A continual reappraisal of what is in the process of happening:
Wandelweiser und so weiter

Michael Rosenstein

Recording Antoine Beuger’s “Lieux de Passage”                                                     ©Richard Pinnell 2013

Boxed sets spill out at an astounding pace; with every month, there is a new collection presenting “The Complete Works of Artist X,” “Rarities from Label Y” or “The Survey of Style B.” At their best, boxed sets reissue obscurities long out-of-print, rescue previously unreleased materials from the vault, or provide a solid introduction to music that has eluded a wider audience. However, they are often an excuse to eke out another dime from recordings that have made the rounds several times before, albeit with an unissued track or two to lure completists. Then there are made-from-scratch collections like the new 6-CD boxed set, Wandelweiser und so weiter, from the Another Timbre label. This is a release that was conceived and assembled more like a smart festival, centering on a specific point-of-view, providing a platform for exciting collaboration, and presenting music, most of which has been previously unissued.

A set like this is fitting for a group that seems to defy categorization. What started out as a publishing and recording endeavor in the early ‘90s grew in to a global network of composers operating, in Michael Pisaro’s words, “outside of the rich, overconfident new music organizations.” There are now a number of labels dedicated to the work of this group, most importantly, Edition Wandelweiser, but also Pisaro’s Gravity Wave label, and Radu Malfatti’s B-Boim Records. But producer Simon Reynell took a particular point of view in assembling Wandelweiser und so weiter.  “The two ‘Silence and After’ series of CDs, which were released on Another Timbre in 2010 and 2011 (and both of which included works by Wandelweiser composers) intensified [my] interest, and I knew that I wanted to do more,” Reynell recently explained. “The idea for the box set occurred at some time in 2011. Many of the improvising musicians in whom I was most interested were playing ‘open scores’ by this point, and I realized that I had collected a number of recordings of Wandelweiser or near-Wandelweiser music at various recording sessions without really knowing what I was going to do with them.

“It was obvious that the box set should include works by the most well-known composers ([Antoine ] Beuger, [Radu] Malfatti, [Jürg] Frey, [Manfred] Werder, [Michael] Pisaro), but I was clear from the start that we should also try out pieces by younger, lesser known composers in the Wandelweiser collective (e.g. [Sam] Sfirri, [Taylan] Susam, [Johnny] Chang, [Stefan] Thut) as well as pieces by non-Wandelweiser composers whose work felt related in some way (again including pieces composed by some of the performers themselves). I was determined that Wandelweiser music should be interpreted and understood as an open and fluid thing rather than as a restricted orthodoxy or closed canon (and thankfully the major figures in the collective wholly agree with this interpretation). The recording sessions all had a very open and experimental feel, with people often playing together for the first time, and happy to try out new and different things.”

With six discs, 8 hours of music, 37 compositions by 18 composers, and a pool of 47 performers, the collection might be indigestible were it not for how Reynell structured it around several unifying factors. First, there is the choice of composers. Pieces by established Wandelweiser composers like Beuger, Werder, Malfatti, Pisaro, Frey, and Eva-Maria Houben provide a view of the variety of approaches they have developed while pieces by a younger group like Sfirri, Susam, Thut, and Jason Brogan show new thoughts about the music. Participants in the sessions like Angharad Davies, Dominic Lash, and Phil Durrant also provide scores. (There are also 2 pieces by John Cage and one by John White, an English composer who was a contemporary of Cornelius Cardew’s included for good measure.) Just as important, though, is the choice of musicians. There is an active participation throughout by Malfatti and Frey (both they and Pisaro are clear that collaborating on performances of each other’s pieces is at the core of the way the collective has worked and developed). They are joined by members of the thriving UK improvisation community including musicians such as Rhodri Davies, Patrick Farmer, Lee Patterson, Sarah Hughes, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, and Neil Davidson, many of whom contribute their own compositions. Pianist Philip Thomas is also a key contributor as both performer and as leader of Edges Ensemble featuring undergraduate and postgraduate students at the University of Huddersfield, from Music and Music technology courses. There are also recordings by composer and performer Anett Németh, a US ensemble convened by Sfirri, and even a piece for coffee cup performed by Reynell.

