Q&A with Jürg Frey about Continuité, fragilité, résonance
"When I work, I think I have something like a mental and emotional power in the background - not ideas and not a concept - and this power leads my work." - Jürg Frey
Yuko Zama (YZ): The project is now completed and this piece Continuité, fragilité, résonance is finally taking shape as a CD. How do you feel when you listen to this piece as the final master?
Jürg Frey (JF): I spent time listening during the last several days to the piece. I'm very pleased, and now, with some distance, I feel I can recognize the piece more and more. Of course, as a composer, I know quite well what I do, but I'm also sure, there remain many, many things that one does intuitively when composing. Or even more, without knowing, in my understanding, I simply do it. And now when I hear, all the decisions and the ‘simply doing’ make sense and make the piece a whole - it's a peaceful reflection, and a gift after all the work we made.
YZ: Your Continuité, fragilité, résonance premiered in September 2021. It was when I was first introduced to the piece, when I listened to the live recording of the concert online. But after a year when I listened to this newly recorded version which was made in August 2022, I was surprised and moved at the depth and power of the music that I hadn’t fully noticed before. Perhaps it was due to the high quality of the recording, but I also felt I had newly discovered the underlying power of this piece as music.
I also remember that the initial recording plan was postponed due to the world Covid situation in 2021. When you first listened to their premiere concert in the fall of 2021 and again listened to them in the summer of 2022 for this official recording, do you think your impression of the double quartet's performance (and the piece itself) has changed after the one-year break?
JF: Yes, especially for this piece, it is even more true than for many other pieces of mine. The single part of each instrument is easy to play and it looks simple. They are mostly long single notes with breaks between. But it takes time for a performer to understand the music and the context of these single notes. It can be a note in a chord, a note in a melody, a shade of another note, a leading note for a short moment, an underground note, and so on. I can’t write down all these different and specific features and timbres of the individual notes in the score, especially because it is often in the realm of the vague, not fixable.
And to understand this complexity, even for such good musicians as Konus Quartett and Quatuor Bozzini, they need time to find out how this music is played and how they want to play it. And I think that’s why the one-year break was welcome to give more depth, more context and more colors to the piece.
YZ: I read your text about this piece Continuité, fragilité, résonance and was very intrigued with your words:
"In movement, music has an energy that moves forward, in stillness, music sinks into the vertical depth of the moment."
I remember that we have discussed a similar topic regarding "the horizontal flow and the vertical depth", or the movement and the stillness (silence) in music, in our 2020 interview about your two-piano album l'air, l'instant - deux pianos.
JF: The movement and the standstill, as states in their own right, are always part of my music. And standstill is the base for the subtle shifts from one to the other. I know you can see it the other way around, but for me the standstill, the almost abstract flow of time, is the center of my work. The almost contentless time that passes, that is for me one of the basic requirements for composing. It is the basic emotion before I even write a note.
YZ: That is very interesting to hear. It resonates with the words you quoted from Gaston Bachelard's book La dialectique de la durée (The Dialectic of Duration) in the preface of your score to this piece. "Successive notes then no longer sing but remain in the qualitative and quantitative discontinuity in which they are produced. Sensations are not connected; it is our soul that connects them.” “Continuity does not belong to the melodic line itself. What gives this line consistency is an emotion more vague and viscous than sensation is. Music's action is discontinuous; it is our emotional resonance that gives it continuity.” (Gaston Bachelard) How does this Bachelard quote relate to this piece of yours?
JF: I had already written three quarters of the piece when I came across this text by Bachelard. So, the piece is not an interpretation of the quote. It’s more like I am in a working process, and on a side line, when I am reading books, I find a text, like a spotlight to shine on something that is already here. My working process is not in language thinking, but in music thinking. And a word or a sentence can then be a kind of thrust forward, a sudden illumination and confirmation of my musical thoughts.
YZ: Sounds like a wonderful moment when two worlds coincidentally overlap. In fact, I too had a similarly illuminating moment when I came across this quote from Bachelard's book in the preface of your score, which reminded me of this idea about time from my favorite Japanese philosopher, the late Bin Kimura.
Kimura cast doubt on Henri Bergson’s idea of continuity in timeline, and wrote in his book Jikan to Jiko (Time and Self, 1982) that time does not exist as a continuous flow but as a series of fragmented, independent moments, which are normally perceived as an uninterrupted flow since the human mind unknowingly fills in the gaps between moments with imagination, emotions, memories, etc. Also, in a normal sense, things in our surroundings feel to be related or connected with each other (or to the person) in some way, but are actually just separately existing as individual things, and it is our mind that sees a certain relationship/connection between them, using our emotions/imaginations. I’ve been fascinated with this idea for a long time, so the quote from Bachelard in the preface to your score hit me strongly.
