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The ErstWand Series

Composition of Time, Absence of Place
Author
Marc Medwin
Issue 3
February 2015






Introduction

In the fall of 2014, Erstwhile Records celebrated fifteen years of existence. The road from VHF’s Extracts and Haunted House’s Up in Flames, the label’s inaugural releases, is long and circuitous, with the only constants being first-rate recorded sound and adventurous music whose structure and trajectory defy facile categorization. Despite these vast differences among recordings and a gradual but marked change, starting around 2007, from completely improvised toward structures with some basis in composition, the idea of unity seems to be one to which Erstwhile frontman Jon Abbey returns with some frequency. He makes the obvious differentiations between his main catalog and sublabels such as ErstLive, ErstPop, ErstAEU and ErstSolo, but, less formally, he envisions various subseries within his main catalog. One of these has been emerging almost since the label’s inception, slowly at first, with the minute first-drop inexorability of a tidal wave. When dach was released in 2001, it would have been impossible to foresee the fruitful cross-pollination of Erstwhile and Wandelweiser artists that would begin in full force in 2009 and continue unabated. These collaborations entail their own kind of negotiation of unity and diversity which I hope to elucidate here.

Obviously, such a broad analysis will rely heavily on subjective comparisons. What follows is, at its heart, a record of the way I listen to this music and the way my approach and understanding of the music and contexts have evolved with deeper immersion. Consider it a large think piece, or series of meditations on a basic theme, but one in which I have attempted to involve, as far as possible and where appropriate, external influence as support, from those who made the music possible and their considerations about it. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who gave freely and generously of their time, engaging me and my questions with wisdom, grace and loads of good humor. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are taken from my correspondences with the artists in question.

It probably needn’t be said that any overarching generalizations I make can and will be refuted by those with equally strong opinions and deep experience concerning how this music functions and how each release relates to the others. That said, I believe, concerning these recorded documents uniting the Erstwhile and Wandelweiser labels, that the tension between two broad but tangible aesthetics is in play. This dialectic has taken many forms in the critical work of an increasing number of writers. It is tempting. Just as one example, to posit that the diverse distribution of sound and silence is at the center of the two labels’ joint aesthetics, and that would certainly be true, as would various formulations about improvisation and composition, or intention verses synchronicity; these divergent constructs will certainly play a part in what follows. However, there seems to be a more fundamental unifier, and that involves time, or perhaps it’s better to speak of temporal perception. I do not simply mean the strictly chronological time an event takes to occur or from the moment play is pressed until the disc stops. I am seeking to elucidate my own experience of temporal perception as a function of memory as dialectically viewed through a series of temporal interruptions and elongations; more on that presently. I am also, in this particular case, eschewing academic theories about time and music, as those I’ve read rely so heavily on “Classical” musical conventions as assumed that the music under discussion here would be poorly served. I have chosen to use literature as my point of reference, in part because it inspired many of the composers and in part because it inspired me to listen with the requisite attention for commensurate detail.

Wandelweiser, Erstwhile and the Compositional Dichotomy of Time

In the tenth book of his Confessions, St. Augustine sets down a fascinating record of human experiences as points of recall, musing on time, memory and how they are observed and assimilated by the human mind. Before he sets off on this voyage of proto-Proustian self-discovery, he describes, in calm but ecstatic language, a place where chronological time and its ravages do not exist but where all senses and their attendant perceptions are unified:

“But what is it that I love in loving thee? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light–so pleasant to our eyes–nor the sweet melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical love–it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who is the light and sound and fragrance and food and embracement of my inner man–where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does not snatch away the lovely sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet fragrance, where no eating diminishes the food there provided, and where there is an embrace that no satiety comes to sunder.” [1]


Similar in scope and intent, if obviously stemming from a different set of spiritual parameters, come the words of Inayat Khan in the preface to The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word:

“The Life Absolute from which has sprung all that is felt, seen, and perceived, and into which all again merges in time, is a silent, motionless and eternal life which among the Sufis is called Zat. Every motion that springs forth from this silent life is a vibration and a creator of vibrations. Within one vibration are created many vibrations; as motion causes motion so the silent life becomes active in a certain part, and creates every moment more and more activity, losing thereby the peace of the original silent life.” [2]


Both writers evoke a place of stillness, or slowing of perception, as a source of unity, not only of the various sensory perceptions described but as a place where time and its passing ceases to be of any significance. This phenomenon is described, with uncanny similarity, by Wandelweiser composer Michael Pisaro in a 1998 essay, “Time’s Underground,” as follows:

“Music traces the border between sound and silence. It erases and redraws the boundary with a fine line, or, erects a wall which is soon knocked down – thus determining the breadth of the expanse by building obstructions. We measure distance by limiting it; we grow by pushing this limit as far as we can imagine… The consciousness of this way of sensing would have to come not from a single location, but from the corners of the world. The expanse and the boundary exist everywhere, not limited to one culture or geographical location. The sky, the ocean, the desert, the prairie, the coastline or the mountains: the concept of the incommensurate, of unreachable places, of unmeasurable distances, is a part of everyday life on every continent. This sensitivity, which can be easily experienced by the eyes, is also something which can be taken in by the ears.” [3]


The fact that Pisaro acknowledges the dominant role of the eye in perceiving such disparate unity speaks to the unfortunately subordinate role of the ear, but, perhaps in response to the visual world’s encroachment, Pisaro’s may also be a much more prescriptive view of the unity Augustine and Khan only depict with more meditative passivity. For all three thinkers, borders are to be transcended, and ultimately, time and space are similar and similarly transient, notions that open-eared and inclusive listening gently eradicate.

