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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Various Artists -- Wandelweiser und so Weiter (Another Timbre, 2012) ****

By Dan Sorrells

Another Timbre often straddles an interesting divide. The label's name evokes something tangible and visceral—timbre—even while the motives for seeking out new avenues in music are sometimes driven by more intellectual, philosophical pursuits. Many of Another Timbre's releases could be touted as examples on both sides of an argument: that of music as an aesthetically-charged, emotionally resonant thing vs. music as an experimental playground, an extension of philosophical investigation, or as a manifestation of a wider-ranging message or idea. Obviously, many pieces of music entail a little bit of both, but the fact that a single album could so effectively act as a strong exemplar of either side is part of what makes Another Timbre so relevant and interesting in the 21st century.

But maybe these distinctions don't represent as much of a divide as some might argue. Sometimes, broader contextualization is necessary before a work "opens up" to a listener; other times, the reasons or methods aren't important, because the work is beautiful and transcends the conditions that created it. Both can be true for a single piece of music, or a specific recording. It often comes down to the way that a set of circumstances can alter how music is received. It's not the music that changes, but what frames it.

How music is framed is especially relevant to the Wandelweiser composers, the subject of Another Timbre's six-disc box set, Wandelweiser und so Weiter. A loosely-defined collective of composers hailing from all over the world, they are effectively driven by their interests as "non-professional philosophy readers." [1] In the introduction to an issue of Contemporary Music Review devoted entirely to Wandelwesier, Nicholas Melia and James Saunders say that Wandelweiser is "less a thing than a collection of shifting functions, assertions, contentions, ideas, concerns and practices, [….] a cohesive dialogue about the nature of silence, duration, time and place." [2] It's all very ambitious and more than a little vague, but however caught up in larger ideas about aesthetics, semiotics, and art the seeds of their music may be, the results of their thinking about sound and silence are often strikingly beautiful and delicate. It's music that's not particularly concerned with showing off, but has a way of seeping into your field of attention until it's the only thing in focus.

Wandelweiser is not only a collective, but also a label, publishing house, and event coordinator. A large amount of music by Wandelweiser composers has been released on the Edition Wandelweiser label, which also sells hundreds of scores by affiliated composers. It's by no means the exclusive source, though, and what makes the release of Wandelweiser und so Weiter on the Another Timbre label particularly special is not the fact that it features compositions by these composers, but the attempt it makes to finally construct a bridge between Wandelweiser and the understated, "lowercase" improvisation community that has thrived over the past few decades. In fact, as Wandelweiser reveals over the course of its six CDs, pulling together with improvising musicians may be what brings the Wandelweiser world a little closer to the emotional, gut-feeling end of musical appreciation and away from some of the detached, abstract conceptualizing that underlies may of the scores themselves.

Wandelweiser has a reputation as being preoccupied with silence, forever wrestling with what follows after Cage's 4'33". But the pieces of many Wandelweiser composers have a surprising amount of activity and density. Really, much of this music congregates not around absolute silence, but the idea that there are many different "types" of silences. Few of the pieces that make up Wandelweiser un so Weiter's eight-hour running time feature much for "pure" silence—instead, they work with low volume, extended ideas, slow pace. They're not overly talkative, to borrow a characterization from trombonist and composer Radu Malfatti. These compositions wish to communicate simple, finely-distilled ideas, and they aim to communicate them thoroughly. Malfatti's own "Heikou" (which rounds out Confluences, the first disc) could almost serve as an average of Wandelweiser strategy: just the right mix of silence, orchestration, pace, color. Chiming, dissonant piano chords announce dense ensemble drones, which build for a few moments before collapsing into silence. As the pattern continues, a strange sort of tension-building ensues, in which each block of silence represents the palpable anticipation in the listener, who knows another great orchestral swell will soon return, but never in quite the same way as before.

But silence is not the only mark John Cage has left on Wandelweiser. Cage's own "Three2" for percussion (included on the second disc) is among the loudest, most attention-grabbing pieces of the collection. What's seated even more deeply than ideas about silence is the notion of indeterminacy—the idea that there's a disconnect between what's written in a score and what's produced by musicians interpreting it that can never fully be reconciled. G. Douglas Barrett suggests this gap "shift[s the] focus from the composer of a determinate musical work to the listener who witnesses the unfolding of a process." [3] Wandelweiser und so Weiter provides a particularly interesting opportunity to examine indeterminacy, in that many Wandelweiser pieces are more concerned with silence, pure sounds, and simplicity than other types of contemporary music. This can result in some amazingly "pure" listening experiences, such as the eternal, weighty quality of Jürg Frey's newly composed "Time Intent Memory," Michael Pisaro's slowly morphing "Fields Have Ears (3b)," or the gorgeous way that the birds in the background of Stefan Thut's piece for strings, "Vier, 1-12," come to feel as though they are an integral part of the music itself.  But the collection can also highlight some of the problems that flirting with the indeterminate can inject into music.