JF: I don’t know Bin Kimura’s work, but you gave me a brief insight into his thinking. His position toward Bergson's concept of duration as a continuity in timeline certainly corresponds with the ideas of Bachelard. For Bachelard, experienced time is irreducibly fractured and interrupted. As he writes in “L’intuition de l’instant”, time is a stabilized moment. The vertical time rises. It sounds in the soul while descending. The music does not unfold, it weaves itself from knots to knots.
But when I write music, I do not work with philosophy. I work with musical material. Reflecting my work, I feel I am hanging between these two positions: time as continuity and time as fractured, vertical moments.
When I write the score, I’m more in the continuity world, more like “and it goes on feeling”, because everything is still fractured and fragmented and I'm trying to figure out how I can connect things and to give continuity. And when I read the score and things are now connected, or they look connected, and later, when I hear the realization of the music, time is fractured and has the aspects of vertical dimension, too. And the title of the piece takes that up: Continuité is the continuity in timeline. Fragilité says this timeline is not a given fact. And with Résonance, time goes in different directions, also backward, or vertical.
YZ: In your pieces for two pianos on your 2020 album l'air, l'instant - deux pianos, there is a lightness and openness with long silences that make the music feel translucent and blending into the air, and continuity in those pieces feels extremely subtle.
In this octet piece, continuity also feels very subtle, although it obviously has a different structure, with more complex layers of sounds that create a very quiet forward momentum via the multifaceted natures of the octet’s instruments. This delicate sense of continuity seems to accentuate the beauty and wonder of the relationship between the sound of one moment and the sound of the next, and I was deeply and refreshingly moved by these moments.
Can you tell me a little more about your mindset when you composed this piece?
JF: When I start to write a new piece, I have no idea what I want to realize via the composition. As you know, I’m working in my sketchbooks, and the materials in the books do not have a direction or an idea. Tones, pitches, sketches, everything is lying around, with a lot of empty time. And little by little, over weeks and months, the material finds a direction. The fractured material develops into continuity.
The challenge is to create continuity as an expression from deep within, from the inner core of the piece, - and not just as a mimicked activity on the surface. I recently wrote a piece “À la limite du sens” (On the edge of meaning). That’s the place where I feel my work happens. And non-continuity is also very close in the neighborhood. This is the place, since the very early beginning as a composer, where I find the edge of meaning - and one step further is where everything becomes meaningless. Or in other words, it is something I don't know what it is. Sometimes I find out what it is, later, or when I put it into a different musical context.
Sometimes this “on the edge of meaning” even happens in older music: Two days ago, I heard Bruckner's 9th in a concert again. There is a passage in the third movement, when the orchestra was suddenly silent, the oboe played four notes solo, then the horn, and then a fermata. It sounded so much out of context - I just listened, marveled, and didn't know what was going on here. That’s what I think is "on the edge of meaning”.
In my work, I am constantly dealing with such elements that are outside. I write it in my sketchbook, and I write it again, on another side, and I begin to understand what it means in this or that context, but as a single, isolated item, it can be anything and nothing. I place it more inside or outside the musical flow, and it can develop energies to give the piece directions, - or the opposite, it could get stuck, balancing in the air close to standstill - before it goes on again. Or it could stand completely still. I consider this as an important emotional aspect in my music, which has a central influence on the formal shape.
In Continuité, fragilité, resonance, my concern was that continuity should sound as continuity, even if it goes to the edge. And for a 50 minute piece like this, I wanted to create the piece as one body and to organize the energies, to make possible what Bachelard says: “it is our emotional resonance that gives it continuity.” But in my music it is also a fact that it could be completely different at any time. I know, it can go in other directions at any time, it is just me writing notes on the paper. That is part of this music, it does not assert and proclaim continuity. It makes it possible to experience continuity as something very fragile.
YZ: I was freshly surprised at how the blending of the sounds of the two kinds of instruments (strings and saxophones) gave the piece a very unique depth and expansion, sometimes becoming one thin line as if they were the same instrument, and sometimes intermingling richly in the development of the piece in a discreet manner.
Before listening to this recording, my preconceived thought as a listener was that the string quartet and the saxophone quartet would create different natures of the sounds: one creates stillness and vertical depth, while the other creates a horizontal flow with continuity, but in this piece I found that these characteristics were subtly and miraculously fused into one while each instrument owns its unique sound.
I also think your listeners are familiar with your string quartet works often performed by Quatuor Bozzini, and also a saxophone quartet work Memoire, horizon (2013/2014) performed by Konus Quartett. And then, in this piece Continuité, fragilité, resonance, you combined these two different instrumentations (strings and saxophones).
When you composed this piece, did you have any particular intention or expectation (even vaguely) for something to arise from such blending of two different instrumentations?
