Q&A with Jürg Frey about the two compositions
on '120 Pieces of Sound'
"I think the question is not ‘how to get it’, but ‘how not to destroy the openness’
when we compose."
YZ (Yuko Zama): I listened to your two recordings of 60 Pieces of Sound and L'âme est sans retenue II in a row, and the experience was fascinating. After listening to the instrumental ensemble of 60 Pieces of Sound, the layers of the field recording sounds in the latter piece sounded like harmonious music to me. It was similar to what I have experienced when I listened to your 6-hour piece L'âme est sans retenue I (ErstClass 002-5) before, in which I felt as if I was hearing a vague form of ‘music’ in the complex layers of the edited field recording materials and the silences. But when I listened to this combination of 60 Pieces of Sound and L'âme est sans retenue II consecutively, the experience became even more intense and vivid.
JF (Jürg Frey): Yes, 60 Pieces of Sound and L'âme est sans retenue II are sounding in a profound neighborhood, and I'm very happy to have the two pieces on the same disc.
YZ: Can you tell me how you came up with the idea of putting these two pieces together on one CD?
JF: Last November, we recorded a couple of pieces including 60 Pieces of Sound with the musicians of Ordinary Affects at Wesleyan University. And after the editing was done, I came up with this idea of including 60 Pieces of Sound and L'âme est sans retenue II on one disc. This latter piece you know already, you have written about it along with the other two pieces of the L'âme est sans retenue series in your profound essay Borders Disappear around the time. The other piece 60 Pieces of Sound was written in another context, with no field recordings, but also with chords, partly fixed, partly open instrumentation. Some similarities are obvious and the two pieces have a connection - both have "60 pieces of sound". I imagined this as a strong experience to have the two pieces that contained 120 complex and rich sounds on a CD.
YZ: When you composed (or conceived the initial idea of) 60 Pieces of Sound, did you have a similar concept or structure of L'âme est sans retenue II in your mind, intending to make these two pieces related to each other, by similarly applying the idea of 60 pieces of sound? Or was it more like a coincidence for you to come up with the idea; one for the sounds of field recordings + your clarinet, and the other for a chamber ensemble + your clarinet? I am curious if it was your original intention to relate these two pieces from the beginning, or if you found the connection later?
JF: When I wrote 60 Pieces of Sound, I did not have L'âme est sans retenue II in particular in mind. There was a 10-year interval between the two pieces. I see this work (L'âme est sans retenue II) in the context of my work with ‘lists’, starting in the late 1990, when I was working with a list as a method to write a piece and I was seeking for basic possibilities to organize the musical materials. There are many pieces written based on various lists (like the String Trio, or the second String Quartet has a list of minor chords, then all the pieces with words like Lovaty (1996), Freichten (1996), and of course, L'âme est sans retenue II (1997-2000). Also, the entire WEN pieces (1999-2004)... Many pieces from the same period explored the possibilities that were contained in the lists.
YZ: How did you apply the idea of a ‘list’ to compose 60 Pieces of Sound?
JF: Over the course of years, the idea of a pure list extended more and more to the list that makes connections of items with each other (what means melody). And 60 Pieces of Sound has a list in the background as a two-part melody. I remember I was at the time working very hard to find an instrumentation, harmonization, color expansion to open this two-part melody/list, but without good results. And then I decided to keep the two-part and to add a third voice, an open instrumentation part for any instrument(s) or sound maker(s). I was immediately pleased how good this score looks like, but not just this good-looking score with the three voices, also the possibilities for different realizations opening in a wide range of performances in the right way was exactly what I was looking for.
