle mind shifts of the listener, creating a contemplative, slightly melancholic psychological effect. The boundary between the environment (field recordings and silences) and the performed sounds (instruments, sine tones, samples) becomes vague here, sharing overlapping characteristics, and all the sounds meld to create one intense, intimate world of music that can resonate the listener’s inner world at a deep level.
This theme of vitalization of a soundscape – or personalization of nature and environment – is masterfully combined with Pisaro’s earlier theme of realization of a poetry world in music, in his 2013 release The Middle of Life (Die ganze Zeit), a 47’20” long composition inspired by Austrian contemporary poet Oswald Egger’s 2010 book Die ganze Zeit. The piece consists of Egger’s readings of the passages Pisaro selected from Die ganze Zeit, Julia Holter’s vocals, Pisaro’s piano and sine tones, Antoine Beuger’s flute, and seven speakers’ readings of one short sentence of a poem in their own languages. Pisaro also inserted two other field recordings he made on the banks of a river in Neufelden, Austria. Egger’s poetry readings of the passages were recorded in the fields outside of his residence in Hombroich, Germany.
In this piece, the additions of human voices seem to make the accordance between environmental sounds and performed sounds more intimate. The fleeting, mysterious tones of Holter’s voice evokes in me the ambiguous beauty of two translucent images overlapping with each other somewhere in between the human world and the natural world, reality and unreality, or sound and silence. In Egger’s poems, there are often scenes like that where one word evokes in the reader’s mind two different images at the same time. Holter’s voices echoes the faint lyricism and humane nature underlying Pisaro’s composition, while having an unpretentious, transparent air like the wind. These two essences are also found in Egger’s poems. This lyrical beauty of Holter’s vocal, evoking the subtle gradation between two colors, seems to connect Pisaro’s music and Egger’s poetry in an ethereal way. And the delicate, warm nature of Pisaro’s sine tones connects the world of Egger’s poem, the performers’ sounds and the environmental sounds of field recordings all together in an intimate manner. In this piece, music and poetry resonate with each other deeply – the music contains the poem, the poem contains the music.
Michael Pisaro seems to pursue an harmonious accordance – not only between performers, but also between all the elements involved in his music; performed sounds, field recordings, silences, and the listener’s inner world. In order to achieve this goal, Pisaro listens to the immanent voices of environment and silences carefully as well as the performer’s sounds, intertwining them as if they are co-performing in harmony. This approach of his gives a poetic, warm temperature to the way the performer and the environment relate with each other, changing the way the listener hears silences and environmental sounds. Pisaro expands the possibilities of the closer relationship between performers and environment by going a step further from Werder’s theme – assimilation of performers into environment – toward a deeper resonance between human, poetry and the music in the natural environment.
Wandelweiser – new dimensions of experiencing music
In a quiet room, even without playing music, sometimes I hear music or harmonies in the complex layers of environmental sounds with various tones and frequencies – the low, quiet continuous noises coming from the heating system, the almost inaudible sounds of water quietly running through the pipe over the ceiling, or the muffled sounds of an airplane coming from a far distance. It was a revolutionary change (or evolution) that happened to me after I started to listen to Wandelweiser music – a new way of hearing the world was activated.
For example, a few hours after I finished listening to Jürg Frey’s 320 minute long piece Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit, I heard a quiet, low muffled sound of a car passing by somewhere far in the middle of the quiet night. It was a similar tone to the low frequencies of the Jürg Frey piece. Meanwhile, the Frey piece I had been listening to for 320 minutes had subconsciously taken deep root in my memory, too. And in the moment when my memory of the music and the wavelength of the sounds of a car overlapped, the sounds of a car began to be heard as music in my brain.
In a normal situation of listening to music, a listener is required to listen to only the performed sounds as precisely as possible, and is not supposed to listen to other sounds besides the performance. Of course there are some other factors that may affect the listener’s experience of the music in such a normal situation, like his/her memory of some other music or some sounds he/she has heard in the past may affect the way he/she listens now. But in a normal situation, those factors are rather incidental factors for a listener, which were not expected to be a part of the music from the beginning when it was composed. However, if the music is composed and performed with not only the actual performed sounds but also keeping in mind the other factors – environmental sounds, silences and the sounds in the listener’s inner world, the potential of the music that human beings can experience becomes unlimited.
Antoine Beuger shows that all the elements involved in a performance (performers, audience, silences, environmental sounds) can become equal components of the music, sharing the same time and space instead of facing each other. Jürg Frey shows that there is a mystic gray area between sound and silence, where both elements overlap to create translucent music that can be the entrance to one’s inner world. Radu Malfatti shows that performers can convey the purity of sounds to the listener by restraining his/her personal ego, and by creating a vivid contrast with silences. Manfred Werder shows that we can find the beauty of intact music in our natural environment, hearing the music genuinely composed with incidental elements without the performer’s intrusion. Michael Pisaro shows that performers, environment, silences and poetry can all resonate with each other like perfectly attuned co-performers, bringing human warmth and depth in their fusion via personalization of nature and environment. These five composers combine to show us many new dimensions of experiencing music with various groundbreaking approaches, by presenting new areas where sound and silence from the outer world and the inner world echo with each other.■
Many thanks to Jon Abbey for proofreading and encouragement, Michael Pisaro for fact checking, Mark Flaum for motivation.
Discography (records mentioned)
|Antoine Beuger||Composition Year||Release Year/Label|
|un lieu pour être deux||2007||CD: 2011 Copy For Your Records|
|calme étendue (for double bass)||1997|
|keine fernen mehr||2010||2CD: 2010 Edition Wandelweiser|
|calme étendue (spinoza)||1997||CD: 2001 Edition Wandelweiser|
|Klaviermusik (1978-2001)||1978-2001||CD: 2002 Edition Wandelweiser|
|Nono / Frey
– ohne titel (two violinen)
|1995-1996||CD: 2001 Edition Wandelweiser|
– Klavierstück 2
– Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes pour piano (24-35)
|CD: 2012 Irritable Hedgehog|
– Streichquartett II
|1998-2000||CD: 2006 Edition Wandelweiser|
|Weites Land, Tiefe Zeit: Räume 1-8||2001-2002||8CDR: 2010 b-boim|
|Hoffinger Nonett||2006||CD: 2007 b-boim|
|Claude Lorrain 1||2007||CD: 2008 b-boim|
|Radu Malfatti / Keith Rowe – Φ
|2010||CD: 2011 Erstwhile Records|
|darenootodesuka||2011||CD: 2012 b-boim|
|Radu Malfatti / Taku Unami||2011||CD: 2012 ErstLive 012|
|stück 1998||1997-||CD: 2010 Skiti (624-626 pages)|
|ein(e) ausführende(r) seiten 1-4000||1999-||CD: 2006 Edition Wandelweiser (218–226 pages)|
|2005¹||2005||8CDR: 2012 Winds Measure Recordings|
|Harmony Series 11-16||2004-2005||CD: 2007 Edition Wandelweiser|
|Transparent City (Volumes 1-2)||2004-2006||2CD: 2007 Edition Wandelweiser|
|Transparent City (Volumes 3-4)||2004-2006||2CD: 2007 Edition Wandelweiser|
|ricefall (2)||2007||CD: 2010 Gravity Wave|
|July Mountain||2009||3-inch CD: 2010 engraved glass
CD: 2010 Gravity Wave
|asleep, street, pipes, tones||2009||CD: 2011 Gravity Wave|
|The Middle of Life (Die ganze Zeit)||2012||CD: 2013 Gravity Wave|
Antoine Beuger (flute), Jürg Frey (clarinet), Marcus Kaiser (cello), Radu Malfatti (trombone) at The Station in Neufelden, Austria, 2/13/2009 (Photo by Joachim Eckl)
Dominic Lash (double bass) performing Antoine Beuger’s ‘calme étendue’ at St. Mark’s Church in New York, 8/12/2010 (Photo by Yuko Zama)
Radu Malfatti and Taku Unami duo improvisation at AMPLIFY 2011: stones in New York, 9/11/2011 (Photo by Yuko Zama)
Manfred Werder’s score to ‘stück 1998’ at Artefact Festival 2010 in Leuven, Belgium (Photo by Marc Wathieu)
Radu Malfatti, Jürg Frey, Michael Pisaro at KUNSTRAUM Düsseldorf (Photo by Chiyoko Szlavnics)
About the author
Yuko Zama is a music writer, photographer, translator, designer for Erstwhile Records and Gravity Wave.