JF: That is, at least for me, a question which needs complex considerations. I could easily give some smart composer-like chat about the correspondence of the timbres of cello and tenor saxophone and things like that. But the thing that pulls the rug out from under me a bit is the question: why does a piece sound the way it does? When I work, I think I have something like a mental and emotional power in the background - not ideas and not a concept - and this power leads my work. Little by little I get a feeling for the piece, and the feeling was here: it should be a one-ensemble piece, a together-piece, where all instruments are equally involved. It feels presumptuous to say that I have an intention or expectation. But then, what do I have? It is my elementary basis and daily joy to work with material. To "touch" sounds and write them down on blank papers. But how does it happen? How does the material on the blank paper become a piece? It's a bit miraculous, but it's also quite simple - I put it together. Or, as Joseph Haydn wrote: “improve, add, cut away, dare”. And for this piece, I put it together the way it has the tendency to make a whole body, so that the instruments blend, in their timbres, but also in their own musical behaviors. It’s a balance between an octet, eight soloists and two quartets. And yes, in retrospect, I also see it as a model of how eight people can interact in a meaningful way.
YZ: Thank you so much for your insightful answer. I tend to ask questions from my perspective as a listener who experiences a composer’s work from outside, but am very glad that I was able to hear such deepest thoughts from the perspective of you as the composer who actually lived (lives) in it.
Meanwhile, how did your collaboration with Quatuor Bozzini and Konus Quartett over this piece begin?
JF: The Konus Quartett came to me with the idea for a commission to combine the two quartets. I was allowed to suggest a string quartet for the collaboration, and I didn't have to think long. I have worked with both ensembles for many years, and I was also sure that these eight musicians would form a very good ensemble together.
Nevertheless, it is as you said above: “…(things) are actually just separately existing as individual things, and it is our mind that sees a certain relationship/connection between them, using our emotions/imaginations”. And this applies equally to the individual notes of the piece as well as to the musicians of the ensemble who play these individual notes. The wonderful thing is that in the end it is not like, “…things are actually just separately existing as individual things”, but also it comes together and gives the impression of a breathing organism.
I realized what kind of challenge the two quartets could embody, when I started to work with them on the piece later. The collaboration with the musicians became wonderful. This is important for me, it’s not just a project. These are musicians, not only with great skills, but also with ideas, feelings. There are deep conversations, open discussions, smiles, laughter.
YZ: Did you have any discoveries or surprises while collaborating with the musicians of these two quartets?
JF: When I start the rehearsal process with an ensemble, I have a basic feeling for the piece. Then, what would happen to the music on the surface will be determined by this basic feeling. I think discoveries and inspirations are found on both sides, musician and composer.
The musicians start a process of discovering and understanding the score. And for me as the composer, I hear how what is just a written thing on paper becomes sound and music through the imagination and the sound that the player gives to the notes. There are such subtle processes when a single note is at first played just simply and correctly, and then when it is suddenly recognized in a meaningful context and sounds like new.
YZ: Sounds like a beautiful moment for the birth of music! Are there any future plans for the two quartets to perform this piece somewhere again?
JF: Yes, the next concerts will be in La Chaux-de-Fonds, on May 3rd, and two days later, on May 5th in Bern, at the festival Forward & Rewind 20 Jahre Konus Quartett.These will be the concerts to commemorate this CD release in Switzerland.
YZ: That’s great news. By the way, I love your watercolor drawing of eight lines on this CD cover, which reflects the clean sounds and the layered yet spacious interactions of the double quartets well, and also seems to perfectly resonate with the idea of discontinuity and continuity that Bachelard wrote in his book. The eight lines are separated with empty spaces between, but they also indicate the possibility of being connected via the invisible threads or the imagination/minds of people who see them, and the relationship between the eight lines in two colors seems to quietly evoke a certain emotional response.
I remember that you made many similar watercolor drawings of lines in different lengths with different combinations of the colors and numbers in your notebooks. When you made these watercolor drawing of multiple lines, did you have a similar idea as the concept of this piece in mind? (and if not, what inspired you to draw these watercolor lines?)
JF: My watercolors are very much a backroom thing. I’ve been doing it for many years, sometimes regularly, but there are also long interruptions. As for the watercolor on this CD cover, I made many years ago. When I do the watercolors, I don’t have any musical conception behind, even if there can easily be connected to my music. I do it because I like to do it. I like the concentration and the contemplation of using the brushes and the paint. And it also has to do with continuity. Because all the watercolors are drawn continuously in a book. And a decrease in concentration would result in bad pages in the book.
Continuité, fragilité, résonance is a 51-minute piece written by Jürg Frey in 2020-2021 for octet of string and saxophone quartets. The Montréal-based Quatuor Bozzini and the Bern-based Konus Quartett premiered the piece in September 2021, and later recorded it for this album with the presence of the composer, during a three-day recording session in August 2022 at the Auditorium of Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland.