At this point in his musical career, composer Jurg Frey seems incapable of writing music that is not beautiful. His work has undergone a process of refinement to where it has become something like an aeolian harp; it is so finely tuned that even the brush of an errant breeze plucks notes from the air, condenses harmonies out of silence. Had Hermann-Christoph Muller not minted the phrase “the emancipation of the consonance” to describe the music of Howard Skempton, it could just as easily apply to that of Jurg Frey. And yet, as Michael Pisaro-Liu reminds us in his thoughtful essay included with the liner notes to Lieues d’Ombres (Elsewhere, 2022), Frey’s art is anything but effortless; it requires care and consideration, every note placed with an exactitude borne of patient listening, every repetition timed precisely according to an internal clock. And upon those repetitions are we borne back to the same place we began, but somehow transformed, made subtly different by the experience.
Frey’s glimmering, evanescent compositions for piano, like L’Air, l’Instant (Elsewhere, 2020) and the aforementioned Lieues d’Ombres best exemplify his minimalist tendencies (in the lowercase, literal sense of minimalism)–they seem transparent to the thoughts of their interpreters–but his chamber pieces, as collected on Grizzana, Ephemeral Constructions, Fields, Traces, Clouds, and Borderland Melodies, are more dynamic and direct. This music is so difficult to discuss precisely because of its unapologetic, unadorned beauty. I’m reminded of a quote from Auguste Rodin: “The dazzling splendor revealed to the artist by the model that divests herself of her clothes has the effect of the sun piercing the clouds.” What original observations can a critic possibly make about a sunrise or a nude, other than to make faltering, fumbling attempts to describe the blinding radiance revealed by her disrobing, its unveiling?
But nevertheless we must try. Frey’s chamber work privileges long, drawn-out tones that are allowed to swell and decay naturally, but it is emphatically not drone music–there is nothing aimless or aleatoric about its progression (which often proceeds in the manner of a canon). Instead, Frey is continually setting into motion shifting centers of (un)stable equipoise (“fragile” is by far the most frequently recurring word in the titles of his compositions); he is interested in capturing an illusionistic quality of flickering shadow and dappled shade. On the aforementioned albums, those curving, overlapping long tones are balanced against more delicate melodic fragments and electroacoustic textures. Rather than invoking fragility, however, they suggest fortitude in the face of melancholia, evoke a solitary traveler who wanders but is not lost. The hushed, heavenly Fields, Traces, Clouds (Edition Wandelweiser, 2019), is one of my favorites of Frey’s recent releases: listening to it is perhaps the closest I’ve come to experiencing Stendhal Syndrome. Played to perfection by the Ordinary Affects ensemble, the music is so light, and suffused with light, as to become vaporous and porous, with field recordings of an early morning city walk peeking through the eponymous clouds of sound.
Frey’s newest release on Elsewhere, Continuité, Fragilité, Résonance, is his boldest and most colorful chamber piece yet: an unusual octet for strings and saxophones played by Quatuor Bozzini and Konus Quartett. (Be sure to read Yuko Zama’s in-depth conversation with Frey on the Elsewhere website.) The deservedly celebrated Quatuor Bozzini had previously recorded Frey’s string quartets for Edition Wandelweiser (2006 and 2015); Alex Ross compared these to a “Mahler Adagio […] suspended in zero gravity,” which is strikingly similar to my own mental image of an untethered hot air balloon or a wind-blown circus tent. I am less familiar with the Konus Quartett, but I have heard their fine performance of Chiyoko Szlavnics’ intriguing “During a Lifetime” on her album of the same name (Another Timbre, 2017).
While many of Frey’s earlier pieces were cyclical in nature (hence his “Extended Circular Music” series), Continuité, Fragilité, Résonance sets out in a dramatic new direction: rather than finding change within stasis (and vice versa), it embraces a gentle blossoming of growth and the gradual surfacing of motion. Because of its concern with repetitive / iterative structures, the album could thus be considered Frey’s most sustained engagement with capital-M Minimalism. Its instrumentation and tone distantly recall spiritual free jazz (albeit at a much slower, calmer tempo); where Grizzana and Borderland Melodies (Another Timbre, 2015 and 2022) were alchemical weddings of air and earth, Continuité, Fragilité, Résonance is cleansing water and elemental fire. It is one of his most active, complex, vibrant, luxuriant, and moving compositions, as well as one of his loudest and longest chamber works at fifty-one minutes.
We can examine its form and content by analyzing the three words that comprise the title. First, (dis)continuity. Initially, it’s surprisingly challenging to the disentangle the entwined voices of the violins / viola and the horns, as their glistening timbres are so unadorned and pure. A phrase might begin with Quatuor Bozzini, continue with Konus Quartett, and then conclude with both groups playing in unison; each musical cell is often punctuated a resounding bass note or terminated with a brief silence. The piece gradually opens up, overflows outward, as the octet commingles and melds together into a blurred harmonic mass, with solo instruments and melodic lines rising forth from and sinking back into the stillness of the whole. Next, fragility. As time passes, the two units drift apart again–the strings alternating between grainy whispering and shivering arcs-en-ciel, Bozzini’s agitated dissonance pushing and pulling against Konus’ languid tides, while the ascending saxes perorate skyward, sketching vapor trails through the atmosphere and scraping the empyrean but never quite escaping Earth’s gravity. The mood is one of yearning for transcendent completion, sacred love. Where Frey’s earlier works resolve (or dissolve) into a newfound equilibrium, this one ends with an actual recognizable climax. Finally, resonance. The juxtaposition of sax and strings creates a shimmering effect, like a wave that is simultaneously approaching and receding, and the stereo separation between them affords the listener a vivid, physical sensation of circulating, vibrating air. The two quartets tangle and swirl together in the middle of the sonic field, constructive and destructive interference playing out before our ears.
Continuité, Fragilité, Résonance signals a surprising evolution in Jurg Frey’s oeuvre and uncovers the depth of his roots in the classical tradition. Of his recent chamber works, it is the least characteristic of the now-familiar Wandelweiser aesthetic of quietude and patience, but it remains faithful to the Wandelweiser ethic of finding beauty and nuance in simple materials and ideas. Oceanic in scope and feeling, Continuité, Fragilité, Résonance is perhaps Frey’s most nakedly emotive composition, but it leaves us with an afterglow of ecstatic communion rather than with a tragic catharsis. It wraps its way around your heart and squeezes.