Jürg Frey – ephemeral constructions

Jürg Frey - ephemeral constructions, white Wandelweiser CD cover and maroon CD

Jürg Frey’s ‘ephemeral constructions’, here performed by the University of South Carolina Experimental Music Workshop under the directorship of Greg Stuart, opens with sparse chinks and taps of untuned percussion. Some sound like dripping water, while others are more wooden or metallic in their timbre. As far as I can tell from the recording, from their reverb tails and placement in different parts of the stereo field, they seem to be spread out across a large room. Then a vibraphone enters with a quiet two-note pattern; gradually, more tuned instruments join in. The unpitched sounds act like precisely-located point sources, whereas the pitched sounds tend to spread out to fill a larger volume of space, even when only one instrument is playing; hence, a kind of dichotomy between peripheral untuned and centrally located tuned instruments is formed.

At first, I heard this as a detachment or separation between the two groups, particularly in contrast with the version of ‘circular music #6’ later on the album where tuned and untuned sounds are much more integrated. But gradually the untuned sounds began to form a sort of environment, intermittent, irregular, and dripping with humidity, for the tuned sounds to sound in. The composer often references architecture when discussing his music, and his stated aim, according to the liner notes, is often to create a space that has both the bare bones of structure and a sense of openness and ephemerality. In this first section I hear the impression of a loose, open-ended architectural form more palpably than usual — a sort of schematic or cutaway that gives a porosity or translucency to the boundaries of the music.

After another long section of just untuned percussion again, the untuned sounds stop and the ensemble in the middle play what seem to me to be typical Frey block chords separated by silence. In the background an untuned winding or spinning sound is sometimes heard. The chords move between consonance and dissonance, openness and closure, light and dark; anyone familiar with Frey’s second and third string quartets will know what to expect here. I sometimes wish that the dripping untuned percussion had continued through this section as well, if only to make it sound a little less like a stereotypical Frey piece; the few untuned sounds that are used alongside the chords aren’t prominent or persistent enough to make much of an impression. Perhaps, however, this would’ve tilted the balance between structure and openness too far towards the former.

‘circular music #7’ is a much shorter piece, again consisting mostly of block chords but this time without pauses between them. Despite its brevity, like most Frey pieces I’ve heard it sounds like it could continue in the same vein indefinitely. Untuned sounds again form the opening of ‘circular music #6’, but this time when the tuned instruments join them they are much more tentative, fragmented, and dispersed, issuing quiet plinks, plonks, and hoots rather than block chords. The result is that pitched and unpitched sounds meld into a single muted thrum of activity. For several minutes a sonorous, almost keening clarinet (played by the composer) seems to lead, but in general there’s no sense of any instrument being more prominent than any other. This gentle blend of diverse textures forms a nice contrast with ‘ephemeral constructions’, showcasing two different and equally intriguing aspects to Frey’s music alongside some sensitive and disciplined playing from the Workshop.

Jürg Frey

Edition Wandelweiser Records

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