There is a certain style of composition with which I’ve crossed paths sporadically over the past ten years that I’ve never been able to pin a label on. My first exposure to this style came in the form of Morton Feldman’s music, particularly his late pieces, followed by German composer Peter Ablinger and even some composers in my own acquaintance here in New York City. The newest addition to my list of composers working in this unnamed style is Swiss composer Jürg Frey, whose music I heard performed on Saturday at Willow Place auditorium in Brooklyn Heights, presented by composer collective Index.
Though none of the composers I’ve listed share any close cultural or personal connection, I nonetheless hear similar sounds in their music: notes and musical figures repeated many times in a slow and seemingly arcane manner, at a very low dynamic. The musical action in this style is found not in the variety of notes or their rhythmic profile, but in the texture of the sound, achieved by the composer's subtly plumbing the depths of an instrument’s resonant quality.
The atmosphere of the venue complemented the music, the cold air and plain white walls serving as an appropriate backdrop for Frey's quiescent works. Music like this is of course best heard with as little ambient noise as possible. Nonetheless, the music often seamlessly assimilated the inevitable noise which abounds in NYC. The sounds of traffic, a mysterious stomping noise, voices from people passing in the street, were in this performance all wrapped into the texture of the music, not necessarily feeling intrusive.
Listening to an entire program of Frey's music – with pieces ranging from 1995 to 2012 – provided a crash course in the composer's style. 1998's Wer macht das Stück? for solo piano proved that Frey does not shy away from rich, consonant chords (which made a reappearance in 2005-2006's Unhörbare Zeit for string quartet and percussion). Notes held for several seconds punctuated by brief moments of silence were also prevalent, and, in the case of multi-instrumental pieces like Ohne Titel (2 Violinen) and Unhörbare, these notes were often performed in rhythmic unison. The aural effect of a loud noise heard from far away was another common feature, as was that of a single note or chord that was repeated until the listener lost count and which signaled the end of the piece.
The newest work on the program, Les tréfonds inexplorés des signes, differed slightly from the earlier pieces. Instead of playing in rhythmic unison, the trio more often played in alternation with each other; the repeated note at the end from the earlier pieces was replaced by a repeated series of phrases from each instrument.
All of the pieces had in common a hushed quality. As the first notes of the program began to ring out, I was aware of a sense of stillness dropping over me, to the point that I could feel my breathing relaxing to a gentler pace; I hadn't even noticed the tightness in my chest until that happened. It was music which I found a refreshing foil to this noisy world of ours.