“Well actually there was very little preparation as a group,” Thomas said about how the musicians worked together. “Preparation mainly consisted of individually thinking about the scores and our responses to them in terms of sounds required. These are such extraordinary musicians that we then simply had to sit down and play and it was a joy to do so. If I remember, very little discussion was necessary.” Patterson, expands on this, talking about how the experience of working with musicians, many of whom he has extensive experience improvising with, affected his approach: “A certain familiarity with the sounds and techniques of these fellow musicians aids the selection of possible material or sounds and thus can be indicative of the potential of a given musical context. Obviously, this could be both good and bad in terms of producing fresh, progressive results; without sufficient stimuli or motivation to constantly shift, a staleness can set in but I’ve found this rarely to be the case.”

Patrick Farmer + Sarah Hughes                                                                        Courtesy of Patrick Farmer

Sarah Hughes’ background in improvisation informs her approach to open form composition. “A successful realization is often arrived at through a questioning or contesting of what a faithful realization is,” she explained. “Dominic Lash raises a question in the text accompanying the box set about fidelity and exactitude which I find one of the defining aspects of open-form composition and one of the main reasons it lends itself to improvising musicians. I find there is an investigative, possibly research-based approach to this type of music, which is to say an inquisitiveness not only of how it reciprocally affects both performers and composers, but what it is doing in a wider context, what it is forming.” “In many ways, I try to forget how I improvise when I perform scores,” Patrick Farmer added, “as I feel it would be in many ways detrimental to either, or to approach them as the same entity. Of course there are similarities, and if paid attention such likenesses can prove highly beneficial. But it is the dissimilarities I am interested in. When I improvise I try to think as little as possible, no matter how far away I am from a performance, if I think I am lost. But with a score I feel, at least the realization, as opposed to the performance, begins as soon as cast your eyes over it. So in this sense, an improvisation never really begins and a realization never really ends.”

“I’m not sure what draws free improvisers to compositional forms – some improvisers aren’t drawn to them!," Dominic Lash observed. “The answer must be somewhat different for every musician. For me, I’m not interested in music that merely dramatizes its methods of creation – so the answer is about efficient means related to musical goals: certain goals are more efficiently and interestingly approached via compositional means, others improvisational, and others by some combination of the two.” Patterson opined that “(o)ne doesn’t necessarily have to listen and respond to one’s fellow sound makers unless the score specifically instructs one to do so, but then again one doesn’t necessarily have to adhere strictly to those instructions ... Both of these attitudes have close relationships with improvisation I think, though the former tends to run contrary to the spirit of much improvised music performance. So in relation to that, in terms of the validity of a performance, I think that such issues should be left in the withering hands of the contemporary music establishment and I particularly like Antoine’s response to a similar question – first and foremost, the relevance of the score to the concerns of the musicians should be questioned.”

It is this sense of dynamic questioning, probing of the scores for personal relevance, that is paramount throughout the performances. There is a dynamic relationship between improvisation and working with open-form composition that comes through in how an ensemble consisting of Angharad Davies, Phil Durrant, Jürg Frey, Radu Malfatti, Anton Lukoszevieze, Lee Patterson, and Philip Thomas works through a variety of pieces. Compare the spare radiance of Beuger’s “lieux de passage” for Frey’s clarinet floating long woody tones against the shifting hushed textural layers of violin, cello, trombone, piano, electronics, and amplified objects to Frey’s “Circular Music no. 2” which abstracts the musical idea of a canon by interweaving looping eddies of pitched and textural kernels of texture and melody. Malfatti’s “Heikou” provides the group with instructions for placing tutti chords and individual sounds with pitches freely chosen by the performers, developing a dark lushness while eschewing any notion of movement or linear interplay, instead focusing on a collective sense of sound unfolding against an expansive sense of time.

