Cem Güney

Cem Güney, five compositions - black and white photo of Dusseldorf by Sebastian Dooris

five compositions

“Oh, the spacious calm of unknowing,” sighs Turkish poet Gonca Özmen in a poem fragment set to music by his compatriot Cem Güney. This haze of uncertainty seems to settle over Güney’s new album “five compositions”, blurring the outlines of pitch and tone in the extended dyings-away of chords in first track “two and three”, or the auras following in the wake of melodic fragments like comet tails in “mulberry grove”. The seemingly spontaneous, uncoordinated swarming or flocking of the acoustic ensemble in “hive mind” also operates by way of uncertainty and unpredictability, while the unidentified background hum of “inner voice, for düsseldorf” could hide a whole city’s worth of inner and outer activities, a distinct phrase sometimes cutting through the hubbub of voices and traffic.

This unknowing, approached calmly and quietly, with frequent silences, has occasionally been dismissed as withdrawal into pretty, spiritual fluffiness by critics of the Wandelweiser group on whose label “five compositions” appears. I’m as allergic to spiritual fluff as any graduate in the humanities, and there are moments when the music of Wandelweiser does induce sneezing fits, particularly upon first listen. But after a while some crucial line of thought usually surfaces that leads back to the world with all its edges and complications and urgencies. The more interesting monastic traditions always insisted on withdrawal as a means of deepening engagement with the world, retreating to a separate space only in order to return with a fresh perspective. Perhaps the quietness of music such as Güney’s, its reluctance to draw firm conclusions or issue declarative statements, can be usefully considered along such lines.

That’s not to say that the music is undynamic. The buzzing swarms of “hive mind” swell in huge crescendi before dying away again to nothing. Concordant and discordant harmonies are treated equally, with no value judgement or trite emotional symbolism attached. And the uncertainties of the quiet passages, where tones and instruments become indistinct and unstable, present the calm of Özmen’s poem as perhaps more of a challenge than an observation. How does one remain calm in a world beset by political, economic, and ecological uncertainty? How does one live rightly in a state of unknowing, without resort to despair, or in the midst of despair?

It would be remiss not to mention the sheer pleasure of listening to simple and subtly nuanced music, played with skill and sensitivity, well recorded and produced. Those who accuse the Wandelweiser group of the crime of peddling only a superficial beauty are certainly right about the beauty part. Yet in each of the pieces on “five compositions” I encounter doors left open onto other kinds of world, other sense-thoughts in their potential becoming. The pieces are multiples: made communally, yet to each listener their own unique perceptions of instability and dyings-away; non-mimetic, yet so congruous with life in general; harmonious, disharmonious, non-harmonic, beyond harmony; formal, structured, open, non-linear. Tenuous beauty as both retreat and provocation, simultaneously.

http://impulse.tumblr.com/ (Cem Güney)


Image: Dusseldorf by Sebastian Dooris (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

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