YZ: It is quite fascinating to imagine how your score of 60 Pieces of Sound could make each performance unpredictable and surprising with the potential to induce different harmonization with the open 'third voice' (of three instruments in this recording), while having the very subtle, minimal development of the almost unrecognizable existence of a written melody played on two instruments. It also resonates with the subsequent piece L'âme est sans retenue II, and I can 'hear' the residual images of the sounds and harmonies half-formed in my mind as a part of my memory, which immediately echo with the sounds of the latter piece, composed of field recording materials and a bass clarinet. Here, the harmonization is much more vague than the former piece, but seems to be enhanced by the listening experience of the former piece in the listener's mind. The pairing of these two pieces in this order seems to induce a vaguely overlapped experience of listening to the music, which people may not be able to experience if they just listen to L'âme est sans retenue II alone.
JF: Thanks for these insightful thoughts about harmonization and openness, and I appreciate your remark about the dialogue and the interference between the two pieces. I feel this CD and these two pieces as a fundamental basis of my feelings and my composing, and even if my music later discovered other territories, I think my recent music connects with this pair of two works.
YZ: By the way, I have been playing the two-part melody of your score of 60 Pieces of Sound on piano. It is such a haunting, beautiful melody. I played it in different tempos; moderate, slow, very slow with silences between notes. I found that the two-part melody evokes a profound world of beauty especially when it is played very slow with silences between, as if a meditative yet substantial space was expanding around each set of two notes, gradually changing its color and temperature over the time like slowly descending in a spiral. Each set of two notes has a vertical, contemplating depth (which reminded me of your solo piano pieces), but as a whole, all 60 pieces of the two-part melody are closely connected to create one beautiful, organic flow. This melody is almost unrecognizable when listening to the recording of five musicians, with a long break of silence between sections, but starts to form a half-translucent, ‘ghostly’ image of a faint harmony after listening to the whole piece several times. A hint of harmony is more evocative and haunting than a clearly recognizable harmony. It could induce various possible images in the listener’s mind, like a forest of trees in different colors and different shadows yet closely united as a whole via the invisible thread of the mysterious two-part melody deep underneath.
JF: I like your thoughts about the two-parts melody and the experiences when you play it. Not necessary to mention how many times I played this melody for myself...
YZ: Another intriguing thing about 60 Pieces of Sound is that the trace of a harmony in the group ensemble feels not always exactly the same as the written two-part melody in the score. The two-part melody could become a 'trigger' to bring out more variations of harmonies in the resulting music, making the music richer, more pliable, unpredictable, and variable in different ways depending on who would play in the ensemble. It is such a minimal yet perfectly balanced composition with an ideal 'openness', which would also never fall into an incoherent realization out of the right context due to the basic core structure, if it is performed with the right sensitivity.
JF: You said, "the two-part melody could become a 'trigger' to bring out more variations of harmonies in the resulted music", and this was the key, at a time when I was blocked with the piece. I tried at that time to write different instrumentations and more or less complex chords with the two-part in the background, to elaborate this and that, but things became blurry and blurrier, the two-parts were disturbed or destroyed or stupidly exposed, no good results.
And then I learned, okay, it's the other way around, and I don't have to load the two-part with my ideas, but the two-part can be the trigger to bring out all these things I was looking for. (These are, by the way, good moments in the life of a composer: after going and working for months in a direction, and then, at some point, to see, it's the other way around. It's just simple, I have to change the direction of thinking and working, and then I have it).
YZ: In the 'open instrumentation part’ beside the cello and your clarinet in 60 Pieces of Sound, are the "third voice" musicians tried to form ‘a chord’ in each section in his/her own way by reference to the two-part melody? Or was it supposed to be totally open and free for each musician to play whatever pitch or sound (without considering to form a chord/harmony in mind)?
JF: In principle, it is a free decision for each musician, they may choose any sound, pitch, or noise. At the same time, every musician is supposed to act within the context of the two-part melody, and every decision for this or that is in relation to the two-part. You can try the similar experience when you play the two-part and add a third pitch on piano. Apart from the fact that there are limitations due to the span of the hand, you will see your decisions are completely woven into the given structure of the two-part melody. With three musicians playing the third voice, these decisions are less crucial, also less momentous, because the chord is somehow misty and the single decision is integrated into the overall sound.
