It usually takes me some time to adjust to the pace of Cristián Alvear’s guitar playing, but by the time I get there I don’t want to leave. From Michael Pisaro’s ‘melody, silence’, through works by Radu Malfatti and Ryoko Akama, to this two-disc collection of music by Jürg Frey, the Chilean has recorded some of the sparsest, sparest music I’ve heard. Across “guitarist, alone”, single notes drop like pebbles into a pool of silence, the ripples dispersing and disappearing before the next sound is heard. In the wrong mood, listening can be tedious. It can also be like a slow-acting spirit, its warmth gradually seeping into my bones and spreading through my body.
To understand Frey’s music solely in terms of silence and its opposite would be to do the Swiss composer a disservice: “guitarist, alone” is rife with rumours of melody and traces of song. Occasionally, echoes of previous guitar musics — Baroque, Spanish classical guitar — can be faintly heard in the slip of a cadence or the fading of a note, like wandering through an empty house from room to room, sometimes perceiving the barest marks of previous inhabitance. Or like discerning in the gentle rise and fall of a landscape the shape of a cairn. A run of notes can sound like a melodic figure or abstract, isolated tones, depending on how you hear it; repeated listens trample down the grass into a path, or wear away the surface of a certainty until it vanishes. Alvear’s disciplined and focused playing allows this change to occur, allowing neither figure nor abstraction, nor a polarisation of the two, to become set in stone.
The first disc of the release is given over to ‘50 Sächelchen’ (‘50 Little things’) from 1989, and this half-century of short pieces demonstrates a wide range of styles, from arching melodies to falling patterns to long held notes to moody arpeggios. ‘Cadillac’ confirms its title with a Deep Southern twang, while ‘Der Photograph’ chirps like a computer, or perhaps snaps like a camera shutter. Alvear plays the pieces in such a way as to clearly distinguish between climbing like a vine (‘1 Fehler’) and like a staircase (‘Fahrplan’). The second disc, containing only three pieces but lasting almost as long as the first, shows how Frey’s music increased in openness and lightness over the years, before turning something of a corner, as heard in the recent title piece composed for Alvear. A feeling that keeps coming back to me as I listen is that this music isn’t ‘pared down’ or stripped back to the essentials, but rather constitutes the very most that Frey and Alvear were able to wrest from a given moment. Sometimes it isn’t enough, and sometimes it feels like an embarrassment of riches. Time and silence (tearing one from the other; one passing into the other; what is ever really one?) begin to merge.