Toward Meaning: Werder and Frey with the Southland Ensemble

Last Sunday evening, a 20-odd crew quietly gathered at Automata in Chinatown for Southland Ensemble’s first concert of the season, a presentation of works by Manfred Werder and Jürg Frey. What works about Southland is their commitment to making space for a delicate strain of experimental music that requires care to present well. As the audience settled into their folding chairs and the lights dimmed in the compact gallery, a peculiar hush spread through the room.

The program’s three pieces were judiciously selected explorations of an attenuated sound world – more or less: unison cued harmonies, each lasting between half a breath and a full breath, floating into one another, and into silence. This kind of program is especially exciting because the audience can settle into a certain kind of careful listening, appreciating the nuances between each piece, and between each composer.

When materials are this bare, fluctuation is content. This is music about gesture, and the multiplicities of meaning that the tiniest variations in gesture can encode. The physicality of the music approaches dance, or theater. Maybe some would describe popular or folk dance as the height of physicality. But here, so many more revealing movements of the body are transcribed. Hidden personal rituals, telling missteps.

The first piece by Frey was 60 Pieces of Sound for bassoon, alto saxophone and flute. The 60 musical events begin simply: unison cued dyads with impeccable intonation, sans vibrato, lasting roughly half a breath, expanding into triads or clusters. If that sounds like a performance direction for a structured improvisation, it’s because the production here is so transparent that just being an audience member feels like being part of the creative process. All music depends on its audience for completion, but this music especially seems to require the audience as container. It’s nice to be needed.

The harmonies expand and contract, gently leaning and pulling. Silences are not uncomfortable, attention can ebb and flow. Gagaku comes to mind – a heightened atmosphere in which declamations have meaning, can take root.

In this context, harmonic grammar carries real weight. This music is not abstracted from canonic music, it’s stripped. The house is not rendered in multiple perspectives, it’s just the furniture has been taken out. History is still richly in evidence, if one cares to find it, speaking through temperament and timbre, harmonic expectation. Much care is given to pleasure –  silences are perfectly satisfying, not intimidating. Switches to minor harmonies seem more powerful, emotional shifts more salient.  The alto sax tone was especially exquisite and well-controlled for such a bare context. Intonation between all was precise, reverberating just right in the intimate acoustics of Automata. It’s hard to say what kind of spiritual food this is exactly, but it’s certainly toothsome.

stück, by Manfred Werder, brings similar concerns to an ensemble of flute, violin, bassoon, viola, cello, and alto sax. In uniformly blue lighting, Southland’s focused performers were like specters, communicating from another plane. Again, limited materials are at play here – half to full-breath length drones. The difference here is that the larger ensemble creates a new meaning. No longer are we exploring the intimate thoughts of a single person; this music is inherently social. There’s a ‘we.’ Register-wise, the pitches explored are much higher and lower, and although the basic form is similar to 60 Pieces, this feels like a completely different personality. More emphasis on intellect, a little less generosity, a little sharper, not inherently more dissonant, but voiced more harshly. There is less pleasure. The contrasts between high, piercing tones and sul pont whispers are especially interesting – the strings are functioning as a section here, and the play on tradition is satisfying. Haunting, piercing intonation. As the piece develops, the contrasts feel more dialectic. Here we don’t have a described nar­rative, we are grappling with opposites, in real time. The overall feeling is so solid. The heritage of experimental music has produced a vocabulary not comprised of idiomatic phrases, bu­t a way of approaching temporality, the perception of time.

All this music deals with meaning – intensifying or distilling it. It’s not typical to describe experimentalism as concerned with psychological meaning. In fact, performance instructions on the Werder are “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.” (to itself, clear and objective. simple.) But what is objectively being described? It seems: experience.

And for an even richer kind of experience, the star of the show was Frey’s String Quartet No.3.  Although again we were presented with simple successions of harmonies, the tones here were instantly meatier, uniquely-voiced dissonances, all sans vibrato, by the superbly balanced Koan Quartet. The group is aptly named; their commitment feels squarely placed in the mysteries of the work rather than showiness.

The piece is theatrical, self-referential — a character, a monologue, setting the scene in the city, telling us about an experience before we dive into the epic. Then, traditionally, there’s a secondary theme. Rather than just hinting at the idea of a narrative, the whole story is here, impossibly: a character, a conflict, even a love interest, a journey. Schubert comes to mind. Suspended chords bleed into one another, extended tonality unexpectedly tilts into rapturous shimmering textures. The story stops at points at glassy pools of sul pont. The explorations here examine all textural possibilities without being glib. These points of interest are selected, chosen with care, composed! “Themes” return. Perhaps most interestingly, the work grapples with the history of the string quartet itself. There’s a Beethovenian sense of fate. Silences are used here to mark sections and narrative transitions, rather than as expressive means in their own right, as in the first piece. It’s uncanny how the meaning of silence can be shaped so strongly by a composers’ intent. The piece doesn’t play with extremes of register, as in the Werder. Instead, the contrasts are between harmonic progression and unexpected leaps into extended techniques. It’s genuinely surprising when the quartet turns from phrases to textures, and a third of the way through, into a whispering wintry sul pont landscape with solo tones emerging as voices. The piece as a whole is striking in its sincerity and seriousness of purpose.

The project in these pieces is, if not absolutely clear in intent, then perfectly clear in execution. What works about such harmonic play is that, more than melody or rhythm, harmonic grammar is deeply intertwined with cultural conditioning of Western music history. Hopes and expectations formed by acculturation battle reality, mirroring so much of experience.

Frey’s String Quartet No. 3 was extraordinary, and one felt that it should have been appreciated by more than 20-or-so lucky souls. The ending fades with long breath-like tones, receding into the ether. This is Romantic music, but in a way we can really hear, today. There are concerns about identity, hope, belonging, clothed in garments we understand. These composers take their task seriously and that is perhaps the most moving thing of all.

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