The stopping of time to take stock of detail, to illuminate detail through approaching staticity of the senses, seems to be integral to the notion of “changing wisdom” or “wisdom through change” as implied by the German word Wandelweiser and to describe much of the music released on the group’s imprint since 1996. When there is activity, it is found in the highlighting of detail as sounds appear or, more often and more integral to the Wandelweiser aesthetic, disappear after elongation, wending their way toward the unity and no-time of silence that never quite arrives.

By contrast, much of the music on Erstwhile packs considerably more sound into each event and interstice. Even from its earliest releases, and even in those cases where near-silence plays a pivotal role, sounds tend to be briefer and more frequent. Yet, as the catalog numbers rise, there is often a tendency toward sparseness, due in part to Jon Abbey’s interest in the Japanese scene—Taku Sugimoto, Taku Unami and Toshiya Tsunoda among them—and to Keith Rowe’s many label contributions. The overall effect is somehow cinematic, each release an aural narrative in which, using a syntax that Rowe was integral in developing, briefer sonic bursts serve as interrupters to longer and more sustained timbres. The landmark Duos for Doris exemplifies, as far as possible, an emergent Erstwhile aesthetic, with its three long forms peppered liberally with quick swells and fades from Rowe as well as the vast array of sound from John Tilbury’s multivalent pianism. Any sense of temporal staticity, and it is certainly a factor, is continually offset, and often thwarted, by a transparent but ever-present sense of one sound passing into the next. Abbey maintains that it was AMM that opened his ears to the malleability of temporal perception in improvised music, and that artists such as Taku Sugimoto, Sachiko M and Taku Unami deepened his immersion in those ideas. To Abbey, it seemed likely and natural, especially given his work with Radu Malfatti, that an interest in Wandelweiser music would emerge over the eight years from dach to imaoto’s release, and that Wandelweiser music would play an increasingly important part in his label’s output.

The give and take between Erstwhile and Wandelweiser artists ensures that time, and the tensions that propel and impede our perceptions of its passing when hearing these collaborations, is explored via a multitude of environments and recording situations. There are concert recordings with minimal or no editing, such as dach and the ninth and twelfth in the ErstLive series, where time is presented in an untouched cross-section; there are studio recordings of improvised music, including imaoto and the third disc of Φ, as well as three of the four compositions on Φ’s first two discs, where time is presented as it would be perceived in a concert setting. Each of these, while being fairly straight-forward representations of chronological time, involve the push and pull of interruption and elongation that make perceived time and chronological time diverge. 2 Seconds and the first disc of the Jürg Frey/Radu Malfatti collaboration involve overdubbed, or superimposed, compositions still being presented in real time, whereas the second disc of II, this place / is love, crosshatches and detour all work cinematically, offering the listener views of disassembled time, where, to varying degrees, the push and pull of multifarious elements is meant to create a temporal or proportional disunity. Sometimes, reference to chronological time is made by objects moving in what sounds like real time, such as wind, doors, cars or water, at other times by sounds that resemble a pulse, or a clock, or both. These sonic signifiers, often but not exclusively contributed by the Erstwhile artists, are always in tension with the slow illuminations, resonances and decays of Wandelweiserian sound. Think of a movie in which the ultimate ball of the game is in the air; time stops, the images slow, and the sound of the crowd and whatever dialogue comes along with it is suddenly replaced by that distant ethereal music that a slow-motion scene often brings. In a few moments, normal life resumes its speed and activity. This is a simplistic explanation of the tension I believe to be a primary point of interest in what Abbey calls the ErstWand series, keeping the music in varying shades of semi-static flux and rewarding repeated listening with seemingly infinite amounts of detail in context.

dach


dach proved to be a turning point along Erstwhile’s trajectory. It isn’t that any of the ingredients were new to the label. Electroacoustic timbres, radical employment of silence, the environment as sonic object—all had been integral to whatever might be described as an Erstwhile aesthetic from the semi-silences and long tones of the label’s first release, VHF’s Extracts. However, dach is unique in the way these elements are presented and in the way they might be interpreted. It is as if the musicians are providing commentary on the environmental sounds occurring at the 1999 concert. In doing this, the trio of musicians draws listener consciousness toward what might otherwise be construed as “natural” daily events of little consequence.

On a fundamental level, viewing dach in this light allies it with the Wandelweiser aesthetic. Its raison d’etre is ostensibly a concert recording, but, at its core, the spontaneous capturing of a natural phenomenon sets it apart from any previous Erstwhile release. As Radu Malfatti, Thomas Lehn and Phil Durrant perform, we are privy, as a kind of subtext, to the ending of a rainstorm, some subsequent thunder and the gradual resultant adjustments of the concert venue’s roof to the post-storm sun. Even this brief verbal précis does not do justice to what is actually caught by the microphones. As with Michael Pisaro’s Transparent City series, the environment becomes an integral component of the action, commentary, intentional or not, being provided first by Thomas Lehn. During the spate of rain opening “Part 1,” his analogue synthesizer provides electro-droplets beginning at 0:48, and, again presaging Pisaro’s sinewaves and the field recordings of Jürg Frey, Phil Durrant’s violin complements pitches heard as the rain hits the venue’s plastic roof. The building occasionally seems to respond to the music making, as at 7:34, when it echoes Lehn’s thunderous beats in a nearly exact rhythmic copy. By the similarly loud roof adjustment at 8:11, it seems as if the musicians are engaging in the whimsical dialogue, given Durrant’s woody thwacks and the pithy pops Malfatti lets loose, eschewing for the moment his usually breathy exhortations. As rain gives way, slowly and naturally, to the ambience of the room, the open atmosphere serves as a conduit, giving reverberant prominence to the thunder clap that occurs at 9:36 and resounds with portentous authority.

The first part is, obviously, a blueprint for what is to come as the concert progresses, but in the same way, dach exemplifies the collaborations between what I’ll label the Erstwhile aesthetic and the Wandelweiser aesthetic. The concert is neither more nor less than a slice of time presented as is, comprising both elongation and interruption. The sustained timbres of rain and room are punctuated, first by imitation and contrast from the players and then, with a kind of irony, by the building itself as it reacts to the changing physicalities of the environment. In albums to come, the interruption/elongation dialectic would often be encumbered by layers of meaning, subversionary and otherwise, but, illuminated by the light of retrospection, dach presents the leitmotifs that give the ErstWand series shape and substance.

ErstLive 012


Balancing dach’s equation, the other side of the proverbial coin, is the 2011 set by Radu Malfatti and Taku Unami, from the AMPLIFY: stones festival held at the Stone in New York. In many ways, this is the yang to dach’s yin; they share certain fundamental traits, such as capturing unintended environmental interruptions, as well as both being live concert recordings and having been released, basically unedited, as the large chunks of time they actually comprise. Otherwise, the two audio experiences constitute polar opposites. While the audience in dach is basically silent, at either end of 012, it proves integral to the recording. We’re plunged headlong into it; there is no fade-in, just the sudden switch from silence to real-life activity when play is pressed. The first two minutes resound with conversation, one ironically about studio and live recording, but instead of the wide ambiance of the Ulrichsburg performance that birthed dach, the soundstage is fairly narrow, the conversationalists mainly occupying its left half. A door, so much a sonic signifier in this place / is love’s construction, gives the sense of an environment in flux, almost in dialogue with itself.

At 2:06, an electric fan is audibly turned off, and whatever non-audible cues are given in the room, it is clear from the audience’s sudden silence that the performance has begun, and yet, unlike dach, where the soundstage presents the room in panorama, the ensuing silence brings a much more vague sense of size and perspective. The dialogue begun with a closing door before the music proper even started takes over as internal and external circumstances blur and change prominence. Almost immediately, beginning at 2:35, motors, sirens, the chatter of people passing by, constantly superimpose themselves on the performance, becoming a troop of unwitting lower Manhattan characters in the sound drama that provides, at least superficially, much of the aural intrigue of the succeeding fifty minutes. By contrast, the performance proper takes on the serenity of a rite, or a ritual, something out of an ancient theatrical tradition. Objects change places and states, mostly in slow dance; sinewy threads are woven and interwoven in sibilant susurration, occasional feet move in unhurried perambulation, and the effect seems to be of something slowly taking elemental shape before spectators whose involvement has become palpable enough to include them in the cast. The slowly melting scene unfolds to the soundtrack of a few plucked notes, presumably from Unami, and a tranquil universe of utterances from Malfatti’s trombone.

Unlike dach, the elements in dialogue seem to present two simultaneous views of chronological time, two takes on the passage of the roughly fifty minutes of the performance. There is the relatively slow but dynamic world of ritual or rite, the softly ancient ritual of constructing something archetypal from what sounds like rope, wood and wire, with attendant mistakes such as the occasional but cataclysmic falling object and the accompanying musical soundtrack. Then, there is the very modern outside world, one in a more rapid flux, made of street slang, car horns and radio music. The sense is not of crowding but of “modern” time passing as viewed from a sedately safe vantagepoint. It would be an overgeneralization, but appropriate, to assign the actual performance Wandelweiser characteristics while the interrupters from the outside world evoke Erstwhile’s more cinematic soundscape.

ErstLive 009


The two ErstLive documents in the ErstWand subseries are studies in subtlety and, as is always the case for Erstwhile, stunning feats of recording prowess. “S’approcher s’éloigner s’absenter,” composed by Antoine Beuger, is the piece in the ErstWand series whose title and concept deals most directly with chronological time and its attendant network of memories and implications. The title, which might be translated as “To approach, to recede, to evanesce,” places the action in a zone that implies both stasis and motion, certainly one hallmark of a Wandelweiser composition. The score was composed especially for the 2011 AMPLIFY: stones festival, and for the players involved, and dedicated to Jon Abbey. As Brian Olewnick explains in his informative review of the CD, Barry Chabala, Dominic Lash and Ben Owen are instructed by grid.

“The spaces contain either “S”, “D” or are blank. Beuger codes “S” as “a sound similar to a sound you are hearing/you heard (or played) before” and “D” as “a sound different from a sound you are hearing/you heard (or played) before”. Sounds should be both “very quiet” and “not really short to very long”. Players may enter freely and the number and sequence of score pages is up to the ensemble.”

Strictly speaking, chronological time is a subtext of this piece, providing the glue that holds it together without directly influencing the sonorities in play. Olewnick goes on to observe that the way that some individual sounds are created in this performance might seem irreverent compared to how Wandelweiser music is often treated. Certainly, the buzz and thrum of Chabala’s guitar amp, not to mention his very broad sonic pallet, up the anti as far as volume and grit are concerned. Owen’s electronics behave similarly but in terms of frequency, pushing the limits as so often happens on a release like Contact, or the challenging Good Morning, Good Night. Yet, as Yuko Zama demonstrates in an earlier issue of surround, all sounds can fit into the environment of a Beuger composition, and that openness to circumstance is a key factor in his compositional approach.

If chronological time and its passing have a presence beyond the long and short notes, it is in the sonic signifier of turning pages that provides a constant backdrop throughout the performance. Against it, each sound unfolds as interruption or elongation, analogous to the way various sounds interact with the door in this place / is love. They are readily audible, as they inhabit the outer regions of the soundstage. This recording provides what might be considered as a wide-screen view similar to dach.

A particularly poignant example of the tension between the metaphor of page-turning as chronological time and the elongation that stops time in its tracks begins at 19:01, where the sound of paper is particularly noticeable. At 19:19, Chabala and Lash begin a series of long and longer sounds, a gorgeously poignant fifth that dominates the narrative, replete with overtones and with numerous swells and fades as it proceeds. I’m reminded of the monk who, wanting to experience Heaven, was given the gift of temporal transcendence by listening to the song of a bird, during which time 300 years passed. Only the quietest of page-turns, at 2:53, interrupts the ensuing silence and breaks the spell cast by the room ambience. This three minute excerpt combines, in the subtlest way imaginable, Erstwhile’s cinematic approach with Wandelweiser’s temporal poise.

imaoto


In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis writes: “Time is not a field to be measured in rods, or a sea to be measured in miles; it is a heartbeat.” [4] That quotation encapsulates perfectly the soundworlds conjured by Radu Malfatti and Klaus Filip on their improvisational collaboration, imaoto. It is a heartbeat, or something low and percussive resembling it, that imbues the music’s opening minutes. Presumably sounds made by Filip from his sinewave generators, the left channel pounds and pulses with it, until suddenly, around fifty seconds into the first of the two long pieces, they stop. This slow pulse portends a fascinating temporal flow involving arches of increase and decrease in activity; compared to the brief spikes in timbre on ErstLive 012, or on the Malfatti/Frey collaboration, the soundstage houses scenes of slowly evolving drama that, at certain key moments, unfolds in slightly quickening dialogue, only to return, with equal decrease, to their former state. These temporal shifts are the building blocks of the album’s form.

The first major change seems to begin at 15:45. From the pulse’s cessation until that point, in Wandelweiser fashion, the music is soft-edged, replete with near silences, almost an updated homage to a Debussy score in its quietly rhapsodic gestalt. Without warning, instead of the usual fades in and out, Filip emits a beep. Then, he emits another, and another, and gradually, a pattern akin to the beginning pulse emerges, moving from channel to channel, raising the music’s temperature. Malfatti’s low tones and breathing become somewhat quicker, one pitch following another in more rapid succession. Of course, the temporal shifts here cannot even begin to be compared to the hell-for-leather transitions and juxtapositions in a composed environment such as ErikM and Dieb13’s Chaos Club, but relatively speaking, time seems to pass more quickly and to be filled more completely with sound as elongations are transformed into temporal interruptions. The beeped pulses become more rapid from 17:30 on, and even given the silence at 17:50, something has changed in the way the piece is moving. Malfatti’s exhalations begin to mirror the urgent and harsh cries of stormbirds, and Filip’s sinewaves almost chime in the upper register as they change harmonics from moment to moment. It isn’t until 20:01 that the music begins to slow down again, returning to the softer focus in which its earlier phases were created.

The album proceeds along the lines of these unpredictable but slowly evolving formal waves. Another can be heard at the beginning of the second track “ima,” where Malfatti’s exhalations, glassy and stormy by turn, are complemented by an almost blinding high-frequency wave of sonics from Filip that lasts for nearly the first three and a half minutes and ends with a slow trill. There are moments where Malfatti sacrifices long-form sounds altogether in favor of percussives and, prefiguring his work on Φ, flicking the bell of his trombone. Obviously, given the absolutely stunning recording made by Christoph Amann, each moment can stretch into an hour if the listener chooses to focus on the wealth of sonic detail. However, as each performer’s style becomes familiar, the larger form of plains and waves takes shape over the album’s fifty minutes as temporal concerns help to blur the always wavy line between improvisation and composition.

Φ


If there is a middle ground between unedited concert evenings and the temporally skewed and layered studio creations that comprise much of the rest of the ErstWand subseries, it is Φ, the mammoth and wildly diverse three-disc set that marks the first collaboration between Keith Rowe and Radu Malfatti. Malfatti’s unique voice graces more of the series than does any other, but Φ is Rowe’s only contribution, though if Erstwhile can boast a cornerstone artist, it is most certainly Rowe. Beyond his many contributions to the label, it is he, as a founding member of the pioneering 1960s group AMM, who brought time, its passage and the illusory way it may be perceived to the forefront of the improvising artist’s consciousness.

