Swiss pianist Jacques Demierre is best known as a free improviser, but his work is often strongly, if spontaneously, structured. Less known is his “wordless” sound poetry, a remarkable series of books and recordings with poet Vincent Barras. So it was somehow fitting that his 2011 composition 17 was part of a program by the Glass Farm Ensemble entitled Songs, but including no singers.

Glass Farm Ensemble © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Glass Farm Ensemble
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

17 was, in fact, performed four times on the program, alongside works by Peter Ablinger, Arturo Corrales, Elizabeth Hoffman and Paul Matthusen. In the first iteration, it felt like an expanded Webern, 12-tone lingo in dramatic bursts for a busy five minutes or so. The second time around, it was more expressive but brittle, in a quick couple of minutes. The third time, it was built from overlapping solos in succession, and brief again. The final rendition was wonderfully off-kilter, with taut solo and duo lines set within longer, sustained tones.

Demierre built the piece from the text of Christian Wolff’s Play, using the words to create a graphic score for the instrumentalists – on this night, pianist and Glass Farm director Yvonne Troxler joined by clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt, violinst Pauline Kim Harris and flutist Alice Teyssier (also a singer but that aspect of her talent wasn’t called upon for Songs).

Like Demierre’s repurposing of Christian Wolf, Elizabeth Hoffman’s La vie est facile ne t'inquiète pas reworked graphic scores by the Swiss composer Roland Moser. That source, An anecdote, a scene and a poem (from 2005) was built from writings by James Joyce, Heinrich von Kleist and Arthur Rimbaud, specifically the punctuation in those texts. Having presented the piece in different arrangements in the past, Troxler asked Hoffman to create a notated score for ensemble.

Glass Farm Ensemble © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Glass Farm Ensemble
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

This newest layer, receiving its premiere, set the commas, colons, apostrophes and dashes as repeated piano figures with wavering flute and clarinet lines. It circled without building, the piano motif never far away, sad and lovely, sweet and melancholy, dissolving into piano alone at times, with disarming staccato breaks. The second movement filled in the gaps, giving the other instruments melody lines rather than straight lines, building on the sadness.

Matthusen is known in the more experimental fringes of contemporary music. Her 2008 In absentia (played by Harris and Troxler with electronics) worked in broken phrases and partial echoes, with Troxler playing inside the piano case against extended violin tones. In the second movement, the piano lines became more percussive, steady rhythms beaten out of the keyboard with the strings muted and a rod wedged under the case to keep the sustain pedal depressed. Harris, meanwhile, played slow, blurred glissandi with an almost inexplicable clarity.

Arturo Corrales’ Folk You Too!, for violin, piccolo and piano, was based on a song from his native El Salvador. The instrumentalists began positioned in the corners of the Leonard Nimoy Thalia theatre (in the basement of Symphony Space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side), approached the stage in something reminiscent of fractured marching music and convened on the stage for more arrhythmic procession. It was an engaging piece, but came off a bit forced. The placement in the program was awkward, having the musicians leave the stage and scatter about the small theater only to return. The piece ended with them switching to vocalizing their parts and leaving the stage again.

Glass Farm Ensemble © Steven Pisano for Bachtrack
Glass Farm Ensemble
© Steven Pisano for Bachtrack

The strongest piece of the evening was five sections from Peter Ablinger’s Voices and piano, an ongoing set of more than 80 études for piano and recorded voice begun in 1998. Troxler chose to work with the pieces using the voices of Angela Davis, Arnold Schoenberg, Jorge Luis Borges, Agnes Martin and Alberto Giacometti. The recordings varied in language (English, French and German) and audio quality, as well as in discernibility, the piano often louder than the recorded voices. Whether or not by design, the balance allowed the ear to focus more on the sound than the content, hearing the minimal musicality in the voices. Schoenberg spoke in close pitches, as if talking in tone rows, whereas Borges was a more percussive orator. Davis, meanwhile, had a melodic lilt while speaking of lynch mobs and the obliteration of capitalism. For the Martin selection, the piano grew quieter as the artist compared painting to music, discussed minimalism and abstract expressionism and spoke of embedding emotions in her paintings. The piano parts throughout didn’t follow the voices in a Reichian fashion. Instead they provided counterpoint, which Troxler played with bright precision.

With a theme felt more in its absence than its presence, the program hung together nicely, a set of songs without singers by a group of unsung composers.

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