Jürg Frey

Jürg Frey - Grizzana and other pieces, fragmented still life painting by Giorgio Morandi

Grizzana and other pieces

There’s a piece by Jürg Frey on the 2012 Another Timbre collection “Wandelweiser und so weiter” titled ‘Un champ de tendresse parsemé d’adieux’ (‘A tender field strewn with goodbyes’), which consists of what sounds like small stones being tossed across a hard floor: there’s silence, a few quiet bounces increasing in frequency as they die away, then silence again. After many stones have been thrown, soft whistled descending glissandi, like distant doodlebugs, begin to fall, even as stones continue to be tossed beneath them. The piece is remarkable both for the clarity of its idea and its emotional impact.

The image of the scattered stones accumulated at the end of ‘Un champ de tendresse’ presents itself frequently as I listen to Frey’s new double CD “Grizzana and other pieces 2009-2014”, again on the Another Timbre label. Does the way in which impressions accumulate, from note to note and from listen to listen, explain how it usually takes me a while to really hear Frey’s music? The first couple of playbacks generally draw a blank; even once I feel I’ve made a connection with a particular piece, the next listen may baffle me again. Each listening ends with a different pile of stones. Even those familiar with Frey’s compositions for chamber ensemble may be surprised by the vague, hazy hues of ‘Ferne Farben’ and the deep-throated growl of ‘Area of Three’, both of which stand out against the luminosity and clarity of most of the album.

The pieces on “Grizzana” aren’t performed using stones, but rather clarinet, violin, flute, viola, piano, cello, organ, and occasional electronics. The composer, in an interview with Brian Olewnick on the label’s website, mentions that he thinks of each sound as being like a person, but I hear it (him/her?) as an event, discrete and specific in space and time. Many of these events are clearly related to one another in a structure: I hear repetitions and returns, translations and transitions. Certain chords and cadences come back again and again. What I don’t hear, however, is the beginning, middle, end of a narrative (or the statement, development, and recapitulation of a theme). Instead, there is a ‘now’ and a ‘then’ (…and then… and then…). This ‘slowness’ (I associate it with my brain struggling to synthesise the events into sequential patterns due to the duration of each and their distance in time from one another) generates uncertainty and perhaps instability, troubling any interpretation of the music as mere surface beauty.

The lightness of the movement from event to event, where the next event is frequently a silence, makes the music seem open and permeable, and any ending almost arbitrary. I sometimes imagine a dance performed in the dark, with only the squeaks and slaps and gasps of movement being perceptible. (Is there any form of dance performance closer to the Idea of dance? And yet: whose Idea?) I do wonder if brains more attuned to the complexity and extended development of late Romantic scores would be less perplexed, less bewildered, and therefore perhaps less enthralled by Frey’s music than I, but for me, at this time, it’s pitched just right.





Title image: ‘Natura Morta’ by Giorgio Morandi

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  1. says: jack

    i’m not sure ‘now and then’ would be a good way to describe the music. i feel like there’s a much larger arc the music is going through. i also don’t feel like not having ideas like recapitulation, theme, etc is highly unusual in much contemporary music. i don’t think a brain more attuned to late Romantic scores would find this less complex. if anything it pushes way beyond that.

  2. says: Nathan

    Thanks for your comment Jack! And I dare say you’re right. I think what I was aiming at with the clumsy late Romantic comment is that our individual frames of reference influence how we hear the music. For most people, I’d guess that the narrative arcs of Frey’s music are harder to discern than those of most pop music, for example, or even the more popular numbers from the orchestral music canon. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there, audible to listeners suitably attuned to hear them.

    Perhaps you could describe an example of the “much larger arc” you hear?

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