Of Φ’s three discs, the third is closest to the worlds conjured by dach, imaoto and the two Erstlive concerts. Essentially, it may be viewed as an improvisation, recorded in real time and with only minor edits; while Rowe and Malfatti have both expressed some dissatisfaction with the terms “improvisation” and “composition”—see their ErstWords interview for further information on this topic—it seems the best way to differentiate this part of the album from the more tightly composed sections forming the first two discs. Here again, there is a sense of something being constructed, or deconstructed, before our ears, a feel and aesthetic very similar to that on the Malfatti/Unami concert, and again, Malfatti is providing what seems almost to be a meditative musical score to Rowe’s various assemblages. Yet, the improvised meeting does not produce a struggle of internal and external forces, as happens in the Stone performance, and both musicians clearly value silence, which unifies their purposes to a degree. The opposing forces that impede perceived temporal progress involve varying speed, the tranquil breathiness of Malfatti’s trombone in direct contrast with Rowe’s much more frenetic timbral switches. No matter how odd it seems to apply that descriptor to Rowe’s soundscape, once adjusted to its often near-silent presentation, there is quite a lot going on, especially when compared to the vast vistas of silence between Malfatti’s breezy interjections, even with a few clangs and rattles in this particular session. There are points of meeting, places in which the two engage in gestures that traverse similar sonic terrain. Concurrent sliding gestures at 32:56, where metal and air form a momentary symphony of the elements, are followed almost immediately by a similarly synchronous melding of air and what might be the dragging of a pencil across paper. As is quite often his wont, Rowe draws what might be pictorial representations of the narrative in progress; as in Making A, he spins the narrative in two dimensions while consciously remaining detached from it, in a sense providing a soundtrack similarly to Malfatti. He plays the surrounding silence while Rowe draws it, and both draw attention to the passing time as it speeds and slows with their spontaneous invention. Most fascinating of all where the passage of time is concerned, someone—probably Malfatti—offers a rhythmic ticking at strategic points throughout the roughly fifty-three minute disc, something that sounds remarkably like a clock, or an antique watch, an unwitting but poignant anticipation of temporal perception as played out later in this place / is love.

The first two discs of Φ consist of composed material, and they constitute a fascinating study in temporal perception as exemplified by the recording process. All of the four pieces were recorded in real time except for Jürg Frey’s “Exact Dimension Without Insistence.” The difference is subtle but palpable. In the Frey, the difference between digital silence and ambient silence is audible, and it impacts on a very fundamental listening level, almost felt rather than heard. In real-time recording, especially in a performance situation, there is always a sense of the room and its space, no matter how minimal, and, subsequently, a sense of time moving forward as minute activities occur in that space. This is not the case in Frey’s piece, where elements were patched together from various takes, but, for whatever reason, all sense of atmosphere was removed, possibly to aid the listener in concentration on the actual musical elements. The result is that each of Radu Malfatti’s trombone tones and Rowe’s single-note guitar contributions hang in an atmosphere of suspended time, giving each tone and its inflection added prominence. The fact that each of the musical phrases is exactly the same, not just in proportion but in every detail, also provides an atmosphere of eternal recurrence; as a document, it is very similar to this place / is love’s final section, which is comprised of exact repetitions of a musical phrase to similar effect.

2 seconds/b minor/wave


There is no question regarding chronological time’s governance of Michael Pisaro and Taku Sugimoto’s 2 seconds/b minor/wave, as the first piece’s title makes plain, but their simultaneous subversion and negation of it is intriguing and ultimately satisfying. If time and space are indeed interconnected and even inseparable, subversion becomes the means to that end where this collaboration is concerned. It is not necessary to reiterate the collaborative compositional process in any detail. These three pieces were composed simultaneously but independently, only the parameters of pulse, pitch and wave having been agreed upon by the two composers.

2 seconds has, at its core, that particular time interval, and in a review on the Tiny Mix Tapes website, Matthew Horne observes what he calls a synchronicity between the many metronome sounds and the electronic rhythms. I hear it quite differently; as the piece progresses—toward the twenty-minute and 2 second mark, just like the two others—the beats converge and diverge, actually making any forward temporal flow complex or even meaningless while the tones themselves further a sense of stasis. The recordings provide another layer of temporal contrast; the electronic tones are recorded as if in a vacuum, surrounded by digital silence, crystalline and perfectly distortionless, sounding just as the Frey piece did on Φ. The metronomes, as well as other household appliances, are very obviously meant to evoke a sense of occurring in time, having been recorded as time passed in various locations of someone’s living quarters. There is a rough-hewn quality to that component of the piece, as might be heard in Graham Lambkin’s domesticities, and the contrast further impedes a sense of temporal progress. The disparity also prefigures the plethora of techniques that predominate in crosshatches, which will be examined presently.

The same sort of environmental and temporal subversion informs “Wave.” Even the sounds of actual waves, coming out of the left channel, are disembodied, disconnected from each other and taken out of their context in time as their stereo limitation separates them from a natural sense of space. The silences between the waves are of the digital variety, each rising from the temporal suspension of near silence or from the similarly static place created by a series of electronic tones. The fullest sonic experience of a wave occurs in the melding of those electronic sounds as they move centerstage, filling the listening space with an almost three-dimensional purity that provides the piece’s only steadily evolving motion. As the last chord of “B-Minor” is actually major, and as the guitar notes in that piece are elongated by similarly generated tones, the electronic sound promotes any sense of temporal flow “Wave” has, relegating the “real” waves to repetitious subservience but capping a disc of sonic richness and power.