The issue of the "listener as a witness" is one that a lot of improvised music can skirt (as the very undertaking already presumes the interest of some listener who will witness the creative act in toto), but it can become problematic with composed music, especially of the sort produced in Wandelweiser circles. Barrett provides the example of one of Antoine Beuger's scores, 2010¹ (not found on the compilation), which consists solely of two fragments of text by Michel Foucault. Depending on the musicians interpreting the score, the music may be transcendent for a listener, but it could also devolve into something of a cruel inside joke. The performer may understand Beuger's intentions with a score, interpreting his text selection based on their understanding of what sort of ideas Beuger intends to grapple with (or even their own parsing of the words on the page). But to the person hearing the music (often without the benefit of seeing the "score" or even being familiar with the philosophical concerns of the composer), the music may fall flat, becoming a taxing investment of time that fails to impart in even the smallest way some of its message to the listener. This investment of time is very important, regardless of whether the central focus of modern music is this "mediumship of the listener" (to use one of David Toop's coinages). 

This is a unique and relatively recent predicament, in that listeners of composed music throughout the ages probably wouldn't expect to gain a better understanding of say, a Bach concerto by seeing the actual score, especially the vast majority of music appreciators that have no sophisticated knowledge of music theory or ability to read notated music. And naturally, there is no expectation of a score in improvised music. It is when graphical notation and indeterminate scores come into play that exposing the listener to the same information as the performer may be the crucial bridge between appreciation and frustration.

When I listen to nine full minutes of two performers making "t" sounds in Beuger's "'T' Aus 'Etwas (Lied)" on the third disc of Wandelwesier, I cannot help but ask the question: was this piece of music, these demands on the listener (and performers!) the best possible medium to explore or articulate an idea? Without access to the score, can I even glean what the idea is? I left this experience less nine minutes, but with what gained? There are listening situations in which this entire piece could have played without my even being aware. And even as I sat and listened carefully, attentively, I found myself puzzled, a witness to something I wasn't sure how to begin understanding. There's something to be said about being challenged as a listener, but in such extreme examples, who benefits? Who then becomes witness to the challenged, confused listener, and does a Russian Doll full of observers ever arrive at some profound understanding or appreciation of this art?

And yet, I'm equally at a loss when I try to articulate why the nearly 20 minutes of Jürg Frey's "Un Champ de Tendre Parsemé D'Adieux (4)," which evokes something like acorns falling on the hood of a rusty old car, sounds lived-in, familiar, worth hearing in its entirety. What begins in a random, seemingly non-musical fashion slowly transforms into an engaging soundscape, a world of sound that seems impossible to unravel but is welcome in its novelty. The fact that it's one of only two pieces where the musicians and their instruments are not disclosed detracts little from its aura. Again, there are times when this music utterly connects, and times of frustration and impatience. These feelings can oscillate for the same piece of music depending on the day, the location, what's seeping in from the background. Managing these extremes becomes the challenge of Wandelweiser und so Weiter.

Another question that arises with music of this sort is what the essential difference is between improvisation and the realization of a score that gives no actual "musical" instructions to a performer. It's something I've thought about on and off for years, and I was pleased to find a simple, articulate take on the matter in Wandelweiser's liner notes. American Wandelweiser composer Michael Pisaro frames it this way: he states that these scores provide a "set of limits," and that a musician "decides to play a piece (as opposed to improvise) for a reason: that is, that one wants to adopt a point of view that is given by someone else/something else." [4] To a listener, there may not be an aural difference between these realizations of a score and improvisation, but there is still always an evaluative process undertaken by a listener, and if the music doesn't sustain interest, it hardly matters if it was the result of the spontaneity of the performers or an earnest attempt to inhabit the thoughts and intentions of a composer.

And so even the improvisation on Wandelweiser und so Weiter fits nicely, because the Wandelweiser association itself serves as the "conceptual object," the subtly imposed set of limitations that guides the music in this direction or that. The lengthy improvisation on Eddies (the fourth disc) with Neil Davidson, Rhodri Davies, Jane Dickson, Patrick Farmer and Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga sounds very much of a part with the realizations of Sam Sfirri's pieces that feature the same musical crew. I view these similarities less as an exposure of some avant-garde sham than as a happy indicator that the meeting of these groups of musicians was inevitable, and that it seems to be proving fruitful for both sides. And it's interesting to see bassist Dominic Lash, an improviser thrust into and energized by the Wandelweiser world, contribute an inspired composition of his own in "For Five."

