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V/A - Wandelweiser und so weiter

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Artist: V/A

Album: Wandelweiser und so weiter

Label: Another Timbre

Review date: Jan. 7, 2013

More than once, I’ve heard CD boxed sets described as doorstops. This speaks not only to their literal weight, but also the likelihood that once they have been set down, they’ll stay wherever they’ve been for a while, anchoring a door or the end of a CD shelf or a big stack of papers on your desk. After all, once you’ve played those bonus tracks, aren’t you more likely to go back to whichever old record made you want to buy the box in the first place?

From the name forward, Wandelweiser und so weiter is not that kind of boxed set. Its name translates as “Wandelweiser and so on” (let’s get back to what Wandelweiser means in a minute), which not only foregrounds its self-conscious refusal to be comprehensive, but also the implicit hope that it will set the listener on a path of discovery, as well as the fact that Wandelweiser is not a fixed entity but a moving target. This box doesn’t document the end of something, like so many nostalgia-based boxes do; it opens a window onto a living music. Every minute on this six-CD set, which runs nearly eight hours, is exclusive to the box. It affords you the chance to hear the same piece done by different musicians, and to hear different approaches by the same composer. You could spend months simply digesting its contents. And after you’ve done that, you could move on to other recordings by the 19 composers represented on this set.

Producer Simon Reynell explains his concept of Wandelweiser as being like a sound, a body of water defined by what surrounds it, which does not move in a particular or uniform direction. That doesn’t exactly say what Wandelweiser music is. Literally, “wandel” is German for “change,” and “weise” means “way”; this doesn’t look like something that’s going to sit still for a definition, does it? And neither does the music. For a lengthy consideration of the name, the aesthetic, and the community that operate under the Wandelweiser name, you can read American composer Michael Pisaro’s essay at the Erstwords blog. In brief, Wandelweiser is a group of composers that has existed since the early 1990s, originally all German and Swiss but recently more pan-national, that share a particular way of relating to sound and its absence. They share an appreciation for John Cage that goes beyond referencing the twin monoliths “4.33” and Silence. Silence and the sounds of the world are well integrated into their music, as are creative scoring and playing methods. Compositions, often rendered as text instead of notation, can be invitations for the performers to make decisions, resulting in outcomes that might surprise the composer who first wrote the piece. It is very open music, willing to use what a wide consensus might agree are nice sounds as well as sonorities generally unheard by the mainstream.

Wandelweiser’s ideas have resonated with improvisers, starting with the former free jazz trombonist Radu Malfatti and spreading through the work of Taku Sugimoto, Phil Durrant, Angharad and Rhodri Davies, and Dominic Lash. This commonality is part of the evolution that Wandelweiser und so weiter represents. In the past couple years, the Another Timbre and Erstwhile labels have released records by improvisers playing Wandelweiser compositions, as well as Wandelweiser composers improvising, but by virtue of its size and inclusiveness, this box gives you the broad view of a music that possesses some essential commonalities of attitude and practice, but that changes anew every time it is performed. It includes pieces by long-time Wandelweisers Jürg Frey, Antoine Beuger, Ev-Marie Houben, Malfatti and Pisaro; illustrative antecedents by Cage and John White; and works by Durrant, Lash, and Ahgharad Davies that reveal close sympathies with, as well as significant differences from, their improvisational music. Some of the principals set forth here are that a good sound can get better as it, or its surroundings, change over time; a short sound, thoughtfully placed, can make a huge impact upon the silence around it.

Wandelweiser und so weiter certainly isn’t for everybody; to appreciate it, it helps to have already accepted the validity, and gotten over the novelty of, music without melody (although there are some lovely ones here), of instruments played in non-standard ways, of music that does not try to overpower you, and of classical music that incorporates both electronic and environmental sound. But if you’ve read this far, you’re probably already on board, right? In that case, you will likely find a wealth of music that is by turns provocative, soothing, confusing and deeply satisfying. It contains 37 tracks, ranging in length from just over a minute to around half an hour, so to go track-by-track would be pretty numbing. Instead I’ll point you to the label’s page, where there are 10 samples, and confine this discussion to a few illustrative highlights.

Antoine Beuger’s “Lieux de Passage” (which translates as “Places of Passage”) could be likened to a slow-burning log, in that it radiates warmth and transforms so slowly that it’s hard to catch its processes at work. Frey, on clarinet, plays the piece with a sextet that includes piano, trombone, two strings, electronics and amplified objects. Tiny, vivid crackles pop out of elongated sighs and scrapes, like a sped-up film of buds opening against a hazy prairie sunset. Silences emerge, gently moving you from reverie to awareness; like a swig of water between courses, they make the sounds on either side register more strongly. At one point, Frey’s tentative clarinet seems to be singing wordless consolations to the bowed strings — at another, shudders from the piano’s innards rise above feedback tendrils, imparting a multi-dimensionality that feels at once ghostly and tactile. Although it lasts over 26 minutes, “Lieux de Passage” is so lovely that its ending provokes a twinge of loss.

Another of Beuger’s pieces provokes in other ways. “T’ aus ‘etwas (lied)” (translation — “T’ from a little (song)”) could not be more stripped-back. Two men, neither looking at the other, utter one consonant sound as near they can to simultaneity. The music arises from varied distances between their near-whispers, and from the uncertainty of how each sound will impact the other despite the iron certainty of just what sound each vocalist will make. Think of the different effects that two pebbles tossed into a pond will have depending on whether you sink them in the same spot, or a couple feet apart, and at once or a few seconds away from each other. It’s not an easy listen, and if I doubted the sincerity of the performers and the composer, it’d be easy to dismiss it. But it’s more than presumed sincerity that keeps me listening. This is an unalloyed expression of the Cage-ian tenet that the act of listening is also the act of investing interest; if you don’t find something interesting, maybe you should listen harder. And the closer I listen, the more palpable those tongue-divided silences become.

Three different iterations of Sam Sfirri’s “Little By Little” appear on one CD. A young American newcomer on the Wandelweiser scene, he’s nonetheless grasped the collective’s valuation of the heightened effects that small sounds yield when given the necessary space Not that it’s easy to say (without a peek at the score) just what is in his composition. One consists of fuzzy electronic textures; another, draws of a violin bow contrast with stark single notes passed from one instrument to the next; and in the third, variously sourced low pitches loom in and out of the silences that are each performance’s common denominator. Perhaps he suggested the timing of each sound, or the length of the spaces between them; for sure, he found a way to help three different parties to stop time three different ways for seven or eight minutes at a stretch.

Phil Durrant is an electronic musician and violinist whose improvisations with the likes of John Butcher, Burkhard Beins, and MIMEO since the mid-’80s have run the gamut from tiny acoustic scuttle to Technicolor software-enabled drama. His “Sowari for Ensemble,” which also features Philip Thomas on piano and Lee Patterson on amplified objects, layers wavering tones and frayed-circuit growls that could easily appear in his improvisational work. But the way this music behaves is quite distinct from his improvising; it develops more patiently, so that one’s attention focuses not on the moment-by-moment negotiations between the players, but on the way sounds attenuate, melt into silence, then reappear transformed and magnified.

Wandelweiser und so weiter shouldn’t be considered a gateway to Wandelweiser; for that, you should head over to this collection of streaming music selected by Beuger and Database of Recorded American Music’s Nate Wooley and start listening. Nor does it deserve to be a doorstop; there’s enough new, challenging, and humbly affecting music here to keep this stuff in circulation for months. Too many boxed sets tell you where some great music stopped; this one affords a view of where it’s going.

By Bill Meyer

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