II


Chronological time is also skewed, but in even more complex ways, on Jürg Frey and Radu Malfatti’s double CD II, bringing a traditional form up to date in the process. The two long pieces are connected by their use of canon. Frey defines canon as “the same thing, only a little later.” In a very whimsical but deeply refreshings way, this is how a Wandelweiser canon might be imagined, and Frey has written pieces where the traditional notion of canon is only one part of the whole picture. One of these is “instruments, field recordings, counterpoints,” the second disc of II. According to my e-mail correspondence with Frey, the piece is in four sections, alternating between twelve and eighteen minutes; the first and third consist of field recordings with manipulated organ tones added. The second and fourth sections, also containing field recordings, rely on various degrees of canon, both in the field recordings and for clarinet and trombone; the latter are more readily audible, especially at the beginning of each section, but the former illustrates an important part of Frey’s compositional approach. The second and fourth sections offer a more reverberant sound, being recorded inside, and yet the whole recorded series is transposed for its second occurrence, as if environment and tonal center were synonymous. As with detour, time becomes something to be manipulated and obscured on many levels. Unlike detour, there seems to be a fair amount of processing, what Frey calls “little things in the foreground” of the first and third sections; the birds are heavily delayed, just as one example, giving a surreal patina to what would ordinarily sound like a common landscape but is actually heavily constructed, complete with a flat river as the background environment. Canons involving time, place and sound have come to be prevalent in Frey’s work, and this recent disc is only one manifestation of this technique.

“shoguu,” the piece filling Frey’s and Malfatti’s first disc, works in a similar fashion, but the circumstances were much more spontaneous. The Malfatti score involves a duo, or a series of duos, playing long notes together in a relaxed fashion or brief notes, with instructions to make them sound almost accidental but precise. Malfatti relates that the duo’s original intention for this realization of his composition was to make a sort of canon by overdubbing, and the results were less than satisfactory. They tried a different approach but can’t remember the actual procedure they followed. The result has canonic elements but is certainly far from strict. A side effect of the various canon types on these two discs invokes a panoramic view of Western music history. The harmonies the two scores entail can conjure the open spaces of medieval architecture and its associated music, in parallel with the spaces captured by Frey’s field recordings, but also romantic and more “modern” dissonances can occur without warning or resolution. Like the piano music of Peter Streiff, Malfatti and Frey craft scores where technique and device are never in the forefront but are at the service of invention and innovation. Like detour, this is gentle music befitting much of the Wandelweiser catalog, but below the surface, the historical and temporal implications are far-reaching as the music inhabits the place where tension and freedom converge.

crosshatches


If, as Michael Pisaro philosophizes, time and space are related at some ineffable core, then crosshatches is a manifestation of that relationship. An extension of Pisaro’s multileveled work on “wave” and of Toshiya Tsunoda’s long-practiced scientific investigations into the capturing and generation of sound, it broke new ground for the two composers in the realm of compositional dialogue.

“We were trying to figure out a way to make a recorded document in which we could respond to each other without doing so directly, the way you would in an improvisation,” says Pisaro. To say that time, chronological and otherwise, was integral to the creation of crosshatches is an understatement. The initial score involved blocks of sound deployed over the duration of an hour, but a second version was extended to two hours; neither was to be the case. Initially, the piece was to include no field recordings, only generated sounds, and then, at a certain point, the idea was raised that the sounds each artist had generated would be played back in various environments and recorded, Lucier fashion, which introduced the idea of field recordings into the equation. There followed four or five months of back and forth in which something of an improvisational nature entered the process. The two artists describe sending recordings back and forth while each introduced, and often processed, elements that had nothing to do with either of the two blueprint scores but which made sonic sense. Major editing was done, until the process became so complex that there are certain points at which both men have forgotten who suggested certain modifications and who others, rendering the title more than appropriate in light of Pisaro’s views on time and space.

The final track presents the album in précis. Something like a cross between water and wind is heard, stark and close, directly at the midpoint of the soundstage. The narrowly recorded environment encapsulates temporal staticity, literally and figuratively, despite some internal rhythms of an asynchronous nature just beneath the surface. Yet, somewhere around 2:08, like the phoenix, a steady ticking arises from this watery world of no-time, becoming more prominent until, at 2:55, the water or wind disappears abruptly, and only a single high-frequency tone obscures the quiet entrance of another airflow pervading the soundstage on all sides. The air comes in layers, and the rest of the track involves soft focus swells and fades of air captured in various ways, in different environments, set to an instrumental score of piano, softly plucked guitar, the occasional radio and sinewaves. The piano’s overtones resonate in their space, blending in perfect accord with the sinetones generated from the no-time of digital space. Higher frequency wind fluctuations sit comfortably atop a panoramic view of airily lower frequencies, each sound slowly coming to prominence and receding in a mix that highlights, ironically, the pitched similarities in these natural elements. Nature and technology are one, all of the various soundscapes merge to create a single environment that exists outside of the conventional flow of time, and the quiet fade that ends the disc leads, with slow tranquility, toward the meditation of silence.

detour

“Although I’ve been trying to produce or render a certain music over 20 years now, I feel that I’ve been actually far more produced and rendered by this music and the worlds’ actual sounding. And of course I’ve been under the permanent and chaotic influence of other music, arts and philosophy. So, I couldn’t say I have a concept, it’s more about a certain sensitivity that makes you sense that the actual world operates differently. Things we do actually happen to us as well, maybe even at the first place. In other words, music, or the world can’t be organized.

By now I would say I’m interested in thoughts and sensations regarding our reality that music is capable of generating. Thus, first and foremost, I’m interested in reality.”

—Manfred Werder

 

detour is just that, a document of the various sensations associated with a reality as captured (Werder prefers the word rendered) by two deeply philosophical artists in search of how we understand the impressions registered in each moment and how they are organized.