I'd like to return to Sam Sfirri for a moment, because his contributions to Wandelweiser und so Weiter highlight another commonality among Wandelweiser composers: the use of multi-part series, which James Saunders writes about extensively in Contemporary Music Review. Pisaro identifies two types of series used by Wandelweiser composers: processes that can be applied in multiple situations (such as different instrumental line-ups), and extended investigations whose continued "trajectory is […] created on a case-by-case basis." [5] Sfirri has three serial compositions with two or more "realizations" on Wandelweiser. These different takes on a score represent a less result-oriented approach [6] in which the "focus shifts to making as an end in itself." [7] It's perhaps here that Wandelweiser, improvisation, and indeterminacy come full circle: the idea of working in series that plumb the depths of a musical idea, the belief that something can both be and be rethought, the use of the score as a mere thread "connecting change and continuity." [8] For both improvisers and the Wandelweiser composers, the focus is always on the act of creation, not what is held up at the end.

I raise some of the earlier concerns not to denigrate the music on Wandelweiser und so Weiter, but to draw attention to the fact that, if the spotlight is on the listener when 21st century musical philosophers are stroking their beards, the actual real-world experience of the listener should also be a consideration. Once the relationship between a composer and a score and a performer and the audience has been picked over and hashed out, whatever "process" the listener should ultimately have to "witness" should at least be worth the often scarce commodities they have to trade for it: their time and attention.

Thankfully, the majority of the music on Wandelweiser und so Weiter handsomely rewards the listener in exchange for their gifts. One wonders whether copies of the scores or additional context might help further illuminate the rest. (To be fair, I'm evaluating the collection based on a digital copy provided by the label and the information from the liner notes that's available online. The actual box set contains a 24-page booklet, which may or may not reveal more information about some of the pieces.)

But after saying all this, perhaps Michael Pisaro is right: "Essays will not make you like it better and will not ultimately defend its continued existence. The last thing I would want to do is to normalize something I continue to find strange." [9] There's much to love here, much to puzzle over, much that will be found strange and difficult and maybe off-putting. Personally, it's everything I could hope for in a release of this size and ambition, and I suspect I'll be returning to Wandelweiser und so Weiter for a long time to come.

Check out Another Timbre's website for lots more information about the pieces featured, interviews with musicians, additional sound samples, and links to purchase the set.


[1] Michael Pisaro (2009): "Wandelweiser."

[2] Nicholas Melia & James Saunders (2011): "Introduction: What is Wandelweiser?", Contemporary Music Review, 30:6, p. 445, 448

[3] G. Douglas Barrett (2011): "The Silent Network—The Music of Wandelweiser," Contemporary Music Review, 30:6, p. 457

[4] Michael Pisaro (2012), "Round Table discussion" in liner notes, accessible at

[5] James Saunders (2011): "Testing the Consequences—Multipart Series in the Work of the Wandelweiser Composers," Contemporary Music Review, 30:6, p. 499

[6] Manfred Werder, in Saunders, ibid, p. 498

[7] Saunders, ibid, p. 498

[8] Saunders, ibid, p. 523

[9] Pisaro, "Wandelweiser."

© stef


Martin Schray said...

This is one of the best reviews I have ever read on this blog (next to everything Stef has written on Waclaw Zimpel and Paolo's review of Stian Westerhus' "The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers"). Hardly ever have I read something as profound which is at the same time so full of love for this music and - above all - so helpful for the understanding of the collection. I listened to “Wandelweiser” twice but felt left alone and decided to wait for your review (when you enlisted you mentioned that this project might keep you busy for some time). I am glad I did that (because after reading this it was absolutely worth it) and I will give it another close listening. At least for me this review has the quality of a thesis. Definitely great work, Dan, congratulations.

joesh said...

Great, nice to see a review of this box set. I had looked at this set just after buying ' Ist gefallen in den Schnee'. However, due to the size of the set I was rather curious, before buying, to have a second opinion!

Matt said...

I agree with Martin, this is fantastically written, well done Dan. Looking forward to getting stuck into this set :)

Paolo said...

Thanks Dan for this impressive analysis of such a complex project and for raising and facing so many fundamental questions. I think that the clarity and pragmatism of both Pizarro's quotations extend the provocative and anyway concrete Cage's approach that, not by chance, was used to say "There's not such thing as silence".

Rubby said...

I discovered this only recently, but I have to say that this is simply one of the finest pieces of writing on experimental music I've ever seen. Your points about the worth of the listeners investment, and the notion of the performers using the listeners response as a medium are illuminating. This is essential reading for those new to experimental music, and this box is a great starting point. This review should be it's liner notes!