When confronted with the prospect of putting my thoughts of these recent recordings by a.pe.ri.od.ic of Jürg Frey’s work I was at first hesitant. Though possessing some familiarity with the output of Wandelweiser and a knowledge of the praxis of contemporary composition quickly outpaced by my curiosity towards the same, there was a sense that this terrain was somewhat foreign to me. So it is perhaps the best compliment I can give to say that one need not study the score or understand the precise balance between notation and improvisation for this recording to be enjoyed.
For listeners familiar with Frey’s oeuvre, the selection of recordings on display here may sound, without being too trite, rather busy. While silence can still be found, these works for small ensemble deal more so with how their performances unfold in time. ‘Canones Incerti’ is a slow and minimal canon operating with a variety of intervals and rhythms for each instrument. Though the notation is followed carefully, the repetition and timing of each sequence is left to the musician. Spread across a full 30 minutes, the result is that each individual sequence finds itself in unique auditory surroundings for each iteration. However, with the beginnings and endings of each component constantly shifting and overlapping the surroundings do not carry only harmonic impressions but are also full of temporal symbolism. For instance, the emotional effect of a particular section for bassoon is altered both by the harmonics introduced by other notes and by its compositional function, part incidental and part purposeful, in introducing the intervals of other instruments, or in turn remaining in play while the others cease. The voice which sounded somnolent in the spare middle section of the recording becomes almost desperate when nearly drowned out by the rest of the ensemble a few minutes later. This provides for some fascinating interplay of an otherwise simple concept. As for the performance itself, the indeterminate elements of the piece could benefit from a greater dynamic range; it too often finds the middle ground of amplitude. While technically proficient, the musicianship is not quite refined, instead delivered literally without much expression. Though this may be the intention, and it is actually to the benefit of the last piece (more on which to follow), it detracts somewhat from the elegance of this work.
‘More Or Less Normal’ contains significant sections where each musician plays only a single note between rests (often the same one in succession) with the ensemble playing largely harmonically. Due to the slow layering of notes, the presence of each instrument or voice in its sustain is often lost in the resulting tonal mass. The ears are pricked by the occasional dissonant note, but the listener’s attention inevitably focuses on the attacks and decays of each instrument – an oddly inverse means of highlighting the thousands of tiny beginnings and endings which comprise the piece. While broadly similar in structure to ‘Canon Incerti’, the latter feels like a somewhat arbitrary splice from an endless set of permutations with the given notation, whereas the former has a more cohesive narrative structure. As the dissonance more common in the opening minutes begins to fade, the finality of the piece is laid bare in its gradual slowing of periodicity between notes, until notes barely overlap at all.
The highlight for me is the closing ’60 Pieces Of Sound’. With eerie pacing the ensemble plays 60 sharply delineated bursts of instrumentation, vocals, amplified objects and noise. While continuing with the priority of monads over sequences of notes, the style of play is distinctly different from the previous two recordings. While the technical and improvisational skill of the ensemble across More Or Less is never less than serviceable, it is rather inspired here. The focused bursts of sound prove fruitful ground for a.pe.ri.od.ic, and the moods they conjure are more carefully created than the muddled interplay of musicians on ‘Canones Incerti’. The addition of non-tonal sound is welcome as well, providing interesting timbral contrast to the more classical instrumentation and shortening the distance between sound and music. It further displays good intuition on behalf of the ensemble for a suitable expression of Jürg Frey’s composition.
There are several fascinating elements to this last work. First the stark contrast between the monolithic structure of the sound with its fragile timbres. With so many instruments playing at once after a caesura, the listener expects the returned presence of sound (normally almost a relief) to be forceful and bold. Instead, one hears wavering voices, scratchy violins with periodic overtones (perhaps played collé) and scattered arhythmic objects all contributing to an unsettled and very tenuous musicality. This deconstruction of structural expectations finds its counterpoint in the repetetive delay of melodic expectations.
As each section plays in a particular key (or when dissonant, at least with a particular set of harmonics), the tendency is for the listener to attempt to string them together into a cohesive composition. However, while the rests between sections are too brief to fully decontextualize the sound pieces, they are long and repetitive enough to disorient. Recalling the previous movements becomes increasingly difficult across the work as the monotony of rhythm and timing destroys the listener’s temporal awareness. All the more so as the monotony is not perfect. Sound pieces are generally 10 seconds and rests 16, but both range by a few seconds to either side, emphasizing the relative or notational metre over the temporal. Each sound piece briefly dominates the memory, colouring the ensuing recorded silence like the shadows in bas-relief. The collection of informed silences is as much its own composition as the 60 pieces of sound themselves and inevitably proves the cognitively active for the listener.
A recommended set of recordings somewhat distinct from most of Frey’s work, and available directly from New Focus Recordings.