Like this place / is love, detour is cast in two large sections, composed of radically different sound material. The first seems to be predominated by a typically “romantic” nature scene, replete with birds, wind of different varieties and dotted at either side of the soundstage with moving grass and trees. The second, following a slowly cinematic fade just after the forty-minute mark, is more complex, the sounds of motors contrasting with what might have emanated from very different kinds of animal life. Yet, there is much more to this sixty-five minute soundpainting. At its very beginning, there is the ambience of an empty building or deserted cityscape, and I’m certain I hear footfalls on concrete or marble in the first twenty seconds. These details may only emerge on repeated listening, so that the first tiny splash of water at 0:24, which acts almost like a leitmotif, makes perfect sense if the narrative is perceived as a natural one but is disconcerting if the preceding cityscape is taken into account. The water acts as an interrupter, as do various birds, counteracting the elongated sounds of wind, water and motor, constant and stark reminders of each soundscape’s complexity.

This is the stunning and provocative, even quietly confrontational, world that detour evokes. In his only accompanying notes, Tsunoda writes: “by recording various layers such as our directions of eyes, our thoughts, our orientation toward the place.” Both Jason Bivins and Brian Olewnick are right to observe the seemingly ordinary nature of what is heard on first listening and the heightened sense of detail that rewards deeper immersion, but there is another piece to the puzzle. In its own way, detour seems to be as much a series of fragments, a cinematic series of temporal and spatial juxtapositions, as is crosshatches, though the transitions seem purposely obscured. Even beyond this secret cinematography, obviously the Erstwhile component of the document, sounds that we associate with each space, or environment, are presented in shifting perspectives as we follow the eye, as Tsunoda describes. Is that a falling branch at 0:52, heard in brilliant and up-close clarity while we are still being treated to a more panoramic oral view of wind and trees? Is that the cityscape still glowering underneath? Is that an insect at mealtime in the right channel at 40:52 and after as the cars and trucks of another cityscape roll by?

The music here provokes questions of exactly what reality is and how its levels function, how it is perceived as sound of all sorts pervades listener consciousness. Werder and Tsunoda construct a superficially “real” time and space where conventional notions of perspective are questioned and ultimately rendered meaningless. The climax of cityscape and a barrage of crickets that ends the disc disappears with the suddenness of a dream, leaving only whatever sonic reality the listener is in at that moment. It isn’t that reality becomes musical; rather, reality breaks into the fragments that constantly form and reform it, music being only one of its manifestations.

this place / is love


“I don’t suppose anyone ever deliberately listens to a watch or a clock; you don’t have to.” [5] The torment is wrenched from Quentin Compson’s conflicted consciousness on the morning of his suicide in William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. Faulkner, a symbol of Joyceian detachment, paring his fingernails, bids him continue: “You can be oblivious to the sound for a long while. Then in a second of ticking it can create in the mind unbroken the long diminishing parade of time you didn’t hear.” [6] It’s that way with a door, as Michael Pisaro and Antoine Beuger know and, through repetition, are certain that we understand. A door opens, something as straight-forward as that, exposing one possibility while ultimately shutting out another, but for that moment of ingress and egress, worlds merge and collide, innocence and experience change places, ideas emerge and decay, and then, there is an arrival, a coming to terms. Despite the nearly static qualities in the bipartite title and the sense of arrival it implies, Beuger and Pisaro collaborate to craft the narrative realization of that moment of transition to ultimate arrival and of the myriad temporal shifts such a charged instant and its aftermath encapsulates and defines.

Time is only one subtext made plain by the journey, but it emerges with the disc’s first sound, the bell-like tolling of a harpsichord at close range, the instrument’s somehow anachronistic and reiterated timbre drenched in overtone and room ambiance which is then widened and deepened, dwarfing the harpsichord’s inhabitation but not its sonority. A vast room tone, augmented by Pisaro’s sine tones, merges with the tolled chords, but the overall impression is of empty space, save for the door that repeatedly punctuates it and demonstrates its size and acoustic properties. Yet, after a few minutes, it becomes clear that, as with detour, even this environment is only one component of the changing landscape constituting the disc’s first fifty minutes, a single player on an ever-changing soundstage whose backdrop is the cinematic continuum between sound and silence, or time and timelessness. Environments glide in and out of focus in soft fade, set against the tonal/modal backdrop of harpsichord, guitar, and an ever-evolving and intricate latticework of static and moving sinetones that, alone, would constitute an intriguing composition, as was the case with the sinetones inhabiting Pisaro’s Transparent City series. Through it all, Beuger’s overdubbed recitations, evoking Cage’s Empty Words or Roaratorio, bring poetic invocations of nature, beauty, virginity and absence to the fore. Setting becomes a meaningless notion as these changes occur; only their punctuation by varying periods of silence, a few guitar tones or clusters, and Beuger’s poignant recitations. At around 22:29 of the seventy-five minute work, after one of those periods of silence, Beuger half-questions, half-sings: “Is it possible to leave a trace, to leave something meant to be a trace, or is leaving a trace only possible only when one is unconscious of it, when it so happens upon disappearance?”

This is a long-time theme of Beuger’s work, and it has played a large part in one philosophy associated with the Wandelweiser group. Like crosshatches, this place / is love stretches the aesthetic boundaries associated with Wandelweiser toward a kind of cinematic narrative, and yet, there is still the overriding sense of reflection, even of tranquility, which I’ve come to expect from these two composers.