YZ: Did the ‘third voice’ musicians discuss with each other (and also with the musicians playing the two-part melody) about what pitch (or sound) to play before they actually performed together, to try to bring a certain unity in each chord section? Or did they not know what kind of pitch or sound other ‘third voice’ members of the ensemble would play until they were actually performing the piece? In other words, was there any pre-arrangement among the ensemble musicians in the way they formed each chord for 60 sections?
JF: There was never either any discussion or pre-arrangement during the rehearsal, nor after the concerts nor during the recording. I think it was also a great luck for me to work with such an ensemble of good musicians, composers, who are used to listening, too.
YZ: Did the ensemble play exactly the same sounds in each concert and rehearsal in Boston and Wesleyan last November? Or did they play different sounds (pitches) each time?
JF: Different sounds. Again, the main thing is to listen and to react with sensitivity to what is going on. Then discussions were not necessary.
YZ: I love the way each chord sounds slightly 'off' without forming a perfect tonal balance in this recording of Ordinary Affects, sounding like somewhere on the edge of tonality sometimes. I found this edge in the balance of the group very unique and interesting.
JF: I think, it's also the "sound of the ensemble". You hear the interests of the group in sound, harmony, the experience with overtones, the sensitivity for tunings. And for this piece (and my music in general), it's definitely a stroke of luck.
YZ: I would like to ask you some more questions about L'âme est sans retenue II. When you composed and edited this piece incorporating with the sounds of a bass clarinet, did you intend to induce 'harmonization' in a similar way as in 60 Pieces of Sound, by adding a bass clarinet minimally relating to the field recording sound materials, in addition to your concept of the list of ‘words’? The other two pieces of the series (I and III) were composed without musical instruments, so I wonder if you intended to make a bass clarinet to 'bind' the fragments of the field recording sounds into a vaguely harmonious group via the least minimum interaction of a musical instrument?
JF: It was exactly how you described the procedure. It was an empirical procedure. I tried out the bass clarinet sounds for every field recording till I found the exact pitch and volume to blend with the recording. I wanted to sharpen the harmonization that I had already heard in the recording, to add a fundamental tone, a dissonant or consonant sound to clarify the dust of harmonies and slightly to give him a ‘direction’. To find these pitches, it was the work of the ear.
YZ: In L'âme est sans retenue II, did you play bass clarinet from the start to the end in every 60 group of sounds, with no break (except the silence part) like you did in 60 Pieces of Sound? I could not tell that since it sounded almost unrecognizable in some parts.
JF: Yes, every sound is with bass clarinet. Sometimes it is nearly inaudible. That’s right, you might hear it as if you were hearing just the field recording. The acoustic situation here is similar to the live performance, but then you see the player playing, also when I play extremely soft. For the editing we discussed the question of the bass clarinet volume, the goal was to avoid in any case making the field recording to sound some kind of accompaniment of the ‘soloist’, and to have the bass clarinet as much as possible as a part of the field recording, like hearing the bass clarinet sounds inside, sitting inside the field recording.
YZ: It is interesting to know that even though these two pieces were not intended to be related, they feel somewhat closely connected with each other when we listen to both together. I also think that putting out this L'âme est sans retenue II with 60 Pieces of Sound on one CD will mark a beautiful closure to the entire L'âme est sans retenue series (exactly 20 years since the first piece of the series was composed in 1998). It is so great to see how these pieces are connected with each other to form a beautiful arc over two decades.
JF: I listened to 120 Pieces of Sound again, I am so happy about this release. It's such a good feeling, after all the work, to have the CD now. And I remember also a title of a Richard Long sculpture: 147 (?) Pieces of Wood. I was at the time, many years ago, very fascinated by this title (and also by the art work), and I think at least the title 120 Pieces of Sound is in relation to Richard Long’s sculpture title. I always wanted to do something similar to this title, and now to have these two pieces on one CD, I feel very much in the center of my work.
(Interview conducted by Yuko Zama, September - October 2018)