The multiple readings of compositions that are part of Sam Sfirri “beckett pieces” are equally absorbing. “The ‘beckett pieces’ were composed during a single two-year reading of Samuel Beckett’s three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable,” he explained in an interview posted on the Another Timbre site. “Each of the fifteen scores are titled with a fragment from Beckett’s literature and feature notation consisting of two to six complete English sentences that do not break the default line of a standard word processor template. Within each piece, the notation is split into two sections: non-italicized text and italicized text. The former lists the required materials while the latter demarcates the procedure of the piece ... The demands I set upon myself got rid of a lot of superfluous information in terms of notation, instrumentation and pitch being two examples. On the other hand, I feel as though the directions are extremely precise and do ensure that the performance is as close as possible to what I ‘want’.” Take the 3 readings of “Little By Little.” The first by Stephen Cornford, Robert Curgenven, Ferran Fages, Patrick Farmer, Alfredo Costa Monteiro, and Lee Paterson on electronics starts with pin-prick, bell-like tones and then progresses with sections of hiss, resonant decaying textures, and quiet mechanical clatter separated by inky silence. The take by the Set Ensemble (Angharad Davies, Bruno Guastalla, Sarah Hughes, Daniel Jones, Dominic Lash, Tim Parkinson, and David Stent) utilizes a similar pacing, but instead charts the score with discrete placement of sine tones, arco bass, scumbled violin overtones, reverberant plucked guitar, and piano notes which are gradually combined in various overlapping voicings, again, using silence as a key element, focusing as much on the relationship between articulation and silence as on the relationships between the timbres of the voices. The final realization is by the group featured in the pieces by Beuger, Frey, and Malfatti above. This is a more brooding reading, with the ensemble wafting refined timbral voicings shimmering like heat lightning against a summer night sky.

Philip Thomas is integral in a number of ensemble pieces. But his solo performance of the stark, crystalline romanticism of Pisaro’s “Descending Series (1)” utilizing both piano and sine waves is a particular standout in the set. He comments, “There is a danger with scores that have been influenced by the Wandelweiser group, or which seem to stem from that aesthetic, that the forms can become predictable. Now I know that I am very enamored by a situation which requires close listening, playing focused sounds, listening to the silences between sounds. However what I seek from a composition is something that takes me beyond what I know I like so that I am surprised. It may be a quite subtle kind of surprise, or very often something that occurs through playing that I hadn’t predicted from looking at the score.” In this performance, utilizing a piano tuned to microtonal just intonation with modulating modal chords and carefully placed sine tones subtly beating against each other, Thomas develops a breathlessly absorbing palpable sonic construction which illuminates the physicality of sound which is outlined in the score. That physicality also comes to play in Eva-Maria Houben’s stunning “von da nach da (55 images for three performers)” as Angharad Davies’ violin, Phil Durrant’s electronics, and Lee Pattersons’s amplified objects and processes coalesce with stately measure across the 20 minute structure, as mutable overtones, textures, and oscillations ebb and flow with contemplative deliberation.

Radu Malfatti                                                                                                           ©Richard Pinnell 2013

In the liner notes to the boxed set, Reynell talked about “the confluence of Wandelweiser music with the soundworld of textural improvisation through realizations by a number of musicians who are better known as improvisers, but who in recent years have been drawn to – and have in turn affected the development of – Wandelweiser music.” Beuger commented that “the confluence happened more or less naturally, or fluently: people involved in certain forms of improvised music and we somehow discovered affinities in our ways of approaching music and, especially, silence.” That confluence is what has drawn me to this music. There are always a few milestone listening experiences that seem to stand out – things one comes across which instigate listening in different ways. I still remember getting the first Polwechsel CD and Burkhard Stangl’s Loose Music, both on the Random Acoustics label in the mid-90s, and feeling like a shift was afoot. The music was hardly unprecedented. The confluence of composition and improvisation and the focus on the placement of sound events within the context of silence and extended time had been explored by groups like Gruppo di Improvisazione Nuova Consonanza or AMM’s use of Cardew scores. But here were a group of musicians looking for approaches to freedom which put a primacy on placement of sound events and the focus on timbre within the context of structure and silence. Beinhaltung, Malfatti’s trio with Phil Durrant and Thomas Lehn on the Fringes label documented a startling extension of that sensibility with inky silence providing an expansive ground for barest of micro gestures and hushed textures. Recordings by groups like the trio IST with Simon H. Fell, Rhodri Davies, and Mark Wastell, Chris Burns’ Ensemble, and increasingly, recordings from Japan, Berlin, Boston, and London brought attention to like-minded musicians working within these vocabularies and structural strategies for improvisation.