At 47:09, some amp hum presages a single E-flat, presumably from Pisaro’s guitar. It’s a moment whose timbre bespeaks cutting directly from the continuum of life and insertion into the surrounding space, a moment that, on reflection, proves prophetic for the rest of the composition. At 48:50, Beuger continues, as if every sonic landscape and antisound since his last recitation had been a single parenthetical interruption: “And words leave no trace, like a bird in the sky …” For me, his last word moved the music from the realm of fascination to emotion. I have never heard a grown human being invoke the sky with such innocent experience, such a long-abiding sense of wonder, such a naturally definitive and poetically mature affinity, as if addressing a brother, or a child. Composers spend lifetimes attempting to capture such a moment, and then the room ambience fades, and again, all-enveloping silence.

I have always been terrified of silence. As a blind person, silence is, for me, akin to being thrust, without warning, ceremony or invitation, into the infinite, the wasteland between rationality and possibility, but unable to abide in either, standing on the edge of a precipice whose bottom is beyond both. Even if I’m simply standing, or sitting in a chair, when sonic stimulus disappears, my environment and the certainty it has afforded follows, and I am confronted only by that openness at the edge of the universe, my discomfort growing second by second into a dread that no Cageian aphorisms or stories, no AMM distillations on music and its supposed opposite, no safe and comfortable verbal manifestations of the dialectic, can penetrate.

After the sky’s infinitude has invaded my listening space, after being plunged into that antisonic haze, I’m thrown a lifeline—one guitar tone, again an E-flat, and above it … is that Beuger whistling the fifth, whistling with the simple beauty so effective on Keine Fernen Mehr? It’s gone before I’ve had a chance to register it, but yes, there again, repeated, many times, I’ve not counted them. I’ve lost all track of time in the fear and wonder the vast silences and those two notes in harmony bring. Unlike that earlier E-flat, these are divorced from the environments that spawned them; they hang, fade and are gone. Fear is slowly replaced by … it is not disorientation, it is not simply arrival, though that is a component, it is neither a place of feeling nor its opposite, neither emptiness nor its opposite. It’s as if the silence and I have become a single entity, as if it had always been that way, as if I’d entered the space people associate with meditation through the back door, and finally, Beuger intones, “This place is love, it is the absence of place.”

I remember, at that moment of revelation, thinking of Faulkner, thinking of Jason Compson’s words on giving Quentin a watch:

“I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it, because no battle is ever won, They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”


I remember thinking how wrong he was, that there is a kind of victory even in the disappearance that frightened Compson father and son, that there is the sky, and that the shapes, words and sounds that disappear into its vast expanses do not dissipate but are transformed beyond our narrow perception, if not a victory then certainly an arrival.

Conclusion

Or not exactly, as no real conclusion is forthcoming. How can anything be concluded, when the music is in such a state of glorious flux? Michael Pisaro concludes Time’s Underground by positing perhaps the most provocative non-conclusion of all: “In the silence, the stillness, there is room for anyone. The silence of the listener is the same as the silence of the composer or the performer: here we are on the same plain, experiencing what is most important by saying nothing at all.” this place / is love arrives at such a place. After much speculation and the desire to separate my emotional response from the sounds emanating from my speakers, I still cannot help regarding it as a victorious arrival, one that eclipses the need to count time in seconds, possessions or accomplishments, but Pisaro seems to be referencing a point past which such emotive constructs prove meaningless. Earlier in the same article, he even outlines the trajectory from the superficially mundane experience of sound as “convention” toward the comprehension of transcendence: “After a history walking down narrow streets, cluttered with shops and traffic, music is able to walk in open spaces, to measure itself against the limitless.” The ten releases comprising the ErstWand series to date bear poignant witness to that measurement. They embody both the journey and the arrival in a series of striking studies in the simultaneity that only the most profound music attains. More than that, or probably because of that, they highlight the space where motion moves toward stasis. Through a series of sonic signifiers—planned or accidental, in real time or temporally telescoped, environmental or man-made—they encapsulate resolution of the duality, or dichotomy, that eludes verbiage in favor of listening for the unifying factor, the point of definition where proverbial opposites attract. I have attempted to demonstrate that perceived time, as represented by a series of interruptions and elongations, is the axis on which this music revolves and evolves. More experiential than conventionally analytical, I have simply chosen one path through the myriad possibilities offered by the “opposing” aesthetics of Erstwhile and Wandelweiser as unified in this series. As with all music whose analytical language has not yet been codified, many vastly different interpretive solutions are in the offing. To me, what is certain, which I have left it to those much more eloquent than I to articulate, is that which lies within and behind this music, what I heard in every composer and performer’s voice as they responded to my queries, the search for the interrelated multiplicities that constitute human experience and for the place where equally multivalent inner and outer universes connect. Whether Keith Rowe’s Room or the slowly settling and quckly cracking roof of the long-ago concert that began this series of collaborative explorations, through the archetypal sounds of time and of time passing, recontextualized sounds that most would still recognize on a fundamental level, these recorded documents confront the most ancient questions of existence in the most modern musical syntax. They constitute a nexus, or maybe even a conduit, through which the music, and eventually a language suitable to interpret it, will continue to grow and thrive.■




About the Author

Marc Medwin teaches music history in the Performing Arts Department at American University in Washington D.C. He maintains an active career as musicologist, journalist and performer.


Footnotes

  1. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confessions.toc.html
  2. See http://wahiduddin.net/mv2/II/II_1.htm
  3. Michael Pisaro, “Time’s Underground”
  4. Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1960), p.195
  5. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith, 1929), p.76
  6. ibid. p.76