Le poids d’ombre
INSUB is a record label from Geneve, Switzerland which “covers the fields of experimental, electroacoustic, improvised & composed musics.” Their output is incredibly diverse, and varyingly challenging. Purveyors of the good shit. Already having put out some of my favorite records this year, I was caught last night by them nearly unawares in the eleventh hour with a mid-December email update concerning a new Jürg Frey piece.
I believe that all who possess the capacity to be moved by quiet music remember the first time they heard Jürg Frey. Maybe it was on the bus or a busy street, and the headphones you had didn’t quite do the trick. The ambient noise was an absolute shatter of obfuscation, and Jürg’s track a confusing silent span. Maybe it was in the quiet of your home, the lights dim and purple, and you rode the extraordinary waves of his musical quietudes like the sun-warmed wings of a quietly breathing bird. Maybe it was standing next to the pristine sonic canvas of a private studio. The warm acoustic five-ounce-red-wine buzz of a late night museum gig. A concert hall, their creaky chairs.
No matter where it was, I think we remember it because it was a moment of confrontation. Either with the notions you had about sound, silence, composition, narrative, tonality, or simply a moment of confrontation with yourself. Jürg’s music reveals much less than most composers, and the listener’s participation and mere existence, an oft-forgotten levee in the positions of music listening, is more usually an intimate and integral part of the curious relationship between his music and his profound silences, the reality of his space and fictions of distance.
This new piece, “Le poids d’ombre,” is a work led by two experienced improvisers. Anouck Genthon and Pierre-Yves Martel, playing the violin and viola da gamba respectively. It is the eighth and final installment of INSUB’s distances series, a quarter-long run which spoke heavily on the relationship between composer, improviser, and listener in the “new normal” quarantined working world that coronavirus has wrought.
In the piece, the sound produced by the disciplined bowmanship of the two players rests on the precipice of pure “dragging” sounds and a hesitant, gentle harmony. A natural fusing of the physical surface and the following reaction of the strings. The distance between sound and source is so slim that they almost conjoin completely. Plucking sounds, rather than dragging, give bright tones early on, a second light which fades as quickly as the first. The notion of distance is again touched upon here, as the cycle-esque movements of Genthon and Martel’s improvisations move away and bring back in; the brief returns to pure room silence a loving centerpiece for the shared virtual table of the piece.
Moments of accidental harmony pass, planets nearly crashing. A shunt of light shoots across the black silence of space, suddenly from behind the curvature of a star. A slight pastoral element pervades, as tones resemble accordions, harmoniums, electronic sources entirely. Moments of hesitation are so gentle, yet so stern at the same time, and the play between the slight difference in the tonality and responsiveness of the two player’s strings sometimes resembles a song being quietly sung. Sometimes however, the piece feels more as though someone is speaking.
The voice speaks on the other end of the title, “the shadow weight,” perhaps that which is being “dragged” behind the sounds. A dark cloud that follows us, watches our hands improvising, knows our movements, knows the route we take home. A juxtaposition with the classical “tamed” tones of bowed playing, highlighting perhaps an innate unmusicality within constructed elements.
I switch to the video of the performance at about 16:30 in and finally see the instruments being played by the performers after listening with my eyes closed. The two rooms are so warm, so well lit, so wooden. Separated by the tiniest amount of pixels. Here, the room has no shadows, no black bird, no distance. The world I had constructed in my head now totally changed by a visual element, they themselves lived ones in the theater of the improviser, and both directly birthed by Frey’s composition, itself another untold story. All of these “distances” converge. Here. There, nothing else in those moments. Because we willed them to be. All participating. Gone, like anything that moves and is passed over. Gone, like our living separate lives.