“In 1990 I had started to put relatively long silences into pieces, without really knowing why I was doing it,” Pisaro wrote in an essay posted on the erstwords site. “I wanted to stop telling musicians what to do in every detail and to start creating possibilities for performers to explore a particular, individual sense of sound within a simple clear structure I would provide. But I felt as if I was alone in these interests. Part of the circumstance behind Wandelweiser is the uncanny synchronicity: around that time several of us (including Kunsu [Shim], Antoine [Beuger], Jürg [Frey], Manfred [Werder] and Radu [Malfatti]) were making more or less tentative stabs in this direction, without at all being aware that there were others doing it.” Malfatti concurred, reflecting that “it came slowly, probably because of an oversaturation of the ‘old’ busy free improvising. I just had enough of it and I was looking for something else and it was a natural, organic development. Interestingly enough I didn’t really know about the Wandelweiser activities then, but when I got in touch with them I was amazed how much we had in common.” Phil Durrant was also working on methods for challenging patterns and practices of collective improvisation in the early ‘90s. He talks about his piece “Sowari” (a reading of which is contained in this set) which was originally “‘realized’ to move improvisers away from their reliance on melodic material derived from either modern classical or free jazz influences. Similarly it was an attempt to move away from traditional improv structures where there are build-ups to more frenetic material.”

This boxed set provides a compelling case for how the threads have come together. In his liner notes, Reynell posits the question as to whether there is an “after-Wandelweiser” and what that might be like. Wandelweiser music is now entering in to its third decade and I posed a similar question to a number of contributors to this set: What keeps music with any sort of label (from twelve-tone serialism to free jazz) from settling in to the orthodoxy and codification? The responses were varied but all seemed to hit on similar themes. Jürg Frey put things in context, stating that “For me Wandelweiser is not a label, a style, but a certain way to work and to listen (to music and people, friends, composers) and to try to understand, what the colleagues (and I myself!) are doing ... To sit together, to discuss, to play, provoke a response in the style of playing, this is one part of the Wandelweiser spirit (the other, at least as important, is to sit alone in your room, to do your work, to write the music, to look for your music.) ... Wandelweiser was at the beginning strongly connected with various aspects of silence, and, looking back, this could be seen as some kind of orthodoxy. But over the years, the composers developed their work and a new generation raised his voice and the Wandelweiser spirit opened to a large variety, and I hope this will go on.”

“Since I’ve been part of Wandelweiser for so long, I might have too internal a frame of reference to really answer this,” Pisaro remarked. “But from my perspective it has moved in the opposite direction from an orthodoxy. If one looks at the music made by the members, especially those who have been around for a while, it’s much more diverse that it was, say, 15 years ago. There was no real orthodoxy then, but the music was at times very close. Now I know right away when I’m seeing a piece by Antoine and when I’m seeing one by Manfred – there’s never any confusion. The older notion of Wandelweiser (a silent music of long duration) simply cannot stretch to encompass all that’s being made now under that name.”

Radu Malfatti weighed in, stating that “(t)here is no way to avoid the possibility of routines and stagnation, nor idiomatic behavior! This is quite a normal way: something new happens – comes to life – and then there is a group of people investigating it, indulge in it and after some years this new direction gets tired and gradually comes to an end. This happens organically too ... Of course you have people who think along those lines: “... I have done this and that for such a long time, I’ll try something new today!” And they get up on a Friday morning and do some strange trapeze-act, thinking that they doing something ‘new.’ But this is not the way new things are happening. We can’t force changes (what a lot of ‘revolutionists’ believe they can do), but things change by themselves. The creative mind is the one who hears or realizes the changes a long time before others do and therefore behave according to the new needs.”

Lash placed the question in perspective: “All music is vulnerable to ossification (extremely so, it often seems!). I don’t think there can be a formula for avoiding this – otherwise that formula itself would inevitably ossify. All I can think of is that when particular formal or technical solutions are perpetuated in the absence of their initial motivation, then new motivation must be found for them – otherwise they should be modified or abandoned lest you end up with an empty formalism.” Durrant came to a similar conclusion, stating that “for me, we need to accept that all music becomes a ‘style,’ that is not the problem. The problem is when people just copy a style without getting below the surface. The newer pieces on the box set demonstrate a continued deeper understanding of how to create pieces that allow musicians to work on areas of material in a way that allows them to listen, think and perform and thus create some great music.”

Hughes sees the open-form compositions of Wandelweiser as a roadmap away from orthodoxy: “It seems to me that one of the inherent qualities of this open-form composition and improvisation is that of emergence. For me, there is something significant to this type of music’s resistance to orthodoxy and codification; the quality of emergence resists incorporation into popular culture and in this defies (at present) an ever more evasive counter-culture ... There is another, slightly distinct type of orthodoxy in Wandelweiser music, one that comes through in the way the scores look on the page, the sound, the shared qualities of music from outside of the collective (Wandelweiseresque) and a shared provenance, but this form of orthodoxy is a paradox as it constitutes a continual reappraisal of what is in the process of happening. I have the sense that if orthodoxy were to set in, the main body of composers and musicians would have moved to something that can retain its malleability, and whatever it would eventually be named would have little relation to what it is now.”

Both Patterson and Thomas acknowledge the effect of an increased visibility for this music but both see promising directions emerging. Thomas states that “The orthodoxy of Wandelweiser is an interesting point and one I’m wary of. I think this box set is a good start in suggesting different approaches. I think it’s important to recognise that, for example, this set is very much Simon’s response to Wandelweiser. There are many other routes through the work. Also it’s interesting to note how diverse the composers are and also how they are developing. Jürg and Michael are probably the two most ‘composerly’ of the composers but their work is also going in fascinating directions now, quite surprising given stereotypes of their earlier work. And maybe Wandelweiser as a term will become relegated to the history books and all that will remain is the work, which I would be happy about as it’s the work which is most important not the name. So if different and surprising interpretations emerge of these works then that’s something to celebrate.”

Patterson recognizes a certain indiscriminating undercurrent that always comes up around the newest “new thing.” But he sees the inherent heterodoxy of the participants in projects like this box as the way forward. “There does seem to be much in the way of uncritical acclaim accruing around Wandelweiser music of late, accompanied by an unwillingness to question certain Cagean dogmas that may be seen to underlie elements of the music and this can be unhealthy in the longer term ... A musical form has to mutate, to stay several steps ahead of the academy and resist the constraints of the conservatory, throwing out new forms that remain flexible yet resilient in the face of orthodox culture. In short it must continue to evolve and that it will, though whether such new forms remain associated with the collective which already encompasses a range of styles, or whether new limbs branch out, remains to be heard ... I think that new, engaging music and ideas will continue to originate from within, around and because of the collective.”

This box gives proof to just how far Wandelweiser has expanded since its origins near Düsseldorf, Germany in the early ‘90s. The musicians and composers included here are actively composing and performing throughout Europe and increasingly in the US. What Simon Reynell has effectively done here is to facilitate a dynamic set of documents from a diverse group, from the musicians he has actively been championing through his label to the founders of Wandelweiser to a young group of composers establishing their own voices. No set of recordings could define Wandelweiser (something the participants avidly resist.) What this box does so admirably is to stake out a stance which enables the musicians and composers to posit a living, evolving confluence of their respective backgrounds, looking for, as Hughes so effectively puts it “a continual reappraisal of what is in the process of happening.”


Further Reading:
Michael Pisaro’s excellent overview of Wandelweiser

Wandelweiser und so weiter sleeve notes including a roundtable discussion with Antoine Beuger, Dominic Lash, Michael Pisaro, Philip Thomas, and Simon Reynell

Recording exceprts from the boxed set:

Streaming excerpts from the Edition Wandelweiser catalog selected by Antoine Beuger and Nate Wooley

Wandelweiser Recordings:
The Edition Wandelweiser catalog

b-boim records

Gravity Wave records including composition notes by Michael Pisaro

© 2013 Michael Rosenstein

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