Quiet to Noise

Jurg Frey from Wandelweiser

I think you should make time and space to go see the Dedalus Ensemble play Monday night, September 16, in the Willow Place Auditorium, 26 Willow Place, Brooklyn Heights. The concert begins at 8pm, and admission is by donation, but unlike the Metropolitan Museum I encourage you to be generous.

You should go because the composers presented, including Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro, guarantee that this will be an evening of quiet music, I am certain that you need more of it. Because not only is the world loud, but the world of music in New York is loud, and until you hear a lot of quiet music, you won’t really just how oppressive that loudness is.

This wasn’t by plan, but a string of concerts through late 2012 and early this year exposed me to a lot of quiet music, all fine and often wonderful. It felt like some kind of trend, but I think it’s more a cultural feature, as the music all came from Europe, and music from the old world in the past couple of decades has been exploring the nooks and crannies of human and sonic experience in ways that the comfortably numbing dominance of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism in America can’t be bothered to look at. The difference is between questions and answers, and too much certainty breeds complacency, and boredom. What else is there to do but turn it up to eleven?

I’ve personally been intrigued by music coming out of central Europe, especially that of Bernhard Lang. In December, Olga Neuwirth had a Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre (their contemporary Georg Friedrich Hass, now on the Columbia University faculty, has one coming on October 10), that really opened my eyes to her sense of irreverence, form, and appreciation for quiet. The open spaces in her music are just as strong a structural element as the phrases, and they have a psychological effect that draws the ear closer to the subtle and delicate timbres she uses. This sensibility makes her extended piece “…ce qui arrive…” an unlikely and powerful success. The music accompanies Paul Auster’s pre-recorded voice as he reads from his memoirs, a combination that is usually deadly. But the music is so quiet that it teases playfully with the audio, and with us, and it’s direct winsomeness produces a mysteriously moving effect.

The Portraits of Rebecca Saunders and Julio Estrada were also striking. Saunders particularly cares about quiet, and the turbulent space where silence meets sound, and she and Estrada both structure their music with a feeling of proportion for events placed in time, and the intervals between. It’s not a new idea, it goes back to Debussy, but it’s been left behind by the inexorable march of a beat and pulse that develops through time, and must be constantly active to do so. Estrada’s Portait had music that represented a fresh conception about how the body, through the voice, relates to music, and the motion of it fit the rhythms of the heart and lungs.

The quietest concert of all came from the composer run organization Indexical, and arrived in the deep cold of winter at Willow Place: an evening of music by Jürg Frey. Frey is a member of the Wandelweiser group, as are Beuger and Pisaro, a group of composers and musicians who are exploring the frontier of quiet. His music is not only quiet but spare, minutes at a time of one note, repeated slowly and with space in between. His piece Unhörbare Zeit (Inaudible Time), for string quartet, is twenty+ minutes of whispering tones, rustling leaves, scraping stones, and is an amazing conception and execution (you can hear that and other pieces from the evening, one of the highlights of the year so far at the Free Music Archive).

There’s a recent recording Jürg Frey: Piano Music, on the Irritable Hedgehog label that gives an excellent survey of his technique and aesthetic. He clearly likes pure timbres, but working with the absolute pitch of the piano distills his ideas into a rigorous framework, and the simplicity of his tonal material is deeply involving because of it’s relationship to space and quiet. His music retrains the ears, has them listening attentively to the piano and also to all the extraneous sounds that surround us. It is deeply ethical, the music is completely embedded in the mundane moments of human experience, it’s diffident and intimate at the same time. The recording is an impressive work of curation, curiosity, aesthetic courage and musical artistry from pianist R. Andrew Lee.

Frey is not the only composer who offers the reward of quiet, and I’m lately very interested in the work of Jakob Ullmann as well, and there are the other Wandelweiser composers and others beyond. But start with Frey, with what Indexical gives you and Irritable Hedgehog made for you, and go from there, to Willow Place or not. But go in peace, and in silence.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.